By: Lamii Kpargoi
I recently heard about a huge debate that engulfed the country when the Religious Advisor to the president, Madam Ester Nyumah reportedly stated on public radio that she would boycott any state function at which a Moslem clergy was allowed to pray.
According to reports on the issue that I have read in the local media, the presidential religious advisor’s stance stems from her belief that Liberia as a Christian state was giving too much leeway to Islam although this favor was not returned in other countries which were Islamic. Her reason was further founded on the belief that the Islamic religion is intolerant.
I am no religious expert, and in no way I am going to portray myself in that light in my attempt at giving my viewpoint on this issue.
The first point is that Liberia is not a religious state or a theocracy of any religion. According to the constitution of this country, everyone has the right to worship whatever god (s) they want to, so long as they do not harm the “safety, order, health, morals or fundamental rights and freedoms of others…” And even this caveat can only be exercised by law – not arbitrarily or according to the whims and caprices of anyone.
So I was quite dumbfounded when the presidential religious advisor was quoted as saying that because these people are intolerant, they should not be allowed to participate in state functions.
My understanding is that she came under a barrage of criticisms from various sections of the public most especially the Islamic community.
Statements like the one attributed to the advisor, whose salary and allowance are paid by taxpayers – among whom are many Moslems and people of other religious persuasions – should be condemned in the strongest possible terms because such statements have the propensity to cause disquiet and conflict in this country. Anyone who understands that the peace currently been enjoyed in Liberia is still fragile would never contemplate such talk.
There is a saying in the Vai language that in effect translates to mean that people should be very circumspect in voicing out their thoughts. The rationale behind this saying is that there is no problem in thinking anything evil about anybody so long as that thought is not expressed or manifested. In other words there is no thought crime.
In October and November of 2004 deadly riots engulfed Monrovia as the result of the same religious claptrap. According to the conclusion of a committee that was set up to investigate the issue, a land dispute snowballed into the riot which left scores dead and thousands of dollars of properties damaged across Monrovia. Not even a curfew starting at 5PM and the presence of the United Nations UNMIL troops could quell those riots. It was only after the belligerents had exhausted themselves that they stopped.
There was another experience I had in high school. A friend of my, in fact the smartest guy in the 12th grade at the end of the first period, was expelled from the school simply because he was a Jehovah’s Witness. Although there was no written rule at the time nor do I think one exists now, that students were forced to salute the flag at the Monrovia College & Industrial Training School.
I was taken aback to hear that it took only an apology by the advisor to keep her in her job. It was my thinking that her resignation would have been immediately demanded by the president.
In apparent furtherance of this inane debate, I heard a pastor the other evening on Star Radio calling on the United Methodist Church to defrock Information Minister Laurence Bropleh for worshipping in a Mosque. According to the news, this pastor also called on the president to come out with a position on religion. As a proponent of unbridled, free, and responsible speech, I do not think responsible media institutions should be giving air time or space to people who, under the guise of religion, attempt to ferment religious hatred. The pastor most likely is unaware of constitutional guarantees of “freedom of religion,” nor that his call resembles those made by German political theologists to Adolph Hitler to nationalize reformed Christian Protestantism in advance of his launch of the Second World War.
I recently traveled to the West African States of Senegal and Ivory Coast. In both these places I noticed a level of religious harmony that we Liberians could learn a thing or two from.
Senegal is predominantly Islamic, but the first president of that country Leopold Senghor was a Christian. Was that by accident? Definitely no! It was due to the respect the people of Senegal held for him. In Ivory Coast which is a country with a majority Christian population, the recent Moslem holiday of Tabaski (Idul Adha) was observed as a national holiday. I could hardly get into an internet café to check my email. And Abidjan’s usual traffic jams were nonexistent. So my ride from the Koumassi area to the Airport took just a few minute, although the day before it had taken over 30 minutes.
Considering all that has been said, the issue that comes to mind is whether the Liberian Presidency or the nation itself needs a religious advisor, considering that this person, is paid by taxpayers who may themselves not share the person’s religious persuasion? In my view, neither the country nor the president needs one, especially in an official capacity.
The official role of religious advisor in a multi-religious environment like ours is a bit erroneous especially if the position is occupied by someone whose only understanding of religion is from the narrow standpoint of their own faith, and perhaps the only element in their moral universe.
If there is going to be an advisor with this tag assigned to any president in Liberia, it should strictly be on the personal basis and such person should in no way enjoy the privileges of officialdom. The person should not be paid from the state coffers and should not be entitled to possess diplomatic or official cover.
Religion is a personal affair. So we in Liberia should try our level best to ensure that we keep it that way. In doing so we would avoid the chaos that is bound to result if we do not strive to separate our religious beliefs from our political obligations.
Lamii Kpargoi currently lives in Monrovia where he works as the Project Coordinator of the Initiative for Mobile Training of Community Radio (INFORMOTRAC). INFORMOTRAC is a project of the Liberia Media Center (LMC), which focuses on building the manpower and infrastructural capacities of community radio stations around Liberia. INFORMOTRAC is funded by the Radio Netherlands Training Center (RNTC). Mr. Kpargoi is also a student of the L.A. Grimes School of Law and a blogger in his spare time. He maintains a personal blog at wakor.blogspot.com