Islam is sacrosanct in Northern Nigeria. Suffice to say that denouncing the religion can come with dire consequences. It’s just not something you do. Last year, a young man named Mubarak Bala from Kano bravely did just that. He announced he was an atheist and humanist, and rejected Islam. This came with serious consequences, including alienation from family and friends, physical assaults and death threats. It’s been over a year since this happened and TIA wanted to speak to Mubarak to hear what he had to say and to see how he was doing.
TIA: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Mubarak Bala: I’m a chemical engineer. I was born in Kano State, northern Nigeria in the mid 80s. I attended the Saudi funded Islamic Foundation Aliyu Bin Abi Talib primary school. I was trained in the Wahhabi Islamic thought, with a jihad ideology. I later attended an all-Muslim private science secondary school, Hassan I. Gwarzo, in Kano State, where Islamic (Qur’anic) study is given a very high priority. Both schools aim to groom the mind into a versatile and educated Muslim that would in the future help the Islamic religion in any field and capacity. I was very good in science & Arabic/Islamic courses. Along the way, I compared both and picked the truest, discarding the mythical.
You came into the international spotlight last year when the news broke of you beingheld against your will in a psychiatric hospital for renouncing Islam against your family’s wishes. Can you tell us what transpired?
As you may know, the Islamic sharia demands that apostates be murdered, but the procedure before that is to lock up the offender for three days and plead with them to recant their stand/statement. If they don’t, then a medical exam is next, where it’s determined whether or not the individual is crazy to deny the lovely religion of peace. If they’re certified sane, beheading follows, if mentally ill, compulsory medication is necessary.
They can’t imagine a world where someone would just leave. That’s what happened to me. Well, almost. In the end, the doctor that said I was insane was removed, having said I needed a god, and that even in Japan, they had gods, that atheism is a mental disease, and denying the Adam and Eve ‘history’ as delusion. The new doctors, plus the earlier ones that long ago said I was sane, and what I needed was some sermon or prayer, certified me sane, in the presence of the DSS (the domestic intelligence service in Nigeria) officers assigned to protect me from my dad and uncles. I forgave them and withdrew my legal litigation, on terms they have not yet met fully.
When did you begin to question your faith?
I questioned religion all my life, but did I get the right answers? No. I asked the wrong people, read the wrong books, mirrored on the wrong society. I was never satisfied with all the murderous hateful literature, but I lived it. I was seven when I consistently asked my father about the imaginary Allah, when and how he made himself, and other ‘crazy’ questions. He answered me as he could, to keep me within line.
Free thought is not encouraged about god… The science I understood gave me answers that were pretty satisfactory. The world was much more amazing that what they say it is. By the time I was an adult, I was already liberal, then secular. By university I was already agnostic and humanist. By 2009, I was more vocal, and an activist, for Almajiri freedom. From 2012, my criticism turned towards Boko Haram and Islam. The naked violence confirmed me an atheist, knowing this is how Islam was in the first century. Many Chiboks were sacked by Muhammad and his followers in Arabia. Many girls and women were taken as booty and raped by those Muslims we name our children after. I just would not belong to such barbaric religion.
Are you on speaking terms with your family?
I tried hard to make peace with most family and friends. I did not accept to leave Nigeria knowing I may never be accepted back. I would only leave to study. I got many scholarship offers and merits. I’m buying my time and sorting personal matters first.
Many now are cool with me, seeing that I’m not in any way a cultist or some mad man. I’m just a guy who left the Arabian myths and would not be bullied to shut up about it. My tormentors were the male members mostly, those patriarchs Islam assigned to be guardians of the family. With others, I have been safe and we’re still good.
How difficult is it to be an atheist in Nigeria?
I thought it would be difficult to be an atheist in Nigeria. Now I know there’re many, though almost all in the closet. I am under no delusion, it’s dangerous, so I know what to say or do, where and when, how and why. So far I’m safe, and many of us have met, in Kano, Abuja and Lagos. We have met and organized to see how best we could help educate our people, to wean off hatred, bigotry, fear of enlightenment, and superstitions that kept us (especially the North) back in every aspect, except giving birth to more kids we couldn’t feed and educate.
