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Atheist in trouble for renouncing Islam

A couple of weeks ago, we at the Atheist Experience were contacted by several people about a story that many of you are probably familiar with by now, the story of Mubarak Bala. According to news reports, Mubarak is 29 years old, and has been active on Twitter under the handle @MubarakBala for quite a while. He came out publicly as an atheist on social media a while back, and his father — a Muslim public figure named Bala Mohammed — is a prominent newspaper columnist. Mubarak let several of his Twitter contacts know that his father had committed him to a mental ward at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, characterizing his atheism as a mental disease.

We chose not to spread the story for a while, because several details aroused our suspicion. We weren’t familiar with the individuals involved, we got contacted by relative strangers, and the story originated in Nigeria. Many of you are familiar with the rampant 419 scams that come out of Nigeria. Most of us have been trained, by long experience with the internet, to assume that any time that we hear about a mysterious prince seeking asylum, or an international lottery we don’t remember entering, to watch out for advance fee fraud. People have been known to chase a greedy dream and throw away thousands of dollars of their own money to recover imaginary millions that they think they stand to gain. This crime is so rampant in Nigeria that by some accounts it may constitute a significant portion of their economy, and in 2009 was estimated to take in $9.3 billion.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I have been fully convinced at this point that Mubarak Bala is a real person, and that he is, or was recently, in Aminu Kano. I’m bringing up these points only to anticipate the same suspicions I originally had while looking into the story. I’ll outline the reasons I changed my mind shortly, but I wanted to make this clear up front.

Initially several activists contacted us with what sounded like wild rumors. We were all fairly dismissive towards them in the beginning. A few days later, we began hearing that the International Humanist and Ethical Union had decided to get involved in the case. They put out a press release, saying they were getting reports of Mubarak’s condition through a lawyer specifically recommended by one of the Nigerian Twitter users who had brought the case to our attention in the first place. We remained skeptical. At that point, I was still suspicious that all three of them — Mubarak, the activist, and the lawyer — might be working together to build confidence. I got in touch with Bob Churchill, communications director of IHEU, and told him about my concerns. Bob informed me that the Twitter user, Bamidele Adeneye, was an activist known to him by another source he trusts.

I still wasn’t willing to accept the story at this point. It struck me as suspicious that after more than a week, no one pushing the story had been able to get a clarifying statement from either the hospital — which, despite being in a fairly poor city under heavy Muslim influence, is considered to be a fairly reputable organization — or the father, who is a known public figure. I even thought it possible we would eventually hear something from Mohammed Bala along the lines of “I never heard of this guy, he’s not my son.” Even when the BBC picked up the story, it seemed to me as if they were only reporting information given directly by IHEU, whom I presumed to be taking direction from rumormongers and their recommended lawyer.

During this time, I was also in contact with a fellow blogger at Freethought Blogs, Yemisi Ilesanmi, who writes over at YEMMYnisting. Yemisi is a Nigerian human rights activist and trade unionist who is currently based in London. Like me, she had heard the story from multiple sources and, being familiar with 419 scams, felt like this was an obvious candidate for such a trick. Unlike me, Yemisi had reputable contacts living in Nigeria who were able to seek out independent confirmation of the story. However, I didn’t hear any updates for several days. Yemisi tells me now that she had some initial difficulty getting people to send her contact information for the lawyer, as some of those involved might have resented her skepticism. During this time I continued to exchange emails with Yemisi, Bob Churchill, and several other members of The Atheist Experience and Freethought Blogs.

On Sunday several new pieces of information came to light which finally cleared up any doubts I previously had.

  1. Leo Igwe, a noted humanitarian, wrote his own article confirming that he has a working relationship with Bamidele, the Twitter activist.
  2. Yemisi’s contacts finally got back to her. As she detailed in a post written yesterday, Yemisi was greatly surprised to learn that Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital does indeed acknowledge they were treating a patient named Mubarak Bala there. In addition, sources at the Daily Trust newspaper, where the father works, confirmed that Mubarak was his son, and there were many prior indications that he was treating Mubarak badly due to his public atheism.
  3. This press release from Aminu Kano surfaced to corroborate the story. Although they acknowledge that they have him, they do contradict Mubarak’s story by asserting that they are not holding him prisoner.
  4. The family put out a press release as well. They acknowledge they had their son committed for treatment. They dispute that it is due to his atheism, and say that Mubarak is experiencing a “challenging psychiatric condition which needed close treatment and supervision.”

At this point I think the evidence confirms the following facts to be true beyond reasonable doubt: Mubarak Bala is a real person. Mubarak is an atheist. His father is Bala Mohammed, a newspaper columnist at Daily Trust. Mubarak is, or was recently, in Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. By his own statements, he is there against his will.

I suppose it remains to be seen whether the family and the hospital are telling the truth, that Mubarak has a mental illness. However, currently I’m strongly inclined to side with Mubarak. He is 29 years old, long past being a dependent child, and unless he is a serious danger to those around him, treatment at this hospital should be voluntary. IHEU’s lawyer claims he has been beaten, although no pictures have surfaced to back up that claim, but if true then that’s pretty scary. Nigeria in general, and Kano in particular, does indeed have a history of Sharia Law. As such, it is plausible to me that an atheist can expect to receive worse treatment than someone “properly” following Muslim traditions. That isn’t generic Islamophobia speaking; these are the hardcore groups we’re dealing with.

