One of the fiercest penalties in the Old Testament is the one exacted for blasphemy. It is still in force in certain countries. Section 295-C of the Pakistan penal code prescribes the death penalty for this ‘crime’. On 18 August 2001, Dr Younis Shaikh, a medical doctor and lecturer, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. His particular crime was to tell students that the prophet Muhammad was not a Muslim before he invented the religion at the age of forty. Eleven of his students reported him to the authorities for this ‘offence’.
In 1656, the Quaker James Naylor was sentenced to flogging, branding and the piercing of his tongue by a red-hot poker by the Second Protectorate. Blasphemy against God was punishable by the temporal courts with death, imprisonment, corporal punishment and fine. As recently as 1922 in Britain, John William Gott was sentenced to nine months’ hard labor for blasphemy: he compared Jesus to a clown. Almost unbelievably, the crime of blasphemy is still on the statute book in Britain and in 2005 a Christian group tried to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer, the Opera.
These are clear cut examples of what happens when people take their scriptures literally and too seriously. They provide a horrifying modern enactment of what life might have been like under the theocracy of the Old Testament.
Modern society however clearly stand against these practices thus these practices have been severely curbed, and countries consciously or unconsciously have adopted a more subtle constitutionally legal approach called ‘secularism’ as aid in curbing the unnecessary discomforts of religious bigotry.
Of recent global concern is the on-going rise in protests regarding the movie “innocence of Muslims”. The United States Government had taken up to clearly stating its position on the offensive video which has stirred widespread Muslim anger in the last few weeks, violent protests broke out in Egypt, Libya and spread to other Arab and Muslim nations leading to the death of a U.S ambassador Christopher J. Stevens. Nigerian Muslims joined the protests in large numbers in Kano and Zaria, although this passed off peacefully it is clear that the anger of muslims globally will take time to cool off, until the next of such occurrence.
The point of great concern here is that why how does a movie; originally aired in California with an audience of less than 10 people, depicting an ancient era of Egyptian Christians and Muslims shot by an Egyptian, allegedly funded by Isreal, and released on YouTube take precedence in the eyes of these ‘religious leaders’ over the glaring situation in Nigeria’s persistent economic problems; flooding in various states, Boko-Haram, debates on new currency introduction, Political Party conflicts, Ethnic Cleansings, On-Going Subsidy probe, rising inflation, unemployment, religious and ethnic tensions. Why remain adamant to partake in these demonstrations, ignoring the fact that all countries currently involved have tense relationships with the Western countries, and are all currently in deteriorated economic positions. Where were they when we needed them to Protest against Boko-Haram?
Let us all take note of the elephant in the room. Leaders in Muslim communities have failed to build strong economies and the type of governments that should form organic solidarity with their people, thereby protecting them against external provocations. This is why riots have become the reactions of choice by millions of Muslims every once in a while, and it has become a routine, sometimes so stereotyped its message becomes distorted.
Religious Intolerance is a social vice, yet in response to this the destruction often left in its wake, leaves no room to work towards reconciliation and harmony. It must be accepted that with the advent of technological advancements, and drastic changes in the global front, certain practices which may be entirely unaccepted by some, have to be given recognition. Single parenting, gay marriage, lesbians and lower age restrictions are among the many considerations. If Muslims want the type of respect from the US and Western nations which will make them sensitive to its values, they must be strong enough to earn that respect through a reshaping of its global perspective, and its approach to fundamental issues, and this must be inspired and maintained by its leaders.
As stated by Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed’s ‘Islam and the West’ the biggest liability of Muslims across the world is not the US or Europe. It is their leaders who hide under the cover and support of external governments to weaken their own people. The West does not necessarily represent Christianity or Judaism. Islam can live in peace with Christians and Jews, but it has to resolve some fundamental contradictions which weaken it, at the heart of that contradiction, is a weak and corrupt Muslim leadership.
Muslims in Nigeria should work towards building a clearer distinction of the tenets they choose to uphold, to be known as agents of peace or harbinger’s of violence. They must cast aside the fear of standing against their leaders and seek true understanding of events before resorting to more drastic actions. Overcoming intolerance requires a consistence application of universal principles of respect for conscience. Just as important, it requires greater understanding.
As Nigerians we must all challenge ourselves to embrace freedom of religious observance for all, extending to others what we demand for ourselves. We should work to expand our capacity for empathetic imagination by cultivating our curiosity, seeking friendship across religious lines, and establishing a consistent ethic of decency and civility. With this greater understanding and respect, we can rise above the politics of fear, and towards a more open and inclusive future.