Amidst the continuing debate on whether or not the Gambia should be a secular state, we continuously see or hear statements which are a little too generalist and thus disregarding, even if inadvertently, the situations of certain minority groups in the country.
For instance, in Friday, 24th January’s issue of The Standard Newspaper, Mr Almami Fanding Taal, the spokesperson of the United Democratic Party (UDP) is quoted as saying “We believe words like that (referring to secularism) are not part of the character of Gambians because we live in a very secular way, we have respect for each other’s religion.
There has never been an issue because our experience is just that somebody decided to make this country an Islamic republic but it did not become an Islamic republic…”
While it may be true that we live in peace and harmony (or a semblance of it) there are pockets of violence and violations that some of the members of minority groups are encountering in this country almost on a daily basis. It is these hidden violations, so to speak, that push people who are in these minority groups to call for the inclusion of secular in our constitution.
To show practical reasons, I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a group accused by a section of the majority of Muslims to be ‘kaafir’ (disbelievers), to use their own words. Thus, on two occasions we have experienced terrible discriminations based on our beliefs.
For example on several occasions, a member of our community died and some Muslims claimed that they will not be buried in the Muslim cemetery. One can’t imagine a more painful and frustrating thing!
Again, there was a time when we were prevented from having programmes on the media. Not only had the State owned media, but also privately owned radio stations. I used to have a religious talk show on West Coast Radio Two for example and once I went to host this show but the management told me that instructions from the State House had it that I had to get a license from Supreme Islamic Council (SIC) to be able to preach.
On Star FM Radio as well, I was stopped even though we had paid for a while year in advance. There also I was told unless I bring a license form Supreme Islamic Council, I will not hold the programme. Now the Supreme Islamic Council have expressly said that they do not accept us as Muslims (though the authority to accept the belief or otherwise of someone is only in the hands of God) how do you expect them to give me a license to preach Islam?
The Gambia Christian Council will also not agree with the sweeping statement that there are no issues based on religion in the country. They claim to have been discriminated repeatedly in this country and prevented from doing certain things they consider to be rites of their religion. It is only that they have not reacted to certain things in a certain manner that the general public do not know the details of those discriminations. We need to be more inclusive as a country.
Additionally, we do not only have Muslims and Christians in this country. There are so many other minority groups who are often excluded on discussions of this nature. For instance we have the Baha’I, we have the Traditional Religions and some others who are not very well known. They also need to be kept in view when we talk about our laws.
On the issue of majority and minority, I always say that citizenship and sovereignty are equally shared. It does not matter whether one belongs to a majority or a minority. We are all equally citizens and have all rights to hold opinions and express them.
The inclusion of the word secular is for the State to be neutral when it comes to matters of religion. Everyone should be allowed to belong to the religion of his/her choice and practice it the way they see fit. That is all we are asking for. Nothing more, nothing less!