NIGERIA: ‘BLASPHEMY’ ISSUE SURFACES IN LEGAL TENSIONS
Upheld death penalty for Islamist, constitutional revision feed volatile debate.
(Compass Direct News) – Musa Yaro lifted his sonorous voice and read out a passage from Risalla, an Islamic publication, and then handed down his judgment: “Whoever insults our prophet, Muhammad, must die. You, Abdullahi Umaru, having insulted the Holy Prophet Muhammad, must therefore pay the price for your crime. You must die by the sword.”
KANO, Nigeria, May 1
At this pronouncement in Randali village in Kebbi State, a group of fanatical Muslims led by Yaro and Abdullahi Ada pinned Umaru to the ground and slaughtered him over allegations that he had blasphemed Muhammad.
This act took place on July 14, 1999, but echoes of the tragedy reverberated last Friday (April 25) at the Supreme Court of Nigeria, in Abuja, where a panel of justices confirmed the death sentence for Ada and others involved with the murder.
Justice George Oguntade ordered that Ada be hanged until confirmed dead.
A year ago the Supreme Court had already condemned Ada, Yaro and Abubakar dan Shalla to death by hanging. Three other accomplices were also condemned to death.
With sharia (Islamic law) in force in Kebbi and 11 other states in northern Nigeria – though supposed to be applied only to Muslims – the high court judgment has further prompted Muslim calls for legislation against “blasphemy.” The National Assembly has begun amending the 1999 constitution.
Muslim leaders in northern Nigeria’s Kano state have called for a national law on “blasphemy,” leaving Christian leaders with the fear that Islamic law could be used to arbitrarily put Christians to death. The secular court convictions for the murder of Umaru are in part behind the agitation for “blasphemy” legislation, they say.
Bauchi state Gov. Mallam Isa Yuguda has called for sharia to be enshrined in the Nigerian constitution. Besides Bauchi and Kano, other northern states enforcing sharia are Gombe, Niger, Yobe, Borno, Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, Kebbi, Sokoto, and Zamfara.
The Rev. James Zoaka of the Church of the Brethren in Kano told Compass that Christian leaders’ fear that a law on “blasphemy” passed by the National Assembly would lend legitimacy to Muslim fanatics killing Christians on flimsy pretexts.
“In Islam, anybody who speaks against Mohammad faces death with certainty, but in Christianity, repentance is for everyone who commits sin,” Rev. Zoaka said. “This is the reason why we cannot support the call for a law against blasphemy.”
The Rev. Nelson Jebes of the Evangelical Church of Christ in Nigeria added that the call for a national law against “blasphemy” is unacceptable.
“The law would be used against Christians who would be falsely accused of blasphemy of the prophet Muhammad,” Rev. Jebes said. “We have seen innocent Christians being wrongly accused of blaspheming Muhammad, and they have been attacked. So, enacting a law on such claims is like legalizing the illegality.”
Samuel Salifu, secretary-general of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said that the Muslim accusation of “blasphemy” is baffling in the multi-religious landscape of Nigeria.
“Why should Muslims complain about blasphemy when their holy book, the Quran, blasphemes Jesus Christ?” he said. “The Quran says Jesus is not the son of God, and is this not blasphemy? Muslims must learn to be tolerant and allow peace to reign in this country.”