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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Secularism and anti-secularism in The Gambia

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By Momodou Lamin Yaffa

The Gambia has been quite eventful over the past couple of months in terms of people’s exercise of their fundamental and inalienable rights and freedoms. We have seen movements like “Three Years Jotna” flexing their muscle by staging an unprecedented and mammoth albeit peaceful protest. They have thus demonstrated that Gambians can responsibly exercise their constitutional rights of assembly and expression without violence or unruliness. They are relishing with predilection their new-found democracy with all its requisite accompaniments of the rule of law, political gate-keeping, vigilance on the rulers’ observance of transparency, accountability, good governance, etc. as well as criticism and denunciation of corruption and other malpractices by the powers that be.

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We have also seen some groups of concerned Muslims and Christians exercising the same rights and freedoms in connection with the inclusion or exclusion of the word “secularism” in the draft constitution. In fact, the purpose of writing this article is to express my opinion about what transpired during the heated debate about the secularism concept from both the Christian and Muslim perspectives in The Gambia.

I believe that the secularism conundrum as it relates to the draft constitution was triggered by one Dr. Omar Jah Junior. He uttered his apprehension toward the inclusion of the word from the time the Commission started its work. He was also instrumental in the outcry by some Muslim quarters over the inclusion of the word in the draft constitution. In fact, his opposition to its inclusion came about as a result of some members of the Christian community’s clamour for the word’s inclusion in the draft basic law.

When the Muslim condemnation of the inclusion erupted, many untruths and misconceptions about secularism held sway among some folks of the Muslim community. Baseless claims that secularism allows same sex marriage, the demolition of mosques or prayer rooms in government institutions, the removal of Cadi courts, etc. were unscrupulously bandied around to galvanize the Muslim community against the concept of secularism.

I had earlier authored an article entitled “Secularism in the Muslim World” to explain that the concept is fraught with negative connotations in the Arab/Muslim world because of historical antecedents. I opined that the Arabic-speaking world, unlike West Africa, was governed by the Sharia from the early days of the Muslim conquests of the Middle-East and North Africa. British and French rule sanctioned by the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations Organization, took firm grip on the Arab world only in the aftermath of World War I after the Ottoman Empire was dispossessed of its dominion. So, the entire Arab world was exclusively administered under Sharia governance. Moreover, the Arab/Muslim mind-set and social norms are so permeated by Islamic precepts and values that any notion or concept alien thereto is considered hostile to Islam.

West Africa, where The Gambia is situated, has never, at any moment of its history, been subjected to Sharia governance. The few Sharia dynasties that once held sway in the region such as the Islamic State of Macina, Sheikh Omar Futi Taal’s rule over parts of Senegal and Mali and the Sokoto Dynasty of Northern Nigeria were too short-lived to take firm root in peoples’ mind-sets and social norms. Western colonization wiped them out leaving behind no trace or vestiges of the Sharia dynasties’ rule. Present-day West Africa has been so imbued with Western style of governance predicated on either English Common Law or French Roman Law that the post-colonial administrations that have steered the affairs of the nations concerned are literally secular states without the name. In fact, some countries like Senegal stipulate the word secular in their constitutions. Despite the presence of the word in the Senegalese constitution, the country is one of the most vibrant countries in terms of religious fervour. Government policies are implemented and laws passed based on Muslim sensibilities given the electoral weight of the religious leaders. The Gambia is similar to Senegal when it comes to the same religious sensibilities.

It is for this reason that the inclusion of the word in our constitution might have placated and allayed the fears of the Christian community as well as moderate and secular Gambian Muslims and thus serve as a bulwark against any attempt by Islamist zealots to impose the Sharia or to influence a government into doing so.

