On Thursday, May 12th, Ms Deborah Samuel, a student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education Sokoto, started her day without any inkling that she would soon be killed by her classmates.
According to reports, her fellow students were angry over a heated debate that had taken place on her class’s WhatsApp group chat where Ms Samuel had allegedly condemned Muslim students for turning a class group chat into a religious platform. It is one of the unfortunate peculiarities of societies like Nigeria that this debate that should have ended where it started i.e., WhatsApp escalated into a vicious murder.
The victim, accused of blaspheming against Islam, was stoned and beaten to death at the school’s security post where she had run for safety. Her body was trampled upon and then set on fire. We know this because her killers videotaped the murder and shared it on social media. In the video, the killers could be seen shouting Allah Akbar and admitting to the murder with glee.
There were no attempts at covering their faces to avoid easy identification. It is clear, from watching the video and following the conversation on social media, that the society where the murder took place has normalised this kind of vicious treatment of alleged blasphemers that those who perpetrate it believe they are doing the normal and right thing and have no need to hide their identity.
It is 2022 and we still have to deal with this barbaric mindset in Nigeria. Nigeria is clearly in trouble. But if I am being honest and specific, in this particular case of murderous religious extremism, Northern Nigeria is in trouble. It’s the region of Nigeria that has consistently recorded this kind of religion-fuelled murder and jungle justice, and whose intellectuals and clerics have provided spurious but effective arguments in support of this barbarism.
To be clear and fair, not all Northern Muslim intellectuals and clerics support this habitual resort to jungle justice, but many who do not directly support it also provide a useful cover for the perpetrators by insisting that the punishment for blasphemy and apostasy in Islam is death.
Their caveat that this death should be imposed by a court of law after a trial and executed only by the state is not enough to counteract the effect of their initial fatwa. This is because in a society with a poor record of adherence to the rule of law as we have in Nigeria, individual Muslims could and indeed see it as their duty to punish alleged blasphemers as there is no faith in the ability of the state to do so.
Therefore, as part of our effort to end this mindless persecution of alleged blasphemers, Muslim intellectuals and clerics need to stop insisting on the death penalty for blasphemy. There are enough verses of the Qur’an and Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to rely on to issue a life-saving fatwa on this subject. For one, the Qur’an does not feature a single verse prescribing punishment for blasphemy.
There are many stories in the Quran where different people were insulting prophets including Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and yet conspicuously missing in all the stories is the punishment to be imposed on such people. It is not our duty as Muslims to punish either individually or as a state those who blaspheme against our religion, our prophet (SAW) or even Allah. In Surah Al-An’am verse 68, Allah says, “whenever you meet those who indulge in blasphemous talk about Our messages, turn your back upon them until they begin to talk of other things…”
It’s true that Muslims are hurt when the Prophet (SAW) and other elements of Islam are insulted just as Christians are hurt when Jesus and other elements of Christianity are insulted. But Muslims should be encouraged to consult Surah Al-Hijri where Allah says, “We already know that your heart is constrained by what they say, so glorify the praises of your Lord and be among those who prostrate.” That’s the highest authority on Islam telling Muslims to focus on themselves whenever they come across the hurtful speech. No instruction to kill, no instruction to jail. This is what influential Muslims should be pushing in their sermons, fatwa, articles, and the like.
Another step is for the Nigerian state to expunge blasphemy from our laws. It is practically illogical to have blasphemy laws in a multireligious society like ours where the major religions run counter to each other in key areas. How can we have these laws when one of Muslims’ articles of faith is that God has no child which can be considered blasphemous by Nigerian Christians? In fact, Nigerian Muslims proudly announce in the presence of Christians that the New Testament lies when it says in Luke 4:41, John 1:34 and Romans 1:4, that Jesus is the son of God.
In 1926, an American atheist Anthony Bimba was prosecuted in Massachusetts for saying that Jesus was not God, contrary to verses of the Bible and Christian doctrine. This is a sentiment that Nigerian Muslims proclaim every day, so what happens if Christians insist this blasphemous speech should be prosecuted? What happens if millions of Christians start to openly call Prophet Muhammad (SAW) a liar or call Qur’an a fabrication? Are we going to punish them all for simply stating their disbelief in the Islamic message?
A major reason why Muslims are insisting on blasphemy laws is that other religious groups in the country are not taking Muslims to task for their blasphemous speech. Nigeria is not an Islamic state where Muslims will get special rights that are not extended to other religious groups. The Nigerian state must therefore end this charade of blasphemy jurisprudence. Those who punish blasphemy outside of the legal system must be rigorously prosecuted and punished. The scholars and intellectuals who spread the dangerous ideas must also be stopped.
Nigeria must enthrone a secular regime in our multi-religious society in a way that ensures everyone is able to practise their religion or lack of religion without any harassment and any of the religions imposing their ideas on the rest of the society. We have lost too many people to intolerance and bloodthirsty ideas and it’s time to begin to address the root causes.