Posted: Thu, August 14, 2014 | By: Humanism
by Leo Igwe
Most African states are democracies. But due to the mixing of church(mosque) and state, they are democracies in name only. Separating the two poses a serious challenge to politicians, but the consequences of not doing so are grave.
this essay first appeared in This Africa HERE
To most politicians across Africa, separating religion and state presents a very difficult challenge. Secularism is viewed with suspicion, and sometimes with opposition. Many countries across the region have the principle of separation enshrined in their constitutions. But this constitutional principle is hardly translated into reality because of the enormous influence of religious establishments on politics and governance.
Democracy or theocracy?
Secularism is a ‘paper tiger’ that has little or no bearing on practical politics in many parts of the region. Secular government is seen as the ideal form of government, a western contraption. Separating Church(Mosque) and State is perceived as a form of political utopia that is alien to the African notion of government. Religion and state mix in real African politics. Church(Mosque) and State merge in real governance. The reality of mixing religion and state is not the same in countries across the region. The situation is even more difficult in Muslim majority states because of a lack of appreciation of the benefits of separating mosque and state. Muslim majority countries are self-described as Islamic republics. States are not public property but Islamic public property, and there is no distinction between the Islamic space and public space. Islam is the state religion and Sharia is the de facto state law, or at least the basis of the state law.
Separating church(mosque) and state poses a serious challenge to politicians because democracy is a game of numbers and votes count. No politician wants to be seen to be anti-religion, particularly anti-Christian in Christian dominated countries (or regions of a country) or anti-Islam in Muslim dominated countries (or regions). Democracy is characterised by the rule of the majority. The will of the people is often motivated or swayed by religion. Religious interests determine the fate of politicians. So state actors pander to religious sentiments in order to legitimise themselves – to win elections or maintain their hold on power. Politicians use religion to enhance their political ambitions despite constitutional provisions. Politicians do – and can do – anything to win the majority of votes, even if it means replacing secular state laws with religious laws or making religious sins state crimes.
Consequently, this ambiguous relationship between church/mosque and state – enshrined in constitution, ignored in reality – has not reflected positively and progressively on democracy and governance across the continent. Mixing religion and state has led to conflicts, division and discrimination. It has resulted in a politics of exclusion, a form of religious divide and rule. Lack of separation of church and state has hampered – and continues to hamper – the evolution of a modern democratic Africa because politics is not shaped by the will of the people but purportedly by the will of God or Allah, or better yet, by the will God/Allah as interpreted by of godmen and women. Unelected priests, Ulema, Bishops and Imams, not the elected representatives of the people, determine – directly or indirectly – the laws and policies that states adopt. Many democracies across the continent are therefore de facto theocracies because religious Africans (the majority) have translated their articles of faith in God into political norms. The politics of the states is determined more by what goes on in churches and mosques than by what transpires in the parliaments or state houses.
Lack of separation of church(mosque) and state in practical politics has undermined the realisation of a peaceful, tolerant and progressive society because state laws have become religious dogmas writ large. Presidents, governors and lawmakers are quasi clerics- priests, sheikhs, bishops and imams. The president of the Gambia is addressed as His “Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr”
Boko Haram and their likes
One aspect of African society where the negative impact of mixing religion and politics is so manifest is in the tackling of religious extremism, particularly Islamic militancy. Many Muslim majority countries in Africa are grappling with the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and the limited success they have had is partly down to the lack of separation of mosque and state. For instance, in Nigeria, where the by now globally-infamous Boko Haram has been waging a violent campaign to implement a stricter version of Sharia law and enthrone an Islamic state, the sect leverages the prevalence of political Islam in the region, including the ongoing state implementation of sharia law. And it matters not if their extremism is at odds with Islam as practiced by most Muslims in the region.
Northern Nigerian states are not neutrally positioned to tackle the problem of Islamism head on because there is some commonality between the agenda of the Sharia implementing states and that of Boko Haram. Disentangling state law, justice system, and policy-making from Islam will better position the African governments to defeat Boko Haram and other militants groups fighting to enthrone an Islamic state in Nigeria, Mali, Somalia.
Is religion inherited?
Another area where the negative impact of mixing religion and politics is very manifest is in the area human rights protection. This has clearly been demonstrated in the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in Sudan because she refused to renounce her Christian faith. Ms Ibrahim has been freed from jail but the circumstances that led to her conviction and imprisonment in the first place require some reflection. Meriam was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother. But she was raised a Christian by her mother. The Islamic court in Sudan ruled that Meriam’s profession of Christianity was apostasy and that she be put to death.
Ms Ibrahim was pregnant at the time of her conviction and gave birth to her baby while shackled in prison. The judgement was possible because Sharia law is currently in force in Sudan; because Islamic religious sins are state laws. Since 1983, Sudan has enforced a translation of the patriarchal misogynistic norms of Islam that are incompatible with universal human rights.
Why must the paternity not the maternity of Meriam Ibrahim count in her profession of religion? Why must paternity or maternity count at all? Is religion inherited? If someone’s father or mother is a Muslim, must the person remain a Muslim? Why the compulsion to remain a Muslim? Religious profession is a right that every individual is free to exercise, regardless of their parents’ religion. Religious confession is not inherited from one’s father or mother. Is it? Changing one’s religion or converting to another religion should be free. It should not be on the pain of death. But it is the case in Sudan due to lack of separation of mosque and state.
Follow the money
The secularisation of Sudan will help the country end this legalised discrimination that makes a caricature of its claim to protecting human rights, especially freedom of religion. Disentangling the state of Sudan and its justice system from Islam will make the government an impartial arbiter and guarantor of the equal rights of all individuals in the countries. Islam and Christianity are ancient religions with norms that are incompatible with those of a modern democratic state. African governments should begin the process of disentangling the functions and processes of state from these religions now.
Mixing religion and politics is impoverishing African countries and undermining their efforts to conquer poverty and underdevelopment. Due to lack of separation – or its flagrant violation by politicians – many African states that can ill-afford it spend billions of dollars every year sponsoring pilgrimages to the holy lands, building churches and mosques and paying clerics and people who convert to Islam. These pilgrimages contribute to the economies of host nations like Israel or Saudi Arabia, not to the economies of African states. If African governments separate church/mosque and state, these funds will be saved and could be utilised instead in building schools, improving the standard of education, creating jobs and embarking on real developmental projects that could yield tangible measurable returns for millions of Africans, Christian, Muslim, atheist, whatever.
Separating church(mosque) and state has become a most urgent and compelling project for African peoples and their governments in this 21st century. So let the secularisation of Africa begin now.
Image #1 - Meriam Ibrahim holds her baby girl Maya after landing in Italy, where she met the pope, before flying to America to begin her new life. Meriam had been sentenced to death by a Sudanese court for the “crime” of apostasy. Cases like hers are a consequence of the mixing of state and religion, and cannot simply be dismissed as extreme interpretations of the law. Photo: EPA
Leo Igwe - as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.