I expounded in my aforementioned article on secularism that the wrangling over the inclusion of the word “secular” should not be viewed from the narrow angle of the Christian/Muslim divide. The genuine apprehension voiced by our Christian brethren is stoked by Yahya Jammeh’s erstwhile unilateral declaration of The Gambia an Islamic state; a move highly acclaimed then by Salafist/Wahhabi quarters. Such fear should not be harboured by Christians alone because the Salafist/Wahhabi world view is that their interpretation of the Sharia should be the only governance system in any country be it Muslim or non-Muslim. For them Islam is monolithic; so their version should be imposed on all other Muslims. The blood of any Muslim opposed to their parochial Islamic outlook must be legitimately shed. So, the Salafists/Wahhabis are not only an existential threat to non-Muslims alone but also to Muslims, particularly the Muslim sects they consider heretical like the Shias, the Ahmadis and the Sufis.

It is true that the various definitions given to the concept of secularism leave room for ambiguity. As a result, it can be interpreted in various ways that may be detrimental to religion. We have heard during the heated debate over its inclusion in the draft constitution some unscrupulous voices advocating for the demolition of mosques built on government-owned premises. Such a call is clear testimony to how the notion “secularism” is misconstrued by both the religious class and the non-religious class of society.

People of all walks of life must understand that the guidelines of democracy are dictated by the will of the majority. The Gambia being a majority-Muslim country, it is evident that when laws are passed and policies adopted, Muslim sensitivities and sensibilities must be given thorough consideration, failing which the politicians concerned run the risk of being jettisoned in the political wilderness. The lady parliamentarian who foolhardily called for the removal of mosques from public places is, I am afraid, politically doomed.

It is worth noting that Western countries, particularly France, are the most secular countries in the world. The French word “laicité” stands for secularism and secularity. All the same, France as well as other Western countries have never acquired the infamous reputation of being anti-religious. In fact, the construction of the Grand Mosque of Paris was not only sanctioned by the French but financed from French government coffers under the 19 August 1920 Act. Western countries have been the pioneers in erecting prayer rooms at public places, particularly airports. So, secularism has never been an anti-religion philosophy. Secularism simply means the separation of Church and State in the Western sense of the expression. The Church and by extension the Clergy or any other religious order must not interfere with matters of state. Such an attitude was necessitated by the connivance between the Church and the Monarchy that obtained in Europe, particularly in France before the French Revolution. The Revolution came up with the notion of secularism to keep the Clergy away from politics. One may argue that Islamophobia is rife in Europe; so the West in general is unaccommodating toward Islam and Muslims. However, if there is anything like Islamophobia in the West, it emerged as a result of terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslim radicals in the name of Islam, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

I know it is now too late to include the word secular in the draft constitution. It is even unwise to include it after the acrimony and misconceptions stirred by the controversy over the past couple of months. Nevertheless, I would suggest our legal minds and intellectuals coin a clear definition of the term in case of its eventual inclusion in any other version of our constitution.

At a protest gathering on the grounds of QCity, detractors of the inclusion of the term “secular” came from different shades of the Muslim religious spectrum. The gathering brought together strange bedfellows such as Salafists/Wahhabis like Imam Abdullah Fatty and Sufis and non-Salafists/Wahhabis like Dr. Omar Jah Senior and Dr. Omar Jah Junior, the mastermind of the gathering.

Salafists/Wahhabis consider Sufis foes and as a result do not miss any opportunity to castigate them as unclean Muslims. For the Salafists/Wahhabis, Sufis are Mushriks (polytheists) and Ahlu Bida’a (innovators who introduce rites that are alien to Islam, which is an abominable act in Islam). It is therefore mindboggling to see the two segments of the Muslim community come together to make cause commune on one platform to denounce something both groups consider anti-Islamic.

The unholy alliance should be cause for concern for genuine and scrupulous Sufi Muslims. They should understand that the Salafist/Wahhabi hidden agenda is to create a state governed by the Sharia interpreted and applied from a Salafist/Wahhabi outlook. If they cannot establish a Sharia state through their unsavoury dictatorial means, they would befriend any government they consider unwittingly amenable to their vicious scheme in a bid to have it implement their religious edicts on all Muslims. The Sufis and non-Salafists/Wahhabis must therefore be weary of the Salafists/Wahhabis.

