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Commentary: Preventing tyranny of the majority in Jamaica: Human rights protect us from each other
Published on August 7, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Rodje Malcolm

The protection of universal human rights and the separation of church and state are foundational for a robust democracy. As a normative framework, a human rights approach to law and governance, by design, protects the rights and freedoms of all groups – including Christians. Contrary to the divisive, inflamed rhetoric coming from Jamaican religious leaders, the human rights movement is not a war against the church.

Rodje Malcolm is a human rights advocate and a Director at Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), specializing in child rights and juvenile justice issues. These views are strictly his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ)
It has been argued that Jamaica (much of the Caribbean) is a majority-Christian nation and as such, a Judeo-Christian worldview should dictate law (Charter, Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society).This is particularly in the context of the national discussion on reviewing Jamaica’s “Buggery Law.” The fundamentalist lobby, has, for years, organized to impact legislation and weaken the extension of human rights to groups unsupported by their version of Christianity. This approach to governance is not a novel concept. Oftentimes, groups in positions of superiority find it difficult to consider the plight of disadvantaged groups. They either cannot identify with minority causes, have no real reason to care, or have an incentive to perpetuate the status quo.

In Jamaica, an archaic, strict majoritarian vision of democracy has been advanced as a solution to resolving social tensions. That is, the human rights interests of minorities are unimportant due to their minority status. This approach is exclusionary. Its dangerous implications become clear to the same majority groups when, in alternate cultural contexts, the roles are reversed, and they experience widespread discrimination and persecution at the hands of a stubborn majority. These same groups clamor for equality, human rights, and an end to the same discrimination that they have a propensity to exhibit when they are in comfortable, majority settings.

The pervasiveness of discrimination in settings of cultural heterogeneity demonstrates that discrimination, as a phenomenon… does not discriminate. Depending on the context, minorities, of any identity group, face the prospect of prejudice. Political systems should therefore be designed to protect against the tyranny of the majority. They should be secular, creating a neutral public sphere in which all people can exist on equal terms – consensus democracy.

This is why popular fundamentalist commentary, such as Steve Lyston’s recent, praised column in The Gleaner, “Religious Freedom and Global Economy” is so bizarre (please, go read it). Lyston was decrying the persecution of minority Christians by Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, urging Christians in the Caribbean to be vigilant. He probably thought it was a slam-dunk, not realizing that the argument holds true on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Lyston, a biblical economic consultant – whatever that means – blasted the media and human rights groups for remaining silent on the persecution of Christians, claiming that “Their only focus is 'freedom of sexual choice' - so sexual choice has now taken precedence over religious freedom.” He said:

“Now with the emergence of ISIS - the Islamic terrorist group that controls approximately 35 per cent of Syria and Iraq…They are murdering the Christians for their beliefs and their refusal to convert to Islam. In light of what is happening, if the Caribbean believes that Christians are safe in this region, think again!

"The Caribbean countries need to wake up and with the situation that exists where some Caribbean nations are selling visas and citizenship to those who can afford it, this poses a great security risk….If the Caribbean and the other Western nations are not vigilant, very shortly we will see our schools being infiltrated and freedom of choice will be taken away!... Bibles will be banned and only Qurans will be in the schools.”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Discrimination against any group is tragic and inexcusable. This holds true for Muslims in Myanmar who face persecution at the hands of a majority Buddhist population; the Roma, a minority ethnic group who face displacement in parts of Europe; Christians and Buddhists who face criminal sanctions for organizing or preaching in North Korea – considered a threat to “North Korean values;” and the LGBT community in Jamaica who live under discriminatory colonial laws. When there is a clash of values, only a system of universal human rights can limit the capacity for abuse.

Fundamentalist Christian advocates such as Lyston, Dr Wayne West, Shirley Richards and the approximately 25,000 people who gathered in Kingston recently to protest a loss of religious rights in Jamaica cannot, in one breath, decry the discrimination against Christians in minority settings and then, in another breath, advocate that Christian majority status gives them the right to call the shots in Jamaica under some warped understanding of religious rights. That is special pleading -- having your cake and nyaming it too. The arguments being used to insert religious dogma into discourse about criminal law and human rights in Jamaica (majority rules, so... deal with it), are the same arguments used to justify [insert global historical legacy of minority oppression here] the same discrimination against Christians that Lyston, et al are up-in-arms about.

Do unto others?

Moreover, it is important to note that accepting the ability of differing worldviews and lifestyles to exist in peace does not equate to support or endorsement for them. It simply recognizes that diverse interests can co-exist without “the majority” using criminal code to suppress others – even if they find each other disgusting. Because such a system of "might-is-right democracy," when normalized, poses an inherent risk of injustice, and because no society is perfectly homogeneous across religious, ethnic and sexual lines, a secular, human rights approach to navigating differences is necessary.

The religious lobby is correct; LGBT rights must never stifle freedom of speech of Christians. In the same way, religious freedom cannot infringe upon the sexual rights and the right to privacy of LGBT people. We cannot become so entrenched in our positions that we become polarized. When the only thing that (usually bickering) Christian denominations can find to unite around is the fight against “the gay lobby,” then our priorities are warped. This national paranoia has led to division, when engagement and discourse are needed.

Let’s re-evaluate the type of political system that we desire, one that will protect, not subordinate, the interests of all.
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