Sunday, April 23, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Blasphemy and Freedom of Speech: Revisiting Boko Haram’s Bombing of ThisDay Newspaper

In his 2008 lecture titled 'Tarihin Musulmai' (History of Muslims), Muhammad Yusuf, the slain leader of Boko Haram, cited the unequivocal insult of the Prophet of Allah as one of the reasons for his group's advocacy for jihad in Northern Nigeria. Yusuf said:

"They insulted the Prophets, Jesus and Muhammad. They believed that since they combined the two Prophets, the people would feel indifferent. They are Christians, but they said the Prophet Jesus had a prostitute (karuwa), and the Prophet Muhammad, too, had a prostitute. At the time, the only reaction to this statement was the burning of the newspapers, but they were neither arrested nor charged in court. This event came to pass. Then one rash lady at the time of beauty pageant, Daniel, also perpetrated the same injustice [Yusuf is referring to Isioma Daniel, a Nigerian journalist, whose newspaper article in 2002 on the Prophet Muḥammad, sparked the Miss World riot in Kaduna]. And before that period, in Kafanchan one Reverend Bako also insulted the Prophet as well [Yusuf is referring to the charge of blasphemy on Reverend Abubakar Bako which occurred on March 7, 1987] (I was not even born by then) 

 So they will just insult the Prophet, then kill the Muslims and live in peace. [……] Now that all these events are happening, all the time I am always thinking: Why is it that whenever these events happen, they will just say: 'Sorry, you should exercise patience, wait for what the government will do or let us plead to the government to take measures.' Always that is what they say. Then Allah made me understand that it is not like that. What will stop them from insulting the Prophet or killing the Muslims is jihād. But how are we going to carry out the jihād? With whom are we going to carry out the jihād? Allah made me understand that first and foremost, we must embark upon the preaching towards Islamic reform. Then, we will have to be patient until we acquire power. This is the foundation of this preaching towards Islamic reform. It was founded for the sake of jihād and we did not hide this objective from anyone."

This statement from Muhammad Yusuf, which he delivered in 2008, is another reason why the conventional wisdom that the 2009 crackdown on the group led to the group's transmutation into a violent group is false.

Keep in mind that on November 26, 2002, a fatwa was issued against Isioma Daniel and it was broadcasted by Mamuda Aliyu Shinkafi, the deputy governor of Zamfara State. Shinkafi said in the fatwa: "Like Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed. It is abiding upon all Muslims wherever they are to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty."

Elsewhere in a 2010 Hausa nashīd (poem), the first nashīd produced by the group, the poet said:

"If you blaspheme Allah's Messenger like the blasphemy of Thisday newspaper; we do not forget this and we do not forgive anyone who blasphemes the Prophet."

So, it never really came as a surprise when Boko Haram carried out one of its long-standing threats on April 26, 2012.

In the video titled "Reasons for Attacking Thisday Newspaper" delivered on May 4, 2012, Boko Haram reiterated the reasons they attacked Thisday:

"The reason we decided to attack the media organizations, particularly Thisday, is because the newspaper was used in the past to promote blasphemy against our Prophet of mercy, Muhammad, during a beauty pageant in Kaduna in November 2002. At the time the event occurred, some people who referred to themselves as the Muslims' leaders came out saying that they have forgiven those who committed the blasphemy. However, based on our knowledge, we know that there is no one who has the power to forgive anyone for an offense concerning which Allah Himself has stipulated a judgment, especially a grave offense such as the blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

No one has the power to forgive this type of offense in Islam, and the judgment for the blasphemers is for them to be killed.The judgment concerning the lady who committed the offense is for her to be killed, whenever there is an opportunity. Likewise, the media organization should also be decimated whenever there is an opportunity to do so. The evidence for this has been well explained in the preaching of Mallam Muhammad Yusuf in Maiduguri on the issue of blasphemy against the Prophet. Now, we can attack the media organization, and we are hoping to continue these attacks until we decimate them. It is our hope that Allah will help His religion."

In his October 1, 2012, video titled "Message to the World", Abubakar Shekau reiterated the same threat on blasphemy. Shekau said: "concerning the blasphemy against the Prophet — plotting and acting in a film to humiliate our Prophet Muhammad. This plot will not affect Islam. However, whoever is engaging in such reprehensible act should await our reaction. Everyone already knows what I mean by my statement and you should wait to see our reaction." [Shekau is referring to the film "Innocence of Muslims" by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.]

Question: Is Boko Haram's treatment of blasphemy in Northern Nigeria an outlier? How do Muslims in the region react to blasphemy?

Prior to the advent of Boko Haram, Gideon Akaluka was beheaded in December 1994. What was the crime of Gideon? He was arrested in December after his wife allegedly used pages of the Quran as toilet paper for her baby. After he was imprisoned by the police, a group of Muslims broke into the jail, killed him, and walked around the city parading his severed head. In February 2006, thousands of rioters burned shops and churches as a form of outrage at the publication in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten of cartoons that some Muslims consider blasphemous.

On March 21, 2007, Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a teacher Government Secondary School of Gandu in the city of Gombe was beaten to death by a mob of Muslim students after a student complained that she had touched a bag which allegedly contained a Quran, and had thereby defiled the Quran.

On June 2, 2016, Bridget Agbahime was also stabbed to death in Kofar Wambai in Kano for blasphemy.

Section 204 of Nigeria's Criminal Code prohibits blasphemy. The section states:

"Any person who does an act which any class of persons considers as a public insult to their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for two years."

But there is a contradiction?

Section 38 of the Nigerian constitution entitles every Nigerian to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion "Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance."

Section 39 gives every Nigerian the right to freedom of expression "Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference

What is the boundary between blasphemy and freedom of speech? Is there a need for education on how Muslims in Northern Nigeria should react to blasphemy?

Share your thoughts

For more discussion on this piece, you can pre-order my forthcoming edited book co-authored with Michael Nwankpa titled "The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State" via this link

Abdulbasit Kassim

Ph.D. Student

African Studies, Islam and IR

Department of Religion

Rice University

6100 Main Street

Houston, TX, 77005


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