Infidels across Africa are risking freedom and family support
Muhammad Mubarak Bala was held in police custody without contact with the outside world for so long – eight months – that his wife was certain he was dead.
“I couldn’t eat. I could not sleep. The emotional torture was too much for me, ”Amina Ahmed from her home in Abuja, capital of Nigeria, told The Associated Press.
More than a year passed before Bala, an ex-Muslim and president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, was charged. Bala is an outspoken atheist in a deeply religious country. His alleged crime: posting blasphemous statements online.
Bala’s long imprisonment and its traumatic effects on his young family illustrate the risks of open disbelief in African countries, where religious belief permeates social life and the questioning of such norms is taboo.
“It is widely accepted that Africans must be religious,” said David Ngong, a Cameroon-born religion professor who studies African theology and culture at Stillman College, Alabama. “It takes a lot of courage” to sign off.
Atheists are part of a growing global non-religious group. Also known as “Nones”, this includes agnostics and those who do not profess any religion. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050 there could be 1.3 billion non-silks worldwide – roughly the size of the world’s Roman Catholic population today.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 25 African nations – nearly half of the continent’s sovereign states – have laws prohibiting blasphemy or abusive behavior towards a sacred deity or idea.
The penalty can be severe. In Mauritania, for example, Muslims convicted of mocking or insulting God face a compulsory death penalty, and those who renounce Islam have a three-day window to repent or face the death penalty.
The harshest sentence in Nigeria’s secular courts is two years in prison; In the country’s Islamic courts, which operate in the predominantly Muslim north, it is death. Sharia law does not apply to non-Muslims without their consent.
Bala grew up as a Muslim but stepped out as an atheist in 2014. His family soon took him to a mental hospital, according to his attorney James Ibor. He re-entered public life, became president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria two years ago, and campaigned for the non-religious on social media.
Prosecutors in northern Kano state cited posts on Bala’s popular Facebook account as evidence that he was indicted in a secular court in June 2021. He faces 10 charges, including allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed and “insulting the religion of Islam, its followers in Kano state, designed to cause a breach of the public peace,” according to court documents published by the AP of Bala’s Legal Department Were made available.
“Muslims are about to fast to the God who refused to eradicate their poverty despite praying 17 times a day,” reads one of the articles cited in the lawsuit. “How I wish that Allah exist (sic).”
Bala, who is denied access to health care and held in solitary confinement, has been forced to “worship Islamic”, according to Ibor, and faces a possible two-year prison sentence. Prosecutors allege Bala confessed to the charges; Ibor said Bala did not have a lawyer present at the time.
“Mubarak was honest with what he said,” said Ibor. “We don’t see Mubarak’s post as inflammatory, offensive or illegal.”
Kano’s Attorney General Musa Lawan told the AP that his agency could not be held responsible for Bala’s long detention as it did not pursue his case until a year after he was arrested.
Nigeria’s blended criminal justice system and legal systems are notorious for long prison terms before sentencing. Only 28% of prison inmates have been tried and convicted of a crime, according to the Nigerian Correctional Service.
Bala has already spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention – the highest secular court sentence for blasphemy allegations. Nonetheless, Lawan told the AP: “We will look for the maximum penalty.”
Even in African countries where laws against blasphemy and renunciation of religion are not in the books or are hardly enforced, such as Malawi in Southeast Africa, the infidels often hold back.
“Most of them keep their views hidden just because they fear social consequences,” said Wonderful Mkhutche, president of the Humanists Malawi support group.
As a former church deacon, Mkhutche began to question his Christian faith while studying theology and religion. He continued to attend church services for two years to keep the performance going, but stopped in 2013.
He self-published a book on humanism and politics in Malawi earlier this year, advocating giving up government-approved religious acts such as national prayers for good rain to help farmers. While his book caught media attention, he said he was now forced to distribute it himself because many stores were out of stock.
Leo Igwe, who founded the Humanist Association of Nigeria and researched religious studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, agreed that no one would pretend to be a believer.
“Life is miserable,” said Igwe. “You always have to live with your shoulder in mind and you are forced to live very dishonestly.”
To counteract social isolation, Africa’s non-owers have begun connecting and building support communities through social media, with active humanistic online groups in Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia, among others.
In Nairobi, a 21-year-old ex-Muslim found the Atheists in Kenya Society on Twitter. The government suspended the group’s legal registration in 2016, stating that its activities “have generated great public concern, detrimental and incompatible with the peace, stability and good order of the republic”. A judge lifted the ban in 2018.
The woman, who spoke on condition not to be named because she feared she might become a victim of harassment, said the group, which meets online and in person, offers her a safe space to speak and feel less lonely feel.
But she remains closed for fear of the violence of her conservative Kenyan-Somali family trapped in what she called “double life” in which she maintains a semblance of faith at home while taking off her hijab when she is School goes.
“When I pray, I pretend,” said the woman.
In Nigeria, where Bala is still behind bars, there were widespread convictions last year under the leadership of UNICEF and the director of the Auschwitz Museum after an Islamic court sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison for he “demeans the language of Allah. “The judgment was eventually overturned by the secular court.
After 600 days in detention, Ahmed hopes her husband, who is two years old, can come home soon, but believes Nigeria could be a dangerous place to build her life. She worries about the emotional impact on her son, who was born six weeks before Bala’s arrest.
“He has a lovable son who barely knows him,” she said recently during a visit to Bala’s prison. “My neighbors are at home, they are with their husbands and their children. I feel, ‘Why isn’t mine like you?’ “
AP journalist Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the Lilly Foundation through The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.