We boast that Guyana is a ‘multi-religious’ country. But how effective are our policies to deal with the reality of intolerance that led to a very popular tele-pastor blaming Hindus and their religious practices for causing the horrendous accident at Mahaicony that led to the death of five and serious injury to four others?
The pastor was summoned by the ERC after his comments went viral and elicited widespread reactions – both in support and condemnation of his stance. The pastor apologised after his interaction with the ERC but I believe that he was merely stating the position of the majority of evangelical Christians in the country. It is one of the subjects that demand a national conversation since it is nothing less than a form of epistemic violence inflicted on Hindus— who form 28% of the country’s population. It can lead, as it has been in the past, to the infliction of physical violence.
Hindus have been in Guyana for 181 years and they know what it means to be merely ‘tolerated’. ‘Toleration’, first and foremost, implies a hierarchical power relationship involving superiors and inferiors – and it is the superiors that exhort their members to ‘tolerate’ the other. In Guyana, after official persecution and conversion, some Christian churches, at best, taught its followers to ‘tolerate’ Hindus. But they are still driven to convert the Hindus, who they assert, are engaged in ‘sin’. Interfaith dialogues that are based on tolerance are therefore disingenuous at best because the Christian leaders taking part believe in the superiority of their faiths. The more they emphasise ‘tolerance’, the more they are emphasising their ‘superiority’.
What has been proposed instead by Hindus is “mutual respect”. If you respect me and my right to practice whatever religion I want, you are doing more than just tolerating me under sufferance. You are no longer wishing for the day when ignorant fools like the ‘other’ represented by me would correct their mistakes and follow the “righteous” path (which just happens to be your path). It is no longer ‘My way or the highway’. Instead, you would have shifted your thoughts. You may not agree with me on every matter but you are glad that I am here. You are celebrating our differences as well as our similarities. The ‘other’ is no longer a threatening force but a friend whom you respect.
But since this implies acceptance of some sort of equality among the religions, those that preach they are the ‘only path’ or ‘one right way’ would most likely baulk. They would certainly not want to be ‘contaminated’ with Hindu activities. The persons who had planted Jhandis in their yard at Mahaicony were not invading the space or persons of others, as for instance, occurred seven years ago when someone defending some children who had thrown water on an individual at Phagwah was stabbed to death. The defender was a Muslim man, Nassair Ghani, which demonstrated that all is not lost in Guyana.
Reacting to religious bigotry, the UN declared the first week of February, “World Interfaith Harmony Week”. The resolution, which Guyana co-sponsored, ‘Encourages all States to support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week, based on love of God and love of one’s neighbour or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions’.
If we can’t go as far as ‘love’ for our neighbours, what about ‘mutual respect’? Can’t we agree to disagree on some ideas but have mutual respect on common criteria of, let’s say virtuous actions? Surely there are ‘good’ persons in every religion?
I would like to suggest that our country should adopt the principle of ‘mutual respect’ as our strategy for dealing with religious diversity. This inevitably flows if we see each as ends and not means. But we will have to abandon the dogmatic view that we are always indubitably right and the ‘other’ wrong and, at best, we must ‘tolerate’ them. This, we know, can so easily slide into hatred, bigotry and murder.