By Rotimi Fasan
IN 1989 the Iranian spiritual and revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeni, issued a fatwa that was to be executed by any Muslim anywhere in the world on the Indian-born British novelist, Salman Rushdie, following the publication of his book, The Satanic Verses, which some Muslims considered blasphemous.
Not only did the British government and other Western powers at the time rise up in defence of Rushdie’s right of free expression, these countries were very unambiguous about the extent they were prepared to go to defend the right of just one man who was not even a Christian to say nothing of being White to hold personal views of religion and religious figures no matter how obnoxious.
No matter what Iran, in particular, and the Islamic world at large did, Britain defended Rushdie and protected his rights as a British citizen. This singular event escalated and eventually led to a break in diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran that year. What Britain did in standing up to Iran was not simply the result of a desire to offend followers of Islam but rather to affirm the fundamental principle of free expression that they considered inherent to the human person.
Even though Iran placed a $5 million bounty on Rushdie, the British government responded with a round-the-clock protection of the novelist. This was at a huge cost to British tax payers. Rushdie had to be moved from place to place even while in hiding. For the 10 years that the fatwa on his head subsisted, the British government remained steadfast. This was the case until a succeeding Iranian government decided to withdraw the fatwa on Rushdie in 1998.
Recognising the right of free expression that is fundamental to most Western societies as enshrined in their constitutions, these countries are not shy to affirm the rights of their citizens in this respect. They walk the talk of their constitution unlike Nigeria where hardly anyone is ever made to answer for the most egregious violations of other people’s right of expression simply on grounds of religion as we have witnessed many times in the past and are again witnessing with the horrendous murder of Deborah Yakubu, the Niger State-born second year student of Home Economics at the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto.
She had been accused of blasphemy against Islam by her peers in school and was peremptorily set upon and in the brutal fashion of such attacks taken straight from the despotic reign of medieval kings, she was clobbered to stupor, stoned and as soon as life ebbed out of her fragile body, was set alight even as her murderers, mostly young men within her age bracket, gleefully celebrated and self-identified as her murderers. All of this before onlookers who cheered them on as the cameras of their recording devices rolled. They showed their faces to the cameras and boasted of their involvement in the macabre drama.
The Nigerian Constitution that has been loud in proclaiming Nigerians’ right of free expression but lax to enforce it, failed to protect Deborah. It has so far been lame, has not come and may never come in defence of Deborah. It is remarkable that about the same time on Thursday, that Deborah was being shed of her mortal body by her own school mates and sent on an eternal errand, a similar scenario involving Okada(motor bike) riders and three young musicians was playing out on Admiralty Way in Lekki, Lagos State.
The dispute over the appropriate fare to pay for a ride would result in the three musicians being lynched by the Okada riders who then proceeded to set one of the musicians alight as his two companions escaped with severe injuries and are still being attended to in hospitals.
While the Police in Lagos have apprehended the young murderers in Lekki, specifically, the one who doused the young musician’s body in flammable liquid, angry youths in support of the gruesome incident at Shehu Shagari College of Education have been protesting against and demanding the release from detention of the two individuals that could be seen on camera of the scores that participated in the painful murder of the ill-fated Deborah.
The incident in Lekki has been crowded out of the news by the event in Sokoto and while they are similar in crucial details, the outcomes are not likely to be similar.
The criminals who murdered Deborah are protected by the type and nature of their crime which rested solely on religion which many Nigerian politicians are very quick to invoke to the extent it serves their purpose. Not so the one in Lekki except where ethnic considerations play out.
So far, only platitudinous statements that are bursts of hot air lacking empathy, not to say vigour, have been made. From President Muhammadu Buhari, who had in the past spoken tongue-in-cheek about religious extremists like Boko Haram, to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar who hurriedly deleted a tweet condemning the murder and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who could only express his profound sadness at the turn of events where other leading politicians lined up for the next round of elections have suddenly gone mute – from these politicians to Islamic religious leaders, all we have heard are mostly tepid words of condemnation that carry nothing close to the anguished memory parents of Deborah, Garba and Alheri Emmanuel, must now bear for the rest of their lives of the meaningless homicide of their daughter.
They have left everything to God, they say, as is to be expected of people condemned to a life of pain by their own helplessness. If Deborah’s parents, like hundreds of millions of Nigerians outraged by this murder are helpless, what excuse does the government have? Why are they bowing, scraping and dancing around the issue of how justice must be served in this foulest of murders? What has the Nigerian government ever done to dissuade the terrorism that feeds on the kind of religious fundamentalism of the anti-social elements that murdered Deborah? We have seen too many of these cases that are never prosecuted and allowed to fade off until another senseless murder or religious irruption brings them back as reminders of our dereliction.
What is the sop about a religion being of peace when all we see is the violence of some of its practitioners? Bring these criminals to justice! What but the enforcement of relevant law is left for a responsible government to do? What the government of Aminu Tambuwal, a presidential hopeful; what President Buhari, as were the others before them, lack is the will to commit to the protection of life and stem this senseless shedding of innocent blood by murderers disguised in religious garbs.