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Politics and religion under the sun of Africa

State a religion an Afrique
Forfatter: Jean-François Bayart
Forlag: Karthala (Frankrike)
Distortion rather than religious extremism is the problem in African conflicts, states state scientist Jean-François Bayart.


French political scientist Jean-François Bayart was one of the editors of the book Religion and modernity political and African noire, which was published in 1993. Through a series of studies from several African countries, the book discussed the role of religions in post-colonial Africa. One of the main points was to show how religion and politics were interwoven and how both were used to obtain material privileges.

The main point is continued in Bayart's new book State a religion an Afrique – where he also emphasizes that this has been the situation since long before the colonial era. As in the Old Testament, the following is also stated in this year's Bayart Book: There is nothing new under the sun.

Generous supervisor, nonsensical author

The undersigned has been fascinated by Bayart since 1993, then his The State in Africa was published. During a seminar in Leiden three years later, the fascination turned into something even stronger – I became a fan. Bayart shared praise of his knowledge, commented on student work, and gave those who presented papers, positive feedback. It is therefore with some resistance that I admit that I think the Frenchman is too general, theoretical and nonsensical in this book. Bayart is a typical French "desktop intellectual": black suit, freshly ironed white shirt without tie, half-length hair, a charming smile and confident self. It's been decades since he spent time in sub-Saharan Africa. All his analyzes of what is going on in the continent are therefore based on the reading of others.

Not primarily religion

In Bayart's previous book, L'Impasse national-libérale, the core idea was that globalization and the development of national identity are complementary processes that reinforce each other and create synergies rather than opposing forces. In the new, far shorter book, the main theory is that religion in Africa is at least as much about politics as it is about spirituality – and that religion is given too much room in analyzes of African conflicts.

Bayart talks about the Christian Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the rebellion guerrilla in Uganda led by Joseph Kony – he who kidnapped 1980 children in the mid-20s and 20 years and made them child soldiers, sex slaves and servants of his army , and which the world learned to hate in 000, then StopKony and the American organization Invisible Children got 100 million people to watch a half-hour "documentary" about Kony in one week.

The state scientist argues that both the LRA in Uganda and Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria have religious undertones, but that the LRA does not represent Christians in the same way that Boko Haram does not represent Muslims. Both use religion as an identity-creating common denominator, but their religious interpretations are very different from most others of the same group. Those killed or kidnapped by Boko Haram are most often themselves Muslims – something we hear little about in Europe because it destroys the enemy image of Boko Haram as an Islamic threat. Gaining support to fight Islamist terror if it primarily strikes Muslims then becomes more difficult.

Fight for resources

The LRA is the evangelical-Christian sister organization of Islamist Boko Haram – they resemble each other in building and organizing around a cult-but-not-visible leader. However, none of the movements have religion as their most important martial law, Bayart believes – rather, the religious dimension is merely a sham to drive violent regime criticism and political power struggle.

Both the LRA and Boko Haram wish, like AQMI in Mali and Al Shabab in Somalia, political influence, (greater degree of) self-determination and more of the state's resources. It is the distortion of both influence and material goods that is the main problem in the conflicts rather than what we in the West explain as religious extremism. LRA kidnaps most Christians, Boko Haram kills most Muslims. The conflicts in Africa, both historically and today, are much more about control over resources than about spirituality, Bayart writes.

Praise popes

Jean-François Bayart

World religions are most often conservative for African politics, Bayart argues. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Vatican supported Catholic presidents, regardless of whether they were dictators or not. Pope John Paul Israel came on official visits to the Ivory Coast and blessed the cathedral Yamoussoukro, built in former president Houphouët-Boigny's hometown for his own money. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI came to Cameroon, saying that condom use was exacerbating the AIDS epidemic in the country, in line with the views of conservative Christians there.

Evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics are increasing in Africa, and leaders' influence is increasing as growth increases. It is not primarily about moral and religious influence, but about politics and economics. The same is true of fundamentalist Islamic movements.

I would argue that Bayarts "nothing new under the sun» whether the relationship between religion and politics in Africa also applies to his analyzes in State a religion an Afrique. For those who still want to read the book, a previous edition can be downloaded free of charge from the website Études Africaines Comparées at the Polytechnic University of Morocco.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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