Today is International Blasphemy Day! This is the second blasphemy day I have participated in, it actually marks the one year anniversary I came out publicly to the world as an ex-Muslim through Ex-Muslims of North America's #AwesomeWithoutAllah campaign last year. For this year's blasphemy day, I will be contributing a less 'controversial' post. I want to focus on those whose lives have been affected by blasphemy laws this year. To share the stories of those who have been persecuted for their lack of religious belief, for their criticism of religious theocracies and to see how far we have got in the fight for abolition.
2020 saw numerous blasphemy cases across the world, with Pakistan having almost daily incidents of blasphemy arrests to an Ahmadi man being shot dead in court. Nigeria saw the arrest of activist Mubarak Bala and singer Yahaya Sharif.
July 2020, saw the brutal murder of Tahir Ahmed Naseem who was shot dead in a Peshawar courtroom. Naseem had been in prison since 2018, after allegedly claiming he was a prophet. He is also Ahmadi, a follower of a minority sect of Islam, where in Pakistan they are not viewed as Muslims.
The attacker claimed he had been ordered in a dream to kill Naseem, and he also attacked judges who hear blasphemy cases. It was part of a series of weeks that saw increased blasphemy cases in Pakistan.
It felt like I was seeing a new one every day.
A lot of my mutuals are Pakistanis, and out of fear for their own lives and their content potentially being caught out as blasphemous went 'dark,' - privatized, names changed and photos anonymised. So many of them wanted to comment on the issue, but worried about their own safety. Many of them led a campaign to remove the hashtag from trending, it had reached number one in Pakistan, by using hashtags relating to BTS, and generic tags about the day of the week.
They managed to get the tag reduced down, but it was long campaign. I utilized the contacts I had and tried to get him in contact with people I knew who could help, this was done through a chain of contact of several people. Luckily, he managed to get to a safe place that night, but now I do not know what happened to him still.
Blasphemy is not an issue limited to Pakistan, Nigeria has had its fair share of cases in the last six months. Mubarak Bala, President of the Nigerian Humanist association was arrested on the 28th April 2020 after being accused of blasphemy. Like Pakistan, the penalty for blasphemy in Nigeria is death.
He was not formally charged and had been denied access to his lawyers. His arrest took place in his home in Kaduna State, after lawyers lodged a complaint that he had been publicly insulting the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook page. Police have refused to provide details of his whereabouts and his family and lawyers have not been allowed to see him since.
Bala renounced his faith from Islam in 2014, and was forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital by his family in Kano. Since his discharge, he has received numerous death threats for alleged blasphemy.
His wife told Human Rights Watch, that she repeatedly tried to get into contact with the police commissioner to find out her husband's location. She has not received a single response. His lawyers filed a case at the Federal High Court, but this is yet to be heard due to COVID-19 delays.
June 29th, the Magistrate Court granted an order which would allow Bala's lawyers to meet with him, but this order has still not been processed and therefore, cannot be enforced.
Soon after Yahaya Sharif followed a similar fate to Mubarak Bala. In the same state as Bala, Sharif was sentenced to death by hanging after being charged with blasphemy. Yahaya is a musician, who was caught out blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad in a series of audio messages that were shared via WhatsApp in March.
Amnesty International report he was arrested in March after protestors burnt down his family home and led a procession demanding his arrest.
However, it is not all bleak, there has been progress in what has been a bitterly hard year. Sudan first repealed its laws on alcohol and apostasy in a move towards a separation of religion and state.
These changes include the removal of punishments for renouncing Islam (apostasy), allowing the consumption of alcohol for non-Muslims, children can travel with their mothers without needing permission from their fathers, banning female genital mutilation (FGM), and the loosening of restrictions on women's dress.
Now, this is not to say everything is magically going to be better, there is still a need for work to be done within society and unlearning the attitudes that come with adhering to strict laws against freedom of religion and women. As survey data from Arab Barometer suggests that these reforms will not be widely supported.
Time will tell how these reforms will affect families and communities, as not all countries criminalize apostasy in the law itself, however, its blasphemy law can be used to charge apostates.
But this is a mark towards progress, a mark towards the freedom of the Sudanese people to practice or to not practice religion how they choose to. Hopefully, we can see this change in other states that still operate with blasphemy laws.
22nd August 2020 was the first International Apostasy Day created by a coalition of ex-Muslim organizations. This included a petition which received more than 5,000 signatures. The link is at the end of the article if you wish to sign it. The 22nd August was chosen as it is the same day as the UN Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or belief.
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain outlines the aims for Apostasy Day, calling for the commemoration of the victims of apostasy laws, an end to the criminalisation and the death penalty for apostasy in countries under Islamic laws, an end to shunning, threats, and honor-related violence from families of apostates and the affirmation of freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as opinion and expression in compliance with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 18 & 19).the punishment of death.
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain reported an overall 83,000 people engaging with the day reaching a peak at 233,000 people. Seeing these figures is something mind-blowing to me, someone, who only in the last two years found out about the apostate movement. s, and honour-related violence from families of apostates and the affirmation of freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as opinion and expression in compliance with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 18 & 19).
This was a day I participated in myself, as an apostate and vocal speaker on apostate issues, it was a day for people like me. A day where I felt recognized. One of the campaigns was to draw an 'A' on your hand (HandsUpForApostasyDay) and the response was overwhelming. From familiar faces to anonymized posts.
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain reported an overall 83,000 people engaging with the day reaching a peak at 233,000 people. Seeing this figures is something mind-blowing to me, someone, who only in the last two years found out about the apostate movement.
I can only hope we see countries take the approach of Sudan and begin the separation of religion and state, so each individual can practice or not practice religion however they wish to. To stop the death of prisoners of conscience and to end the shunning and honour-based violence that is a result of apostasy and blasphemy laws.
Articles on Mubarak Bala: https://humanism.org.uk/2020/07/24/un-experts-call-for-urgent-release-of-nigerian-humanist-mubarak-bala/
Articles on Yahaya Sharif: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53726256
Apostasy Day Information: https://www.ex-muslim.org.uk/2020/08/22-august-2020-first-international-apostasy-day/
Other Articles Published on The Amber Journals About Blasphemy: https://www.theamberjournals.co.uk/post/apostasy-is-not-a-crime-the-12-countries-where-freedom-of-thought-carries-a-death-sentence