Under the dagger of proselytism
— Philip Li Ching Hum
Freedom of religious belief is sacrosanct and is even enshrined in our Constitution. But when proselytism starts rocking the very fabric of our society there is need to be seriously alarmed. The proliferation of various hydra-headed sects in our multi-cultural and multi-lingual society that has been taking place cannot be ignored.
The history of Mauritius is replete with cases of coerced conversion of Afro-creoles, Sino-Mauritians and Hindus (particularly Tamil-speaking ones), especially during the colonial era. Nowadays organisations lavishly funded from outside are mushrooming across the country, which is reckoned as a fertile ground for proselytism. But proselytism becomes a real danger when it attacks the very cultural heart of our society. It can deculturise a whole ethnic group and makes the latter reject its ancestral cultures, depriving it of its roots and identity.
The process of cultural alienation by the process of conversion is a well-calculated move. Cultural survival is at stake. Some sects which ply what is referred to as ‘religion-panadol’, harp on the strings of emotions and instil fear, anxiety and a sense of guilt in the hearts of credulous people. They thrive best on the soils of poverty, destitution and unemployment. Family ties get weakened by setting brother against brother and sister against sister. Children turn rebellious. The notion of sin, paradise/hell and culpability is hammered into the collective psyche. We thus see the sects’ victims denying their long-cherished ancestral cultures that have been bequeathed to them for generations. Had they been taught the beauty of the concepts underlying Karma and Nirvana, they would never have deserted their ancestral religions and resisted the onslaught of the aggressive conversion efforts of the charlatans. Some newly converted among Hindus confess candidly that they no longer celebrate the millennial festivals like Divali, Holi or Maha Shivaratee. I frown upon them in utter disbelief because my years spent at St Xavier’s College have taught me the joy of celebrating Divali. Some new converts even confessed to me that they no longer wear sarees because their pastors have forbidden them to do so!
Proselytism is more devastating: some Mauritians of Chinese origin no longer burn joss-sticks nor practise the veneration of the Ancestors, which forms the very basis of Chinese culture. They have deserted the pagodas and they even proclaim from rooftops that these rituals are pagan practices. Is this not an insult to our ancestors, the early immigrants who had fought their way to carve out a better and culturally richer life for the coming generations? Once I visited a relative and I saw on the wall of his lounge the following written in bold letters: “If your God is dead, try mine. He is alive…” The same relative was adamant when asked to call a psychiatrist to diagnose his wife suffering from schizophrenia simply because the pastor had persuaded him that she was possessed by the devil. The same pastor came with a rod to drive out the evil spirit. The rest of the story is too sad to be told…
Fortunately there are many who stand steadfast in upholding their Chinese culture. Confucianism and Judaeo-Christian philosophy stand two worlds apart and it is my firm view that they cannot be reconciled. No doubt, Sino-Mauritians have gained access to certain priest-run schools once reserved in the early fifties and sixties for a specific ethnic group, but they have paid a heavy price for it. Many of them have adopted Christian names. The prejudice still runs so deep in certain quarters that some of them are contemptuously referred to in those quarters as yellow bananas.
The plight of Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s ‘The Roots: The Saga of an American Family’ mirrors the dark sides of proselytism. We have also learnt from the lessons of history how the Spanish Conquistadores conquered Latin America with a gun in one hand and the Bible in the other and finally subjugated those people to their boots. Today the gun has been replaced by crispy bank-notes. The poorer one is, the more vulnerable one becomes.
If the spreading out of religion is used as a means to subjugate an ethnic group, proselytism in that context becomes a real danger and it can potentially degenerate into a war of religions, placing the country on a powder keg. We would certainly not want a Lebanon or Kosovo in the Indian Ocean. Singapore has banned conversion since long. China has had a bitter experience of proselytism especially during the Opium War. The government must intervene before it is too late. If we do not measure the risks that the situation could give rise to and act in consequence, extremists may take their root firmly on the soil of demagogy to counter the activities of such sects?
It is high time for the government to stop the excesses by taking the right actions.
Philip Li Ching Hum
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