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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Underlining the need for tolerance

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We are picking from where we left yesterday on the theme of preaching tolerance. If we are to write a hundred editorials on this topic, we would be in our right to do so, given the threat to our national fabric by the hectoring din of tribalism, regionalism and all the other divisive isms being trumpeted all over The Gambia.

People everywhere have historically located themselves, socially and psychologically, within distinct social groups. In this era of globalisation, the practice has reached a higher level. Other than race or colour of skin, people are divided in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity, language, community, politics, nation, and even things like profession, sports team and favourite cold drink. The pervasive electronic social media multiplies and entrenches such identities.

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That persons with similar characteristics cluster is not a disconcerting outcome. Due to shared beliefs and practice, a Muslim or a Christian will generally associate with persons of his or her own faith. But when these clusters turn into arenas for hostility and conflict like and when hostile divisions prevail, it becomes a serious issue. All aspects of life are then framed in terms of us (the good ones) versus them (the bad ones). The desire to find common ground and compromise is constricted as people are embroiled in continuous conflicts over the rights, role and social status of their identity groups. When not checked, antagonisms of this sort boil over into violent conflict with deadly outcomes.

Besides specific biologic features, a human is marked by features like ability to reason, create and talk, name, ancestry, community, language, personality, educational and work trajectories, political affiliation, among many other features, which in their totality distinguish him or her as a unique person. Your personal identity is constituted by this complex totality.

Personal identity has both subjective and objective aspects. It is not just what you actually are but also what you think you are and what others think you are. It has aspects you inherited and aspects that emerged from the social and physical environment in which you grew up and live. It has aspects that are beyond your control and those that are, at least partly, under your control. It has elements of authenticity as well as elements you display to others to create an impression. And it is not a fixed, rigid entity but subject to change over time.

Individuals at the same time have another form of identity. Called collective identity and social in form, it is manifested when people sharing features of their personal identities congregate for a particular purpose. Such identity groups are active, not passive entities with roots in history, social and economic structure and politics. When women organised and began to struggle for equality and the right to vote, they constituted an identity group.

And so did people with disabilities when they joined up to demand better access to services and facilities. Many identity groups emerge from long, genuine histories of exclusion, domination and discrimination in society. People from these groups unite to struggle for their rights and removal of social barriers they face. Yet, it is not just the victims of domination but those on the other side, the dominant groups, as well who can and do form identity groups.

Such is the case with Muslims in The Gambia today. About 95 percent of all Gambians professed to be Muslims. Yet within this dominant group, tensions and divisions are rife. In addition to the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, there is the Ahmadiyya question and the more worryingly emergent Wahhabi-Sufi schism. The young clerics schooled in Saudi Arabia or Saudi influenced states have returned to challenge the old order and establish puritanical Islam. Civility has been thrown out of the window and uncouth bashing has become the order of the day. Even the leadership crisis besetting the Supreme Islamic Council is a result of this schism.

The division among Muslims in The Gambia is widening and The Gambia Government through the Department of Religious Affairs should step up and assume its constitutional responsibility and sort out the leadership crisis in the council in the interest of peace and social cohesion in the country. The attitude that things will sort themselves outin good time will not do in this case.

Our nation needs cohesive internal strategies, otherwise the imperial tendency to divide and rule will keep our people at the bottom in perpetuity. Obsession with narrowly construed social identities is driving us towards divisiveness and mutual antipathies. Like the frog that burnt to death as the water in which it floated was heated gradually, we will appear to remain unperturbed as our country burns up politically, socially and economically. Our narrow-mindedness will render us clueless and powerless to confront the greater challenges of how to lift our people out of poverty.

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