Monday 6 June 2016

#MustRead: Of Blasphemy, Jungle Justice And Lies

Say NO to Jungle Justice
by: Obo Effanga

As of Friday evening, the news across the country, as “celebrated” on social media, was that irate mob in Kano beheaded a woman on the claim of blasphemy against Islam. The narrative went on and on with a particular photograph going viral. The photograph purported to show some of the mobsters carrying what looked like a human head, supposedly that of the victim.

From all that has been gathered, the slain woman, Mrs Bridget Patience Agbahime, aged 74 years, was a trader at the Kofar Wambai Market in Kano. She was at her shop that evening when a Muslim man came to the front of her shop to carry out ablution, preparatory to observing his prayers. The deceased woman then reportedly objected to his doing so in the precinct of her shop for which an argument ensued. And that, apparently, was what the man claimed amounted to blasphemy. Before long, the matter degenerated and a mob action led to the murder of the woman.

The police have since arrested two persons they believed to have participated in the heinous crime, adding that it was their “prompt response” that saved the widower from being lynched too.

This incident is beastly, condemnable and barbaric in every dimension. It is shocking that such an incident could happen in 2016 Nigeria. It also begs the question how equipped and prepared the security agencies, especially the police, are to respond to spontaneous incidents such as mob action. It would be necessary to know how many police personnel were drafted to the scene and with what equipment to have prevented the loss of life and property. Again, the issue of the police-citizens ratio comes to the fore. One also recalls an incident in the same Kano last year where a blood-thirsty mob nearly ran down a court and police station with the intention to seize and lynch a man accused of blasphemy.

There are many more questions to be asked and facts stated here. There is no part of the applicable laws in Nigeria where death or lynching is assigned as penalty for “blasphemy”. The closest thing to blasphemy in our laws is reference to insult to a religion which is described as a simple offence or misdemeanour, carrying jail term. Blasphemy at best would be a sin under various religions. Even assuming without conceding that the late woman committed blasphemy, to what extent could citizens be allowed to take the law of execution into their hands on the allegation of commission of a crime? Our laws do not under any circumstance permit of such. At best, the law allows for private citizens to arrest an alleged criminal or someone about to commit a crime and hand over to the police immediately.

How long shall we live with conceding that certain people can commit heinous crimes in the name of culture and religion and we go gentle with them? Why is Kano often so combustible and so easily known for mob actions? We see this at different times and arenas, including in sports. I recall the reports of post-match criminal activities outside a stadium in Kano during one of the FIFA tournaments Nigeria hosted. Kano State authorities sure need to do something about its teeming number of idle residents who could so easily be recruited, mobilised or sentimentally drawn to violence, even without knowing why they are deployed to such violence. Not just Kano, but other states need to address the same in their locations. And this includes the use and abuse of drugs and other psychotropic substances.

After I heard of the incident, I posed the following questions to some Muslim friends. What does the religion say about the following: What amounts to blasphemy of the religion or the prophet? What is the nature of proof of actual blasphemy thereof and what is the appropriate punishment and how it should be carried out?

Somebody responded that negative statements against Islam and Prophet Muhammed could be what these young people refer to as blasphemy. He admitted that there are numerous examples of such statements which were made about the prophet to his face without such negative consequences as we see now. He also added that some of those people became Muslims later on in their lives. He added that Islam does not give any individual the authority to alone complain, judge and execute an accused. If one is aggrieved and deems anybody’s statement or action blasphemous, one can only report to the authorities. Some statements at best will be adjudged inciting or a provocation. None of my respondents claimed knowledge of death sentence for blasphemy. In fact, one person said, “the people who referred to the prophet as “majnoon” or a lunatic to his face were not condemned to the best of my knowledge. I don’t know what gets more blasphemous than that”.

My Muslim friends further said that Islam has no place for jungle justice but ignorance has allowed many un-Islamic and anti-social behaviours to be given Islamic coloration. They say Islam has processes and authority levels for handling offences/crimes. Certainly, an individual not representing the law has no authority to take life for any offence except where it is a clear cut case of self-defence.

As for the nature of proof, I am informed that Islam accepts oral evidence from four “credible witnesses” as sufficient proof. But credible witnesses are not easy to come by. For instance, “if you eat while walking on the street, you are deemed not credible enough to be a witness”, says one Muslim friend. Similarly, joblessness, history of telling lies, history of ever not keeping promise etc. can be used to discredit someone as a credible witness in Islam.

It is apparent that many who claim to carry out some of the atrocities we see in the name of religion have no proper knowledge of the religions they lay claim to and on whose behalf they purport to act. We have for too long allowed charlatans to take over our faiths while the enlightened members of society and of the faith stand aloof, so as not to be accused of heresy. We have seen this over and again, especially among the major religions in Nigeria (Christianity and Islam). Some practices which clearly are against human rights to life, human dignity etc. have been practised under false claims of religion.

The custodians of these religions have to do more to sensitise and indoctrinate their followers on the essentials of their faiths. They must also speak up, punish and support the state to punish for any crime committed in the name of their faiths, rather than try to protect their own or justify and explain away wrongdoings.

Whatever the case is, and knowing that there would always be criminals out there, taking advantage of issues of faith, the Nigerian state owes its citizens the duty of protection of life, human dignity, freedom from fear and the right to live and carry out life’s endeavours anywhere in the country. So far, the state has failed in the protection of such rights. This is because too often, we shy away from exacting state authority over a wrong but end up pushing them into the realm of religious conflict. It is not enough for the state to merely condemn this barbaric act; it must move to ensure that justice is done by ensuring that the criminals are found, tried and punished. That would be the only deterrent against similar incidence or recurrence.

The Nigerian state owes the murdered Senior Citizen Bridget a duty to bring justice to this case. Such justice must reflect the three prongs of justice to the deceased, justice to the accused persons and justice to the society. Her death is a shame to our country. It should not have happened. This cold-blood murder must not be discarded into that bin of unresolved crimes. Some people have to take responsibility for it. Every life is sacred. We cannot therefore allow some citizens to commit sacrilege in the name of responding to alleged blasphemy and get away with it.

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