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The Politics of Blasphemy
The mob killing of Nigerian student Deborah Samuel raises questions about the intersection of blasphemy and politics, with unfortunately no easy answers.
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On May 12, a group of students at the Shehu Shagari College of Education in northwestern Nigeria killed their classmate, a woman named Deborah Samuel, after she made a dismissive comment about the Prophet Muhammad in a student WhatsApp group. The murder reverberated in Nigerian politics for weeks afterwards, evoking painful questions and heated rhetoric.
Globally, there have been serious tensions around blasphemy and perceived blasphemy for years, particularly since the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006. Recently, these tensions have flared over several incidents. One involves insulting comments about the Prophet Muhammad made by senior members of India’s ruling party, a party that embraces Hindu nationalism. A United Kingdom-based Shiʿi filmmaker’s latest sectarian project has triggered responses from Sunni clerical councils in multiple countries, as well as intra-Muslim controversies in the UK itself.
In Nigeria, the politics of blasphemy play out within a particularly fraught national context involving relations between a (likely, nobody knows for sure) Muslim majority and large Christian minority. Within that context, ironically, Deborah Samuel’s killers may have felt themselves to be on the defensive, rather than the offensive. On one level, Samuel was an outsider and a minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority, far Nigerian north. Northern Nigerian Muslims sometimes appear keen to draw boundaries demarcating insiders from outsiders. On another level, Nigerian Muslims are aware of the powerful currents of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence in the world at large, including in some of the world’s most powerful states, such as India, China, Israel, and France. Compounding these tensions, 2023 is an election year. The campaign, already in full swing, has reawakened questions of national, subnational, ethnic, and religious identity.
Neither anti-blasphemy violence nor Islamophobic violence justify one another, but they do feed each other and turn up the political temperature around Islam. At both the Nigerian national level and the global level, blasphemy killings that might seem at first like evidence of retrograde religious attitudes turn out to be much more directly a product of present-day politics.
Taking this tragedy in Nigeria as a point of departure, in this piece I want to think about two themes: how to avoid playing into Islamophobia, and how to think about blasphemy and violence using a political lens. Cases like the one in Nigeria show the complex dance that takes place between states and ordinary citizens when tensions around Islam get very high. In Nigeria, authorities appeared almost powerless against Samuel’s killers, yet at the same time even the most violent mob has little power to determine the course of elite politics.
How to Condemn Violence Committed by A Muslim Fringe Without Playing into Islamophobia
As a starting point, it’s very different to even talk about violence committed by Muslims without falling into a few traps. First of all, reading news coverage, one sees how much individual word choices matter—for example, the words “lynching” and “mob,” which have recurred in coverage of Samuel’s death, are heavy words for describing an even heavier event. Any such term might be fair and objective in and of itself, but put a few of them together and the descriptions become lurid. One Nigerian commentator wrote, shortly after Samuel’s murder, that “the blood-thirsty, irate mob was in a frenzy of excitement in a most sadistic manner chanting rhymes and slogans in satisfaction of religious obligations.” Emotionally charged descriptions then feed into the contentious politics of the event; it is a political choice to portray (all?) Muslims as mindless, backwards fanatics.
Second, in my view it’s important to uphold the individual’s right to religious freedom under a secular state (which Nigeria is, at least technically) without subscribing to efforts by the Christian Right, in the United States and globally, to co-opt the discourse of “religious freedom” and turn it into a pro-Christian, anti-Muslim slogan. There is an entire industry dedicated to taking the (sometimes very real) plight of Christian minorities in trying circumstances (for example, in Iraq) and attempting to make their situations synonymous with the term “religious freedom” itself. Since the promotion of religious freedom abroad was enshrined in US law in 1998, moreover, successive presidential administrations have applied the term selectively, with—predictably—US allies often getting a pass or at least lighter criticism.
The issue of religious freedom has also taken on a deeply partisan cast. For example, the Trump administration appointed far-right Christian and former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as its Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Then the Biden administration appointed a Muslim lawyer and Obama administration veteran, Rashad Hussein, who was himself central in articulating what kind of “mainstream Muslim organizations and moderate institutions” the Democratic Party would consider viable in the post-9/11 era.
