The African nation of Gambia erupted in controversy after its president declared it Africa’s newest Islamic state.
Gambia just celebrated 51 years of independence but marring the celebration was an outcry against President Yahya Jammeh’s proposal to declare the nation an Islamic one.
“In line with the country’s religious identity and values, I proclaim The Gambia as an Islamic State,” President Jammeh recently.
“Accepting Allah’s religion as your religion and as your way of life is not negotiable,” the leader added.
Gambia’s opposition leader led the outcry against the declaration.
“You cannot make such a declaration without going through a referendum,” National Reconciliation Party leader Hamat told Al Jezeera.
The Gambia Supreme Islamic Council hosted a 300-member conference earlier in February to defend the president’s declaration and encourage peace between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Jammeh assured the nation that its identity as a Muslim country will not lead to persecution of other faiths.
“Let me make it very clear: that does not mean Christians cannot worship in their way of life,” he said. “Christians should be given their own respect; the way they celebrate Christmas or whatever will continue. In our relationship with all the rest of the religions, nobody has the right to interfere with their way of life.”
Many remain skeptical about his declaration and he faces continued opposition.
“I have not appointed anybody as an Islamic policeman,” Jammeh said late last year. “The way women dress is not your business; you are Muslim, she is a Muslim; you should not tell her how she should dress, it is not your business, in the next world you cannot defend her.”
However, weeks after his delcaration he issued an executive order banning all female civil employees from working with their hair uncovered.
Opposition groups protested the executive order, causing Jammeh to abandon the new rule and allow women to work without the Islamic head covering.
Jammeh has held power in Gambia since his 1994 coup. He has a “deplorable human rights record and rampant corruption,” Human Right’s Watch’s Jeffrey Smith said in a recently issued statement.
A Pew Research study reports that Christians make up only 5 percent of Gambia’s population and it is a majority Muslim country.
Many are concerned the declaration and the president’s violent record could lead to an increase in persecution of religious minorities.
Gambia is not listed on Open Door’s 2016 World Warch List. Although the country has a secular consitution, “Islamic extremism as a persecution engine is present in the country,” Open Doors issued in statement. “Non violent measures are taken to Islamize the country, particularly the educational system/institutions, public institutions, media, and marriage/family.”