Fri | May 26, 2017

Unequal equality for Muslims

Published:Thursday | June 11, 2015 | 6:00 AMRobert Lalah, Contributor

We Jamaicans are a complicated people prone to bewildering vacillations on moral matters. We demonstrated this clearly in two very different scenarios recently. The first was Jodi Stewart-Henriques' online tantrum on Usain Bolt's supposed unwillingness to live up to neighbourly expectations in the community they both call home. The second was The Gleaner's publication of a series of stories expressing the views of some members of the local Islamic community on a number of social issues. The online response to each case highlighted how selectively ethical we can be.

When Stewart-Henriques indirectly declared the Trelawny-born Bolt persona non grata uptown, the online response was swift, biting and unrelenting. I'd bet the word 'classism' had never before been so frequently used by Jamaicans on social media. The people wanted blood. After a few days of non-stop backlash, Stewart-Henriques issued a public apology. It was a moral victory for those who felt such an admission of wrongdoing was warranted.

 

READERS RESPOND

Now consider what happened last week when stories from a Gleaner Editors' Forum with members of the Islamic Council of Jamaica were published. The day's lead story, 'Give 'em more wives', revealed the views of Rashidah Khan-Haqq, a Jamaican Muslim woman who suggested that legalising polygamy might be the solution to some of the country's social problems. "To me, it has practical use," said Khan-Haqq. I disagree with her completely. Nevertheless, she's free to share her views. That, however, was not the thinking of readers who responded in the comment section of the story.

To be fair, online comment sections frequently descend into festering cesspools of bigoted diatribes. But even with the lowest of expectations, the feedback to that story was alarmingly hateful. Much of it was directed at Khan-Haqq personally and the Islamic community generally. There were plenty unwarranted references to terrorism, but very little substance to the criticism. It's not so much that people disagreed with what Khan-Haqq said. They, instead, seemed more outraged that she was allowed to say it. "She needs to keep her primitive Islamic views within her own kind," wrote one reader. "She needs to take your (sic) strange culture back to India or Medina," stated another.

Others felt it an affront to their sensibilities that The Gleaner would dare publish the opinions of Muslims, and some seemed unaware that it is actually possible to be Jamaican and Muslim at the same time. "For a country that depends on tourism, I don't understand why we let these people in the country," was one reader's lament. Another stated: "These are the very people the rest of the world is trying to avoid and we are welcoming them with open arms." Also included in the mix were the - "Keep Islam out of this country!" entreaty; the enigmatic one-liner - "Now the infestation is out in the open"; and the thoughtful if uninformed - "What is it about Jamaica that makes all these people come here wanting to foist their foreign cultures on us?"

 

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

I'm not a Muslim, but I and every other Jamaican should be offended by the tone of these responses. How could we not be? Nowhere should people peacefully expressing their opinions, no matter how illogical they might appear, be subjected to the hateful personal attacks such as those hurled the way of the Islamic Council last week. What's even worse is that there was basically no pushback. Even though the story was shared more than 2,500 times and accumulated hundreds of responses, the tone never shifted.

There wasn't the same principled stance taken by champions of social equality who chanted fire on classism just days earlier. Khan-Haqq is no Usain Bolt, but it was still shocking that there was not even minimal outrage expressed at her - a Jamaican - being told to take her "strange culture back to India or Medina".

For the record, Muslims don't all come from distant 'Muslim countries'. Asking why Jamaican Muslims are allowed to "come here" makes about as much sense as asking why they choose to be born here.

I was particularly struck by comments attributed to Dr Donna Hope, university lecturer and reputed expert on Jamaican culture, in another story published the same day. In an article headlined 'Devil in the music', Dr Hope was apparently asked to respond to a member of the Islamic Council's hyperbolic assessment of dancehall music as potentially 'evil'. This should have been light work. Dr Hope's response, however, was curious. Among other things, she said: "I think that our Muslim colleagues may need an introduction to Jamaican culture and the lives of Jamaicans before making those blanket statements, as not all dancehall lyrics are derogatory." What does this mean? Jamaicans need an introduction to Jamaican culture and the lives of Jamaicans? Would the same response have been given to Christian Jamaicans calling dancehall evil? I wonder.

If there was a flicker of hope that a united spirit was awakened in the stand against classism demonstrated in the Bolt/Stewart-Henriques saga, it was all but extinguished by our unequal treatment, in this instance, of our Muslim countrymen - fellow Jamaicans who we appear to think are not worth the respect we demand for ourselves. For us, it seems all Jamaicans are equal, but some Jamaicans are more equal than others.

• Robert Lalah is features editor and author of 'Roving with Lalah'. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and robert.lalah@gleanerjm.com