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Fiji leaders’ abdication on religious freedom (and other issues). 6 March 2013.


Leaders’ abdication on religious freedom (and other issues)
6 March 2013.

In recent weeks, the public has become worked up over the right of a child not to be compelled to attend a school religious ritual, and the media have been publishing many people’s views on the pros and cons.

It is important to debate the issues, of course.

But equally important to think about: are our religious, social, political and intellectual leaders rising to the occasion to guide our people in their thinking over such difficult issues?

Or are they totally abdicating their social responsibility by conveniently keeping silent, as has so often been the case after every coup?

Unfortunately, media censorship still continues to discourage informed comment which our people should think about.

Below, is a “Letter to the Editor” I wrote to the two Fiji papers on the religious freedom issue, by referring to the policy of the genuinely great Harvard University and its President (the American equivalent of our “Vice Chancellor”).

This letter has not been printed (although the Fiji Sun did print the longer article addressing the related issues).

The Fiji public have therefore been denied the opportunity to understand what the views of at least one world class education leader is, on an issue such as religious freedom in schools.

In the Fiji public debate on religious freedom, not only did all the leaders of Fiji’s main religious organizations not make any public statement at all (except for the Head of the Catholic Church), but neither did the leaders of Fiji’s universities (including the religious training institutions) or the private education authorities, or even those who claim to (want to) be political leaders.

Basically, Fiji ‘s leaders have abdicated their broad social responsibility to offer informed guidance that can lift our people from their usual “knee-jerk” reactions, which are often driven by ignorance of the facts or thinly disguised religious bigotry.

With the release of a video, there will soon be another barrage of views and debate about the  unnecessary violence against prisoners already in safe custody.

My earlier take on this is here:

The public should keep an eye out not just for the issues involved in this horrible issue, but also whether our religious, social and political leaders (and who, if any) offer any informed guidance at all to the public, on such traumatic issues, where both sides can appear “reasonable” but society must make an enlightened choice.

Even some in the current Fiji Regime would like such guidance from those who profess to be leaders, just as they may have been glad to hear informed comments on the religious freedom issue, or the many other issues (draw up your own list!) which continue to flummox the ordinary public.

A lesson for Leadership Fiji

There are organisations, like Leadership Fiji, which perform a great service for society by trying to encourage young people to take up leadership roles in society- in all the areas that leaders are needed: economics, political, social, environment, etc.

I am not sure what they are doing these days:  I used to be requested to speak (usually on economic policy issues) but those invitations stopped soon after the media censorship kicked in and I became persona non grata in the Fiji media.

I wonder however if Leadership Fiji (or other leadership programs) have ever have asked their young leaders to identify the FAILURES OF LEADERSHIP IN FIJI.

And surely, the bigger the mess any country is in, the bigger is the failure of leadership at various levels!

Of course, it would be difficult for the organisers to get their young people to confront such contentious issues in the current climate- they may soon find their program shut down or the organizers given free unplanned exercise around some playground somewhere.

However, one exercise they could set their young participants is to have closed sessions, without any organizers, under “Chatham House rules” (i.e. all discussions are unrecorded and confidential to the participants only) to discuss this very topic- what are all the failures of leadership in Fiji; and what should and can be done to help Fiji out of its current morass.

They might also like to do a tracer study of all their previous “young leaders” and find out how many still remain in Fiji.   Or have the bulk of them also, like all our other tertiary graduates, taken their leaderships skills to Australia, NZ, US and Canada?

Professor Wadan Narsey
6 March 2013.

Letter to the Editor (27 February 2013) (not published by either Fiji Sun or The Fiji Times)
(slightly revised to clarify)

Dear Sir

I would like to encourage Ms Patricia Mallam that she is in good company defending the freedom of her child not to be coerced into attending any school religious ritual that she does not believe in.

More than a hundred years ago, the genuinely great Harvard University faced that same dilemma, reminded its current President (or Vice Chancellor) (Professor Drew Faust), in her morning prayer with the Harvard University community.

Faust remembered the contributions of a former President of Harvard (Charles Elliot) who not only converted Harvard from a mere “College” to a “University” but he fought for members of Harvard to have the individual freedom to attend or not attend religious rituals and prayers. 

Readers may access her full speech here:   (and also read about this remarkable university administrator).

Faust, the President of Harvard University gave thanks that they had the opportunity to choose to pray rather than be compelled.  

She observed: ” Our religious affiliations are far more varied than he (Elliot) ever could have imagined. …  Let us continue in this new year our dedication to Harvard’s liberality as regards opinions, its devotion to ideals, and the preciousness in its sight of individual liberty.”

Ms Mallam, one day your daughter may get to Harvard, or some other great comparable academic institution, where she will not only have freedom of religion, but also the respect of others for her right to be not compelled in others’ faiths.  In the meantime, press on regardless.

Every public crisis and debate should makes us all think deeper about the purpose and practice of life, whether coup, constitution, democracy, and basic human right (including freedom of religion).

 Professor Wadan Narsey

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