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What can The West learn from Africa about religion in the public square? At least 5 lessons.
Stumbling along the dusty alleyway in the pitch black, guided only by the light of my mobile phone, my mind grasping for the lessons of my recent Hostile Environments training (Hint: don’t walk down a dark alleyway overseas), I really could have been anywhere.
Unless, that is, you ignored the wall of sound assailing me from both sides of the alley. On one side, the rhythmic chanting of the Muslim call to prayer jutted up against the melodic praise songs coming from the Pentecostal worship event, opposite, that I had just left. It was this fact which placed me in northern Sub-Saharan Africa; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to be precise.
For it’s here, in the Horn of Africa and the region known as the Sahel, that the populations – and necessarily the worldviews – of Christianity and Islam live cheek by jowl in the most explicit way. It’s not that the people of the world’s two largest religions can’t be found living in close proximity elsewhere; from Indonesia to the Balkans. But it’s in this region of Africa that the populations tend to be both the most numerous and the most equally-balanced numerically. Regionally, there is no overwhelming majority of one faith group over the other: such as there is in the United States, or in the Middle East.
Of course, you also find a liberal sprinkling of secular democracy and other political ideologies, and those of both other religions and none. Ethiopia is, after all, a strictly-secular post-Communist, semi-authoritarian state. But it’s arguable that the majority of the population tend to find – perhaps increasingly – their transcendent identity (that is, beyond national, tribal or temporal boundaries) in their faith.
This scenario is peculiar to the popular culture of Western Europe on two counts. First, these are overwhelmingly-religious societies. The language of God is the norm, not the exception. Second, the significant and long-term influence of two of the world’s great religions makes for an interesting mix when it comes to negotiating contested public space. I suspect that – in the UK – the wall of sound which I experienced in this Addis Ababa alleyway would quickly attract the attention of a local government official in a High-Vis waistcoat, investigating complaints of noise pollution.
So what can The West learn from Africa about religion in the public square?
1. NOT ALL RELIGION IS THE SAME
Religion is being increasingly discussed in publishing, the media and politics. There was a time when the mantra ‘We don’t do God’ seemed to fit perfectly with the times. No more. The twentieth century axiom that religion has had its day, and that social progress will see the inevitable triumph of secularism and rationalism over mysticism and faith is looking very tired indeed.
But even as religion is increasingly discussed – in the polemics of militant atheists or in BBC documentaries – there is an astonishing level of illiteracy on the subject. The preceding hundred years of religious decline in the West really has impacted the common understanding of what were previously well-understood (if not always accepted) beliefs. Aside from a general ignorance of religious beliefs and practices, the most common mistake by many commentators is to lump all of the world’s faiths into a silo marked ‘Religion’. This is rarely explicit. But it’s often very clear to the faith-based viewer that many commentators really don’t understand the very fundamental differences between Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and the rest. Sure, these religions share many things in common; for example, the Golden Rule. But their core existential beliefs are also fundamentally at variance, leading to very different practices and worldviews across a range of subjects and even in their understanding of the purpose of life itself. The three Abrahamic faiths share much in common. But you only have to raise the question of the nature and purpose of Jesus and soon very different beliefs with their consequent implications will emerge. Even within religions, there can be considerable differences in belief between different denominations, sects or branches; Sunni, Shia, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Reform and so on. These differences need to be acknowledged and understood.
2. RELIGIONS ARE OFTEN COMPETITORS BUT NOT NECESSARILY ANTAGONISTS
In spite of these differences, antagonistic relationships between religions are not inevitable. Of course, antagonism can be found easily enough. But conflict between humans of divergent identities can be found everywhere, even where religion is largely absent. 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – need I say more? Indeed, religions abound with resources to support an ideology of social harmony, peace-making and conflict resolution. Disagreement – even fundamentally so – is not inherently unhealthy. It is how we manage and accommodate our differences that matters.
3. THERE IS A PLACE FOR RELIGION IN PUBLIC (AND NOT JUST PRIVATE) SPACES
Part of the dominant narrative of Secularism is that, in order for fairness to be delivered, competing religious worldviews (interestingly, not other worldviews, only religious ones) should be consigned to the private sphere; what you do in your own home is up to you, but don’t bring religious reasoning or practices to the public square. As a result, religious groups who take their faith seriously have often found the public square to be a cold house for them. This is particularly true of counties like France, where the only religion allowed in the public square is the Cult of La Republique. Make of that what you will. But one thing is certain: if we are to address the threat of Religious Extremism, we must be careful not to marginalise religion as a whole. Which is why:
4. THEOLOGY MATTERS
Much of the lurch to Islamist extremism has been fuelled by bad theology. Of course, it has also been fuelled by an autocratic Saudi state awash with petro-dollars. But an extreme Wahabist interpretation of the Quran and Hadith in Sunni Islam is primarily a theological issue. The solution to this bad theology cannot be no theology: it is not an effective option to simply disengage with or parody the warped theology of ISIS or the Charlie Hebdo murderers. The ultimate solution to the problem of Islamism, Hindu Nationalism – or even the attempted co-option of Christianity by some elements on the extreme right – is good theology.
We need to do more to understand the complexities, differences and, yes, similarities between religious worldviews in order to understand how we can best live together. To this end, I’m reminded of two sayings of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. As we seek to address the core existential questions and understand divergent beliefs, we need to ‘Be transformed by the renewal of our minds’. As we seek to learn how to live together we should follow Paul’s injunction:
“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good”.
David Smith was born and raised in the West of Scotland. He gained his M.A. in Modern History and Politics from the University of Glasgow, and an M.Phil in Reconciliation Studies from Trinity College Dublin. Following six years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he ran a peacemaking programme, David now lives in Sunderland with his wife and two children. He currently works for Bible Society as their Head of International Programme. David is writing in a personal capacity.