Prayer should unite, not divide

Published in The Daily Monitor on April 12, 2011

As a guest at various meetings and workshops in Uganda over the last couple of years I have been interested to note how many of these, whether convened by government or non-government agencies, open with a short prayer.

Although having no specific religious affiliation myself I can see the positive value of this practice. It was exemplified by a woman invited to lead the opening prayer in an event I recently attended. She urged us to approach the proceedings “with humility” and “to seek wisdom and understanding from each other.”

That was well said. Personal conceit, egotism, and the pursuit of narrow self-interest are perennial obstacles to communication and cooperation between people. If a religious perspective calls upon us to put these aside, acknowledging our individual failings and weakness, then it is a great starting point for any important discussion or joint endeavour.

And yet, I have also noted, these opening prayers are almost always explicitly Christian, offered to Our Lord, Jesus Christ even when the meeting includes Muslim participants. Indeed, this disregard of Uganda’s minority faith seems entirely reflexive and routine, even though it is a substantial minority. Estimates of the Muslim population vary widely, but it is generally put as comprising at least 12% of the national total.

Such casual marginalisation of Muslims is not in any way necessary. There are differences between Islam and Christianity, just as there are differences between Catholic and Protestant Christians, between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But the common ground between these faiths is far greater and more important than their differences.

Humility, acceptance of our human limitations; charity and compassion, the struggle to overcome innate selfishness and treat our neighbours decently; belief in a transcendent goodness and reverence in its contemplation; these are core concerns and values shared by all the major faiths.

We all know the misery and strife that occurs when distinct religious communities focus on their differences rather than on what they have in common. Human beings have immense and immensely destructive capacity for sectarian division. Indeed, this is perhaps the best argument that religious believers have against the attacks of modern atheists: that people need religion to moderate our worst instincts, and that we are impoverished without it.

Yet, unfortunately, we still live in a world where even some of those who claim to be religious leaders seek to stir up hate against fellow theists. Pastor Terry Jones, with his Koran-burning antics in Florida, USA, is only the latest sorry example. (And yes, of course, there have been equally vile examples from some Muslim clerics.)

The banning of minarets in Switzerland in 2009 and a ban on women wearing the burqa, which comes into effect on April 11 in France, show that European nations which pride themselves on their regard for civic and religious freedoms are in danger of slipping towards intolerance and division.

Ugandans, who have known their share of religious and sectarian strife, and who understand the importance of trying to bridge community divides, should set a different example. It is great that this is a country where both Muslims and Christians can rise to high office. It is great that Christians and Muslims routinely sit down together to discuss public policy and business issues. And it is great that those discussions are often preceded by prayer encouraging participants to rise above pettiness and self-interest.

But it would be even better if forms of words were found to stress the unifying core of the religious perspective whilst recognising the diversity of particular faiths. This would be a simple yet pro-active way to guard against the development of conflicts that, too often in the past, Uganda has imported from elsewhere.