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Gambians divided over wording of new constitution

The debate to include or not to include the word Secular in the new draft constitution of The Gambia has divided the country into two different thinking camps; the secularists and those who define a secular state as synonymous to the encouragement of irreligiousness.Privy to the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council, GSIC’s response to the draft constitution as their position paper on the matter, our Banjul correspondent spoke to a representative of Christian Council of The Gambia and members of the general public.

Pastor Seal Sylvester Jammeh, Vice President of the Christian Council of The Gambia described the issue of the inclusion of secular in the new draft constitution of The Gambia is a nonnegotiable principle.

Pastor supports secular state

The staunch member of Pastor’s Alliance in The Gambia said it is a surprise for a people to sit and discuss this simple principle in this 21st Century knowing full well that it is an unbreakable principle, adding that if you break principles the principles break you.

Pastor Jammeh said being a secular state it is all about neutrality and the creation of a level playing field for all religions.

He said all religions should be free to practice their religion without interference of the state because government should not be lenient to or be supporting any religion.

According to him, of recent the state is trying to sponsor Islam by planning to build 60 mosques.

He said the New York in the United States recently published how the new citizenship law in India tries to marginalize the Muslim population and some citizens believe that the government is bent on attacking the diversity, which they believed to be the foundation on which India was built on.

He said the problem has given birth to the deliberate defying of the secular status of India by the leadership which Gambia should learn from.

He said secularism is not about being irreligious or infidelity.

“As a Christian, pastor, religious leader, I know there are many things that happened in this country. I would refer people to the TRRC. A catholic procession was going on and a man walked through the crowd to cause trouble. I also built a Church at Kololi around Senegambia and it was demolished.”

The Pastor said churches in Lamin and Fajikunda were attacked and some churches were stoned during services.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander 

He said there are also mosques built in public places, opining that there is need for the provision of worshiping places for Christians, Bahais among other faiths.

He said all the religions should be treated equally by government as what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

“We should not run away from our secular status because that is what Gambia really is considering her religious diversity,” he intimated.

He said there is a change of Cadi Court to Shar’iah Court to the point of establishing Shar’iah High Court, which means Shar’iah has permeated the court process in the country.

“This is going to be like a state within a state. Politicians would know what I mean by that. Let’s remember that The Gambia is a very unique country where Muslims and Christians intermarry and have been in coexistence for ages,” he said.

The epitome of the small African country’s uniqueness in her long religious tolerance is visible in Ebo Town, Kanifing municipality where the Christian and Muslim cemeteries are in the same fence on the same piece of land as that of Banjul, the capital city.

The Saint Augustine’s Church at Saint Augustine’s Senior Secondary School and the Fahad Mosque all at Tobacco Road in Banjul are directly opposite only divided by the main road and have record of religious problem.

He said it is not uncommon to find people from Islam and Christianity converting to join the other but not without cases where converts from Islam to Christianity are molested.

He said the debate about secularism needs to be handled with open minds so that the country can build a constitution that can even serve generations to come.

The pastor who followed the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) to Diabugu in Basse in their public consultations

He commended the CRC for their good work, especially including the rights of the differently abled persons in the constitution, praying for God to guide and protect them in their endeavor throughout the constitution building process.

Islamic council’s no to a secular state

In a December 14th response to the draft constitution, the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council (GSIC) strongly reaffirmed its position signed by its Secretary General, Dr. Mbye Kah, that the Gambia had and has never been and should never be a Secular State.

It said The Gambia should remain a Non-Secular State, that this is what has been inherited from the founding fathers of the nation and this is what is deeply rooted in the country’s social norms and values.

“Our Non-Secular Status has provided us all the peaceful co-existence, freedom of conscience, liberty to embrace any conviction and the right to enjoy any religious, political, denominational affiliation without being subjected to any restraint or persecution,” said the position paper signed by the Secretary General of GSIC.

The Islamic group said they understand that there are many Gambians including the Christian Council who are trying to cunningly attributelink their demand for Secularism with the unilateral declaration of The Gambia as an Islamic state in 2015 by the former president.

They describe the attribution as very unfortunate and quite misleading, stating that this with their full knowledge that the first attempt to secularize and deconsecrate our lives, cultures and moral values started in 2001, fourteen years before that unilateral declaration.

“We have no doubt that the secularists would find it difficult to find a reasonable justification for their demand. From 1965 to 2001 of peaceful coexistence, freedom to practice any religion and to manifest it and the cordial relations that existed between religions without the word Secular in any of the previous constitutions, is a clear indication that the unconstitutional attempt to insert the word in the 1997 constitution in 2001,was not to be done in good faith. And GSIC believes that it is the same bad faith that is driving the calls to have the word inserted in the draft constitution.”

The Islamic council said hen they submitted their rejection of Secularism in 2018, they stated clearly that the status quo should remain (Non-secular state).

