Pro-transgender development: Challenges posed by religious extremism

Published on Pambazuka News, by Audrey Mbugua, Jan. 06, 2010.

Just as we should deplore the role of religious extremism in terrorist acts, we must reject extremist intolerance and antipathy towards sexual minorities, argues Audrey Mbugua. Rather than ’surrender your brain’ to hate-mongering religious leaders and misplaced fear, Mbugua stresses, we must focus on promoting peace and understanding.

On 11 September 2009, America woke up to watch helplessly as 2,900 of its citizens lost their lives as a result of a series of coordinated suicide attacks by al-Qaeda. Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial passenger jet airliners and intentionally crashed two of the airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing everyone on board and many others working in the buildings.

The hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington DC. The fourth plane crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, after some of its passengers and flight crew attempted to retake control of the plane, which the hijackers had redirected toward Washington DC. There were no survivors from any of the flights. The ensuing economic losses wreaked havoc for many in the airline and insurance industries. Jobs were lost across the globe but the resilience of man reversed much of the losses in years to come.

But, I shouldn’t take you readers thousands of miles away. In the 8 August 1998 US Embassy bombings, 212 Kenyans were killed in a bomb explosion at the United States embassy in Nairobi. Over 3,000 were wounded, with hundreds losing their eyesight and limbs. And, as we mourned the dead we sought answers as to why so many Kenyans would die because big brother America had some squabbles with a bunch of brainwashed Muslim radicals. And in our rage, we (like the Americans) lost sight of the root cause of such extremism entrenching more religious-based extremism against innocent civilians.

These and other unmentioned terrorist attacks across the globe are as a result of religious extremism. Religious extremism refers to the use of fear and violence to encourage obedience to religious doctrine or to assert opposition to a scientific truth or community. We mistake religious extremism for ideology but it is an insidious mental illness that feeds on an inexplicable compulsion to kill humanity. Arno Gruen said, ‘The lack of identity associated with extremists is the result of self-destructive self-hatred that leads to feelings of revenge toward life itself, and a compulsion to kill one’s own humanness.’[1] So, let’s stop sugar-coating religious-based hostility against minorities with sloppy labels as ‘doing God’s work’. It is unacceptable in any civilised nation.

It never ceases to amaze me how we ignore the glaring atrocities committed against minorities by a large section of Christians and Muslims in Kenya. We have witnessed Christians stripping transsexual women in Nairobi and Mombasa and denying them access to medical services. Some Muslim extremists threatened to kill the homosexual community in Mombasa on prime-time news in May 2007! But no one dares to stand up and say no to these dreck. And what has religion given back to Kenyans? Misery, bitterness, overpopulation, hatred, suicides, fat cats, poverty, wasted time, wasted lives, unemployment and, of course, empty promises of eternal life. Dawkins (2001) summarised these well with: …  //

… In view of the negative effects of religious extremism there is an urgent need to overhaul our way of thinking and act beyond our superficial view of the world. Why should you surrender your brain to someone just because he told you he is the path to Jesus or God? Please ask him whether there is an alternative path, one that doesn’t involve denying transsexual people access to medical services or beating up gays and raping lesbians in the street. Carl Sagan has stated it succinctly:

If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.[3]

We need peace-building in our lives. This approach, which is aimed at addressing the underlying conditions which foster extremism, requires activities at two levels. At the macro-social level it requires work toward:

  • a reduction of inequity and oppression;
  • the protection of human rights;
  • the weakening of extremist ideologies;
  • a reduction of militarism, racism and sexism;
  • systems that promote political empowerment, inter-group tolerance, cooperation, and non-violent conflict resolution;
  • democratisation and participatory governance;
  • and the strengthening of civil society.

At the micro-social level it requires: a reduction of stereotypes and enemy images; the promotion of empathy, caring and intercultural understanding; and the provision of economic and social support for young people.[4]

The greatest obstacle to this is not how powerful your god is but choosing to be a slave to some religious beliefs and being a puppet for your local pastor, or whoever lies to you that life would be better if some people were denied access to medical services. We all want to develop ourselves for the few years we will be alive and pro-transgender and inter-sex development have to move beyond our government’s lip service to governance and resource allocation, the centrality of which is human rights and should have a trickle-down effect on a transsexual and inter-sex individual in a village in Nyeri or Bondo, in the end bringing about substantive development in our lives. And for the international community, we request that you shift your approach to gender development from an exclusive attention on women and their specific needs to a more broader paradigm that caters for the unique needs of transgender and inter-sex people and the hostile environment they live in as a result of their gender trajectories. The East Africa Sexual and Health Rights Initiative through the UHAI fund has set the pace. We need to see replicas of this in other donor agencies. (full text).

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