Thursday, October 31, 2013

More to an Imam than Leading Prayer Congregations

Dr Isatou Touray flanked on the right by Dr Hassan Shire Sheikh receives the Award for Baba Leigh (Photo Credit: Sainey MK Marenah)
When Imam Baba Leigh was declared winner of the first-ever pan-African human rights defenders award, broad smiles and loud cries of joy simultaneously filled Kairaba hotel’s giant Jaama Hall peopled by hundreds of human rights defenders from across Africa and beyond. 
The atmosphere was emotionally charged, especially for rights activist Dr Isatou Touray who, like Baba Leigh, has had her share of the repression in Gambia, a country once known to be a model of democracy in Africa.

Scrubbing up dry tears in her face, she tells me: “I cried because I’m happy. I went through a long road of reflection. We’ve suffered a lot. He [Baba Leigh] was incarcerated for no just cause.”
A rough journey 
Outspoken and up-to-date with contemporary issues, Baba Leigh represents a rare face of the struggle against the abuse of women and girls. Unlike many Islamic scholars who build career and amass handouts out of praising politicians, Baba Leigh serves as a strong moral voice against the excesses of the powers that be in a country where dissent often carries on a high cost.

With Gamcotrap, a women’s rights NGO in the fight against harmful traditional practices, he’s a leading figure. He uses his Islamic background to refute the notion that Islam justifies traditional practices some of which are proven to be inimical to the health and wellbeing of women.

Today, their decades-long campaign is evidently paying off. Deep-seated traditional practices, such as early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation are slowly but surely fading. 

Embracing such a revolutionary movement in a patriarchal society has visibly earned the cleric both love and hatred but perhaps in unequal measure.

To some of his fellow scholars, he’s a ‘Judas’ who accepts money from “Western-sponsored organisations” to campaign against female circumcision, a ‘religious obligation’. 

To the government, he’s an opposition sympathiser who hides behind religion to pour venom on its policies and to tarnish its image. 
To many however, Baba Leigh is not just an erudite scholar who catches up with modern realities, but also a defender of the rights of the weak and the downtrodden.
“Imam has gone everywhere with us,” says Dr Isatou Touray who received the Award on behalf of the Imam who had since undergone medical treatment in the U.S after his prolonged detention.

She further tells me of the Islamic scholar: “Despite the hostile environment he continued to stand by a very honest perspective, educating the public by bringing out the religious dimension to FGM and early and forced marriage.

“There are other Imams who know the truth but never associated with us because they feel the issues we are talking about are sensitive.”

Detained and persecuted 
In late 2012, the cleric publicly criticised the government’s controversial execution of nine prisoners on August 23 of that year. Countering the position of the Supreme Islamic Council, he described the execution as Un-Islamic. With that, the lens of the powers that be apparently zoomed in on him. 

His arrest and detention shortly afterwards could not be a surprise. In fact, the cleric is no stranger to arbitrary arrest and detention, which in today’s Gambia has rather become a rule. But that he would be detained by the state security for more than five months, without access to family or lawyer, and even allegedly tortured, has sent shock waves beyond Gambia.

“Imam Baba Leigh has not been seen or heard from in five months and the Government of The Gambia continues to deny providing information about his whereabouts. We urge the Government of The Gambia to act in accordance with its laws as well as its international obligations,” the US, UK and EU had said in a joint statement issued at the time.   
Dr Isatou Touray poses for photos with sub-regional awardees (Photo Credit: Sainey MK Marenah).
No politics for imams 
Upon the release of the Imam barely a few days after the intervention of the powers that contribute largely, to feeding the resource-poor West African country, the message the government intends to send out by Imam Leigh’s mistreatment was clear.

“There is religion and there is politics. Imams should discuss religious matters when they are on their religious gatherings. When you comment on issues that you don’t have clear facts on, whatever happens to you, you are the cause of it,” Gambia’s (then) presidential affairs minister, Njogu Bah, told him, at the time.

And the message has sunk in. “Honestly, I am scared,” a prominent Gambian elite who I’ll not name here, chats away to me. “If these people are capable of detaining an imam of Baba Leigh’s calibre that long, then they are capable of doing anything to anyone.”

Baba Leigh nonetheless seems undeterred. “Baba Leigh of yesterday is Baba Leigh of today…” he says in a statement after his release. Recent reports though suggest he’s joined the long list of Gambians who have re-settled elsewhere outside Gambia, where even the long arm of a dictatorship would not reach him.
The award
The Africa Human Rights Defenders Award is said to be the first of its kind on the continent. The maiden edition was held on Tuesday October 22, 2013, here in Banjul during the 54 Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights.

Organised by the pan-African Human Rights Defenders Project, it seeks to recognise the courageous efforts of human rights defenders in Africa.

“This Award sends a powerful signal that human rights defenders who can be in a dark room detained and disappear; who could be living in fear not knowing when next to be attacked that they are not alone,” says Dr Hassan Shire Sheikh, chairperson of the coalition of African human rights activists.  
Imam Baba Leigh was detained incommunicado for 5 months after speaking on the killing by squad of 9 death row prisoners.
What made him stand out?
Imam Leigh’s contestants were drawn from the four other sub-regions of Africa – North, South, Central and East Africa. All of them, unlike Baba Leigh, are specialised human rights defenders.

For instance, Angolan rights activist, Lucia Da Silveira works around illegal arrest and detention and torture. Her exposure of the manhandling of prisoners by prison officers in her country has led to the dismissal of the prison chief. The rest of the contestants, who like Lucia bagged sub-regional awards, are Yara Salam, Egypt; Paulette Oyane, Gabon; and Livingstone Senwanyana, Uganda.

What made the Baba Leigh stand out in the eyes of the jury comprising representatives from the UN and AU human rights mechanisms? I asked Dr Hassan Shire Sheikh|:

“Baba Leigh has given voice to thousands of young girls who have been misled by their parents and some dubious imams who tell them Islam justifies FGM, which is wrong.”

What impact on Gambia?

Also of puzzle is that continent-wide award’s winner came from an unlikely corner, Gambia, where human rights defenders are rare in the face of a shrunken space. Activists however believe that the awarding of Baba Leigh would inject life into human rights activism in Gambia.

“It is to tell our colleagues in Gambia that we’ve recognised their courageous work and we encourage them to do more and we’re in solidarity with them,” says Dr Hassan.

For Omar Jallow, a cousin to the cleric, it is important for people to stand for their beliefs particularly if those beliefs are right; if they are to promote justice and human rights.

In an exclusive interview, he tells me: “Imam Leigh has been upright, and speaker of truth. Therefore, today, he has been vindicated and the whole family is happy and proud and prays he continues his crusade to ensure that justice is done on this earth.”
  • TNBES is given the right to reproduce this article which first appeared HERE.
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