Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.
Prime Minister Mottley has asked that we use this time to reflect on the life and contribution of the former Prime Minister of Barbados, the late Right Honorable Professor Owen Seymour Arthur. I utilize my column this week to do so from my perspective, my experiences and interactions.
Firstly, I express my sincerest condolences to Mrs Arthur, the daughters and to the entire family of Professor Arthur. His passing is felt right across Barbados and beyond our shores. He indeed left an indelible mark on the landscape of this island and on this region.
Prime Minister Arthur’s story is one that must be told, documented, and made a part of the curriculum in our schools. For in that story, one will find many lessons for all Barbadians regardless of class, creed, background or financial standing.
In the last week since his passing, much has been written and said about the life of Barbados’ fifth Prime Minister. Professor Arthur was, to date, the longest serving Prime Minister and a staunch advocate for regional integration and cooperation among the countries of the Caribbean. His life and time, in and out of office, will perhaps be defined by his economic prowess and his ability to have brought Barbados from the brink of economic collapse to being a strong and economically viable nation amongst the nations of the globe. Persons much more qualified than I am, and who knew Prime Minister Arthur much longer than I did, have spoken to these attributes and achievements and will continue to do so well into the future.
My perspective is from what I described as a minority religious and ethnic group in Barbados. And I do so having experienced first-hand Mr Arthur’s determination to include all groups, sectors, and people in the national discussion and development.
I first officially met Prime Minister Arthur in March 2003. Many thanks to Mr Glyne Murray, then Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, who arranged the meeting. It was the first time a delegation of Muslims of Barbados had an audience with a Prime Minister at his office to discuss matters of concern and cooperation. As Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association I had lead responsibility for arranging the meeting and setting out the agenda.
We took the opportunity to present to PM Arthur a framed photograph of millions of Muslims at prayer in Islam’s holiest mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, as well as a copy of the Holy Quran and some books on Islam.
The meeting came at a time when international events had cast an unfavorable spotlight on Islam and Muslims – just one year and a half after 9/11 and the height of hostilities between the US and Iraq. Nevertheless, I found a Prime Minister willing to listen, engage and interested in our development and our role in Barbadian society as an integral part of this nation. He told the media that he regretted the Muslim community had not met with him before, but he gave us the assurance that the meeting would not be the last.
Prime Minister Arthur was true to his word. From that day onwards, he found ways to engage our community. Opportunities were given for persons to participate in national discussions, sit on Boards and have our concerns discussed with a view to finding solutions. But it was not only us. His view, as I experienced, was that all groups regardless of numbers, race or religious identity should be part of the national discourse. That was part and parcel of his much touted “politics of inclusion”. For me, it was his genuine attempt to bring to the table all those who had and wanted to contribute to the development of Barbados.
One area that stands out for me is his insistence that national events such as the annual Independence Service of Thanksgiving be reflective of the religious diversity of Barbados. The size of the congregations didn’t matter to him. He wanted a service truly reflecting Barbados’ religious groups. And I knew he received a significant amount of push back by some of the large religious groups. But Prime Minister Arthur stood his ground. He did not back down on this, and for several years I attended meetings to plan the multi-faith service and to participate in it during Independence. It was something that he was pleased about achieving for Barbados and it was an example set for many nations in our region and the world.
Along with this was also his recognition that religious groups had a role to play in the national conversations and advising the Government. He set up, as part of his Office, the “Religious Advisory Committee for National Affairs (RACNA). We met monthly at the Prime Minister’s Office on Bay Street under the leadership of the Bishop of Barbados. It was an opportunity for religious groups of all persuasions and denominations to meet together, discuss and offer advice to the Government on a wide range of matters.
As a result of coming together under this banner, I have made bonds with a wide cross section of religious groups and leaders on this island that last until today. People often see religious groups as being against each other. What we proved through the intervention and insistence of PM Arthur was that diverse religious identities can indeed work together for the betterment of all.
Prime Minister Arthur visited the mosque on a few occasions and interacted well with our community. He engaged us and spoke openly about what he wanted for Barbados and what he saw as a role for all Barbadians in his vision. I had the opportunity to chair those sessions, and I am honored to have been given the opportunity to do so.
I would see Professor Arthur from time to time after he left office as Leader of the Opposition and then as a normal man on the street. He would always take time to chat. I promised him I would come to his office to have a longer discussion. My regret today is that never happened.
A person cannot be all things to all people. With every human being there will be elements of goodness and elements that will not be acceptable. We reflect on the life of a human being who came from humble and poor beginnings to rise to the level of Prime Minister of Barbados; but not just a Prime Minister, one of the most successful Prime Ministers to date and one respected across the Caribbean and indeed the world. Prime Minister Arthur will be missed. His legacy must remain and be built upon, and his story be told for all future generations of Barbadians.
I borrow and reconstruct a few lines from the poem For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon to end my reflection:
Your story shall grow not old, as we that are left to grow old:
Age shall not weary it, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember you.
Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace; Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association; Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: [email protected]