Last week’s attack on a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has sparked enormous global debate around a range of issues, not least of all the increasingly obvious tensions in the western world where secularism, religion and religious extremism precariously co-exist. The attack – which involved the killing of some of France’s best known cartoonists, among twelve people shot dead by militant Islamist extremists who stormed the magazine’s offices – is not the first of such incidents to take place. The US’s September 11 attacks and the 2005 London bombing are two other significant attacks.
A common thread among such attacks is the increased sense of nationalism and patriotism that arise as a result. For example according to figures, Walmart, a popular US chain supermarket, recorded sales of 116 000 US flags on September 11 2001, against sales of 6 400 the previous year. And this past Sunday’s march in Paris, is said to have attracted the largest crowds since the city’s liberation from Nazi Germany in 1944. Along with this growing sense of nationhood is also an increasing expression of the secular values, espoused by most western nations, which position human rationalism and an intrinsic knowledge of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – as opposed to the sanctioning authority of a god or deity – as core foundations of progressive societies. While yesterday’s anti-Islam protests in Germany may be more about disdain for a specific religion, they point to widespread antagonism between religiosity and secularity, especially in light of religious extremism.
As Ronald A. Lindsay points out in his book,
“In much of Europe and North America and other areas of the developed world, such as Australia and Japan, large portions of the population are now nonreligious, that is, they reject belief in God and transcendent spiritual entities of any sort. This is an unprecedented moment in the history of humanity. As far as we can tell, belief in gods and spirits was nearly universal until the late eighteenth century; widespread religious skepticisim, such as we are now experiencing, is a phenomenon of just the last few decades.”
The rise of the megachurches
But while polls continually show that an ever-decreasing minority in the west goes to church or believes in any religious authority, the same is generally not true in Africa.
In recent years, radical pentecostal Christianity has spread across the continent with the growth of ‘megachurches’ and ministries such as Christ Embassy International and TB Joshua Ministries. Also, prominent personalities such as TB Joshua and Chris Oyakhilome have emerged, their television programmes and messages aired across the continent and beyond. In turn, Zimbabwe now has its own big name preachers including Emmanuel Makandiwa of United Family International Church and Uebert Angel of Spirit Embassy.
On the surface, it seems that what is going on ‘out there’ in the rest of the world bears no direct correlation to the issues affecting Zimbabwe. But in many ways, the tensions between religious and secular systems are universal, especially when considered in light of how these sometimes different values and ethics can be divisive within public space and policy. An example is that of a boy, Mbalenhle Dube, who was turned away from his primary school after the headmaster expressed his disapproval of his wearing dreadlocks. While it is not normally permissible for students to wear their hair in dreadlocks, the boy did so on the grounds of his religion, Rastafaraniasm, which stipulates this as one of its basic tenets. The high court ruled in the boy’s favour, granting a provisional order allowing him to go to school, there being no lawful basis to interfere with his right to education. As such, his legal right to education superseded the school’s definition of an acceptable dress code.
But such is not always the case, especially where these laws are not about agreed and less controversial accesses.
Take for example, the ongoing debate around legalisation of abortion. While Zimbabwe’s Termination of Pregnancy Act clearly spells out when a woman may have access to a legal abortion (in the case of sexual assault or danger posed by the foetus to the health of the woman, for instance), the application of such laws continues to be informed by the personal moral scales of law enforcement agents. A case like that of Mildred Mapingure who was denied access to an abortion, even though her claim fell within the legally permissible arena, clearly show that laws can still be morally administered, according to what rights the enforcer deems to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
The strong relationship between church and state also works to blur such lines. An example is when a megapastor speaks in favour of a political leader, as Emmanuel Makandiwa did last week – more or less stating that Zimbabwe was suffering its current woes because President Mugabe had taken a ‘principled stance’ against ‘western ideologies’ which to him include homosexuality.
At the gathering he was addressing, Makandiwa is reported to have said the following;
“You might have lost roads, you might have lost industries but you have promoted the fear of God and when people fear God don’t take that one away.”
He added that Zimbabwe’s problems were not political, but rather spiritual and that the remedy was to “implement Godly principles”.
Church and state
It would be one thing if it was only churches making these declarations, but is another thing when the state welcomes and encourages them. Take for another example, how the then Governor of the Reserve Bank, Gideon Gono intervened to state that Makandiwa and Uebert Angel’s claims to be delivering ‘miracle money’ to congregants’ personal bank accounts did not flout any financial regulations.
What such actions then serve to do is to take away any responsibility from political leadership to fix ailing economies and sectors, placing all responsibility on the citizenry to accept their leadership as the ‘anointed ones’, to be ‘moral’, to pray and to wait patiently for a supernatural change in their personal fortunes.
In turn, such approaches devalue rationality and the idea that humans, and human action and agency, are instrumental in creating the realities we live within. In other words, you are not simply poor because it is your life’s lot, but rather because your government is failing to create employment opportunities for you.
Laws ultimately govern all lives and are ideally based on ensuring that all citizens of a nation space have their inalienable rights respected and reflected. And if they are to do so fully, laws must ultimately supersede personal religious and cultural beliefs in respect of the various peoples that make up a nation space. At the same time, laws must not be abused to aid and abet the shirking of responsibility for service delivery by those who are held to public account by the citizenry.
While these are tensions that may register to most as minor within our current nation state, they are definitely points to ponder within the discourse of our ever-evolving societies.