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.)

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How To Logic

I don’t go into a lot of detail about my work on the show, because it doesn’t necessarily interest everyone. But I do occasionally mention that I’m a software engineer, and work it into my discussions here and there. I had to take a break from the show for a year or so while I finished my Master’s Degree at UT in 2008. I have a second blog for writing thoughts about my profession; it’s called Castles of Air.

Occasionally people ask a question like the following: “I like your show. I’m a young skeptical atheist and I’m trying to decide what to do with my life. What should I study in school?” Some common answers are: Go into science. You will learn how to study the world in a naturalistic way and be better equipped to answer questions without resorting to supernatural answers. Or: Try politics. You can work to reinforce separation of church and state, and use your influence to advance causes you care about. Or: How about religious studies? You can get a real handle on how major world religions developed, and promote skepticism from the inside.

Those are all good answers, but I’d like to take a minute to speak in praise of the career track I picked.

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Christian Prick Bills

Just this week, the Arizona legislature passed a bill giving believers the right to discriminate against gays and others based on their religious belief. The bill has been touted for protecting “religious liberty”. And indeed, it allows people holding particular religious beliefs to run roughshod over the wishes, desires, and even religious liberty of their victims.

 “Except as provided in subsection C, OF THIS SECTION, STATE ACTION shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” (From the text of SB 1062)

 I say “particular religious beliefs” because we know that minority religious beliefs will never be upheld in Arizona or most Christian dominated communities. And let’s be clear: this is a Christian initiative and just another “Christian Prick Bill.”

The bill reminds me of other Christian initiatives in recent years. Christians have pushed for the “right” of pharmacists to not fill prescriptions for which they have a religious objection. Trans-vaginal probes lie in store for women seeking abortion in many states, thanks to the efforts of Christians. Gays in schools are more likely to be the victims of bullies, thanks again to Christianity. Of course, Christians have bullied gays for money for decades. These modern initiatives echo past Christian efforts to murder Jews, Muslims, Cathars, and infidels, the Inquisitions, the justification of slavery, and the subjugation of women.

Let’s pull out the common themes in these Christian Prick Bills:

  • There is usually a claim that Christians are suffering some sort of persecution, that their religious liberty is being compromised; they are the victim. And the only way to address this terrible situation is to enable them to victimize their chosen enemy. This is a huge lie, of course. Christians rarely suffer the persecution they would gladly inflict on others. Theirs is a position of privilege in terms of power, laws, and tax breaks.
  • They want immunity from the consequences of their actions. Rarely, is there a notion of tit-for-tat. They want to bully and persecute while simultaneously being protected from any retaliation for their bullying. I’ll guarantee the Arizona bill will not protect the “religious liberty” of a doctor who refuses IVF, say, to a Christian couple because of his sincere religious belief that there are too many Christians.
  • A related idea is that Christians want to wash their hands of any personal responsibility for these efforts. They want to be pricks to gays in their businesses but not have any financial fallout from being labeled bigots. They want unwanted children to be born, but they don’t want to provide for them. They want to control people’s medical decisions, but be immune from any harm that comes from that control. Remember: with great power comes great responsibility.
  • There is a strong undertone of vindictiveness. In reading the Bible, you’d get the impression that that the Christian god is a petulant, sadistic, murderer and thug. These initiatives honor that spirit. I’m actually OK with vindictiveness, but only to the extent that it becomes synonymous with the brand of Christianity. From a recent Pew poll, we see that young people are turned off by the judgmental attitudes and hypocrisy and are leaving the church. This can only be a good thing and it will be helped by making Christianity synonymous with thuggery in the popular culture.

