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Out of many, one people

Keon West

Tuesday, October 16, 2012    

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IN June this year I got married. One of my best men was Nawaz Ahmad. He is one of the kindest, wisest, most principled people I have ever met. Nawaz is a devout Muslim. I don't think Allah exists. Still, our relationship is characterised by mutual respect and admiration. We help each other in times of need and comfort each other in times of sadness. We each appreciate the other's advice and respect the other's intelligence and morality. I think highly of his wife, who covers her hair. He thinks highly of my wife, who does not. I would viciously oppose any law that prevented him from praying to Mecca or respecting Ramadan, as he would viciously oppose any law that forced me to do so, or prevented me from drinking alcohol.

I say this to help you understand the sharp contrast between real love and respect, and what happened on September 15, 2012 on the streets of out-of-many-one-people Jamaica. During this act with the Orwellian name, "Love March", a group of Christians demanded that the private sexual lives of all Jamaicans be subject to their religious preferences, and that our laws punish those who do not conform to their prejudices.

Make no mistake: Nawaz believes some of my personal decisions are morally misguided; I think the same of some of his. But where we disagree we debate each other like rational, respectable adults. And if we fail to convince each other, the disagreement and the respect need not cancel each other out; friendship is not contingent upon agreement. Neither of us would dream of marching to demonise the other's lifestyle, as though increased volume were an appropriate substitute for sound reason or good evidence. Neither of us would be presumptuous enough to pretend that we "loved the other too much to let him continue in his misguided ways". We would see such a thinly veiled attempt at social control for what it was - arrogance and hostility.

If you find it unbearable that other people do not agree with your world view, I feel sorry for you, because there's a lot of difference out there, and it's not going away. According to the World Factbook, one in three Jamaicans do not identify as Christian. One in five have no religion at all. And the Christian sects are so fragmented that no single one can claim more than a tenth of the population. And this is just Jamaica. If you ever leave Jamaica you'll find at least 1.5 billion people who believe in reincarnation, 1.6 billion who believe in Allah, and almost 1 billion who believe in neither gods nor reincarnation. Under the weight of these figures, the attempts to alienate and marginalise Jamaica's gay and non-Christian population (with signs reading "Out of many, one people UNDER GOD!") seem both laughable and crass. You have a lifetime of futile marching ahead of you.

At my wedding there were Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, atheists, and pagans. There were people who spoke (as a first language) English, French, Spanish, Russian, German, Hebrew, Arabic, Gaelic, and of course, patois. There were black people, white people, Indians, Asians and people too mixed to identify. There were same-race couples and mixed-race couples, same-sex couples and mixed-sex couples. And we all had a fabulous time together. Not everyone there was Jamaican, but we all understood that fundamental value at the core of the Jamaican spirit - Out of many, one people - the value that reminds us that people who differ from us are as worthy of love and respect as we are.

If you feel the need to add to our national motto, perhaps it is you, not those you are trying to exclude, who don't belong in Jamaica. Understanding our motto means realising that the law exists to protect the citizens from each other, not to exercise or justify our personal prejudices. It means realising that the battle for a decent society is not being fought between the Muslims and the infidels, between the gay and the straight, or between the believers and the non-believers. It is being fought between the mature adults who will treat each other with respect despite their differences, and the bigots who will not.

Dr Keon West is a social psychologist and Jamaican Rhodes Scholar (Jamaica and Balliol, 2006). He has a doctorate in social psychology from Oxford University and is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Roehampton, London.

Keon.West@roehampton.ac.uk

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