Religious Fracturing and Islamophobia

Islam worshippers observing their prayers

Photo Credit: Council of Foreign Relations

By: Mahbubat Salaudeen

I come from a secular country with an ironically deep religious society. I logged in to my WhatsApp account after a busy day at work to see my status flooded with updates. Scrolling through the updates and viewing similar posts, I was quick to sense that something was out of place. Later, Rahim (not his real name) sent me a voice note on the app. He tells me that a female student had been murdered by Islamic extremists somewhere in the North. I still remember his message to me: “Log in to your Twitter”. I scrolled through my Twitter feed to see a video of an irate mob casting rocks and hurling sticks at what seemed like a mangled body of a young lady. Tires were brought. The match was lit, and in a matter of moments, the body was engulfed in flames.

In another video, I saw the perpetrators of the murder of Deborah Yakubu, a 200-level student of Home Economics at the Shehu Shagari College of Education, overpower the school security, beat the victim to death, and set her body ablaze. One shocking element of the crime is that the preposterous mob action took place within the premises of the institution. This I find highly disheartening, and it’s even more sickening to imagine the eventuality of such people with bedridden mentality becoming teachers, imparting into the younger generations their misunderstandings of the teachings of a religion.

Growing up, I have always heard stories about religious crises in the Northern region coupled with violence. Many of which leaves citizens, especially non-Muslims dead. Over the years, my intent has always been to one day go to the Northern region and see for myself how people over there live and to see if allegations and conceptions propagated against them by many Southerners are true, but with the gruesome of Deborah Yakubu, I believe I have my answers.

The killing of Deborah is not the first, and it likely won’t be the last as similarly irate actions by northern Muslim youths (in supposed defense and protection of their religion) have occurred over the past years, and justice for the victims of these heinous acts has remained elusive. This I know, is a contributing factor to why many non-Muslims assume and even propagate that Islam as a religion encourages violence. As anticipated, the gruesome murder of Deborah provoked outrage across the country and calls for the arrest of the perpetrators of the heinous acts. I remember listening to a female reporter on CNN cover the story.

With every passing moment since the news of Deborah’s death was aired, a growing numbness spread over me. I cringed when I got to know from my cousin that youths have taken to the streets in Sokoto, demanding the immediate release of Deborah’s killers. She said to me before she dropped the call, “you should write something on this. A poem will do. Don’t let it slide.” 

After the news of Deborah’s death, for the sake of my mental health, I opted to stay offline for a couple of days. During that moment, I chose to give the whole situation a closer look. Over the years, there have always been allegations of Islamophobia against non-Muslims in the Southwest – take the ban on hijab in public schools in Kwara for instance. On the other hand, there have been continuous claims of Muslims trying to Islamise Nigeria.

Religion has always been a contentious issue in Nigeria between the Muslim-dominated North and Christian-dominated South, and this has caused more harm than good. Ironically, both religions preach peace and tolerance. The death of Deborah isn’t a result of religion but due to the wrong misinterpretation of religious doctrines. Better still, a consequence of an exuberant group of people who sully the image of the religion and exploited the situation to exercise their frustration.

After my short break from social media, as anticipated, my return was marred by an increased rate of online abuse against Muslims. Coupled with assertions that Islamophobia is a term that exists, the idea is non-existent. The first time I experienced harassment for being a Muslim was on a Whatsapp group by my classmates. That was when I realized that we kept the peace by keeping our distance. Arguments about religion are matters that cannot be concluded and are mostly better left undiscussed.

Having little knowledge about Islam, I took to the internet, watched videos, and poured over verses of the English version of the Quran I purchased from a Mosque up the street. After my research, I can confidently say that no verse in the Quran prescribes any punishment for those guilty of blasphemy. I only wonder where the inhumane reactions to blasphemy emanated from. Many people have continuously condemned the acts of depraved youths who swaddle in blankets of ignorance, and insist that the incident at Shehu Shagari College of Education is not a reflection of what Islam entails. But knowing this is futile, knowing that the killing of Deborah and all other Muslims and non-Muslims accused of blasphemy is wrong, doesn’t change the fact that many more will be killed for a non-existent crime. This impunity will not cease.

I understand that blasphemy is a sensitive issue for many, especially those who have unshakable faith in their beliefs. My country operates two judicial systems, and both have punishments for blasphemy. The constitution provides a secular system and a system that incorporates Sharia. According to Section 204, titled ‘Insult to Religion’, anyone guilty of blasphemy is liable to two years imprisonment. However, the Sharia treats blasphemy as deserving of many punishments (up to and including execution). As earlier stated, no verse in the Quran prescribes death or any punishment for anyone guilty of blasphemy. Therefore, the ruling on blasphemy in the Northern region should be abolished. Ours is a community where Muslims and Christians coexist in one geographical land mass but countless worlds. The wounds of our worlds would be periodically left to bleed with tweets and headlines projecting religious fracture between Muslims and Christians in different corners of the country.

On my return to social media, I made it my business to block and delete number of toxic individuals. I was shocked when I read comments from those I would have normally believed would never support the horrible act. After my outright disapproval of the killing of Deborah in an Islamic group I joined sometime in January, I received messages from people telling me that I’ll go straight to hell. Since my outburst, many have continued to send me threats saying I deserve to be raped. I owe them no apology. Replying to them will be an insult to my intelligence. These are the kind of people society should be afraid of. Just a few weeks after the killing in the North, tensions were stoked even higher after the mob murder of worshippers at St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Ondo State, which left more than 50 dead. 

My poem, “Homecoming,” recently accepted for publication by Trampset, is a reflection of the situation of my country, and the lines, “…my people tried cascading themselves into God’s hands, but the bullets outpaced them. Tell me, how pious does one have to be to end up having one’s prayers bitten by bullets?” was dedicated to victims of the mass shooting.

Judging by continuous attacks on Christians in a country with the fifth highest number of Muslim worshippers, does Islamophobia exist? Is it a non-existent idea? Statistically, Nigeria is the seventh most dangerous place on earth for Christians. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, United States of America by an Islamic terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, the coinage Islamophobia became popular. Non-muslims or those who don’t bear Arabic names suffer discrimination. Also, on certain occasions, religious leaders of both Islamic and Christian communities are known to instigate religious violence. As a Muslim, I do get embarrassed and uncomfortable when I hear news of the violence perpetrated by Muslims against Christians. I think that it is necessary to curtail and avoid incitement or unguarded comments that could breed hatred. 

Another important situation that must be addressed is that Muslims, especially those in the North, address non-Muslims as Anar or Kufar, Arabic terms for heathens or unbelievers. In a situation where Christians are killed because of their beliefs, these terms are forms of incitement. Like many Christians in the North, Muslims in Southeastern Nigeria live in constant fear because of the perceived animosity from non-Muslims.

Judging by the unceasing attacks against non-Muslims, and ridiculous polemics (which is, of course, apparent from social media arguments), if Islamophobia gains a foothold in Nigeria, attacks and reprisal attacks are imminent. I believe that justice is equal. With Deborah’s killers still in jail, it is necessary to give a closer look at our relationships as humans. In a situation where Muslims and non-Muslims are forced to live in fear because of their beliefs, my country is metaphoric for a ticking bomb waiting to explode.

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