Rastafarians, hijabs and the paradox of tolerance

Rastafarians among them John Wambua alias Prophet (second from right) the father of a dreadlocked girl who was denied admission to Olympic high School for not having shaved her hair at a Milimani court /COLLINS KWEYU
Rastafarians among them John Wambua alias Prophet (second from right) the father of a dreadlocked girl who was denied admission to Olympic high School for not having shaved her hair at a Milimani court /COLLINS KWEYU

Procrustes, also known as ‘the stretcher’, was a Greek robber dwelling in Attica.

He had a residence on ‘the sacred way’ between Athens and Eleusis. In his residence was an iron bed in which he invited every traveller who passed by to spend the night. If the traveller was shorter than the bed, he stretched him by hammering or racking the body to fit; and if he was longer than the bed, he cut off the legs to make the body fit the bed’s length. In either event, the victim died due to Procrustes intolerance for differences.

In recent weeks, our renditions of Procrustes have been unveiled, and they range from heads of schools to the Judiciary. The first unveiling began when a school presented a student who professes the Rastafarian faith with a double bind when they asked her to choose between shaving her hair or leaving the school.

After a court ruling, the girl has since been readmitted.

The second was through an unrelated ruling that was made by the Supreme Court that allowed a certain school to bar Muslim girl students from wearing hijab, which is a veil that covers their head and chest, citing that it was against their uniform policy. The third was the rare inquietude displayed by the Chief Justice during the conference on corruption, where he lamented about his salacious depiction by bloggers.

The common denominator in all the three is the intolerance for differences. And like Procrustes, there is a desire from all parties to want to stretch those who do not fit in their ‘bed’ or cut off their legs if they are too long.

According to the Legatum Prosperity Index that ranks countries according to how much personal freedom their citizens enjoy based on criteria such as freedom of speech, religion and social tolerance, among other variables, Kenya ranks 97th globally and seventh in sub-Saharan Africa. Based on this data, we can conclusively say Kenya is fairly tolerant. And this was buttressed by President Uhuru Kenyatta as he sought to advice the Chief Justice to accept and move on with the unwarranted insults from bloggers, as everyone else has.

However, as Karl Popper, the Austrian-British professor and one of the most influential philosophers of science stated in his book, The Open Societies and Its Enemies, that unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of tolerance. He went on to say that if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

 

To deconstruct Popper’s thinking means that if we demand unlimited tolerance, then we need to be ready to tolerate the most awful ideas and acts that occur within our society. When we are asked to tolerate something that is at the expense of someone else’s existence or well-being, tolerating such ideas and acts is a tacit endorsement by ourselves, and we should therefore not complain about them.

Begs the question, is it possible to have too much tolerance? And does tolerance involve being tolerant of the intolerant? Hence, as the paradox of tolerance then states, doesn’t this lead to the disappearance of tolerance altogether? Yet intolerance can only beget conflict.

Tolerance means accepting our differences and allowing others to engage in behaviour or speech that we might dislike, disapprove of, or not believe in, as long as that behaviour or speech does not cause harm to ourselves or others in society. However, such tolerance ought not compel us to associate with people we differ with, only that we leave them in peace.

 

Let us take the case of the Rastafarian father. He based his legal argument on his freedom of religion as protected by our Constitution. And the State unable to contradict itself and coerce its citizens on religious beliefs, refrains from interfering in the religious beliefs of its citizens. Resultantly, the court found in favour of the student due to her inalienable right to the free exercise of religion that necessitates toleration of all competing creeds.

But should the dad have been tolerant of the intolerant school rules against Rastafarians?

The same case obtains regarding the hijab ruling. In response, National Assembly Majority leader Aden Duale urged all Muslims to ignore the Supreme Court ruling, saying the Constitution protects their right to wear the hijab and that the court cannot take that away. While this is not in question, was he being intolerant of the ruling of the highest court in the land?

 

In both scenarios, to safeguard the sanctity of tolerance, shouldn’t the Rastafarian dad and Duale have been tolerant of the intolerant positions taken by the learning institutions? Shouldn’t they have respected the school's right not to associate with those that choose not to conform to its uniform code, and seek those learning institutions that embrace their religious dress code?

I submit that tolerance does not mandate association. And to mandate association is to invite a forceful backing of intolerance through dissension, disputes, conflict and war; while it would have been easier to have a peaceful refusal to associate. Granted, nobody enjoys the sting of rejection or feeling discriminated against, especially those that offend deeply held religious beliefs. But a society that cannot tolerate differing views and respect the live-and-let-live principle that gives them the freedom to associate as they wish, and equally decline to do so, will not be free for too long.

 

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to the Chief Justice; the aim of any social media netizen is to be successful at hyperbolic clickbait. Therefore, to pronounce a cease and desist order on your lewd depictions, is like asking water not to be wet. So, to echo President Kenyatta’s counsel, kubali yaishe.

“Religion is like a pair of shoes; find one that fits you, but don't make me wear your shoes.”


George Carlin