Do you feel safe being an outspoken atheist in Nigeria?
I do feel free, being an outspoken atheist. I feel safety in my privacy, in my conscience. I may never be safe completely, but I’m sure it is just a matter of time. When I can better protect myself, better defend myself, better secure myself, I’ll say I’m safe. I try to normalize my stance to people I mingle with from fearing me, now they try to know what I stand for, what humanism is. Gradually the circumference is widening. There’s no freedom better than no one asking you to pray five times a day, or starve yourself for 14 hours if you don’t want to, and certainly the freedom of thought and free speech. If I could have these little freedoms, then death is trivial. I don’t want to die, not in my youth, but I won’t live by some 7th century Saudi code of life, even if my own parents and fellow Nigerians would harm me for it. It’s a price, but freedom is worth it.
Since coming forward with being an atheist, how has the reaction been from friends and people not in your family?
Well I lost many friends, some remained loyal, some even became better friends, and some maintained skeletal relations. Amazingly, I made new friends, those that think like me. Some are even religious, but tolerant. I always wanted friends that I’d learn along with, or from, and those I can tell something amazing about science and they won’t think it crazy. I look back and wonder why my friends were like that. Now I know. It’s the heavy indoctrination we all went through in our most vulnerable years as children. It’s hard to unlearn indoctrinations.
As a fellow Nigerian atheist, one thing I didn’t expect when I started writing about being a Nigerian atheist was the number of Nigerians who reached out to me privately who are atheist, agnostic or are questioning religion, but are too afraid to do so openly. Many continue to keep up pious appearances because they don’t want to be ostracized from their family and community. Have you met Nigerians who are afraid of telling their friends and family that they are atheists?
A lot. Every day. Every hour. Not only Nigerians, many more in the Middle East, some in Europe and the U.S., some from Malaysia and Indonesia. What appalled me most is the sheer number, especially here in Nigeria, in Kano! Like what the hell!? You guys knew I was almost killed, and you stayed off to observe? Only a few of you could speak out? Had all of them spoken out, I’m sure we would have changed the general Nigerian psyche, and ushered in a new era that allowed reason to quash dogma and delusion. Keeping in the closet does you some personal good, but does not in any way help the immediate society, and not the nation, and certainly not the world. Some are now more active online, others buy their time.
What gives the religious authorities power to call the shots on our lives is the collective silence. They should be challenged. If not we risk, in a few decades, becoming an Iraq or Syria, clashing over Shia/Sunni contentions. Christianity is not as lethal, but equally a financial and spiritual crime, duping and ripping already poor people with crappy promises. The witchcraft allegations against minors are another horrible reality in our generation. It’s just appalling. Imagine a truly educated populace, and then realize that even ritualists who require human heads and other parts to make money would be flushed out of business.
Are you optimistic about Nigeria one day being a truly secular society?
Yes. Nigeria is on that path. School enrollment is increasing, the north is far behind, and the northeast is behind by years if not decades. Educating the population is one thing, teaching them critical thinking and the need for reason is another. People could still be educated and remain deluded. That’s why we have politicians that still exonerates Islam from Boko Haram, Wahhabism, and extremist ideas, even extolling the like of Usman Dan Fodio, a man who waged a jihad and forged an empire based on imported principles, and enslaved many people in the territories of West Africa. What we need are educated voters, not educated politicians.
One way to speed up education is by removing the language barrier and using local languages like Hausa…
What’s next for you?
What’s next for me is settling in my personal home, with my wife and kids , as my culture demands, then to further my study, and my reach. I had ambitions of being a leader, in any capacity at the national level. I was told Nigerians would never accept an atheist President. I’m an atheist, a godless humanist, an advocate for social justice, a family man, a thinker and a writer. What else do Nigerians require?
This generation may not accept me, but hopefully in future, no one would look at a candidate solely based on his religion, region, tribe or caste, these qualities are not what one needs to be a good leader. An unbiased, rational, sincere, hardworking person could be a future leader; I hope that could be me.