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Raffique Shah


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Mixing God with Mammon

By Raffique Shah
July 17, 2016

The bickering among Islamic organisations over the allocation and distribution of Government funding for the recent Eid celenrations underscores a point I've made ever since this nonsense started a few years ago: Government ought never to dispense public funds for religious festivals.

A few weeks before Eid, in the midst of Islam's holiest month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims are obligated to give generously to the less fortunate among their brethren and in their communities, several prominent leaders publicly complained that Government had given no indication that State-funding, which had descended into a feeding frenzy under the previous administration, was forthcoming.

The perception they conveyed was if they received no funding, there would be no Eid. Instead of adhering to the Quranic injunction of giving, these men were bullying. They stopped short of hiring Watson Duke to placard the Prime Minister, "No money, no Eid!"

The Government, which has asked citizens to lower their expectations in the face of a serious economic crisis, and has cut back on expenditure even for the neediest in society, did not hesitate to grant two or three million dollars to selected organisations. That others were excluded from the "eat-ah-sawine" swilling has triggered allegations of political discrimination.

The Government invited this controversy. Upon taking office last year, it should have signalled to all religious denominations that while it will continue with subventions for the schools that they own and run, some like fiefdoms over which Government has little say and no control, there will be no public funding for festivals such as Eid, Divali, Christmas, Baptists' Day and whatever else religions may decree as being important to them.

I feel strongly about this issue. Besides the fact that Ramadan is the month of giving, not taking, every mosque in this country hosts lavish, costly "iftars" ("aftaris" in my day) that are funded by members of the "jamaat". An overabundance of dishes and delicacies are served, in instances on almost every night during Ramadan, so much so that many Muslims put on weight even though they fast.

Besides such extravagance, Muslims are obligated to pay to their jamaats "Zakat", which is a tax based on a percentage of their overall worth (cash, property, jewelry, etc), and which, I need add, those who are poor or of ordinary means observe more strictly than the rich. There is also "Satkafitir", alms given to the poor. Every Eid, scores of destitute people gather outside mosques and worshippers distribute dollars to them before prayers.

Additionally, jammats raise funds for building or upgrading mosques, acquiring furniture and equipment, and so on.

So why do they need Government funding? And do the recipients account for usage of the grants?

It seems to me that soliciting money this way is un-Islamic, and accepting it might even be "haram".

I am not singling out Muslims, mark you: They just happen to be the most recent recipients of Government grants. Pretty soon Hindus will demand Divali dollars, and shortly afterwards Christians will clamour for Christmas funding.

Not long ago, none of these religious organisations received public funding for any such observances and they all went off well. In fact, I suggest that the prayers, fasting and festivals had more meaning, brought more joy to adherents of the different faiths because the faithful, not the Government, funded them.

I don't recall how the slide into dependency began, but I know that Kamla Persad-Bissessar took it to new heights-or depths, depending on one's perspective-in terms of the millions of dollars dispensed. She used her office and public funds in a bid to buy out mosques, mandirs and churches-only it did not quite work in her favour when elections came.

But if the politicians use taxpayers' dollars to buy religious currency, what of the imams, priests and pundits? You mean not one among them has the decency to reject this synthetic mixing of God and Mammon?

All religions claim human compassion as the bedrock of their beliefs, or so they say.

Yet none of them would tell politicians bearing millions of dollars as gifts: Get thee hence! Tend to the suffering children who need life-saving surgery abroad. Look after the old and infirm who cannot get medications at public health facilities. Hire Chinese doctors who, magically, perform twenty, thirty times the number of surgical procedures locals do, bringing relief to patients who have waited for years for simple cataract or bypass operations.

It's not that the ten or fifteen million the Government doles out to religious organizations annually will have a big impact on the plight of the infirm.

It's more that the few lives they would save by foregoing money they do not need would distinguish them from the evangelical buccaneers who enrich themselves by fleecing their gullible flocks by shamelessly mixing God and Mammon and wallowing in the kind of opulence all scriptures condemn. Amen.

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