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Nigeria: Ex-Muslim imprisoned on ‘blasphemy’ charges forced ‘to worship the Islamic way’

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“There is no compulsion in religion,” says the Qur’an (2:256), but it’s likely that Bala’s captors don’t consider themselves to be forcing him to pray Muslim prayers. He could choose to be beaten or killed instead. So as far as they are concerned, he is praying of his own free will.

“Nonbelievers across Africa risk freedom, family support,” by Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu, Associated Press, December 18, 2021:

(AP) – Muhammad Mubarak Bala was held incommunicado in police custody for so long — eight months — that his wife was sure he was dead.

“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. The emotional torture was too much for me,” Amina Ahmed told The Associated Press from her home in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

More than a year passed before Bala, an ex-Muslim and president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, would be charged. Bala is an outspoken atheist in a deeply religious country. His alleged crime: Posting blasphemous statements online.

Bala’s lengthy detention and its traumatic effect on his young family illustrate the risks of being openly faithless in African countries where religious belief pervades social life and challenging such norms is taboo.

“It is generally accepted that to be African is to be religious,” said David Ngong, a Cameroon-born professor of religion who researches African theology and culture at Stillman College in Alabama. “It requires a lot of courage” to opt out.

Atheists are among a growing global group who have no religious affiliation. Also known as “nones,” they include agnostics and those who don’t profess any religion. By 2050, the Pew Research Center estimates, there could be 1.3 billion nones worldwide — about the size of the global Roman Catholic population today.

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 25 African nations — nearly half the continent’s sovereign states — have statutes outlawing blasphemy, or offensive behavior against a deity or idea considered sacred.

Punishment can be severe. In Mauritania, for example, Muslims convicted of ridiculing or insulting God face a mandatory death sentence and those renouncing Islam have a three-day window to repent or face capital punishment.

The stiffest penalty in Nigeria’s secular courts is a two-year prison sentence; in the country’s Islamic courts, active in the majority Muslim north, it is death. Shariah law doesn’t apply to non-Muslims without their consent.

Bala grew up Muslim but came out as an atheist in 2014. His family soon checked him into a psychiatric hospital, according to James Ibor, his attorney. Reemerging into public life, he became president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria two years ago and championed the nonreligious on social media.

Prosecutors in the northern state of Kano cited posts on Bala’s popular Facebook account as evidence for charging him in June 2021 in secular court. He faces 10 charges, including alleged insults to Prophet Muhammad and “insulting the religion of Islam, its followers in Kano State, calculated to cause a breach of public peace,” according to court documents provided to AP by Bala’s legal team.

“Muslims are about to start fasting to the God that refused to eradicate their poverty despite the fact that they prayed 17 times every day,” reads one of .....s cited in the complaint. “How I wish Allah exist (sic).”

Denied access to health care and kept in solitary confinement, Bala has been forced “to worship the Islamic way,” according to Ibor, and faces a possible sentence of two years. Prosecutors allege Bala confessed to the charges while in custody; Ibor said Bala had no attorney present at the time.

“Mubarak has been honest with his statements,” Ibor said. “We don’t consider Mubarak’s posts as inflammatory, as offensive or illegal.”…

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