For the last two weeks of July, Faitheist is being guest hosted by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The piece below is written by Jones; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.
Mubarak Bala is free.
But the Nigerian atheist, who was forcibly hospitalized at the request of devoutly Muslim relatives, is still at risk—and the intersection of political religion and colonial-era laws is to blame.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bala’s case, that’s understandable: It didn’t receive much coverage in the U.S. Most of the details come from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which intervened in the case.
IHEU reported that members of Bala’s family brutally beat him, sedated him, and brought him to the Aminu Kano hospital after he publicly declared his atheism and criticized religion. He was then medicated and retained against his will for 18 days.
According to Bala, his family claimed that his de-conversion was evidence of an underlying mental illness. “And the biggest evidence of my mental illness was large blasphemies and denial of ‘history’ of Adam, and apostacy [sic], to which the doctor said was a personality change, that everyone needs a God, that even in Japan they have a God. And my brother added that all the atheists I see have had mental illness at some point in their life,” he told IHEU.
His experience is a clear example of religiously-motivated persecution. But, as Vice News noted in its own coverage of the case, there’s a bit more to the story. Bala couldn’t have been forcibly hospitalized without the Lunacy Act of 1958, a legislative legacy of the British government’s colonial rule in Nigeria.
In a 2011 article for the Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Andrew Hudson Westbrook explained the situation: “Instead of obtaining treatment at hospitals or mental health institutions, these ‘civil lunatics’ are jailed in asylums within prisons, generally receiving no treatment. The current law in Nigeria allows any building to house an asylum, and contains no requirements for treatment of ‘inmates.’”
Westbrook added, “The British introduced Western-style treatment of mental illness in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to ‘an apparent swarm of ‘lunatics’ on the streets.’ At the time, Western-style treatment focused only on confinement, so the authorities built a pair of asylums.”
A fundamentalist approach to sharia’h, then, shares the blame here with colonialism.
I point this out not to downplay the severity of his situation, or the consequences of violent religious extremism. If it weren’t for the anti-atheist prejudice of his relatives, Bala wouldn’t have been brought to Aminu Kano hospital for “treatment” at all. Further: Where sharia’h courts have the capacity to enforce sentences like this, the primary burden of blame is, of course, on them and their interpretation of Islamic teachings. (See: Meriam Ibrahim.)
But it’s important to make the distinction between sentiment, and the actual legal mechanisms that grant it force, whenever such a distinction exists. To do otherwise is to insist upon an overly simplistic analysis of a remarkably complex situation. In Bala’s case, this analysis—and any humanitarian effort that relies on it—won’t fundamentally improve life for him or for most Nigerians, as the Lunacy Act is still a source of danger.
The law that forced Bala into a psychiatric ward is the direct consequence of colonialism and its imposition of a Western legal system. Similarly, colonialism bears responsibility for leaving in its wake an unstable political climate that fosters a flourishing strain of religious extremism. If these historical facts aren’t acknowledged by Humanist groups—and factored into their long-term efforts on behalf of non-religious people in Nigeria and other postcolonial states—it’s worth asking how successful those efforts will really be.
To some outside observers, including ones who mean very well, religion is often the most visible antagonist in a given conflict or humanitarian crisis. However, its very visibility—over other factors like socioeconomic inequalities and outside destabilization—is a symptom of the observers’ privilege. The reality is that religion is never the only antagonist. It’s rarely even the primary one. Ideology—and for the purposes of argument I’m including religion in this category—is an effective vehicle for spreading prejudice and inflaming conflict, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the root of the conflict in question.
Sectarianism is a many-headed beast, and it’s impossible to fight it effectively if you’re so focused on one of those heads that you lose sight of the others. Campaigns to make life safer for Mubarak Bala and others like him will fail if they emphasize religion to the exclusion of other issues.
Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones.