By Leo Igwe, Abuja-based correspondent

The arrest of Nigerian Humanist, Mubarak Bala, for blasphemy on April 28, 2020, has generated heated debates about blasphemy. Opinions are divided regarding the concept of the contempt of religion and how alleged blasphemers should be treated. In this piece, I draw attention to the often-overlooked perspective that blasphemy is part of everyday discourse. Contempt of religion is part of the universe of faith and belief. I suggest that it is utterly senseless for some religious believers, Muslims in this case, to accuse somebody of blasphemy. I submit that blasphemy is a right, not a crime, and should be respected and not penalized.

As a backdrop to my argument, a quote by George Bernard Shaw is instructive. It states, "All great truths begin as blasphemies". Yes, all great truths! It is important for those who lodged the petition against Mr. Bala to ask: “Do those Facebook posts contain some truths?” What if Bala has drawn attention to a veritable side of the prophet? Truth claims need not be pleasant, comforting, or good to hear and behold. Truth is not necessarily meant to soothe the nerves. It reveals and opens the eyes of the recipients.

Truths are bitter and painful to hear and bear, especially in this case where people have been mentally conditioned not to question or think; people have systemically been lied to and have been told to unquestionably embrace falsehoods as truths. So, proposing new truth claims could be painful and irritating. Consider the case of the inmates in Plato's allegory of the cave. The light of truth is unsettling and unnerving to the extent that recipients become hostile and attack truth-bearers. Along the line of Shaw's quote is another saying that the truth that is bitter is the truth that liberates. Thus, blasphemy is a trigger, a harbinger of great discoveries, discomforting insights, painful liberation, and enlightenment.

Apart from being a facility for human enrichment and nourishment, blasphemy is a human entitlement that is at the foundation of every religion. Yes, all religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are blasphemes. They are sets of sacrilegious ideas. All founders of religions were blasphemers. Abraham, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, and Confucius were all blasphemers. Even Nigeria's Sat Guru Maharaji is a blasphemer. It was in blaspheming that they departed from the truths of their time and proposed unsettling new teachings that formed the foundations of their respective religions. All religions and philosophies begin as blasphemies and are characteristically sacrilegious.

By implication, all those who profess these religions and philosophies are blasphemers. Traditional religionists, Christians, and Muslims are blasphemers. One faith is an exercise in contempt of other faiths and philosophies. Humanists, atheists, freethinkers, existentialists, materialists, empiricists, and rationalists are blasphemers. They are espousers of claims of truth and ideas that provoke or annoy others. So, if one's religion is relatively a set of profane ideas, how can one meaningfully accuse another person of contempt of religion? How can a sacrilegious speaker accuse another person of making a sacrilegious speech? In the case of Mr. Bala, there is no justification for the allegation of blasphemy because those Muslims who lodged the petition are themselves blasphemers. What they believe and what Bala believes are mutually profane.

Muslims who petitioned the police should have realized that the prophet of Islam was a blasphemer and was in contempt of the religions of his time including Christianity. It can be recalled that the prophet of Islam at one point fled Mecca to escape persecution. Just like the petitioners and their Muslim supporters, the people in Mecca at the time of Muhammad were angry and upset by the prophet's blasphemous propositions.

Based on his contempt for other religions and philosophies of his time that Muhammad along with his followers founded Islam. By extension, Muslims are partakers in this tradition and heritage of profanity. As a habit, Muslims blaspheme against other religions and philosophies including humanism and traditional religions every day as they pray and practice their faith. The Qur'an is filled with passages that speak disparagingly about infidels and other nonbelievers. There is even a Hausa saying, “arne arne ni”, which means an infidel is an infidel. It is a demeaning epithet that Hausa Muslims use to reference non-Muslims.

 The Islamic declaration, “There is no other god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger”, is a blasphemous statement because other religionists believe in the existence of other Gods and do not recognize Muhammad as a messenger or a prophet. So, how could someone who blasphemes as a daily religious habit, justifiably accuse another person of blasphemy?

Mubarak BalaAs espousers of one religion or philosophy, human beings are all blasphemers. Blaspheming is a part of everyday religious and philosophical discourse and practice. It is a right, not a crime. It is a right to freely practice religion or philosophical belief. Therefore, Mubarak Bala must be free to exercise his right to be blasphemous. The United Nations has condemned Nigerian authorities for failing to release a prominent humanist accused of blasphemy, who has been detained for a year without charge.

Slightly edited for length but not content of the original version previously published in the Sahara Reporter, JUN 06, 2020. (Ed.)

Update: Mr. Bala has been charged under customary law, where he has little hope of a fair trial in Kano State, where blasphemy remains a highly sensitive issue. Kano State is one of 12 states in Northern Nigeria to operate parallel legal systems–customary law, applicable across the Federation of Nigeria as well as Sharia law, which may be enforced on Muslims. Under customary law, “blasphemy” is classed as a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison; under Sharia law, the penalty is death. Sharia law may not be imposed upon Bala since he is not a Muslim. As of August 17th, Mr. Bala was still in detention (Source: Humanists International).