While violent murders and riots over allegations of blasphemy have occurred sporadically in Northern Nigeria for decades, the recent string of attacks and the high-profile coverage of the murder of Deborah Emmanuel is a troubling indicator of what may become a new normal in Nigeria. The increase in mob violence related to blasphemy accusations resembles the reality in Pakistan, a country infamous for its harsh treatment of alleged blasphemers.
In February of this year, a mentally disabled man, Muhammad Mushtaq, was tortured and lynched after being accused of burning pages from the Quran inside a mosque in Pakistan. Ninety individuals have been killed in mob violence for blasphemy allegations in Pakistan since 1947.
Pakistan sees more mob killings related to blasphemy allegations than any country in the world. Joining them as one of the worst countries for such attacks is Nigeria, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. But while the U.S. sanctions Pakistan as one of the worst violators of religious freedom, Nigeria inexplicably had similar sanctions lifted in December 2021.
Open Doors’ World Watch List tracks the worst places in the world to be a Christian and, often, any other religious minority. Pakistan was ranked the 8th worst country, in large part because of its blasphemy laws and the mob violence they inspire against Christians, Hindus, and others. But edging out Pakistan for the first time this year? Nigeria at 7th place.
Nigeria sees more Christians killed for their faith than any other country – at least 4,650 in 2021 and nearly 900 in the first three months of 2022. The Nigerian government often claims that it simply does not have the resources to combat widespread terrorism, violence, and kidnappings. But it has less excuse when it comes to mob violence committed against alleged blasphemers.
Nigeria and Pakistan are the most populous countries whose laws allow for the death penalty for blasphemy. The two countries join such ignominious religious freedom violators as Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania.
These extreme laws inspire grotesque mob violence. Criminal penalties for blasphemy are contrary to international law, but when a state authorizes the death penalty for blasphemy, it’s no surprise when people take the law into their own hands. Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy before being ultimately exonerated a decade later, regularly was in fear for her life, and her most prominent defender was assassinated.
Religious freedom means little if a person does not have the ability to share and criticize religious viewpoints. This basic point underlies the inherent problem of many leaders’ condemnations of mob attacks while still promoting blasphemy prosecutions through the courts. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari condemned Deborah Emmanuel’s attackers for acting outside the law, but also said that the proper channel was to allow for police investigations and prosecutions of blasphemy accusations.
What happens to those who are prosecuted for blasphemy? In Nigeria, humanist Mubarak Bala was sentenced in April of this year to 24 years in prison for allegedly blasphemous social media posts. In Pakistan, Shaftqat Emmanuel was tortured by police into a false confession of blasphemy, and he and his wife, Shagufta Kausar, thrown in prison on death row for 7 years until an acquittal in June 2021. They then had to flee the country. Blasphemy allegations lead to terrible outcomes whether enforced through mob violence or the courts.
With “legal systems” that create such injustices as these, there will continue to be mob violence. The only effective response to stop the murders and lynchings in Nigeria and Pakistan is to repeal the blasphemy laws completely and prosecute mob attackers to the fullest extent of the law. These laws, and the culture of mob violence they encourage, violate global norms of human rights. The international community, including the U.S., needs to stand up in defense of free speech and freedom of religion.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, author, and former Pakistani member of Parliament. Sean Nelson is Legal Counsel for Global Religious Freedom at ADF International.