“But wait,” I hear some Christians say, “that doesn’t represent my version of Christianity. You’re painting with too broad a brush.” I have a number of responses to this sort of complaint:

  • First, you don’t get to do action X and the opposite of action X and claim the backing of some sort of divine moral intelligence. That’s like circling all the answers on a multiple-choice test and claiming you aced it. If you guys can’t agree on your Creator’s absolute morality despite your claims of actively conversing with him every week, that’s evidence enough for me that the whole enterprise is just a fraud. The Bible a Rorschach test for the morally challenged – it supports pretty much all positions. Ministers are just working an invisible puppet who seems to always agree with their bigoted attitudes. Atheists can see through this con.
  • Next, what kind of Christian are you? So many Christians are content to go once or twice a week and get their shot of Jesus heroin, have a magic cracker, bask in the fantasy of perpetual orgasm, or being raptured up to watch Armageddon unfold and enjoy the torments of non-believers. These people count the days when they can be relieved from being in this world and regain their “true spiritual nature”. Such people are, by their own definition, useless to this world. You would think if they really believed that stuff, they would hurry on to their reward.
  • If instead you’re a genuinely decent person who wants to make the world a better place, why do you let such an evil institution trade on your good name? Why not distance yourself from the historical and current cesspool that is Christianity?
  • If you really want to hold onto the Christian label and you don’t like the Christian Pricks defining you, please consider taking up your complaint with them. I don’t consider this my problem. So often the idea is to shut down the person pointing out a problem with Christianity, rather than address the actual complaint.

Us atheists do owe the Christian Pricks a debt of gratitude. They make our points for us and they hasten the day when belief without sufficient evidence is just the hallmark of a powerless rube.

What Russell thinks about Christmas

Hello, everyone. I’m putting my name in the post title just so it is totally clear that this is my point of view and I am not speaking for anyone else.

On Sunday’s show, someone asked me what I thought about Christmas, and I answered off the cuff. Since then we’ve received a few emails both for and against celebrating Christmas, and in line with something I predicted, Beth isn’t happy to hear that I’m bad mouthing Christmas. As I’m in a position of disagreeing with a good friend, I’m going to clear up what I think now.

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Stand With Texas Women rally

Today, Jeff, Manda, Lynnea and I went to the Texas capitol for the Stand With Texas Women rally. We heard speeches by State Senator Wendy Davis and NARAL president Ilyse Hogue. The majority of the crowd were women, although a lot of men showed up as well. People showed solidarity by wearing orange shirts. Here are some pictures I got.

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An estimated crowd of 5,000-6,000 people showed up.

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All kinds of signs on display

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Even more signs from people facing the stage

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Inside the rotunda, people packed the balconies on all levels and sang a variation of Amazing Grace.

In case you’ve been missing the details, the Texas Legislature has been trying to ram through some fairly draconian anti-abortion laws, which would effectively shut down most clinics that perform abortions, and criminalize the procedure after 20 weeks, which is long before the Supreme Court determined was constitutional. Last week Wendy Davis filibustered the bill for 13 hours straight, and it failed to pass. The next day Governor Rick Perry announced a new special session to get it done, and denounced the crowd of Davis’ supporters as an “unruly mob.” Many of the signs and speeches referenced this description in a mocking way.

More hearings were held today and they will continue tomorrow.

Latest news: Texas Anti-Abortion Bill Fast-Tracked By GOP

Anti-Muslim hysteria in Australia

In Sunday’s show, Matt and Tracie answered some questions about Islam. Afterwards, we got this email from Australia:

Hi All
A very good show up until the subject of Islam and whether or not it is a threat to the USA constitution.
I just don’t know what it will take to wake you guys up on the subject of Islam.  It is a direct threat to secularism, the constitution and freedoms everywhere. That you think just because their small numbers means they are no threat to you  – well that’s very scary and sad to hear. That is the very same thinking that has allowed them to further infiltrate societies in most nations.
From little things big things grow. Islam is highly adept at propogating power right under the noses of the public – yet out of sight.
Example?..ok, check this site out, I can personally attest to the accuracy of the info therin:
I strongly urge you all to sign up for her newsletter.

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Apparently every tragedy is a marketing opportunity

Last Sunday on the show I had an opportunity to address Mike Huckabee’s wildly inappropriate and downright loathsome comment on the First Grade shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  Hours after the attack, Huckabee had this to say:

It’s an interesting thing. We ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we do not want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability. That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us, but we stand one day before a holy God in judgment…  Maybe we ought to let [God] in on the front end and we would not have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.

I had started to write a post about this, but then I got a chance to rant about him on the show instead, so I figured I wouldn’t bother.  However, we got an email expressing a similar sentiment, from a gleeful Christian practically licking her chops over the opportunity to blame atheists for an incident that had nothing to do with us.  I figure this is a good reason to kill two birds with one stone.

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