Two wrongs and a third - By: Suleiman A. Suleiman | Dailytrust

Two wrongs and a third

Deborah- student killed for blasphemous utterance in Sokoto
Deborah- student killed for blasphemous utterance in Sokoto

Like most Nigerians, I have been agonising about the unfortunate events of the past few days in Sokoto. It is sad enough to follow news coverage of it across the newspapers and on social media, but sadder still to form and express an opinion about it, not necessarily a regular commentator, but as a concerned citizen oneself.

All human societies have social ills that tend to occur repeatedly, but which still leave citizens aghast or outraged each time. For Nigeria, this event of Sokoto is one of the very worst of our social ills, and one can only hope that this time, we will, as a society, seek to go beyond the usual pretentious outrage and say, ‘never again should this happen among us’. But doing this requires the sort of introspection that has been scarcely on display by various actors on both sides of Nigeria’s perennial but quite unnecessary religious divide.

For me, the basic facts of what happened in Sokoto is very clear and quite uncontroversial. It is yet another unfortunate case of how verbal violence elicits physical violence in Nigeria’s fractious religious relations. The blasphemous remarks by the principal victim and college student, Deborah Samuel, against Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is unacceptable and inexcusable. There was absolutely no reason for her to have jumped from a flimsy and quite typical WhatsApp group disagreements to insulting Prophet Muhammad (SAW), to the consternation of even some of her own fellow Christian students.

That said, however, her gruesome killing at the hands of her own schoolmates is equally unacceptable and unjustifiable. Islam is the most systematic and complete religion on the planet, with very clear and specifically laid down rules and procedures for addressing or redressing virtually every spiritual or mundane issue in human affairs, individually or collectively. That a bunch of students would take the law into their own hands to lynch, stone and beat one of their own to death is absolutely not one of these procedures sanctioned by Islam.

Deborah’s provocation was of the highest order indeed, whether she was aware of it or not. Nothing riles and rankles Muslim sensibilities the world over and throughout time than for anyone to cast aspersions on the integrity of Muhammad (SAW), more so in the careless and reckless manner that Deborah did. But the answer to her provocation was not death, and even if it was, it is not for her killers to discharge it. Islam is not a religion of jungle justice. The Qur’an is the highest authority in the Islamic faith and legal system, and it is replete with provisions that enjoin patience and moderation even at the moment of provocations more extreme than Deborah’s.

These are the two wrongs in this case. They do not a right make, and yet do not cancel out each other. But there is a third, which, as a participant observer, concerns me the most. It is the general tendency to deny both Deborah’s provocations and her consequent killing as wrongs. And as a result, we end up with two very hardline and irreconcilable positions on a matter that is otherwise quite clear: those who believe Deborah did nothing wrong at all, or was merely expressing her “freedom of speech”, whatever the hell that means, and those who feel she got what she deserved, or that the mob justice meted out on her was justified.

Since the incident last Friday, both of these positions have been on display aplenty, even by those who should know better. Nearly all official reactions by Christian religious group leaders tended to ignore or belittle Deborah’s original provocation on a matter they must know is quite sensitive to Muslims in Nigeria as anywhere. The 19 northern states’ chapters of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), for example, in a statement published yesterday in The Punch, directed “Christian leaders in the country to terminate their participation in the activities of the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council, until their counterparts of Islamic faith show commitment to tame their followers on equal terms”.

The national youth wing of the association went even a step further by adding a few fictions on so serious a matter. In a statement published in the Vanguard newspaper last Friday, the group noted that they have “gathered that the acts of killing of our members for inexplicable and most times flimsy reasons, have persisted unabated and has been largely kept away from the Christian fold and the general public by the perpetrators who appear to be working as a syndicate with some affiliation to the dreaded Boko Haram and ISIS, before this unfortunate episode that happened in Sokoto State”. In addition, the national CAN has released statements calling for protests against Deborah’s killing at branch secretariats or churches nationwide.

But the crucial point is that nowhere in these reactions and pontifications is even the tiniest hint that Deborah did anything wrong or even made a mistake. What is wrong with admitting that the young woman was misguided or made a mistake and then condemn or protest her equally or even more unjustifiable killing? This demonstrable insensitivity to the feelings and sensibilities of Muslims by Christians in Nigeria is at the root of the recurrence of such unfortunate incidents in this country. If we put out the position that Deborah did nothing wrong, what prevents another from doing it again?

On the other hand, Muslim religious leaders, except for a few, have either been silent or poured oil on the fire. In fact, some Muslims, including many who should know better, have gone as far as to condemn the Sultan of Sokoto, HRH, Sultan Abubakar III, for his condemnation, rightly, of the killing of Deborah. The general opinion is that blaspheming the Prophet is a redline that must not be crossed by anyone. This is true, but lynching a person to death is absolutely condemnable a means of expressing that concern. Muslim religious leaders, and Nigerian Muslims in general must find a way to insist that people of other religions respect their faith without resorting to mob violence. The silent complicity or overt encouragement of killings when such provocations occur only perpetuates them, and does not augur well for Islam in the long run.

This brings us to the most important question of all: where lies the solution? In a sense, the solution is simple. As Nigerians, we must find a way to sever the links between verbal violence and physical violence on religious matters. Nigerian Christians, and particularly leaders, must stop thinking that insulting Islam or Muslim religious figures or denying them when they happen is a sport. Muslim religious leaders must also stop thinking that killing others when provoked is justifiable. It isn’t. we must also find a way to discourage Muslim faithful from taking the law into their own hands. This is one area where less is more.

But above all, it is time that we had a law against blasphemy incorporated into Nigeria’s legal statues, not just in the Sharia, but the entire corpus of laws in the country. What constitutes blasphemy and the punishments for it must be clearly spelt out in our laws. And most importantly, the law must work and be seen to work for persons and in all cases of blasphemy.   

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