However, the council said if the other religious groups opt to ally with secularists in an ideological fight to deconsecrate, de-religionize and de-spiritualize our norms and values which we believe had started since 2001 or a way beyond, that will never deter us to continue advocating peacefully against the inclusion of the word SECULAR in the Constitution.

“Simply because, secularizing the country is a high threat to our religious freedom and practices as we have seen in France and some parts of the world. The GSIC believes that the inclusion of the word is a serious threat to the religious harmony and respect that the country has been known for,” said the GSIC.

They said they are aware that some attempts are being made to compare the Gambia with our neighbor, Senegal as an example of a secular country which demonstrates peaceful coexistence among different religious groups.

GSIC believes that the most appropriate example should be a country that the Gambia shares the same Common Law and a similar Legal System with such as Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia, none of which has the word Secular in their constitutions.

“We see no reason why the Constitution of the Gambia should bear the word,” they stressed.

On what they described as the noise being made in some quarters that the constitution, the GSIC some opined that Shar’ia law should not be accommodated because they believe that the Gambia is a secular state, asserting that The Gambia is not the only country that recognizes Sharia law in its constitution.

The GSIC response says changing the Cadi Court to Shar’ia Court is just a correction of a very long standing legal anomaly that had existed more than hundred years (from Muslim Court to Muhammedan Court, Cadi Court, and now to Sharia Court) in the same way that current High Court of the Gambia was changed from Supreme Court to High Court some decades ago.

The GSIC said they are not demanding any preferential treatment from the state. All we want is that justice and equity reign in the country.

“It is a common knowledge that Common Law is inherited from our former colonial master, Britain and is largely based on customs and traditions of Britons which are hugely influenced by Christianity. And these Christian Laws and traditions have been made applicable to all Muslims in the Gambia since the colonialist came to the country but without any objection from Muslims. Why then should Christians or any other person object when Sharia law is being made applicable to only Muslims?”

The umbrella Muslim body said they have seen a lot of preferential treatment being given to Christianity in the Gambia inter terms of length of Christian holidays like Christmas and New Year holidays contrary to the two days holidays for Muslims during Tobaski, Koriteh.

GSIC said they have also seen Sunday being an official off day in the entire country for Christian brothers and sisters to go to Church while Muslims are not given the same treatment on Friday and Muslims never complain about this unfair treatment.

In their summary of demands, the GSIC demands that Secularism/Secularity/ Secular or words or phrases with similar meaning be never inserted in the constitution.

They demand that Shari’ah law and Shari’ah courts be maintained but with the creation of Shari’ah Divisions in both the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court occupied only by those qualified in Sharia to entertain appeals from the Shari’ah High Court.

The Muslim group want marriage be clearly defined to reflect our religious and cultural values; that the word ADOPTION captured in section 186(1) be added to section 9(e) and be given an Islamic interpretation.

“We demand that the Legal Practitioners be qualified in Shari’ah before he/she can appear in sharia courts,” they called.

However, Mr Lamin Njie, teacher resident in Tallinding said that believed that the idea of a secular state is an innovation by democracy, which is not in conformity with the norms of Muslims who form the majority of the Gambian population.

He termed the secularizing of The Gambia as a nonstarter because Gambia is feligious country though not governed entirely by Islamic or any religious laws.

Bunja Colley, a driver said his understanding of a secular state is to have a country where the state o leader will not impose any religion on its citizens regardless of the faith the president belongs to.

“Secularity is where our safety lies as a people of diverse faiths and beliefs, recalling that former President Jammeh had christened the country as Islamic Republic of The Gambia and it was not a crime by then because the Gambia was not a secular state.

For Bintou Jabbie, a college student, the draft constitution should be exhaustively debated before excluding or including the word secular in the supreme laws of the country, adding that at the end of the exercise either secular or not she has no doubt that Gambians will continue with their peaceful coexistence as far as religious is concerned.

A renowned human rights activist and rights hero awardee, Madi Jobarteh, urged the Muslim in the country to realise that Muslims are the majority but their status also imposes responsibility on them to uphold the values of fairness, consideration and justice to ensure that they make the environment comfortable for the minority without having to deny or threaten their own position or security.

He said Islam is a well-established way of life in the Gambia such that there is no force on earth that can bulldoze, threaten or limit Islam in this country.

“Therefore, to generate imaginary fears on ourselves by making false equivalences based on what obtains in other countries will only turn the Ummah into an intolerant bunch of extremists for which Muslims will only become enemies and threats to themselves,” he said.

He added that secularism cannot and will not threaten Islam and Muslims, prevent Muslims from praying on Fridays and will not close down mosques around the country or take away Cadi courts.

Jobarteh explained: “Muslims will continue to enjoy their Islamic holidays and hold their Gamo and indeed continue to worship as we have been doing for the past 1000 years since Islam came to the shores of the Gambia. Secularity is not the imposition of materialism, immorality, irresponsibility or vanity on society. Let no one scare or fool or mislead you about secularity.”

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