Religion like tribe and race is a very sensitive topic and at the same time has a “romantic” and idealistic appeal which has invoked and continues to invoke a lot of passion and fervour among people, groups and nationalities. There are many who believe and also want others to believe that their religion, tribe and or race are better and superior to another. Nations and people have gone to war to propagate their religion (e.g. the crusaders, jihadist) and others have died resisting being conquered and converted into another religion or version of the same religion such as the sectarian killings between Sunni, Shiite and Sufis currently taking placed in the Middle East; and between Christian sects notably the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Religion has also been used as a unifying force to bring people of the same faith together and sharing the same ideals. Unfortunately however religion has today been increasingly used by some politicians, rulers and misguided and ambitious group of individuals to divide people for their own benefit. One only has to look at Northern Nigeria to see how Boka Haram is using the name of Islam to cause mayhem among the people of Northern Nigeria – the bombing of churches, kidnappings and the resulting revenge attacks by Christians on innocent Muslims. Similarly the Central African Republic Christians are destroying mosques and attacking Muslims in supposed “revenge” attacks for the Muslims minority support of the former Muslim rebel government that rule the country (and oppressed Christians) albeit for a short period. The Somalian Alshabab Jihadist have also been planting bombs in churches in Kenya killing and maiming Christians who they deem as infidels. In Sudan a supposed Muslim woman who married a black Sudanese Christian man was sentenced to death for apostasy and was only released after international pressure was brought on the Khartoum Government of Bashir
Today in The Gambia, we frequently hear of pronouncements being made from many quarters daubing the country as an Islamic Muslim State and how Islam should govern our lives, how Islam is the only “complete” religion etc, etc. But what do we really mean when we say that Gambia is an Islamic Muslim State? Perhaps we should get one thing clear to avoid confusion. Although the majority of Gambians are Muslims (about 90 % and even more according to some), The Gambia is not a Muslim/Sharia State. A State run under Sharia system is one where Sharia has been instituted as a main body of civil and criminal law. In this regard and in the avoidance of doubt and confusion, The Gambia is not governed by Sharia Islamic law and is not an Islamic State. Having said that, if someone for example is a Muslim and contacts a marriage in the Islamic tradition then that marriage is governed by Islamic law including divorce, succession/inheritance etc. But note that our criminal laws and civil laws are not governed by Islamic Sharia Law. Moreover the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia states that the Gambia is a secular state and it goes further to guarantee everyone in The Gambia the freedom to follow, join and or practice the religion of his or her choice. So for you Muslim Jihadist and Christian Crusaders, I am sorry to shock you but our laws are clear- we are a secular state and not a Muslim or Christian State.
The Gambia has been a very “tolerant” society where the majority Muslims have lived in peace and harmony with their Christian brothers. I emphasize the word “tolerant” because it is usually construed by the majority Muslims today to mean that they are doing a “favour” out of kindness to accommodate and tolerate non-Muslims especially Christians. It should be made absolutely clear that all Gambians be it Muslims, Christians, Bahias, etc have equal rights as guaranteed under the 1977 Constitution of the Gambia. No one should be given special privileges base on religion, tribe and or ethnicity. Period Religious harmony has existed in the The Gambia for a very long time (and especially in urban Gambia which is more cosmopolitan) and it is very common for siblings within the same family to belong to different religions and for parents to have different religion to that of their children because of either marriage and or conversion to another religion other than the one they were born into. Moreover, both Muslim and Christians have been socializing and often attend each other’s ceremonies (weddings, christening, feast, parties and funerals). Christian family members have been known to contribute towards Hajj expenses of their Muslim Uncles and Aunties and Muslims have also contributed towards expenses for their Christian relatives for their pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem. This is the Gambia we know and want to preserve and not the one that has been increasingly eroded by foreign religious preachers and influences and an Animist President who plays one religion against another to suit his demented craving for divide and rule.
Although it is accepted that it is the duty of religious teachers and leaders e.g. Imams, Ustas, Pastors, Catchiest, Clergy etc to propagate their own faiths and to win converts, one should also be mindful of the way it is done. There is today a lot of incitement and provocation both overtly and covertly to encourage followers of a particular religion to hate, criticize, castigate and demean people of other faiths. Unfortunately there is a growing trend of Gambian Muslims especially with and Islamist agenda whose main aim is to sow discord among Gambians by their words and actions to utter negative remarks and discriminate against non-Muslims. Likewise a new breed of Bible bashing Christians has emerged who perceive their own version of Christianity as the only way to eternal salvation. Unfortunately many Gambians are increasing falling prey to these forces of religious bigotry whose only agenda is to bring division amongst Gambians.
The interesting thing about religion is that we have seen people who even profess to be in the same religion killing each other based on sectarianism. Muslims are killing each other in the name of the Islamic faith. A recent example is ISIS who consider other Muslims (Shiite, Sufis and other Muslim denominations) as apostate and infidel and deserving death and decree that the wives and daughters of these “infidels” can be violated- a common occurrence in the Middle East. Likewise Christian seatrain killings in Northern Island with Catholics and Protestants killing each other all in the name of one and supposedly common prophet and all in the name of one God. What makes anyone to arrogantly believe that their religion and or version of their religion is the correct one? Religion is based on faith and belief and most of us are either Muslims or Christians in The Gambia because we were born into it i.e. our parents introduce us to our religion. If we were born in Asia we were likely to be Hindus or Buddhist.
Unfortunately in the Gambia today, we have an Animist President who believes in divide and rule and in fanning the flames of tribal and religious hatred. When he suits him, he sings praises to the Christians for being honest and upright compared to their Muslim brothers. He has even repeated that there are few Christians in Gambian prisons compared to Muslims to substantiate his ludicrous claim. Needless to say the Christian minority are usually flattered and proud of themselves when such statements are made. Some even proudly say that it is they the Catholics that brought him up- mind you they have not been saying this openly these days for obvious reasons. On the other hand, Jammeh intermittently instil fear in the same Christians that he praises by his frequent ranting and threats of turning The Gambia into an Islamic Sharia Sate and making other disparaging remarks about drinking alcohol and eating pork.
Gambians should tone down on their religious fervour and concentrate more on respecting and tolerating each other, speak the truth, work hard, avoid corruption and try to be less tribalist. Most of the development aid we get comes from Christian West; most of our Medical Doctors are Cubans who are neither Muslim nor Christians. Most of our Children will rather live and study in the Christian West than live in Sharia Islamic Countries. The overtly religious rituals and rhetoric that is publicly displayed today appears to be a mere facade. Being seen and perceive by others as a practicing Muslim or Christian does not necessarily make you a good person. It is ones deeds and actions and how we treat our fellow human beings that bring us closer to Allah. Gambia would have been far ahead in terms of development if we were the “true” Muslims or Christians we portray ourselves to be. On the contrary, as we appear to step up on our religious rituals publicly, there has been an increase in the level of corruption, dishonesty, greed, untruthfulness and treachery in our so called Islamic country. Just look at what is happening around us.
I would like to end this piece with a quotation from Nelson Mandela who in my personal view has done much for black people than any religious bigot out there preaching disunity among Africans using tribe and religion. “Religion, especially belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, has always been a controversial subject that splits nations and even families. But it is always best to treat the relationship between a man and his god as a purely personal affair, a question of faith and not of logic. No one has the right to prescribe to others what they should or should not believe in.” ~ Mandela from a letter to Mrs. Deborah Opitz, written in Victor Verster Prison, Paarl , South Africa, 10 May 1989