Liberia: Towards Equality for Muslims?

Liberian Muslim students.


.... They did not get the national holidays they demanded but, now, Muslim students in public schools can observe their religious feasts without hindrance.

The administration of President George Weah has taken an unprecedented step to have the Monrovia Consolidated School System allow its students to wear hijabs on campus while observing the Holy Month of Ramadan. 

The rare move, which is a historical first for Liberia, comes after several years of a push by Islamic leaders who have complained that Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, is not respected nationally, compared to Christian holidays.

For decades, the Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS), which runs public schools in Montserrado County, has leaned toward Christian feasts, suspending academic activities during these seasons and, in some cases, allowing the teachings from the Bible. 

That was before the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2011, moved to outlaw the teaching of the Bible in public schools, on grounds that the country is a secular state. 

In a statement announcing the move, the administration of MCSS disclosed that the rationale behind its decision is to promote “religious tolerance, with unity in diversity, and respect for each and everyone's religion.”

“All MCSS female students of the Islamic faith are allowed to wear their hijab during this holy month of fasting and MCSS schools will be closed on Monday, May 2, 2022, in observance of  ‘Eid al-Fitr’ the end of Ramadan,” MCSS said in a statement yesterday. “The administration, MCSS, congratulates students and staff of the Islamic faith on the occasion marking the observance of the holy month of Ramadan.”

Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, and is celebrated during the first three days of Shawwal.

Established by the government in 1964, the MCSS, provides primary and secondary education to the population of Monrovia and its environs, in consonance with the policies & regulations of the Ministry of Education.

The latest move by the Weah administration mirrors a similar decision his government took in 2019 when, for the first time in the history of Liberia, he granted leave to Muslim civil servants to observe Eid al-Fitr.

President Weah also scored another historical first when he appointed Usmane T. Jalloh as the country’s first official Muslim religious advisor, to serve alongside two Christian advisors and to advise the President on issues relating to the Muslim community.

Muslim organizations have since welcomed the move. However, they continued to call for official recognition or observance of major Islamic religious holidays and cited Christmas and Fast and Prayer Day, which fall near Good Friday, as examples of officially recognized Christian holidays. 

The legislation for Fast and Prayer Day however calls for “all Liberians,” not “all Christian Liberians”. 

According to the 2008 National Population and Housing Census, the country’s population is 85.6 percent Christians, while 12.2 percent are Muslims; 1.4 percent claim no religion, 0.6 percent are adherents of indigenous religious beliefs, and less than 1 percent are members of other religious groups, including Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. 

The US government 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom in Liberia states that Muslim organizations continue to dispute the official statistics, stating that Muslims constitute up to 20 percent of the population.

The 2008 census estimated the country's population at 3.5 million at the time.

The debate about the Muslim holiday resurfaced after the National Chief Imam of Liberia, Sheikh Ali Krayee, 2021, reiterated his calls on the government of Liberia to grant Muslim holidays and emphasized that Liberia will never have peace until Muslim holidays are given.

Imam Krayee noted that they continue to observe the Eid holiday with a heavy heart because the Liberian government has failed to grant Muslims a national holiday. 

However, the National Muslim Council of Liberia distanced itself from Imam  Krayee’s demands and that Liberia will not know peace in the absence of a holiday for Muslims in the country.

Not too long thereafter, Bomi County Senator Edwin Snowe proposed to the Liberian Senate to legislate Eid al-Fitr (Ramadan Day) and Eid al-Adha (Abraham Day) as holidays for Muslims, and Easter Monday as a holiday for Christians.

The bills, which gained the support of Muslims in the country, were met with strong resistance from Christian leaders who deemed the senator’s action as not just “unwise, ill-circulated, and unconstitutional, but also hypocritical."

Sen. Snowe’s bill came years after  public demonstrations by some Liberian Christians demanding that “Liberia be restored to its Christian Heritage.”  

Championed by then-Senator Jewel Howard Taylor, now Vice President, the Christians’ demand was in part a response to international pressure for Liberia to legislate same-sex marriage.

Article 14 of Liberia’s 1986 Constitution highlights two distinct dimensions — the first being that “no religious denomination or sect shall have exclusive privilege or preference over any other…”; the second dimension being that the “Republic shall establish no state religion.”

The Constitution also provides that all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the rights of others, and provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits religious tests for office and the establishment of a state religion. 

Other Gov't Practice

The US government 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom states that the government, through city ordinances, required businesses and markets, including those owned or operated by Muslims, to close on Sundays and Christmas Day for municipal street cleaning. 

The report added that some Muslim business owners said they viewed the regular street cleaning as an excuse for the government to close all businesses in honor of the Christian Sabbath, and some Muslim organizations expressed worry that the practice could engender antigovernment resentment among Muslim citizens.

In Liberia, the report said the government continued to subsidize private schools, most of which were affiliated with Christian and Muslim organizations. The government provided subsidies based on need, through an application process. 

However, Muslim leaders continued to say the subsidies disproportionately favored Christian schools.

According to Muslim religious leaders, the government employed a disproportionate number of Christian chaplains relative to Muslim chaplains to serve in government institutions when compared with the religious demographics of the country. The government reportedly employed only two Muslim chaplains — one in the armed forces and one in the Supreme Court. 

By comparison, each ministry reportedly had a Christian chaplain, while the Senate had five and the House of Representatives had two. Christian chaplains frequently read Christian prayers before starting official business.