The Gambia had been quite unique in its ethnic homogeneity as well as its religious tolerance. It has been one of few countries in the sub-region where it is not easy to distinguish the people through their mode of dress or other features what ethnic group or religious persuasion they belonged to.
People of the different ethnic groups and religious backgrounds had been co-existing side by side in this country since time immemorial in peace and harmony. It is not unusual to find different members of the same family adhering to different religious denominations and yet living together in the same compound and doing everything together as a family. We are also quite fortunate in this country that religious denominations and sects cut across the ethnic and regional divide, and there wee hardly any distinguishing features between the adherence of the different religious denominations, either by language, mode of dress or other social factors.
Therefore, we can say that there had been a corps of de-tribalised Gambians who have always considered themselves above petty ethnic or religious differences, and therefore who have also considered themselves Gambians before any ethnic group. Religion indeed had always been considered by those people as a personal matter that should not be mixed with mundane matters. Ethnic or religious differences had hitherto never been used as issues to settle scores in this country.
However, it is sad to say that the situation has undergone a radical change. Ethnic and religious differences are unfortunately beginning to impact negatively on our society. It now matters quite a lot what ethnic group or religious denomination one belongs to. Indeed people are even being encouraged to manifest their ethnic and religious differences in their mode of dress and other means, usually shrouded in the name of cultural revival and authenticity. This unfortunate trend seems to have been encouraged and nurtured by the attitudes and comportment of those in power.
There appears to be too much government involvement with religious bodies, which seems to make a mockery of the secularity of the state. Even the very fact that the government not only helped to create religious bodies such as the Supreme Islamic Council but also closely identify with their day-to-day running, is an indication of state interference with religious matters. Indeed even the inscription of Islamic verses in all government institutions and offices, the construction o a mosque at State House, the most important symbol of the state as well as the construction of mosques and other religious symbols in public institutions goes against the grain of secularity.
Even the setting up of a religious affairs ministry is a manifestation of state interference with religious administration, with the ruling elite sometimes behaving as if they are running a sultanate rather than an elected government of a secular state. Therefore, this sort of attitude is no doubt helping to inflame and embolden the attitudes of those extremists on both sides of the religious divide.
It should not be a surprise therefore if some of these elements, seeing the regime's soft posture on religious extremism, would make efforts to have their ill imposed on the rest of society. It is quite a natural phenomenon and as long as the regime continues to meddle with religious administration, these extremists would also continue to make demands on both government and the society to concede to their way of life. They no doubt seem to have the impression that the government is sympathetic to them and as such, they would continue to make more demands on the society. It is quite possible that the recent veil controversy at the St Therese's Upper Basic School could have been orchestrated by such extremists, using the innocent children to achieve their objectives.
Most Gambians, both men and women received their education in Christian mission schools, and there had never been any controversy in the type of uniforms they should put on, even at a time when people were more suspicious of the objectives of the missionaries. Therefore, why should it arise now when even many of those mission schools have got Islamic teachers among their staff? It therefore makes quite a lot of sense to assume that there is a hidden hand somewhere manipulating those innocent young girls to demand that they be allowed to wear something different from the approved school uniform.
Unlike in the past, there is a wide choice of schools those girls could have gone to where the veil is part of the school uniform, but it is quite logical that if their parents chose to enroll them at St Therese's, then it certainly does not make any sense for them to try to go against the rules and regulations of the school by insisting on their own mode of dress. While it is a fact that ethnicity and religious issues are quite sensitive to handle, but I think the authorities need to take steps to stem such trends of extremism before they get out of hand. We certainly cannot afford to allow such divisive trends to continue because this country is too small and homogeneous a society to accommodate religious belligerency. There are of course no shortage of examples of what damage religious extremism can do in a society. A good example is right now taking place in Northern Nigeria where such extremist tendencies have cost thousands of innocent lives as well as millions of Dollars worth of property. Therefore, it is better for the authorities to deal with the situation now rather than wait to quell a religious clash.
However, viewed from another angle, the Roman Catholic Mission is also expected to be flexible in the matter and eventually find a more acceptable compromise.
While it is not only wrong but quite cheeky on the part of the girls and whoever their backers are to use such crude methods to bulldoze themselves into changing the accepted order of things in the school, the school authorities also need to accept the fact that we are living in a dynamic era and as such , they should be ready to compromise. There is no doubt that for most girls and women in this country, the veil is seen more as a fashion rather than a religious symbol. It is not unusual to see one girl put on the veil today and the following day, she puts on jeans and a cap. Therefore, the school authorities should see some of those things as part of the complexities of modern society rather than a deliberate challenge on their authority. As long as we can all manage to keep away the damaging influences of the extremists on both sides of the religious divide, I see no reason why the peaceful co-existence of the different faiths in this country cannot be maintained. That is exactly where the government should step in and act as a neutral arbiter rather than be seen to take a pro-religious posture as those in power seem to be doing at present.