The discovery of religion

We need to stop looking to Euro-America and its models and traditions, especially religion, as the source of all answers to the problems of the African continent and its people.

Chief patriarch of Lalibela, Ethiopia. Image credit Robert Wilson via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

In the summer of 2022, I helped organize a conference titled “Religion and Democracy in Africa: Colonial Legacies and Postcolonial Possibilities” at the University of Virginia. The conference began with a rousing keynote address by and discussion with Mahmood Mamdani. He is the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University and, until recently, was also Director of the Makerere Institute for Social Research. His address drew on his latest book, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, which traces a genealogy of the modern nation-state from its settler colonial roots and the enduring legacy of its creation of a religio-ethnic majority comprising the “nation” at the expense of an equally-constructed minority. Mamdani called for a divorce of the nation from the state to move beyond the political conditions that have catalyzed the vicious cycles of violence that have characterized nation-states on the African continent and beyond.

The modern categories of “democracy” and “religion” both took shape through processes in which the continent of Africa and its people often served as constitutive others—foils against which these modern Euro-American concepts were defined. Such processes justified, in part, the exclusion of Africans and African-descended peoples and their traditions from democratic processes of governance and the legal and academic categories of religion well into the 21st century. All the while, the imperial conquest and exploitation of the African continent and its people was deemed vital to the maintenance of European democracy at home and its spread abroad. As Frederick Lugard, founder and Governor General of the Colony of Nigeria wrote in his 1922 classic on colonial administration, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa:

Nothing should appeal so strongly as the Empire to democracy, for it is the greatest engine of democracy the world has ever known … It has infected the whole world with liberty and democracy. There is no doubt that the control of the tropics, so far from being charge on the British taxpayer, is to him a source of great gain …

Meanwhile, scholars such as Daniel Dubuisson, David Chidester, and Jacob Olupona have shown how indigenous African traditions were originally excluded from the modern category of religion, then gradually included as “primitive” varieties of religion, and later, “minor” or “indigenous” varieties of religion in the World Religions paradigm.  More precisely, as Chidester writes in his book, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa: “When a frontier opens, the enemy has no religion, but when a frontier closes, and hegemony has been established, a dominated subjected people are discovered to have a religion that can be inventoried and analyzed.”

So-called indigenous African traditions have also existed at the boundaries of the legal category of religion in the Americas, Europe, and the African continent itself. Indeed, only one of Nigeria’s 36 states recognizes “African traditional religion” as an official religion alongside Islam and Christianity. Across the Atlantic, in the US, The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye vs. Hialeah, in which practitioners of Santería challenged Florida’s rules about animal sacrifice, is a landmark religious freedom case studied by nearly all US law students.

This is why histories of democracy in Africa usually begin with the very undemocratic imposition of European institutions of governance on the continent or the constitutions of newly-independent states in the mid-20th century, ignoring the many democratic traditions of governance and socio-political negotiation on the continent of pre-colonial pedigree. As Amilcar Cabral noted: “The colonialists usually say that they brought us into history… it is not so, they made us leave history, our history, to follow them right at the back, to follow the progress of their history.” Or in the words of the Nigerian proverb, “before the Oyinbo [European] brought bread, we did not just eat stones.”

Relatedly, in contrast to popular notions of Africa and Africans as inveterately religious in contrast to their “more-evolved,” “secular” European and Western counterparts, works on secularity and those examining indigenous African and Islamic critiques of secular modernity (see Ayodeji Ogunnaike’s and Anwar Omeish’s entries in this series, for example) have demonstrated not only the historical and geographic particularity of the mutually-constituting secular-religious dichotomy but also the profoundly theological and religious dimensions of supposedly secular discourse and practice. These are revealed in phrases like “democratic backsliding” and the kind of magical thinking that the adoption of liberal democracy will solve all of Africa’s problems (see Moses Ochonu’s entry in this series). Political theologians have further argued that:

Disenchantment [and secularization] is not so much about the disappearance of magic and mystery so much as their transformation. It is about the violent destruction of old social and metaphysical bonds which tied people to one another and to the world around them in order to bind them to new masters who were appropriating for themselves both legal and sovereign power—to nation states and imperial powers and ideals.

That is everyone worships, and secularity does not abolish worship but rather redirects its orientation and forms.

Given these historical and colonial legacies, scholars of Africa and African traditions are uniquely suited to understand not only the underside of democracy, religion, and their interactions and imbrications in processes of racialization and imperialism, but also to develop new or under-appreciated theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding the complex relationships between religion and democracy. Because African traditions of governance, politics, and so-called religious practice have long exceeded and/or been excluded from the categories of religion and democracy, the continent is an important place to think about these issues, but also to think from in order to understand the entangled histories of religion and democracy and their possible futures. As Pankaj Mishra wrote in his review of Mamdani’s Neither Settler nor Native, “A broad rethinking of political issues becomes possible when Western ideals and practices are examined from the vantage point of Africa.”

In this vein, Mamdani has argued concerning the “collapse” of African states:

It is not just any state that is collapsing; it is specifically what remains of the colonial state in Africa that is collapsing. True, Africa’s political institutions are in crisis. But which institutions are these? If we look at the crisis closely, we will recognize at its heart the institutional legacy of colonial rule, particularly the political institutions of colonial rule.

Mamdani further argues that these institutions have been stubbornly resistant to change even in post-independence democracies because:

Democracy is not just about who governs and how they are chosen. More important, it is about how they govern, the institutions through which they govern, and the institutional identities by and through which they organize different categories of citizens. Colonialism was not just about the identity of governors, that they were white or European; it was even more so about the institutions they created to enable a minority to rule over a majority.

This is not to blame Europe or the West for all of Africa’s problems, but rather to suggest that we stop looking to it and its models and traditions as the source of all answers to the problems of the continent and its people.

The insightful and rich pieces in this series encourage us to take up this urgent challenge to rethink the nature and relationship between democracy and religion not only about and for the African continent, but from it and its histories, in order to no longer “follow the progress of their [European] history” to the current and literal dead ends of history and human life, but rather to create the possibilities of new or different histories, different formations of politics, society, and subjectivity, new horizons of possibility beyond the current limits, which are threatening not only our moral flourishing but our very survival.

In the words of scholar and poet Fred Moten:

Democracy is the name that has been assigned to a dream as well as to certain already existing realities that are lived, by many people, as a nightmare… One must come to grips with the severity of the difference between what exists and what is yet to come under the name of democracy” (73).

By centering African perspectives, histories, and experiences, the contributors to this feature underscore this difference and explore the possibilities of “what is yet to come.”

Further Reading