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Nigeria’s blasphemy laws are the religious freedom crisis no one is talking about

The United States needs to incentivize the Nigerian government to uphold religious freedoms enshrined in the West African country's constitution.

Yahaya Sharif-Aminu has been sentenced to death by a Shariah court in northern Nigeria. Photo via Twitter

(RNS) — Last year, a Shariah court in northern Nigeria condemned Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a 22-year-old Muslim gospel musician, to death for committing blasphemy in a series of private WhatsApp messages. The same court found a 16-year-old boy, Umar Farouk, guilty of blasphemy for reportedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad while arguing with a friend and sentenced him to 10 years in prison with manual labor.

Farouk’s sentence has been overturned, and Sharif-Aminu’s case has been sent for retrial. But these harsh sentences are only the latest examples of the problematic application of Shariah law in some states in northern Nigeria, and they remain sources of concern.

Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians. Despite its religious diversity, many Nigerians face systematic threats to their right to freedom of belief. Boko Haram jihadists and other armed insurgents frequently attack houses of worship and religious ceremonies and regularly abduct and execute civilians based on their beliefs.

RELATED: State Department adds Nigeria to list of most serious religious freedom violators

But nonstate actors like Boko Haram are not the only threat.

Since 1999, 12 states in northern Nigeria have adopted Shariah penal codes that operate parallel to secular and customary courts. In deference to the country’s constitution, which protects Nigerians’ right to freedom of religion and belief, the penal codes do not apply to non-Muslims and exclude provisions against apostasy, which is typically punishable by death.

Yet many Shariah laws in northern Nigeria continue to criminalize blasphemy and result in harsh punishments for blasphemers. Additionally, the Nigerian criminal code includes a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment for insulting a person’s religion.

Nigeria, red, located in Africa. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Nigeria, red, located in Africa. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Blasphemy laws promote intolerance, discrimination and violence against religious communities around the globe. Even before Sharif-Aminu had his day in court, a mob burned down his family home in retaliation for his comments and forced him into hiding. Lawyers filing appeals on behalf of Sharif-Aminu and Farouk have had to do so in secret for fear of violent retaliation.

Recent blasphemy convictions in Kano State are particularly concerning in the context of the continued detention of prominent atheist activist Mubarak Bala. In April 2020, police arrested Bala for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a Facebook post. He remains in detention without charge despite a Dec. 21 court order for his release.

During Bala’s detention, Nigerian authorities restricted his access to his legal team and family. In July, his wife, who had recently given birth to a son, had to plead with the government for proof of life and for information on her husband’s whereabouts and wellbeing.

Through the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project, USCIRF is advocating on behalf of both Bala and Sharif-Aminu, urging their immediate and unconditional release.

Blasphemy laws and harsh sentences cannot stand if Nigeria’s commitment to religious freedom is to be realized. In December, the U.S. Department of State designated Nigeria for the first time as a country of particular concern for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of international religious freedom. Nigeria is the first secular democracy to be labeled a country of particular concern.

Repealing the blasphemy laws, which have deep local support in northern Nigeria, will not be easy. Efforts to repeal them, in fact, may backfire if they are perceived as “outsider” Christian or secular actors meddling in local affairs.

Consequently, the U.S. government should incentivize the government of Nigeria to engage state and local actors in a political dialogue designed to align local justice mechanisms with the rights and protections provided by international law and the Nigerian Constitution.

The United States should also urge the Nigerian government to provide stronger security for the lawyers working on blasphemy cases in areas where they are experiencing harassment and physical threats.

Ultimately, every Nigerian citizen has the right to believe and worship as they choose, and that right should be protected equally for all Nigerians, regardless of their faith or creed.

(The Rev. Frederick A. Davie is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. The Rev. Tony Perkins is vice chair of the commission. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)