Like many of the country’s top Muslim clerics, Momodou Lamin Touray hails from the coastal southern Kombo citadel of Islamic faith, Gunjur. He has just been re-elected to serve another five years as the president of the Supreme Islamic Council of The Gambia. In this edition of the Bantaba, fellow Gunjur native, Standard editor Sainey Darboe talks to Imam Touray about the faith of Muhammad, its adherents in The Gambia and related matters.
Many people criticise The Gambia Supreme Islamic Council for its ‘inordinate proximity’ to the government and accuse SIC of dabbling in partisan politics. How do you respond to this?
Whatever people say they should be able to have evidence and proof to back themselves. So whenever they say we are in the hands of government, they should have evidence to back themselves. We have put clear emphasis on this a long time ago. We have indicated to people in The Gambia that if the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council sights the moon, the first thing we do is to write to the Office of the President to inform them. And before this reaches the President of the republic, many people in The Gambia have already received or heard about the news. So there are many people who are privileged or privy to such information well before even the president gets to know about it. There are many people who will know that tomorrow is prayer (koriteh, tobaski) before it gets to Yahya Jammeh. At times we do our press releases when President Yahya Jammeh is outside the country. In one of the musu koto sallo or (tamxarit) in the month of Muharam, the president usually distributes meat across the country. Just a day before the day we received information that there was some changes to the actual ‘Yawmul Ashura’ because the previous announcement was done according to the calendar expecting that the moon will be sighted but it never was like this year when our (Islamic) calendar estimated the first fast to be on Saturday but the moon was not sighted. It is the same thing which also happened that year and their information on the changes did not reach us early. But when we received the new date, we immediately effected the changes and phoned the chief of protocol [at the Office of the President] to inform him that there were some changes to the issue and he too informed the president at once. And the distribution of meat to the various places was immediately put on hold until the following day upon the directives of the president. All of these happened here. Therefore, for us, we praise and thank Allah for giving us such an extraordinary leader. If the president is not with us in the affairs of the GSIC, and to also accept our decisions, it would have been difficult for us to be doing our work. So we are thanking government for all that they are doing particularly for always adhering to our decisions and they do not interfere with them.
So the Doubting Thomases are wrong in saying you are not independent and not credible?
I support the president 100 percent! The president has given us all our liberties and he listens to us. That is why sometimes when critical and sensitive situations arise, he would remind us that he has given us the power to do our work. He would advise us that we should assert out authority before he intervenes. In that case we would do what is supposed to be done regarding the matter. What does this mean? It means he does not interfere with our functions. Frankly, he has given us our independence and does not place any force on us.
You claim to be independent yet you attend political rallies and presidential tours around the country.
Actually, to defend and support the person of the president in the service of religion, truly if critics are seeing that as politics, then we have accepted to be politicians. Whenever he embarks on his constitutionally mandated tour, he is accompanied by the minister for health so that matters arising in or concerning that sector would be handled by him; the minister of education for matters bordering on education, and the interior minister for issues on security. For example, the year he inaugurated our headquarters coincided with his tour. When he came here, he found us with half of this plot of land. We wanted the other half to be added leading to the MDI Road. Upon his arrival, we showed him the map of the GSIC complex and the plan including the size of our plot. He had a look at the map and the plan, then he realised that the size of the land could not accommodate the proposed structures. However, before he could make any decision on the matter he invited the minister responsible for lands over and they went into a long one-on-one consultation process. Yes, he is the president but he needs to know whether the ministry has or has not allocated the place to someone and whether it is an empty land. And if given, to whom and /or whether it could be withdrawn or not. All of those must be clarified to him before he could make a decision on the matter. And it was only after such confirmations, that he gave us the other half of the land. And it is the same thing for GSIC, any [Islamic] religious matter which rears its head during the tour and it concerns us, we normally take proper measures to nip it in the bud as we are the only appropriate body that he could turn to for any discussion pertaining to religious matters. That is why it is very important for us to be part of the annual tour and in the tours we also perform numerous roles which are meant for the public good. Well if we do not go, some officials would be delegated to solve those problems but he wants to see that Muslim problems are dealt with by the Muslims themselves. And this is important but solutions we provide to bear on such matters are off the record and we cannot also tell people about it. Most of the critics are even part of those problems which the GSIC might have redressed for the sake of peace and co-existence.
Alright Imam, personally, where does your political allegiance lie?
