By Rudolf Okonkwo
The news that mobs have murdered another person in Sokoto State for allegedly making a blasphemous comment against Prophet Muhammad has once again rattled Nigerians. I used to ask why is that. Why are people so worked up when such a thing happened? Is it that they were not expecting it or that the gap between the previous one and the latest was not long enough?
I did not indulge in that line of questioning this time. What I did instead was to throw into the mix Jesus’ trial for blasphemy.
Many often forget that Jesus was tried for blasphemy and sentenced to death for calling himself the Son of God. While dying on the cross, Jesus in Luke 23: 34 took a look at the people who were killing him and said, ” “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” In fact, when Jesus was facing arrest at the hands of Malchus, a servant of the Jewish High Priest of Caiaphas, and Peter brought out a sword and used it to cut off Malchus’ ear, Jesus did not just pick up the ear, blew off dust on it and reattached it. He also told Peter, “Put up thy sword into the sheath.”
When patterns repeat themselves, they become a tradition and we get desensitised. It rattled us the first time unknown gunmen killed people in Eastern Nigeria. We wanted to know who, when, why, what, and how. Over time, we have accepted it as a regular occurrence. It must be the same for the people in the North-East when Boko Haram started to destroy cities and kill people. It must be how people in the Middle Belt of Nigeria feel now with the perennial killings going on from Southern Kaduna to Plateau to Benue. It must be the same for the people in Chicago and most black cities in America when black-on-black killings started.
Some of us are now numb to incidents of mobs grabbing an alleged armed robber in Oshodi, Port Harcourt, Akwanga, Ibadan, etc., etc., and setting the fellow on fire. They have become parts of the sights and sounds of Nigerian cities and towns.
In the past, I have argued that we dehumanise ourselves when we get desensitised about these killings. I have also contended that the mortal danger in mob action is the possibility of an innocent man or woman being a victim. A wise judge once said that a guilty man should be free than an innocent man to suffer in jail. None of those lines of argument worked. It continued to happen with greater frequencies.
The latest Sokoto incident happened about a year after the previous one that made global news. The previous victim was Deborah Samuel, a student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education lynched for blasphemy, and this latest victim is a butcher, Usman Buda Mai Hanji. There are a few differences in the details. The former was a lady, and the latest was a gentleman. The former was a Christian, and the latest was a Muslim. Fellow students lynched the former, while fellow market people lynched the latter.
In both cases, the people who killed Usman Buda Mai Hanji, the butcher in an abattoir, and Deborah Samuel, the student at a college of education campus, believed they were fighting for Prophet Muhammed. I had tried in the past to understand the logic of mere humans fighting for the almighty God, his Son, or His Prophet but I have given up. In the same way, I have given up on understanding the rationale behind the Igbo-on-Igbo killings in Eastern Nigeria or the black-on-black violence in New York City.
In private chats with some Muslim friends, they confessed that the doctrine to avenge any act of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammed was deeply ingrained in them from childhood. ‘You don’t even think about it,” one said to me. “You just do it. It is your duty. It is your responsibility. It doesn’t matter if the culprit is your friend or family. He or she must die.”
In each of these cases, of these killings, in the hands of these mere mortals, for whatever purpose, the spirit of John Donne’s poem, “No Man is an Island,” overwhelmed me.
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
Is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
Well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
Own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
The bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Conscious that no man is an Island, I have wondered aloud, “Who did this to us?” My wonderment doubles when I remember that we Africans are often doing the killings in the name of foreign religions, political philosophies, arbitrary border lines drawn by foreigners, flags, and faiths. I have asked myself how the people, who in 400 years to come will occupy the land we now inhabit, think of us when they read about the things we do today. What more insidious expression than Dark Ages will they use to describe our age?
One reaction to the latest killing of Usman Buda Mai Hanji touched me in particular. It was from the governor of Sokoto State, Ahmed Aliyu. His was to issue a statement through his press secretary. It did not rise to what would require the governor to speak to the citizens of the state. In the statement, his press secretary expressed the traditional appeal for calm and to be law-abiding at all times. Then, the statement’s core was to caution people “against any act capable of degrading the personality of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), especially in a State like Sokoto, which is predominantly a Muslim community.” The statement went on to say, “Sokoto people have so much respect and regard for Prophet Muhammad, hence the need for the residents to respect and protect His dignity and personality.”
By the time the statement went into tepidly telling people “to desist from taking laws into their hands and to report alleged crime or blasphemy to the appropriate authorities,” he had lost the essence. By the time it got to say, “Islam does not encourage taking laws into one’s hands,” the harm is not just done but reinforced.
In 2021, when a Sri Lankan national working as a factory manager in Pakistan was killed over an allegation of blasphemy, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan publicly criticised the killing and called it a “day of shame for Pakistan.” The governor of Sokoto State should have done the same to show seriousness about the matter.
In the past, I would have asked one of my Muslim friends how one should “respect and protect the dignity and personality of Prophet Muhammad.” I would have wanted to know who decides when one has disrespected Prophet Muhammad. I would have asked how a follower protects Prophet Muhammad’s dignity and personality. But I have since stopped trying to understand.
Just a few days ago, I shared the cover page of my upcoming book on the intersection of God and Man, Science and Religion, Doctrine and Reason called, “Why I’m Disappointed in Jesus.” People who had not read the book immediately attacked me. They accused me of committing an abomination, which is a diet form of blasphemy. These thought police in the voluntary army of Jesus Christ of Nazareth believed that the devil possessed me. Some started praying for the Holy Ghost Fire to come and deliver me – and if I resist, to consume me. Others were so vicious that they wished they could go back to the Old Testament’s Leviticus 24: 16 to find a blasphemy law that would allow them to lynch me in the name of protecting and defending Jesus.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include “This American Life Sef” and “Children of a Retired God,” among others. His upcoming book is called, “Why I’m Disappointed in Jesus.”