Thursday, February 20, 2014

‘Secular’ hypocrisy on show in Kisumu

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 16 February 2014

Last week I was forcefully reminded by a friend of mine that Kenya is a secular state that is proud of its freedoms enshrined in our hallowed constitution. This happened in the context of the riots and demonstrations that beset the lakeside city of Kisumu over what the demonstrators argued was an attempt to erect a satanic monument in the centre of the city.

According to news reports, a group of businessmen who happened to subscribe to the Sikh faith had commissioned a monument to commemorate a hundred years of the community’s presence in Kisumu. The county government allegedly approved the project and the businessmen commissioned a local sculptor with instructions about the message they intended to convey.

It is in fact said that the construction of the monument continued openly, and nobody took any notice of it until a band of religious zealots linked its presence to some environmental phenomena going on in Kisumu at the time. They quickly determined that the monument was satanic and had to be demolished before fire and brimstone rained on the city.

They organised protests and demonstrations, culminating in a very public “lynching” of the figure. The Sikh businessmen eventually removed the image “in order to avoid further trouble”. The ensuing debates took on a shrill tone, with some commentators equating the Sikh religion with devil-worship, and others tarring all Kenyans of Asian origin with the same “devil-worshipping” brush. 


This is the genesis of the assertion that Kenya is a decidedly secular state, and no religious symbols must be allowed to occupy public spaces.

Those that hold this position are a variegated collection, so it would be unfair to accuse all of them of the same sin, so to speak. There are those who have always held this position, and are against any display of religious symbols or rituals in public spaces. They are against prayers during public functions, religious services or symbols on public property or display of the same by public officers.

A second section of this group, though, only discovered their indignation at the desecration of Kenya’s secular nature when the “satanic” symbol was hoisted in the “Christian” city of Kisumu. This is the hypocritical bunch that organise religious ceremonies in public schools, open public functions with prayers, teach religious studies in schools (often no more than proselytising ventures), and have no apologies peppering official speeches with praises for their deity. They remain oblivious of the feelings of others, and their secular sensitivities are only aroused when a competing faith gains prominence with some assistance from officialdom.

We must make up our minds in this country on whether we are a truly secular state, in which case religious symbols and rituals should be banned from all public spaces, or a multi-religious society in which all religions are given equal space in the eyes of the state. The second option is difficult to maintain given the multiplicity of religious claims, many often contradicting others, that would inundate the state under those circumstances. The default, then, is for us to bolster our secular credentials and ban all religious expression in public spaces and functions.

In conclusion, one must note that the sponsors of the Kisumu sculpture have vehemently denied any religious connection to the work, making its take-down all the more ridiculous. 

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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