Song Lyrics Shouldn’t Get You the Death Penalty
Song Lyrics Shouldn’t Get You the Death Penalty
Editor's note: The following piece, written by ADF International Legal Counsel Sean Nelson, originally appeared at National Review.
In March 2020, a Nigerian Sufi musician named Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was arrested in Kano State, in northwest Nigeria, for allegedly committing blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. His crime? He had shared on social media song lyrics expressing the beliefs of his branch of Sufism. A mob assembled in response and burned down his house. He had no legal representation for his trial. Five months later, the local sharia judge found him guilty and declared, “I hereby sentence him to death by hanging.”
But now, Sharif-Aminu is challenging the blasphemy law under which he was convicted in what could be a groundbreaking case for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Last week, he filed an appeal with the Nigerian supreme court, calling for the blasphemy law enshrined in Section 382(b) of the Kano State Sharia Penal Code to be ruled unconstitutional under Nigerian law. It is the first time such a blasphemy law has been challenged at the highest court in Nigeria. If he is successful, the case could have worldwide repercussions.
Nigeria is one of seven countries in the world — including Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia — with criminal-blasphemy laws for which you can be sentenced to death. These laws exist in the twelve northern Nigerian states, which incorporated sharia into their criminal codes 20 years ago. These are majority-Muslim states, in contrast to the largely Christian south. Kano State’s law requires the death penalty for any Muslim who “publicly insults” or “demonstrates any form of contempt or abuse against the Holy Qur’an or any prophet.”
Northern Nigeria’s blasphemy laws violate not only international law, but also the Nigerian constitution, and should be deemed unlawful by the country’s supreme court. The Nigerian constitution protects the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, and expression, including the ability to “receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Notably, while the constitution permits sharia, it only allows for its use in personal-law matters, such as marriage. Kano State’s blasphemy law, by contrast, allows for no theological diversity among Muslims and could be used to target converts to other religions, such as Christianity, or those who have become atheists.
Sharif-Aminu’s lawyer, Kola Alapinni, spoke to me after filing the notice of appeal to the supreme court: “How in the world did it take twenty-two years for this law to be challenged, for us to get where we are? But now, Yahaya is in high spirits.”
The law also flies in the face of Nigeria’s commitments to upholding international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As stated by six United Nations human-rights experts and bodies who wrote to the Nigerian government on Sharif-Aminu’s case, “No one should be prosecuted for the mere peaceful manifestation or expression of his or her opinions or belief,” and international law prohibits “any form of criminalization of blasphemy.”
Furthermore, 17 country-members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance recently called for the end of the death penalty for any activity labeled as “blasphemy.” And the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has cited Nigeria’s blasphemy laws as one of the reasons it lists Nigeria among the worst countries for violations of religious freedom.
Sharif-Aminu’s supreme-court appeal comes at a precipitous time in Nigeria’s history. The upcoming 2023 elections have seen controversy over the selection by one of the major political parties of a “Muslim-Muslim” ticket, in contrast to the far more common Muslim–Christian tickets, where the presidential candidate is of one faith, and the vice-presidential candidate of another. The lynching of a Christian student, Deborah Yakubu, in Sokoto State in May of this year after accusations of blasphemy made both national and international headlines, revealing the state of religious tensions in the country.
The Nigerian Supreme Court now has the chance to take a significant step toward easing these tensions and pave the way for other jurisdictions that criminalize blasphemy with death. Nigeria is a highly religiously and ethnically diverse country of over 200 million individuals, with the largest GDP in Africa. Blasphemy laws only lead to greater sectarianism and violence, stymieing development and progress — sadly what is happening in Nigeria. But respect for the rule of law, constitutionalism, and diversity of faith, belief, and opinion instead encourages the mutual understanding and peaceful resolution of conflict necessary for a country to thrive.
The Nigerian supreme court now has a choice it must make. No one should be punished, much less killed, for the peaceful expression of their opinions and their faith. By overturning these harsh blasphemy laws, Nigeria can show that it is an international leader in working to bring different faiths together, rather than a nation trapped in a cycle of violence.
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