Now I’m hearing that Yemisi may be working to bring other groups in on this case, and hopefully Mubarak will wind up with a dedicated human rights lawyer who can promote his interests. I will be very interested to hear more developments as they arise.

In summary, I would like to acknowledge the people who have worked hard to bring this to light:

  • Godless Mom, a blogger who first publicized this story.
  • Bamidele Adeneye, a citizen of the Nigerian city of Lagos, also known as @deezer234 on Twitter. We know now that he was genuinely concerned about this case and worked hard to bring it to light. Although I hope our initial skepticism about him was understandable under the circumstances, he didn’t deserve the personal invective he got early on.
  • IHEU, for bringing more people into this, and investing their time and resources into getting more answers about the case. They are doing good work and deserve your support. Bob Churchill in particular, who devoted a remarkable amount of time to personally explaining the case to me despite what must have come across as relentless criticism. Thanks very much for giving me your ear.
  • Yemisi Ilesanmi, who was added to our group as a Freethought Blogger just last year. She has been a tireless skeptic in the best way, not just looking for inconsistencies but gathering real evidence to satisfy those doubts. Thank you Yemisi.

In conclusion I’d like to say that it is good to be skeptical, but it is also vital to be willing to change your mind as new information comes in. Here’s hoping Mubarak’s situation will improve soon.

(Correction: Previously I identified Bala Mohammed as a former Senator and current columnist. I think I mixed up two different people of the same name, and the columnist was not a senator. A mini bio of the columnist can be found here.)

Comments

  1. says

    Damned fine article.

    And well done for being man enough to admit that you got it wrong.

    Not here to score points, just wanted to let you know that this piece is appreciated as is your signature on our petition.
    the important thing now, is for everyone to concentrate our efforts on getting Mubarak out of the psych ward and to safety.

    #FreeMubarak

    VirtuaRat

  2. adamah says

    Andy, you seem to confuse skepticism with “getting it wrong”.

    To the contrary, Russell’s cautious approach is the epitome of the proper skeptical approach of only committing to something AFTER you’ve conducted fact-checking, aka exercising due diligence. The fact you see it as an admission of being wrong says spades more about you than about Russell.

    In America, we often forget that we are able to speak freely; search Ustream for “atheist protest” to see 200k Muslims demanding execution of atheists for blasphemy.

    Of course, Mubarak might be an atheist AND also suffering from mental illness; the two aren’t mutually-exclusive, but also aren’t correlated, either.

    Adam

  3. Russell Glasser says

    Thanks for the support, Adam. One thing I will say in Andy’s favor is that I did believe, however tentatively, that Mubarak, Bamidele, and the lawyer were running a scam. That was my working hypothesis for a while, and I did spend some energy discussing this possibility with several people and trying to justify it with what little information I had. I was careful never to say I was sure about this explanation, but I did think it was the most likely outcome for a while. About that I was most definitely wrong.

  4. adamah says

    Hi Russell,

    Well, the index of suspicion is reasonably higher when one is dealing with any topic involving a country with a rep like Nigeria’s: as you pointed out, they’re infamous for running internet scams, making a veritable cottage industry out of it. It’s not unreasonable to check and double-check, and changing as the information changes.

    It’s like the old response of a politician accused of flip-flopping who said, “What would you have me do? If the relevant facts change, should I NOT change my mind?”

    Of course, atheists are not immune to differential biases, ie more-readily accepting of those ideas that are appealing and we want to be true; those are the propositions we should be scrutinizing more closely.

    Adam

  5. says

    There is a difference between being skeptical and being incredulous. In this instance, everyone was provided with evidence from IHEU that Bamidele was who he said he was, yet people refused to believe he was trying to help someone as a member of Lagos Humanists *simply because* he was Nigerian. And this is where the “skeptics” got it wrong. Time was wasted because even in the face of evidence, they couldn’t believe that a person from Nigeria was not a scammer.

    That being said, it’s good to have you on board, Russell. Thanks for your support.

  6. corwyn says

    That is just a matter of your priors. If my prior for any story out of Nigeria is significantly negative, more evidence is required to bring it up a level of credibility. This is how reason does (and should) work.

    Alternatively, you can look at it as a story coming from Nigeria has a greater likelihood of being a scam, so that negative evidence needs to be offset with more positive evidence to reach the same level of confidence as the same story from somewhere else.

    It is hard to know if the numbers used were correct, but the process sounds correct.

  7. adamah says

    Pen said-

    UPDATE: According to the Guardian, Mubarak Bala is out of the psychiatric hospital because ‘the doctors discharged all patients because of a strike.’!!!

    Well, that says spades, if true: apparently Nigerian doctors bother following silly little concepts like the Hippocratic Oath!

    I imagine the father and family knows the danger his son is facing by publicly coming out as an atheist, and is seeking to provide some protection by declaring him to be insane, offering some level of plausible deniability in a country where logical thought doesn’t prevail.

    As a chemical engineer, Mubarak should leave Nigeria and get a job working for some big multi-National firm, living in a country where such nonsense isn’t tolerated.

    Adam

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