We must respect the freedom of belief but not necessarily the various beliefs

Stabroek News
July 14, 2001

Dear Editor,

The lively debate regarding reason and faith continues to provide much information, not only to those interested in such subjects, but also to those whose long-held spiritual beliefs are being threatened by other more aggressive religious sects.

Mr. Nikhil Ramkarran, writing in the Stabroek News of Saturday July 7th made an interesting contribution to the debate, but unfortunately much of what he says is purely idealistic. He feels for instance that the two issues are "incapable" of being debated. But Mr. Lutchman Gossai, writing in the Chronicle of Thursday July 12th pointed out that modern thinking Christians are capable of understanding and accepting scientific "truths" and are able to reconcile these with their faith.

Indeed, Pope John Paul II has made it clear that "truth cannot contradict truth" and has exhorted Catholics to understand how scientific progress can help towards refining their understanding of God.

God may not change. But human perception, our thoughts and interpretations of Him, must certainly be open to revision.

Fundamentalist Protestants cannot comprehend this progressive point of view. They claim to already "know" God, whom they have perceived through a medieval and wholly parochial mindset. Their idea of God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

It may be construed as arrogance to think that God is exactly what you have molded Him to be and not the omniscient Being towards which we have to continually expand our understanding.

In any case, debate should be encouraged, as the alternative to the exchange of ideas is the barbaric exchange of blows.

Mr. Ramkarran ended his letter with the laudable sentiment that we should all respect our neighbour's beliefs even if we do not subscribe to them. This is an ideal characteristic; unfortunately, one that is not common in human nature.

If, for instance a Christian respects his neighbour's belief then he would not attempt to convert non-believers. Christians would have to quit proselytizing which is in direct contravention to their faith to go out and "save" the heathen of the world.

If we are to always respect others' beliefs then we put ourselves in the dangerous situation of having to ignore the sometimes grievous consequences resulting from those beliefs.

Should we respect the "beliefs" of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban of Afghanistan who many say have twisted the teachings of Islam in an effort to completely control the lives of citizens? The Taliban has been accused of using many inhumane and punitive methods to consolidate his power.

"Islam dictates that education is mandatory for both males and females," says Dr. Zieba Shorish-Shamley, of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan. Dr. Hassan Hathout, the director of the outreach program at the Islamic Center of Southern California, adds: "At the time of the Prophet, Muslim women attained such scholarship they became teachers to prominent men." They also worked. In fact, the Prophet met his first wife because she was his employer. "The medical corps of the Prophet's army was an all-woman corps, and in some battles, women took up swords and joined active combat. Women participated in public affairs, were involved in negotiating treaties, were even judges. Islam declared gender equality through the Prophet's words, 'Women are the siblings of men.'"

Despite this, the writer, Jan Goodwin in an article titled "Buried Alive" reported the education minister as saying, "It's like having a flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell it. It [a woman] is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled." Another Taliban leader is less poetic: "There are only two places for Afghan women - in her husband's house, and in the graveyard."

The full story of what the Taliban's beliefs produced in Afghanistan is available at the website:

I find myself unable to respect Mullah Mohammad Omar's beliefs as I do not the beliefs of Shi'ite terrorists who killed American hostages at Teheran Airport in 1984; an act they committed "for the pleasure of God." I cannot accommodate the "beliefs" of Christians and Muslims in Sudan where clashes produced a death toll of over 1 million. I cannot reconcile with the Shi'ite persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran, the religious tribalism in Lebanon, the Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab, the Muslims and Catholics in Indonesia and I cannot even understand the Islamic tenets of Abu Bakr who tried to subvert the people's will and overthrow the duly elected government of Trinidad and

Tobago. This list can go on forever.

History has taught that it is more important to respect a person's "freedom" to believe rather than having to respect the belief itself.

Society must be unrestricted to debate (and as a consequence correct some erroneous) beliefs, especially if the expression of those beliefs threatens to adversely affect any section of the population.

Yours faithfully,

Justin DeFreitas