It is now over two weeks since police detectives arrested Nigerian atheist, Mubarak Bala in Kaduna in Northern Nigeria. His arrest was in connection with posts that he made on Facebook. The petitioners said that the posts insulted the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Mr. Bala was transferred to Kano the following day but since then his whereabouts are unknown. He has been held incommunicado without access to a lawyer and family members. The police have not charged him in court.
Meanwhile, there have been reports that a list of atheists, to be arrested and arraigned alongside Mr. Bala, is being compiled. There is an ongoing witch hunt for atheists, especially in Northern Nigeria. One source said that these were atheists who had allegedly made comments that insulted Muhammad or posted comments that annoyed Muslims.
Some atheists have received calls from strange numbers or from unknown individuals who tried to confirm their identities. Most atheists in Nigeria are in the closet due to fear of being persecuted or killed by extremists. The situation is worse and more dangerous in Northern Nigeria where sharia law is in force in most states. Until recently, the atheist movement in the region has been underground. However, there has been growing visibility of atheism in Northern Nigeria since Mubarak came out as an atheist in 2014.
The emergence of atheism in the region has worried Muslim leaders. And last year an Islamic institute organized a seminar to discuss the disturbing trend of Atheism and Social Media.
Following the arrest of Mubarak Bala, there have been numerous threats to expose and deal with other atheists. But those Muslims who are trying to clamp down on the atheist movement have not thought it through. It may not have occurred to them that they too are atheists.
In this piece, I argue that we are all atheists because atheism entails a lack of belief in a god or gods. And everybody is an atheist in relation to one god or another. My submission is that if we are all atheists, why are some Muslims in Northern Nigeria persecuting fellow atheists? Why do they want to deny other atheists their rights to life, freedom of conscience, expression, and association?
First, let’s establish how Muslims are atheists or unbelievers. Muslims believe in Allah and in that sense, they are theists. They are believers. There is no doubt about it. However Muslim relationship to the god idea does not end with the belief in Allah. In Islam, there is this saying: “There is no other god but Allah”. Take note, “no other god”. This statement is an affirmation of belief in god as well as a declaration of disbelief in other gods. So concerning other gods, Muslims are atheists. Muslims are “unbelievers”. They are infidels. Like atheists, Muslims do not believe in the Christian god. They do not have faith in Zeus, Vishnu, Osiris, Amadioha, Sango, Ogun, Urim, Tsumburburra, Haptu, and thousands of other gods that human beings have worshipped throughout history.
The difference between Muslims and other atheists is that other atheists go one god further in their disbelief. They do not believe in the Allah-god. So all Muslims are atheists, even though all atheists are not Muslims. And to make a clearer distinction between Muslims and other atheists, Believers in the Allah-god will be described as Muslim atheists.
In Nigeria, Muslim atheists exercise their rights to freedom of belief and unbelief- their freedom to believe in Allah/prophet Muhammad and to unbelieve in Urim and Ogun. Muslims exercise their right to freedom of expression including their right to express their belief in Allah and their unbelief in other gods such as Odin and Krishna. In declaring their unbelief in other gods, muslims atheists make and could make statements that others could considers to be insulting, provoking and annoying.
In seeking to penalize Mubarak and other atheists for statements and sentiments, posts, and comments that they made on Facebook, Muslim atheists are trying to deny other atheists the same rights that they enjoy. That is not fair. Is it? This inequity has been central to the entrenched Islamic privilege in Nigeria. This injustice has escaped the minds of those who are persecuting Mubarak Bala and other atheists in the region. Blinded by their theism, and forgetful of their atheism, Muslims who are threatening to kill and deal with atheists need to realize that atheists are human beings and the rights of atheists are human rights. More importantly, Muslims in Nigeria need to know that they are atheists too; that they belong to the family of unbelievers and infidels.
Yes, we are all atheists!
Leo Igwe is a human rights activist and the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.