Surprisingly, on 17 November 2021, the United States’ Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, announced the delisting of Nigeria from the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) regarding the abuse of religious freedom. Prior to this announcement, Nigeria and Eritrea were among the countries blacklisted for engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. Beyond its territorial jurisdictional boundary, the US seems to engage in the apparent pursuit of its self-imposed posturing as the global policeman and religious rights campaigner. However, the United States’ own religious-based abuses and inconsistent reports undermine its credibility as a promoter of religious freedom.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom is putatively committed to championing the right to religious freedom across the globe. The Commission saddles itself with the responsibility of providing information about the status of religious freedom worldwide. Among others, this information is commonly found in the annual list(ing) of CPC regarding the violation of religious freedom. Apart from the CPC, other notable lists are the Special Watch List and the Entities of Particular Concern, with the latter reserved for violent non-state actors such as al-Shabab, Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). As commendable as these campaigns against religious rights abuses might seem, the moral authority of the US, a notable religious rights offender, to designate countries as religious freedom violators is called into question.
For one thing, the United States’ treatment of Muslim-Americans and Muslims in other jurisdictions have been appalling, to say the least. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey, there is a widespread perception that several Muslim faithful in the US suffer discrimination against their religious groups. This was especially the case under President Donald Trump whose bellicose rhetoric (even before he became president) against the Muslim community in the US provoked international condemnation. For instance, following the terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015 in Paris and Saint-Denis, Trump had, in a widely discredited claim, stated that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey.
Moreover, apart from Trump’s avowed commitment to consider surveillance and shutting down of some mosques as well as establish a national database to register Muslims, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and other acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the name of Islam have led to both subtle and overt restrictions of Muslims from living according to their belief system, the securitisation of religious communities, limits on access to citizenship and citizenship rights, socio-economic exclusion and pervasive stigmatisation of Muslim communities. Thus, the 2017 survey indicates that 50 per cent of American Muslims feel it has become hard to be a Muslim in the US, while another 48 per cent of them confirm that they had experienced at least one incident of discrimination. The report also shows that, over the first 12 months of Trump’s administration, many American Muslims have been treated with suspicion, called offensive names, (re)presented in anti-Muslim graffiti, singled out by airport security or other law enforcement officials. Experiences of discriminatory treatment are more typical among those whose appearance, voice or dressing suggests that they are Muslims.
Apart from the discriminatory practices meted out against Muslim-Americans in the US, countries with overwhelmingly Muslim populations across the world have remained the prime victims of the United States’ military invasion and/or occupation before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under the guise of recovering non-existent weapons of mass destruction as part of its discredited global war on terror, the United States’ military has invaded and/or occupied, at least once, the following countries: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Under President Trump, however, the United States’ Islamophobia found expression in his executive orders blocking travel from no fewer than 13 Muslim-majority countries in line with his promise of a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US. Although putatively designed as a national security measure, the orders do not only demonise vulnerable refugees and immigrants who want to unite with their families but also align with the United States’ conflation of Islamism and terrorism as mutually inclusive ideologies. In light of the foregoing entrenched discriminatory treatment of Muslims, it becomes difficult to reconcile the bravado of the US as a global religious rights campaigner.
Furthermore, notwithstanding the above-cited concerns, there are no objective criteria for determining how a country gets enlisted or delisted in the CPC due to systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. For instance, while Nigeria was blacklisted in the December 2020 edition of the CPC, the latest edition of the report delisted the country without providing any justification whatsoever. This decision of the US, despite an avalanche of impregnable evidence of religious rights abuses in Nigeria, can only be interpreted as the triumph of realpolitik over the fundamental principles of religious freedom.
Instances of religious right violations by state actors in Nigeria include harsh convictions for blasphemy, the imposition of Shari’a on non-Muslims and the discriminatory treatment of religious minorities, especially Shi’a Muslims. In 2019, for instance, federal authorities cracked down on the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a Shi’a group led by Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. Until 28 July 2021 when El-Zakzaky and his wife were discharged and acquitted, they had been in jail since 2015 over charges of homicide, unlawful assembly and disruption of public peace. Second, on 10 August 2020, a Kano State-based Shari’a court sentenced Yahaya Sharif-Aminu to death by hanging for committing blasphemy in a private WhatsApp message. Also in August, the same court sentenced Omar Farouk, a 13-year old boy, to 10 years in prison for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with a friend. Further, the strict enforcement of Shari’a by Hisbah ― an informal corps of young recruits in Kano State — has violated the people’s right to freedom of worship as guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution. In April 2020, for instance, Hisbah agents arrested Mubarak Bala, an atheist campaigner, for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a Facebook post. Even though Mubarak does not profess Islam, there are indications that he would be tried in a Shari’a court.
On the other hand, non-state actors, especially Islamic fundamentalists such as Boko Haram, ISWAP and Fulani extremists (otherwise deodorised as bandits) have claimed responsibility for various religious right infractions such as the abduction and butchery of individuals based on their religious convictions. On 19 February 2018, Leah Sharibu was among the 105 schoolgirls abducted from Government Girls’ Science and Technical College, Dapchi, by ISWAP. While other abductees were freed on 21 March 2018, Leah Sharibu remains in captivity due to her refusal to renounce her Christian faith. Similar to Leah’s case, many students who were kidnapped from Bethel Baptist High School on 5 July 2021 by Fulani extremists were left with the kidnappers without any purposeful rescue mission organised for them chiefly because of their religious inclination. In another incident, ISWAP fighters killed Ropvil Daciya Dalep, a Christian student at the University of Maiduguri who was abducted on 9 January 2020 while returning to school from his native Plateau State. According to the ISWAP assailants who claimed responsibility for Dalep’s killing, Christians from Plateau State will continue to be targeted in retaliation for atrocities against the group. Others who have been kidnapped and/or gruesomely murdered by Islamic fundamentalists as a result of their religious convictions include Reverend Lawan Andimi, Reverend Dennis Bagauri, Mallam Mustapha Nuhu, Reverend Polycarp Zongo, and five aid workers who allegedly converted Muslims to Christianity. Non-state actors have also been responsible for several attacks on worship centres and religious ceremonies in Nigeria. These include burning down of churches and mosques in Adamawa, Kaduna and Enugu States. Others include the killing of 12 guests and the abduction of the couple at a Christian wedding ceremony in Niger State. While many Christian schools have been forced to shut down in Kaduna State over growing attacks by extremists, threats have been issued to the Christian community in Zamfara State to close their churches or risk violent attacks.
The foregoing incidents of religious intolerance and extremism have been highlighted to show that rather than a decline, there has been a progressive increase in religious rights violations by both state and non-state actors in Nigeria. Assuming without conceding that the US has the moral standing to publish its annual CPC report, it begs the question why Nigeria should be delisted from the 2021 edition of the report despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps, the US should shed itself of its hypocritical inclination by conscientiously removing the log in its own eye before dealing with the speck elsewhere. Only then, maybe, will it recover a semblance of consistency and credibility.
Chikodiri Nwangwu teaches Political Science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or via Twitter @Kodiri_Nwangwu