A Nigerian man is languishing in a local psychiatric hospital after his family decided his coming out as an atheist could only mean one thing: that he’s suffering a mental illness.
The 29-year-old man in question, Mubarak Bala, is being held at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital in Kano, a Muslim state in northern Nigeria that adopted Islamic law in 2000. Mr Bala has been held at the hospital since June 13.
The trouble started when Mr Bala decided to tell his family, who adhere to Islam, that he is an atheist. Bala has apparently been open about this fact in the online sphere for a while now, with his biography on the social media site Twitter reading:
“Chemical Process Engineer. I stand for Truth&Justice. Religion insults human conscience &reason, duped me that I hav another lifetime. AgnosticAtheist#ExMuslim“
However, Mr Bala’s family were not happy about his publicizing his views. They forced Bala to see a doctor who, unfortunately for the family, declared him to be fit and healthy. Not content with this assessment, the family then reportedly went to see a second doctor. It appears they may have told that doctor that Bala had made some unusual, delusional claims, for instance that he was now a “governor,” among other things. These claims were not made to the first doctor though. The second physician decided that Mr Bala is suffering a personality disorder and Bala was committed to the hospital against his will.
Mr Bala was later able to send out emails to a number of organizations via a smuggled smartphone. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) quotes Bala as writing:
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.”
The IHEU also says that soon after Mr Bala’s committal, someone posted to his Facebook profile to profess his apparently reaffirmed Muslim beliefs. In subsequent emails to human rights organizations, Mr Bala contends that this post was made from his smartphone while he was sedated by hospital staff, thus proving the intent behind his forced stay in a psychiatric facility: to silence his outspokenness about his atheism.
Mr Bala now has a lawyer who, according to the BBC, is working on obtaining an independent psychological evaluation so that Mr Bala can be freed from the hospital. Sadly, his case is not an isolated one.
Bamidele Adeneye of the Lagos Humanists is quoted as saying: “Kano is a Sharia state and there are many similar cases occurring, where people are forcefully oppressed just because of their beliefs or for conservative religious reasons, or for the ‘honour’ of their family. Often though you only hear about it afterwards, if at all. This is a rare chance to intervene while someone is in dire need and is still alive.”
Mr Bala’s situation is said to be deteriorating, though, with reports suggesting that the medications he is being forced to take are leaving him unwell, and that he may not be getting a proper diet.
We have just recently seen how apostasy laws, those that refuse to accept that people can leave Islam, can be so hostile to human rights. In the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old woman from the Sudan, it was that the courts refused to accept her Christian faith and sentenced her to death because of it. Even now, after that conviction has been overturned, the Sudanese authorities have fought to keep her from leaving the country.
What is interesting in Mr Bala’s case though is that the threat of an apostasy charge, and the resulting death sentence that it can carry, may have meant that his family were actually desperately afraid for him, in particular when he started publicizing his views. As such, they may not have acted not out of malice but out of fear for Mr Bala’s life.
Lawyer Muhammad Bello Shehu offers this insight: “From what I gather from the family, Mubarak started expressing these beliefs six or seven months ago. The father was aware that he had stopping praying and going to mosques for a year now. But when he started tweeting about it and going public, that might have endangered his life and his family. So according to the father, the major reason he took him to the hospital was for his own safety. The way people take religion here means he could have been lynched for making such announcements.”
This demonstrates the terrible power of laws that so heavily restrict what we can, and indeed in this case, must believe in and why it is so important that when we talk about freedom of religion, we are also vocal about the freedom to have no religion at all.
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