The Salafists/Wahhabis know the numbers are not on their side; so, they would side with non-Salfist/Wahhabi Muslims and champion a cause both sides believe to be in defence of Islam but their ultimate goal is to reap the dividends and betray their ally on the grounds that they are not good Muslims. They may even go to the extent of declaring them non-Muslims who deserve to eliminated because in so doing they are performing a divine ordinance.

My caveat to Dr. Omar Jah Junior is for him to be mindful of the Salafist/Wahhabi support for the cause he is fighting for. The Salafists/Wahhabis’ ultimately goal is to institute a Sharia state wherein people of the non-Muslim faiths and Muslims of the non-Salafist/Wahhabi creed are put on the same altar for sacrifice. Your objective is to protect Islam in The Gambia in your belief that secularism in our country would not serve Muslims in the observance of their religion. However, the Salafist/Wahhabi agenda is to have the term excluded from the constitution so that one day they may use the void so created to declare The Gambia an Islamic state based on the Salafist/Wahhabi outlook should the opportunity arise.

A clear example of their underhand machinations is their control of the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council. Ever since Muhammad Lamin Touray became president of the Council, the Salafists/Wahhabis surrounding him in the Executive started implementing the Salafist/Wahhabi doctrine. They established a radio station on the Council’s premises with support from their surrogates in Saudi Arabia. The station preaches solely Salafist/Wahhabi doctrine. Instead of devoting their air time on educative Islamic precepts, they spend most of the time castigating and demeaning traditional Gambian Muslims for adhering to practices such as Gamo, communal recitation of the Quran, recitation of the Salat alaa nabi formula after the Muslim prayer, etc. They had convinced the erstwhile head of state, Yahya Jammeh, that their interpretation of Islamic precepts was the right one. The latter unwittingly imbibed whatever concoction they served him with. He went to the extent of brutalizing any Muslim scholar or imam who held a dissenting view from that of the Salafists/Wahhabis. People like Bakawsu Fofana, the Sheriff of Sangajor late Muhideen Hydara, Imam Baba Leigh and a handful of other imams were incarcerated and tortured at the instigation of the Salafists/Wahhabis.

Owing to their firm grip on the Council and the sizeable number of Arabic/Islamic schools they are running, many Gambian youths have been radicalized and are potential powder-kegs who could be easily recruited and indoctrinated by extremists roaming our West African sub-region.
It is unfortunate that Gambian Muslims in general and some Muslim scholars in particular are benign to the Salafists/Wahhabis. The latter are out to subvert anything Islamic we inherited from our fathers and forefathers.

By the way, they have two universities where the Salafist/Wahhabi creed/doctrine (aqeeda) ????? in Arabic is taught. Future generations of our youths are drifting away from the traditional Islam bequeathed to us by our fathers and forefathers. It is a doleful reality because the Islam the Salafists/Wahhabis abhor and bequeathed to us is grounded on Sufism (Islamic spirituality). It is this dimension of the religion, passed on from the days of the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions in a transmission chain to our present day that is the bane of the Salafists/Wahhabis. Sufism nurtures and tames the self against the temptations of Satan. It is also based on tolerance and forgiveness unlike the rigid, legalistic, austere and intolerant Islam cherished by the Salafists/Wahhabis. It is therefore despairing to see our beautiful traditional and spiritual Islam conceding to an aggressive and hate-filled Islam as espoused by the Salafists/Wahhabis.

Many untruths and misinformation have been peddled about the word secularism so much so that the average Gambian considers it a concept designed to combat Islam through subtle means. We have to realise that Islam as propagated by Salafism/Wahhabism is a breeding ground for violent extremism and intolerance. The least we need in The Gambia is that brand of Islam. Our main concern is to foster religious and social harmony and cohesion so that we succeed in our drive to make our dear motherland a prosperous country and a better place to live in for us and for our progeny.

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