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Religious colonials

Express - April 01, 2001
By Raffique Shah

IN his book Among The Believers...An Islamic Journey, Trinidad-born writer Vidia Naipaul concluded that Islam was a “colonised religion”. The book was published in 1981, shortly after a mass revolution in Iran had toppled The Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini and his Mullahs to power, which in turn brought about the creation of the first Shiite Islamic government. Naipaul’s assertion that Islam was “colonial” was based on his observations that Muslims, wherever they were, whatever their nationalities, mimicked Arab lifestyle, from clothing to language to facing Mecca for prayers.

Naipaul had visited several Islamic countries, or countries in which Islam was the dominant religion-Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia to gather material for his book. I do not recall at what point the author arrived at his conclusion, but I must confess he set me thinking seriously about the immense influence that religions wield over their flocks, whatever their origins and wherever they spread. Naipaul saw people in countries that were geographically and culturally poles apart from the desert sands of Mecca and Medina. Yet they struggled to learn and speak Arabic, to dress like Saudis (mattered not their climatic conditions were quite different to Arabia’s), and, however poor they were, to aspire to fulfil one of the obligations of the Qur’an, making the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.

I thought of Naipaul, of his bid to learn more about this religion that was sparking interest worldwide, when controversy erupted over the recent appointment of an American as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain. Having grown accustomed to the earthy presence of an indigenous Archbishop Anthony Pantin as head of the Diocese for more than 30 years, local Catholics were given a rude awakening about their tiny place in the richest, if not biggest, church in the world. The Pope, sitting in his secluded quarters in the Vatican in Rome, decided that Reverend Edward Gilbert was the man to take charge of the Church’s business in Trinidad and Tobago, and his decision was final. No appeals here.

I empathise with Fr Clive Harvey (I sense we hold similar views on nationalism and human development, as distinct from national development), I really cannot sympathise with him. You see, Fr Harvey comes from a long line of “liberation theologists”, Catholics in main, but also many from other Christian denominations, who believed that in the spirit of Christ, they ought to campaign on behalf of the poor, not pander to the rich.

Archbishop Camara of Recife is best remembered because he was the highest-ranking Church official to adopt this stance; he died sometime last year. But there were also simple priests like Fr Malcolm Rodrigues of Guyana, Torres of Brazil, and a host of others throughout South and Central America, including the four nuns who were raped and murdered by government forces in Guatemala, who persisted with their “liberation theology”.

The Vatican came down hard on them, and ordered that they change their stance or face excommunication from the church. Some toned down their strident calls for social justice, but others bucked the Papal Bull and they faced the consequences. The defiant ones were defrocked. Fr Harvey is very aware of what transpired during the 1960s and 1970s, and of the Vatican’s response to “liberation theology”. So when Rev Gilbert was named Archbishop a full year after Fr Pantin’s death, Fr Harvey ought not to have been surprised.

The Catholic Church is governed by decree from the Vatican much the way Sunni Muslims take their directives from Mecca or Islamabad (down to the sighting of the moon!), or Shiites from Teheran. In fact, even the Hindu religion, fractured as it is into different sects (not unlike most other religions), has become increasingly dependent on the teachings of an array of Gurus who are the spiritual heads of mandirs here in Trinidad and elsewhere in the Western world.

I can say the same for the Mormons (whose church is headquartered in Salt Lake, Utah), the Jehovah Witnesses, and I can go on and on.

It’s not only in Islam, as Naipaul postulated, that religious colonialism exists. It pervades just about every faith, and this has nothing to do with guidance from the various holy texts. Take a Hindu pundit in cold Canada dressed in his dhoti and delivering a sermon in Hindi to a flock that speaks English-and with a Canadian accent at that!

Most times when Imams rattle off verses in Arabic, they follow that by English translations. My point is, since you are addressing people who speak and understand English, why not preach in English? Oh, and for those who have short memories, up until the 1960s, many Catholic prayers were recited in Latin —a long-dead language!

Religion, therefore, remains one of the last bastions of colonialism: others are economic imperialism, consumerism (have you noticed how much KFC Trinidadians eat every year?), and cultural imperialism. Fr Harvey, one of several Catholic priests for whom I have great respect, knows of what I write, and he also knows it’s the truth. Once he remains in the Church (and I am not suggesting he should quit), he will have to abide by the dictates of Rome. That’s exactly what Fr Gilbert is doing.

If Fr Harvey and other priests of like mind want to influence the Vatican into granting countries like Trinidad and Tobago some kind of autonomy, they will have to fight a new war, this time for religious liberation. They will be forced to confront Rome the way reformist Martin Luther did in 1517. Or do what Frenchman John Calvin did a few years later.

But short of that, they will have to accept Archbishop Gilbert as the Pope’s appointee, hence God’s will. Religion is based on dogma, not on rational thinking. It does not adapt to changes in societies, to nationalistic or cultural considerations.

Least of all, its principals, whether they reside in Rome or Mecca or Katmandu, are hardly ruffled by voices of protest from petty priests or imams or pundits who live on a little black speck in this part of the world.

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