Thursday, 26 November 2009:
There is a lot of overt religiosity in Trinidad and Tobago. It struck me hard at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth People’s Forum last Sunday evening. Everyone was asked to stand as the Prime Minister entered the hall and then asked to remain standing as the head of the inter-religious council – I think he was a Muslim leader – came up to the lecturn to give the Invocation. He called upon God’s blessings to ensure the success of the conference. Naturally, he did not specify which god he was referring to, but whichever it was, the whole thing presupposed that there was (a) a god and (b) only one god, and (c) it was male. It didn’t allow for alternative beliefs.
I whispered to an Italian guy beside me: “Would this kind of thing be on the agenda if this conference were held in Italy?”
“No way,” he said.
From a websearch, I see that about 50 percent of Trinidad’s 1.3 million people are Christian split almost equally between Roman Catholics and Protestants of various denominations. About 23 percent are Hindu and 6 percent Muslim.
Yet, Christianity is far more visible than other religions. Having seen a reasonable bit of Port of Spain, I can say that there is a church every 500 metres, some of which are very small and humble affairs. Walk around the streets and you’d see doorways with crucifixes. Walls and random spaces are inscribed with various references to the benevolence of the Christian god. There’s a bible in every room of my hotel, a practice that has almost died out in most other countries. The picture below was taken when I was riding in the shuttle bus that was ferrying our group from the conference venue back to our hotel. And it’s typical; I’ve seen similar in a taxi and in the minibus that took me from the airport to the hotel the day I arrived.
One afternoon at the conference, a Trinidadian participant rose to question why spirituality was not given more prominence in the Human Rights draft. He justified his view by saying something to the effect that there is nothing that humans can do without God’s help; in fact, quite often even when humans do nothing, God will put it right. The document we are preparing, he said, should invoke the grace of God, otherwise it is meaningless.
Another participant by the name of Mandeep – I think he was from India, but someone else thought he was from South Africa (though of Indian extraction) – jumped up and said this kind of thing is just not done when drafting a Human Rights document; we should focus on what states and governments are expected to deliver.
To that the big, tall Trinidadian immediately issued an inquisitory question in stentorian tones: “You don’t believe in God? Are you an atheist?”
The entire room held its breath.
Mandeep responded by saying that is irrelevant, but very quickly, the moderator intervened, saying discussions shouldn’t get personal.
Religious riot averted.
* * * * *
The gay activists in Trinidad report that bible thumping is about their biggest problem now. The churches are also promoting conversion therapy – that’s the pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo that claims to be able to change homosexuals into heterosexuals. These indoctrination programs have been denounced by professional psychologists’ associations as very harmful to participants.
In today’s meeting, the second conference I am attending here in Trinidad, a meeting of gay activists from 10 countries around the world to brainstorm strategies, one observation that can immediately be made is how this anti-gay campaign by Christian fundamentalists is occuring in nearly all ten countries. Things are especially bad in Africa, where moral panic is causing some governments to increase penalties against both gay men and women.
The representative from Nigeria was surprised to hear that India had Pride marches in six cities this year. “Did the police provide protection?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the representative from India. “We had to apply for licences, and when the police approved the licences for the parades, they also knew that they had to station enough personnel along the route.”
“Did anyone attack?”
“No, why would anyone attack?”
“In Nigeria, you couldn’t hold a parade like that. You’d be attacked. And the police …” He trailed off, but it wasn’t hard to guess that he had no confidence that the police would protect the marchers.