Third, I think it’s also worth empathetically considering why some Muslims are willing to kill when they perceive blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad or against Islam generally. Muslims as a collective and particularly in certain particularly tense countries—Nigeria and Pakistan, to name two—feel a defensiveness about the symbols of Islam, especially the Prophet Muhammad. That sentiment does not justify or excuse violence, but it is important to humanize Muslims. Any group subjected to systematic and global denigration would have members who react to perceived insults with violence. Muslims, moreover, are not the only human group that cares deeply about its symbols; consider range of meanings and emotions attached to the American flag and the Confederate flag in this country.
Fourth, it’s key to distinguish between the acts of individual Muslims, or even groups of Muslims, and Islam. Of course, there is no “Islam” that I get to define from the comfortable vantage point of my computer in Ohio. Yet I feel comfortable saying that vigilante violence is generally at odds with the mainstream tradition of Islamic legal thinking. There is, of course, a core notion, found in the Qur’an and in statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, to “command the right and forbid the wrong.” Yet the Islamic tradition itself has often been skeptical about individuals taking the law into their own hands. Indeed, one core aim of Islamic law, as with most other legal systems, is to move punitive violence from the private realm into the purview of the state.
Although classical Islamic legal manuals, including ones still widely read in Nigeria, often prescribe the death penalty for a non-Muslim who utters blasphemy against God, the Prophet, or the religion, those manuals assume that such cases would be handled by an Islamic state apparatus or at least a formally constituted court. I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying “the Islam that exists in heavily theoretical classical books is good, and the Islam that living Muslims do is deviant,” but in these extreme cases of Muslims murdering perceived blasphemers, the murderers are not more authentically Muslim than any other Muslim. Lashing out in (perceived) defense of your faith does not make one a spokesperson for that faith.
With these cautions in mind, let’s turn to the politics of these events in Nigeria and around the world. I’ll focus here just on Muslim-majority countries, but first I’ll say a few words about Muslims in Europe and the United States. Briefly, the politics of alleged blasphemy against Islam are very much present in Europe and the United States too. There, multiple forms of unacceptable violence have collided. The killing of cartoonists is wrong. The mass violence that Western governments have inflicted on some Muslim-majority societies, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen, is also wrong, and there are feedback loops between what happens overseas and what happens at home, including the ways that Western governments have allowed foreign policy rhetoric to feed domestic Islamophobia. The securitization of Muslim life in Western countries is yet another wrong. In a context where Western states harass and demonize Muslims, and where “free speech” advocates and “satirists” single out Islam and Muslims for humiliation in ways that would never fly if done to other religious or racial groups, it is predictable although obviously not justified that some Muslims react violently.
Four Layers of Blasphemy Politics
The first layer of blasphemy politics concerns states that have anti-blasphemy laws but are more reticent to carry out the death penalty than one might expect. There have been high-profile cases in recent years where states treated accused apostates and blasphemers very harshly, but stopped short of killing them even in the face of mass pressure from clerics and ordinary Muslims (although such pressure may be, we should note, the sentiment of a vocal minority rather than necessarily the majority of citizens).
In Mauritania, the blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaïtir criticized the country’s enduring problem with slavery in a way that some conservatives interpreted as blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. Ould Mkhtaïtir was initially sentenced to death, but ended up serving a prison term from 2014 to 2019 before eventually obtaining his release and fleeing to Europe. In Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim also initially received a death sentence for allegedly leaving Islam for Christianity (she was born to a Muslim father, but says that she was raised Christian). She was released in 2014 after major international figures, including then-Secretary of State John Kerry, intervened.
Again, it may seem counterintuitive, but I think these cases show that states are more than willing to arrest and detain alleged blasphemers and apostates, but are much less willing to execute them—precisely, I think, because such states are aware of the levels of backlash that might ensue, domestically but especially internationally. In northern Nigeria, as a matter of fact, authorities and courts also seem reluctant to carry out death sentences for accused blasphemers. Even in Saudi Arabia, with a high rate of executions, the executions, even when they disproportionately target the country’s Shiʿi minority, are often for crimes connected with political dissent and “terrorism,” rather than for charges of blasphemy or apostasy.
