Religious laws are legalized religious doctrines. They are “revelations” turned into rules to govern society. Religious laws are sacred dogma institutionalized. They are sins criminalized. They are religious hatred, intolerance, discrimination and fanaticism turned into state policies.
In most parts of Africa, the negative impact of religious laws on democracies and human rights systems is clear and compelling—from the wars, conflicts and anarchy in Somalia, Northern Uganda, and in the Sudans, to the threats posed by Islamism to the Arab Spring in North Africa and the peaceful coexistence of people in Nigeria; from the witch hunts in Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Kenya, Guinea Conakry, Mozambique and the Central African Republic, to the wave of homophobia sweeping across different countries with overt and covert support from the OIC, the Vatican and other religious agencies that foster religious laws and its discontents across the globe.
How we address this ‘sensitive’ issue of religious law—particularly here at the Human Rights Council—will go a long way in determining the future of democracy and human rights in the world. I will discuss this theme under three sub headings: witch hunts, homophobia and religious bloodletting.
Witch hunting is going on in contemporary Africa due to the rule of codified and uncodified religious laws in the region. The tragic death in the UK of 15 year old Congolese boy Kristy Bamu has shocked many across the world. Bamu was tortured to death by family members who believed he was a ‘witch’ and that he should be suffered not to live as stated in the Christian holy book. What Kristy Bamu went through in the UK is what many children, women and elderly persons across Africa are suffering at this moment. The only difference is that while those who tortured and killed Bamu have been brought to justice, in most cases those who perpetrate such atrocities in Africa go scot free, they are never made to answer for their crimes.
I believe those who murdered Bamu must have done so out of obedience and faithfulness to the religious teaching and law as enshrined in Exodus 22:18-which says ‘Suffer not a witch to live’ and in other religious traditions and as contained in the religious indoctrination that marks the education and upbringing of most Africans.
Also inspired by religious laws are those persecuting alleged witches in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso, the Congo, Central African Republic, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Angola. Even where there are enabling state laws to address the problem, in many cases the religious laws in the minds of the people overwhelm, and take precedence over state laws. Or the existing law will be twisted and misinterpreted to convict the alleged witch and acquit the accuser.
Hence it should not surprise anyone that theocratic agencies like the Vatican, the Church of England, the OIC and its member states have not come out openly and categorically to condemn accusations of witchcraft and spirit possession sweeping across Africa and Asia and among African and Asian overseas communities. One wonders why the so called Africa group has maintained a silence – I would say criminal silence - over the witchcraft related torture and killings going on in several African states?
And now compare the deafening silence and indifference of African states to combating witchcraft related abuses with their vehement and strident opposition to recognizing the human rights of gay people. The reasons often cited to justify and sanctify homophobic legislations in the region are as follows: That homosexuality is unbiblical, un-Koranic and ungodly! In other words, the African states have these sacred texts, not their constitutions, as their grundnorm.
Recently, many African states and most of the OIC member states walked out of the session convened by the Council to discuss violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With that walk out, they have made their position clear: they do not want these human rights violations to be discussed or addressed, nor will they be party to addressing them. They should not be held responsible and accountable. In other words, they are saying that the human rights abuses on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity should continue, because that is in accordance with the ‘divine’ law in these countries.
Lastly, religious laws are rarely adopted in a civil and democratic manner. They are not proposed in a manner whereby we can discuss or debate them, accept or reject them, revise or amend them. Instead they are imposed, and foisted on the people by force and sometimes by violence and bloodshed.
In my country, the tree of sharia law has been watered with the blood of too many Nigerians as well as non-Nigerians. And the same can be said of Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and Uganda where Joseph Kony and his militants are killing, enslaving and raping their way to imposing Christian law on Uganda.
In Nigeria, the bloody campaign for the rule of sharia is still going on at the moment. Shortly after Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, Islamic theocrats in Muslim- majority states imposed sharia law. Many Nigerians lost their lives in riots, protests and clashes over the implementation of sharia. Today, the Islamist group Boko Haram is the latest face of this bloody campaign. In Nigeria, Islamic militants agitating for a government under sharia law kill at the slightest provocation or offence: if it is not the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in Denmark, it is the invasion of Afghanistan by American forces or the staging of the beauty pageant or the burning of the Koran, or the coming of an American preacher to the city of Kano.
It is not only in Afghanistan that the insanity of Muslims staging violent protests or killing fellow human beings over the so-called defilement of the Koran take place. This madness has been going on in Nigeria with impunity. Not too long ago a female teacher in Northern Nigeria was lynched by her students for ‘defiling’ the Koran. Nobody ever established in which way this Christian woman ‘defiled’ the Koran. And till today nothing has been done by the authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
There is something amiss – something fundamentally wrong in the sense, sensibility and consciences of people who can kill or maim any human being for burning or ‘defiling’ (whatever that means) a book whether sacred or secular. There is something lacking in the conscience and morals of those who for whatever reason value a book more than a human being, more than human life. There is something out of sync with humanity in anyone who thinks that a person who insults, denounces, renounces or blasphemes against any religion – for instance Islam – should be killed. There is something incompatible with human civilization in the mindset that subordinates human beings, or sacrifices human dignity, human rights and human lives, on the altar of religious dogma or offence. And we should strive to ensure that no legal code that sanction or condones these dark and destructive tendencies is associated with our democracy and human rights in this 21st century.
My friends, let’s face it. There is something fundamentally undemocratic about religious laws: that is the ‘alleged’ source or sources as the case may be. Religious laws originate from questionable sources which humans are not allowed to question or inquire into, or they do so at great cost to themselves. Unfortunately, the religions have refused to tell the world the truth about the origins of these laws which they insist must guide and govern human lives, and direct and determine human decisions - including the ones we make here at the Human Rights Council.
In a democracy, people have the right to know and to know the truth not only about those who governs them but also about the laws that are used to govern the society. But as long as religions continue to lie, and hold humanity in the dark about the source or sources of their dogmas and doctrines; as long as religious agencies continue to hamper the ability of the people to reclaim, revise or discard these archaic, outdated and dark age norms, religious laws will remain social and political liabilities to democracies and human rights systems across the world. Religious laws will continue to undermine human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council.
Religious laws are supposedly divine, not man-made, crafted by a supreme being, not mere mortals. Religious laws are not really meant to protect the interest of the people but those of a god – of particular gods, or Allah - at the expense of human beings. Under religious laws, the will of the people is superseded by the supposed will of a god believed to be greater than the human being. There is no place for the voice of the people. Instead there is only the voice of god or Allah which is appropriated, patented and employed by few males to tyrannize over the lives of others.
Under religious laws, there is no place for equal or universal human rights, for the right to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief. There is no guarantee of the basic right to life. Think about Abraham who almost murdered the son Isaac as a demonstration of faith. Religious law has no regard for human beings. Under sharia law, the penalty for apostasy, blasphemy or any form of expression deemed an insult to god is death by stoning or execution – either by states or by Allah’s ubiquitous militants.
Religious laws are incompatible with the values of democracy and human rights. And those who peddle them will always see themselves swimming against the currents of human progress, hope, civilization and enlightenment.
Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.
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