The case of Nigerian humanist, Mubarak Bala has made it necessary to reflect on the situation of atheism in Nigeria. It is imperative to examine how religious minds have demonized atheism and tyrannized the lives of nonbelievers.
Irreligiosity is not a phenomenon that is often linked to the African continent. But in recent times things have started to change. The religious landscape is undergoing significant shifts and transformations. Despite the growing visibility of religion on the continent, irreligious individuals are becoming active.
Groups of nonbelievers are emerging and organizing. There is a need to explore the link between atheist activism and liberation, especially the liberation of nonreligious persons in Africa. It is in investigating this connection that efforts and actions by atheists and humanists to free themselves and society from religious bondage could better be understood. Such an exploration would situate initiatives by godless and faithless individuals to bring about social change and transformation.
Atheist activism has been misrepresented by pious minds and in pious scholarship. And in consequence, atheist assertiveness has largely been misunderstood and mischaracterized. Atheist activism is designated as militant, fundamentalist, and in some cases, Islamophobic. Nonbelief in religious gods, deities, and dogmas has been presented in the negative sense; as an ‘antiestablishment’ sentiment, a deviation from the norm, a violation of the sociopolitical order, an epitome of intellectual, or moral debauchery and deserving of suppression and repression.
Little attention has been paid to the notion that religious faiths encapsulate theologies of oppression, persecution, and marginalization. The god idea has become an epithet for dictatorship, a pretext to perpetrate heinous crimes and abuse. The name of Allah has been used to justify bloodletting, savagery, genocide, physical and structural violence, and other atrocities. Religions make absolute claims to knowledge, truth, power, and morality. Supernatural faiths do not countenance opposition and disputation. They are totalitarian. Faith groups maintain and strive to control to the minutest details the lives and actions of individuals and societies. Religions sanction socio-economic oppression and political subjugation of others, the religious and non-religious others.
The case of Mubarak Bala shows that misrepresentation of atheism is entrenched, and serves the cause of religious tyranny and despotism in Nigeria. Theocratic governments politicize mischaracterization of atheism to justify denial and erosion of irreligious liberties, violation of the humanity of atheists, the sanctification of impunity, as in the notion of holy war or jihad, and cruel and unjust treatment.
This presentation focuses on two main weapons of religious oppression, apostasy, and blasphemy. It explains the actions taken by Bala to undo these oppressive mechanisms and further his freedom. I argue that atheists’ assertion of their rights and liberties are not transgressions but an exercise in social, political, and economic liberation from religious oppression.
Bala came out as an ex-Muslim in 2014. Take note of the expression, ‘came out. The profession of Islam is like being locked away in a room and prevented from leaving. Bala might have ditched Islam much earlier than 2014 but the hostage and antagonistic climate did not permit him to go open and public with his non-belief. As I was told, persons who are born into Muslim families are automatically Muslims. Born into an Islamic home, there is no option of choice to belong or not to belong.
One cannot decide not to be a Muslim. Once a Muslim always as a Muslim. One cannot leave or renounce the religion because abandoning Islam is a dishonor to the family and an offense against the Islamic state and community.
But apostasy is not an infraction in any way. It is a right. However, Muslims made it a violation of Islam. As a transgression, apostasy attracts heavy penalties: ex-communication, banishment, honor killing, execution, or extrajudicial killing by nonstate Islamic actors. Thus it takes a lot of courage to renounce Islam, to scale the religious prison walls. Many who are unable to leave or escape this religious bondage resign to fate; they continue to pay lip service to the religion. They continue to identify as Muslims even when they are not. Many observe the teachings of Islam even when they think and believe otherwise. Simply put, Islamic faith holds its confessors and members captive.
To free himself from this social prison and mental hostage, Bala left Islam. He could not continue to deceive himself. He could no longer pretend to be a Muslim when he was not. More importantly, Bala found the teachings and practices of the religion objectionable, harmful, and incompatible with a reasoned outlook. He discovered that Islam as practiced was outdated, incompatible with human rights, and an improper moral guide to happy and meaningful living in this 21st century.
Bala’s renunciation of Islam came at an enormous cost because Islamic gatekeepers put a heavy price on freedom, freethought, free speech, and free assembly. Islamic prison guards placed a price, the supreme price on liberty which many of its prisoners cannot afford to pay. In the case of Bala, he decided to bite the bullet. He resolved to free himself. But his quest for freedom led to the severance of family ties. Relatives consigned him to a mental hospital where he was shackled and treated as a psychiatric patient. His family regarded his renunciation of Islam as a form of mental illness. They thought he must be out of his mind to leave or to contemplate leaving Islam. They took him to a state hospital for rehabilitation. The family wanted to cure him of apostasy so that he could regain his sanity and return to the Islamic faith.
Bala escaped from the hospital and continued to live, identify and conduct himself as an apostate. In 2020, police arrested Bala for making some Facebook posts. Some Islamists claimed that the posts insulted their prophet and offended their religious sensibilities. One way that Muslims have tried to hold people hostage is to make a violation of their sensibilities an offense, a punishable infraction for other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Meanwhile, nobody punishes Muslims for offending other religious and irreligious sentiments and sensibilities. Nobody penalizes the Islamic faithful for casting aspersions on non-Muslims and nonbelievers. Again, Bala refused to be caged or gagged. He continued to speak freely and express his thoughts and ideas about religions and their prophets. Of course, it was not for a long time. After two years of incarceration, Islamic theocrats prosecuted and jailed him.
As the case of Mubarak Bala has shown, Islam has become an oppressive ideology, and a device to hold any real or imagined nonbelievers hostage. Atheist activism tries to undo the oppression and subjugation of infidels and other religious nonbelievers. Atheists in Africa are human beings and have equal rights. Atheists want to be free and to exercise their liberty like religious believers. But theocrats undermine this process of liberation and progressive emancipation. Atheists want to live in a society where people freely embrace, renounce or change their beliefs. But the religious establishment is opposed to freedom and equality of all and for all. Atheists want to live in an environment where individuals are free to say or write whatever they think about any religion or prophet. Religious tyrants loathe freethought and free expression. Early in this 21st century, atheist activism has become a liberation struggle against religious tyranny and totalitarianism.
Atheist activists have become freedom fighters, social, political, and intellectual liberators of Africa and Africans. Atheist activists have become awakeners of Africa and Africans from religiously induced slumber, oppression and mental slavery.