Being charged with apostasy by state authorities is a grim situation, but it’s far more dangerous for accused blasphemers to fall into the hands of vigilantes. In Pakistan, courts hand out a lot of blasphemy convictions, but it is vigilantes who do the killing. The second layer of blasphemy politics, then, is that vigilante killings of accused blasphemers are a sign of the vigilantes’ strength and weakness all at once. In Deborah Samuel’s murder in Nigeria, the crowd was strong enough to overpower security agents who were there to protect her, and the incident speaks to the level of state weakness in Nigeria.
Yet the fact that the crowd resorted to vigilantism is an indication of how weak the prospects for a hardline Islamic state are, even in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria. Northern Nigerian politicians or indeed Nigerian politicians generally appear very wary about antagonizing the northern Nigerian “street” and/or the north’s Muslim religious establishment. At the same time, however, the “street” is unlikely to get much of a say at all in who rules Nigeria starting in 2023. The Samuel killing occurred on the eve of the two major parties’ primaries, in which the parties selected familiar faces through opaque processes. All of this raises tricky questions about what level of toleration exists, among politicians in northern Nigeria or Pakistan or elsewhere, for street-level vigilantism; do authorities allow the street to blow off steam, or are they genuinely incapable of restraining such violence? Either answer is troubling.
The third layer of blasphemy politics, relatedly, involves the competing visions of Islamic utopianism that exist in the world today. Roughly twenty years ago, northern Nigeria was the scene of one of the most ambitious efforts at implementing Islamic criminal law—or, rather, a version of it—in the postcolonial world. The project of shari‘a implementation appeared to have mass popular support, especially among ordinary Muslims who thought it would be a vehicle for a more just and accountable society.
To make a long story short, those hopes were dashed completely. Beyond Nigeria, moreover, there is a gap between some Muslims’ desires to live in some kind of Islamic state or at least Islamic society, and the existing reality of flawed democracies and authoritarian states (whether secular or strategically “Islamic”) in many parts of the Islamic world. Notably, many—although by no means all—of the most prominent blasphemy and apostasy cases in recent years have occurred in Muslim-majority contexts where politicians and states have raised expectations about creating some kind of an “Islamic republic” or at least an Islamic legal system (in Mauritania, Sudan, Pakistan, northern Nigeria, Iran, etc.) only to prove venal, self-interested, corrupt, and authoritarian.
The fourth layer of blasphemy politics involves the afterlives of blasphemy cases. The Samuel killing, for understandable reasons, was an explosive event in Nigeria, and the ensuing national conversation (with major echoes throughout the diaspora as well) represented not just an effort to understand what had happened, but also to shape narratives about where Nigeria is heading and whose fault the country’s overall woes are. In the (virtual) pages of Nigeria’s main newspapers, one can find—even within a single op-ed—a mix of keen insight (for example, on how prominent imams appear to have more latitude to say strident things about blasphemy than they do to criticize the president) and crude, anti-northern prejudice. Such prejudice is, to my mind, vaguely similar to anti-southern prejudice in the United States. Both seize upon one region’s genuine problems and then use those facts to suggest that the people in that region are somehow defective.
Ultimately, the most difficult question after a vigilante killing such as the one that took Samuel’s life is the question of responsibility, which is a political question. Vigilante violence is structural in the sense that vigilantism is enabled by state weakness or even state toleration (and here we should note that Nigeria, at the federal and state levels, has encouraged and even funded some forms of vigilantism), but to say that key northern politicians wanted Samuel to die is a step too far in my view. In any case, Samuel’s killing is now etched into the national memory, which is long indeed—if incidents such as the 1966 pogroms against Igbo in northern Nigeria, and the interreligious clashes in the town of Kafachan in 1987 have not been forgotten, neither will 2022 be.
Is there a way to turn down the temperature with respect to blasphemy, whether in Nigeria or globally or in the West? Honestly, I don’t think so in the short term. Blasphemy cases are about power, ultimately—both street power and state power. Islam has been refashioned, in many countries, into a kind of weapon to be used by Muslims, among Muslims, and against Muslims. The resulting climate of tension unfortunately means that a casual WhatsApp message can explode into a national crisis very quickly.