Interview with Muhammad Mubarak Bala— Nigerian Humanist
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are an atheist. You have been imprisoned for it. Nonetheless, the atheist community, in particular, and the secular demographics, in general, continue to grow in Nigeria. What was the experience in the psychiatric ward?
Muhammad Mubarak Bala: Atheism continues to grow, largely because, many have seen practically how religions, especially Islam applies with the activities of Boko Haram locally, and Internationally by other Jihadists. They have now reconciled the Jihads of Muhammad and today’s jihad.
Also, there is the coming out of hitherto closeted atheists and agnostics from both religions dominant around here, which aided by the internet and our commitment as well as achievements, gives courage and sense of community.
The therapy was weaning me off delusion, from saying the name of Muhammad without adding Sallalahu Alayhi wa sallam, (The SAW or PBUH you normally see after Muhammad’s name) as demanded by Islam, to Denying the ‘history’ of Adam and Eve. I kid you not. These are just a few of many. I laughed so much, that they believed I was possessed also by imagined demons.
Jacobsen: What was the ‘therapy’ or ‘treatment’ given to you?
Bala: I was drugged, by force. With drugs that were administered to psychotic and schizophrenic patients. Also, I was sedated which made me weak to fight back.
Of the drugs given to me, were also found to be for epileptic patients. I was never epileptic. But it induced a lot of weird feelings that almost drove me crazy. I was there for 18 days. I tried to keep calm, earn their trust after, so I could be trusted with the drugs to take by myself, which I hid or threw away.
An intervention and change of the doctor gave me a clean bill of health, as was done 6 months prior, by another doctor of the same hospital. But the offending doctor kept his license. I was not able to claim any right or compensation as I was on the run for most of the years that followed. Hunted by mobs and terrorists, after Boko Haram leader threatened me.
Jacobsen: What were you thinking and feeling while trapped there?
Bala: I was planning my escape. Many thoughts came to mind, especially as informant alerted me that family meetings held planned to relocate me to a place where I cannot communicate with the outside world, an Islamic rehab center on the borders between Nigeria and the Niger Republic.
I had used spoons to open the roof through the ceiling, for possible escape when pressure and rescue failed. I knew my legs would break if I fell off the roof but I was very afraid. After the incidence, my mother told me grew hair was all over my head, in the span of the three weeks. It was a real danger.
Jacobsen: Since leaving, how common is taking in atheists to the wards?
Bala: Not that we know of. We certainly lost a friend though, in another state, exposed by his wife as an apostate. We pleaded with him to leave the city to our side, his job would not allow.
A few months later, he died from ‘motorcycle accident’ and before we could organize anything, investigation or reports, he has been buried, as according to Islamic rites. There is most probably foul play.
Another victim, had family threaten him with same, but my case as an instance, discouraged them. They opted for preaching and prayers, and exorcism. Many others are threatened more with the social boycott or financial sanctions which made them tow back in line.
Within us though, we aid each other with jobs and financial aid, as well as security as best as we could. The challenges are many, but we still thrive.
Jacobsen: What is being done to prevent this criminal activity, of demonizing the secular?
Bala: Our presence in the society, having a voice and a representation, especially when we act in more moral responsibility than many theists, keep us safe, and rule out misrepresentation.
Jacobsen: What seems like the more exciting project for 2018/19 of the atheist and secular community in Nigeria?
Bala: We have registered many humanist and atheistic organizations nationally and locally. Many are also in the process. This allowed us to organize and plan conventions and national cohesion conferences within ourselves and with our societies both in the north and south, sandwiched between Christians and Muslims.
We have other plans for secular political parties in the future, if not strong enough to field candidates, at least enter into alliances and endorsements. Or just simply making a presence in our nation as a symbolic gesture that we indeed exist.
Jacobsen: How can individuals support the atheist community in Nigeria? What are the more pressing concerns now?
Bala: Many have supported me in the earlier years when I was most vulnerable. Now, we have organized and supported ourselves. Just last week, a sponsor, spared a few hundred thousand naira, thousands in dollars, to support members of our community with soft loans.
International humanist organizations have supported most of our annual and regional conventions. Also, many efforts to register or run our activities were supported by international bodies, augmented by our efforts with what we among ourselves could muster, even amidst the economic crunch the country plunged into.
Yet, there still are many projects we intended to do but have limited capacity and funding to do. These may still be open for others who aim to help with these projects, some of which we carried out last and this year, some yet to be completed. A few of these helped by Hank Pellissier of the Humanist Brighter Brains Institute from the US.
Jacobsen: How can individual atheists trapped in fundamentalist families or communities escape or get out in a healthy way, as this can come with risks to life and livelihood?
Bala: Many that even came out in the past, have had to recant and ‘repent’ after feeling the brunt of the social and family backlash. I, on one hand, had lost my job twice, lost a lot of property from home and salaries skipped, but fought back to get it, at least some of it, even helped by rational people even from the Muslim community, due to the obviousness of the nature of victimization.
Many others faced the same, which is why we have a limited number of voices especially in the north keeping to their stance, as opposed to southern Nigeria.
Many others opt to leave the country entirely, but given the right-wing tendencies of the safer western societies, they have reconsidered.
My survival has inspired many, to be who they are, and say what they can, and be free social and morally. With all I have lost, I also gained in changing the narrative, from an obvious death sentence when one dares to challenge dogma, to a game of options, survival and obstacles hurdled across.
We hope to change the society and ultimately the world, if not by weaning humanity off delusion, then at least make a stand, that there were some, who stood against the winds and lasted.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mubarak.
Bala: Thank you too, it is my pleasure.
Image Credit: Muhammad Mubarak Bala.