I swear by Allah, the most Supreme, no president has ever ruled this country who has built more mosques than President Jammeh. He has single-handedly taken many people to Mecca for pilgrimage – no person has ever done that since our independence. The prizes he had given for Qur’anic competitions, I have never seen anywhere even in all the countries where I have been to. The support and ease he has rendered to Muslims, I have never seen anywhere ever. People who are outside do not know this. Communities would normally approach us to help them with a mosque. We would also negotiate and lobby from our partners and other philanthropists until we acquire the required funds and when we are ready for construction then a managing director would refuse to allow us to embark on the project. He might be a Muslim but he is afraid the area belongs to government. That is why he cannot give us the approval to go ahead with the construction process. Numerous mosque construction projects have been cancelled in this country prior to the coming to power of Yahya Jammeh. And when he came to power the most critical of such issues which he solved was the building of a mosque in the empty grounds at The Quadrangle in Banjul. We wrote him a letter informing him of our intentions to build a mosque at The Quadrangle. He replied asking us to inspect the place and build it wherever we thought it would be suitable. Truly, he is a kind of person who no Muslim should hate and if you harrbour any rancour against him, you are doing it without any justification because he hasn’t done anything to your religion and religion is what you should be concerning yourself about. That is the reason why we love him and we do love him and we are with him all the way because we are happy.
Imam Ba-Kawsu Fofana was detained and is now in self-imposed exile and many blamed his woes on his problems with your council. What is your comment on this?
Actually, first of all nobody has chased Ba-Kawsu out of this country. He left of his own accord. And even today if he returns no one will go for him and I am 100 percent sure of this. Second, if we are not in good terms with him then the problem is emanating from his end because there is no disagreement on our side. If you could recall when he was invited to State House I disclosed at the meeting that Ba-Kawsu had an invitation from America and one of the recommendations should be given by the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council. He came to the council himself and I instructed the secretary to go and provide him with all that he needed to support his application. The secretary did as directed and he went to apply for a visa at the American Embassy. But unfortunately he was rejected because he failed to meet the requirements. However, he was sent another invitation and it was explained to him how he should fill it as per the information and recommendation on the form. He came to us again seeking for our support for a recommendation from the council. And I again instructed the secretary to help him with all that he requested. And this was the last time I heard from him. Later I heard him delivering sermons at mosques shouting and making utterances which are in breach of the methodology of the Prophet. That is not the way of Muslims because he is not the only one living in the country and he is not the most knowledgeable person in the country. And human beings are by nature flawed and if he hurts people with his utterances, our levels of patience are not the same. If it were me alone, it will be very hard for me and him to have a disagreement. I know the type of person he is. And after my personal analysis of him I resolved that I will never have any problems with him. To cut a long story short, there is no problem between him and the council. Whatever he needed from us was made available to him and even if he comes tomorrow we will not hesitate to assist him if we are able to do so. This place belongs to all Muslims. The Gambia Supreme Islamic Council does not belong to me. It is a religious body, and it belongs to the country. I do not have any right to deny anybody their rights here. If I do that, then I will displease Allah. If it were my compound and my house, I have definite rights to chase people out if I find them disagreeable. But in this council, Ba-Kawsu and I are equal here. I do not have any problem with him.
Did you make any efforts to help him and his family while he was under state custody?
Whatever efforts made by us when he and others like him were detained, we would like them to be written for us as rewards by Allah. We prefer to keep them out of public domain. If you do some good works for people for instance in his case, exposing that to the public could incur Allah’s wrath against you. That would have constituted a showoff meant to achieve cheap popularity. But at times close relatives and those who are family members would get to know and can attest to our stance during such troubles.
Ba-Kawsu said he sent a delegation to you to intimate you with his interest in seeking the post of president for the council but later you betrayed him by seeking the position yourself hence the state of impoverished relations between you?
Positions at the council are not in my hands, that is one. Second, if you seek any position in this world, even if Yahya Jammeh wants you to have it, and not only that but has also given you all the necessary support so that you can have that position, if Allah has not written that position for you, you can’t have it. That is why if you want a position and have taken all the necessary steps to have it but you didn’t despite all the hard efforts, please do not blame anybody for it and the only thing you can do is just to see it as the decree of Allah. Maybe He will give it to you in the future but it can also be that you will never be given that position forever since Allah has not predestined it for you. But if it is something that Allah has written for you, even if Obama said you will not get it, you will get it. That is why if a person yearns for something and loses and leaves it in the hands of Allah you will see a better way out of it rather than finding faults and putting blames on so and so.
Your final words imam?
My last words are that let us all fear Allah the way He should be feared. And let us also know that Islam does not belong to anybody except Allah. And Allah has brought it for us together with how we should do it and we should be mindful of our deeds and also respect those who Allah has given authority to in our all our religious affairs.]]>