A human rights test in Nigeria
The country's Supreme Court has opportunity to strike down deadly blasphemy laws
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If you’re an average American, you probably send hundreds of text messages each month without a second thought. But what if you could be sentenced to death for the contents of a non-violent, non-threatening message? It’s unthinkable for us in America. But this is the tragic reality facing Nigerian musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, sentenced to the death penalty for a 2020 message deemed critical of the Prophet Mohammed.
Three years later, Yahaya, a Sufi Muslim man in his early 20s, remains behind bars simply for sharing allegedly “blasphemous” song lyrics on the popular messaging platform WhatsApp. Following his seemingly trivial act, an angry mob torched his house. Yahaya was arrested and charged with blasphemy under the Sharia Penal Code of Kano State, Nigeria. Without a lawyer, a local Sharia court tried, convicted, and sentenced him to death by hanging. For exercising his most basic right to express his religious beliefs, Yahaya may lose his life.
Now, Yahaya is taking his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He filed his notice of appeal in November of last year after an appellate court overturned his initial sentence due to irregularities during the trial and issued a retrial. Because neither the facts nor the law are in dispute, he will inevitably face the same fate when tried again, so he has decided to appeal to the country’s highest court. Yahaya’s defense rests largely on whether the high court is willing to repeal the draconian blasphemy law under which his life hangs in the balance. Both international law and Nigeria’s own constitution demand that the court rule in his favor.
This is a key opportunity for Nigeria to become a global leader in the repeal of blasphemy laws, encouraging similar reforms across the world. As of 2020, approximately 40 percent of countries have some type of blasphemy law, and in at least seven countries, a conviction can result in the death penalty. Blasphemy laws are fundamentally incompatible with human rights.
People living under a regime that criminalizes blasphemy must question if what they say, even if inadvertent, could amount to an illegal act. The resulting climate of censorship not only silences individuals but also wreaks destruction on society. Blasphemy laws give fodder to extremists who carry out vigilante justice, fanning the flames of religious hostility and preventing the peaceful coexistence of faith groups.
Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian, in large part due to a culture of mob violence bolstered by the nation’s blasphemy laws. Between January 2021 and March 2022, more than 6,000 Nigerian Christians were killed. Last May, Christian student Deborah Yakubu was stoned to death and her body set on fire in Sokoto State, Nigeria, after classmates accused her of sending blasphemous WhatsApp messages. For merely condemning Deborah’s brutal killing in another WhatsApp message of her own, Rhoda Ya’u Jatau, a Christian woman from the northeast part of Nigeria, is now facing a blasphemy trial as well.
Individuals of any faith, or no faith at all, can fall victim to a blasphemy charge. Just last year, humanist Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison for social media posts critical of Islam. And as Yahaya’s case shows, Muslims are far from immune if they express opinions that veer away from Sharia-sanctioned orthodoxy. No one should be punished, much less killed, for expressing their beliefs. Nigeria must reform its law to see progress toward peace.
Despite this pervasive religious hostility, the Biden administration has failed to include Nigeria on the U.S. State Department’s list of the worst religious freedom violators around the world. This is a catastrophic omission that signals the U.S. government’s indifference to the horrific acts of violence happening in Nigeria. Our government must leverage the diplomatic tools at its disposal to do right by Yahaya and the millions of Nigerians suffering persecution.
As his appeal looms, the international community must stand behind Yahaya. And I encourage Christians worldwide to unite in praying and advocating not only for his life but also for the repeal of Nigeria’s blasphemy law. As long as this law stands, extreme persecution can persist and be protected by the state. Under such conditions, peace is but a dream.
The justices of Nigeria’s Supreme Court have before them the crucial opportunity to take a decisive step toward urgently needed religious freedom reform. Pray with me for a ruling that affirms the right of all people to say what they believe without fear of government punishment, to enjoy the free speech and religious freedom that is critical for human flourishing.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.