The Jamiaca Observer
Sunday, November 24, 1996
Page 5

UN recognises Rastafari
Move praised, criticised


A move by the United Nations to grant consultative status to the international Rastafarian movement is coming in for criticism and praise across Jamaica.

"Now I know for sure that the United Nations has nothing to do.  The Rastas are a bunch of indisciplined criminals and the UN is recognising them as a social and religious entity.  What is the world corning to?" grumbled store clerk, John Harris, when the news first hit.

Not so, says sociologist, Barry Chevannes, widely regarded as having written the most definitive work on the movement since it first became a force to be reckoned with in the 1930s.

"No prophet is without honour in his own country.  While international bodies are recognising the achievements of the Rastafarian movement, back home they can't even get recognition from a lot of local organisations.  Other religious movements with a smaller following and limited appeal are embraced by the authorities than Rastafarianism," says Chevannes, a university lecturer.

On November 14 the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations approved the consulative status of the International Rastafarian Development Society as a non-governmental organization (NGO).

The group was one of 86 organisations approved, including the right-wing US National Rifle Association and the Liberal American Civil Liberties Union.  They have all been invited to work with all UN subsidiary bodies as NGOs, including all economic, social, humanitarian, technical, scientific and educational bodies.

The recognition comes at a time when the Rastafari community is lobbying government to legalise the use of ganja for use as a religious sacrament.  But yesterday, prominent members of the Rastafari community were unaware of the recognition by the world body or what it meant for the local movement.

"Whatever recognition that is given can only assist the Rastafarian movement as a respected organisation.  We would expect them to work towards the general principle and aims of the movement," attorney-at-law, Sandra Alcott, said.

Singer, Freddie McGregor, praised the UN decision. "Any move that is made by an international organisation that would enhance the upliftment of the movement is welcome.  Things, have started to turn around, so there had to be a change," he said.

Chevannes calls the move an extremely significant break with tradition.

"Any incorporation of the Rastafarian movement at that level is tantamount to bestowing legitimacy.  (But) there are some within the movement who will see it as a watering down of the message," says Chevannes.

One young Rastafarian who calls himself Ras Silver agrees with Chevannes.  "Anything with a flavour of Rasta is good.  The Rastafarian movement is growing rapidly and now is the time for the brethren to get together.  Our small tree has become a large one, and it is now beginning to bear fruit," he says.

"In the past, we were timid of Babylon. Our movement was young then and we did not trust Babylon.  Now that a number of our brethren have profited in the system in spite of Babylon, we are bolder now," said Ras Silver, a graduate of the University of the West Indies.

Partly because of their sour relations with the police force and partly because of Garveyism, the Rastafarian doctrine arose in the 1930s stating the inevitability of the transformation which would climax with the destruction of Babylon and return of blacks to the motherland, Africa.

The term Babylon covers the western world, the church and government, as agents of imperialism.

Capitalism is seen as the system of Babylon. Today, among the younger members of the movement "Babylon" has become synonymous with the police force.

Ras Silver says the Rastafarian movement needs a good internal government in order to gain strength, and he believes that this form of international recognition is a stepping stone to that goal.

"There are a lot of Rastas who share the views of Ras Silver," says Chevannes.

Writers disagree on the exact date of the emergence of this movement, some going as far back as the 19th century.  They all agree, however, that Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), played a significant role in its development.

The main tenets of the movement are based on several of Garvey's teachings, and it was the notorious Garvey who in the 1920s is said to have ignited the sparks of the Rastafarian fire.

Garvey was concerned with what he described as the negro's inferiority complex and made a number of predictions about the greatness of the black man.

"Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near," Garvey is reported to have said in one of his famous speeches.  In 1930 Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, taking the name Haile Selassie and many followers of Garvey felt that the prophecy was fulfilled and the Rastafarian movement was formed.

They believe that repatriation -- the miraculous return to Ethiopia by the supernatural power of the King -- is the way of redemption for all blacks.

Blacks are Africans and neither the Jamaican nor any other government has authority to rule over them.  The only true government is that of Selassie, many still believe.

To many of those who hold firmly to these beliefs, the move by ECOSOC is not a step in the right direction.

"I an I just meditate within myself and I an I have nothing to do with the politicians and their creed," says Ras Mackonnen, an elder statesman of the movement.

"They are the Scribes and Pharisees that are seeking to bring down the true followers."

Rastafarians regard man as God, hence the "I" and "I" construction referring to "I" the God and "I" the man.

But the younger and more militant members of the movement have added a new principle to their beliefs, said to have originated during the visit of Selassie to Jamaica in 1966.  Selassie is reported to have said that Rastafarians should liberate themselves in Jamaica before they repatriate, giving birth to a group which seems more prepared to enter into a socio-political struggle with the government.

"We have to take command of our destiny. Until we can come together and govern ourselves, we are going nowhere," says Ras Dawit Tewdoros.

And in all of this Chevannes believes that Jamaica needs to "catch up" with the rest of the world and recognise Rastafarianism for what it is -- a religion.

"The more recognition the Rastafarian movement gets from abroad, the more approval they will get at home.  It is unfortunate, but if that is the way they will get accepted, then it is inevitable," he says.

-- IPS (Additional reporting by Observer staff reporters)

Special thanks to Dennis Patterson for sending this article from the Observer.