Magazine article Conscience

Left Up to Faith: SECULARISM, RELIGIOSITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN KENYA AND BEYOND

Magazine article Conscience

Left Up to Faith: SECULARISM, RELIGIOSITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN KENYA AND BEYOND

Article excerpt

MY ENGAGEMENT WITH THE INTERSECTION OF TRADITION, CULTURE AND RELIGIOSITY has a rather long and contradictory history. As a young activist against apartheid in South Africa, I was inspired by the leaders of all faiths who were appalled by a system that perpetrated the ideology of white superiority and that oppressed black people, women and those perceived as nonconforming to heteronormativity. This oppression was through law, and it was, therefore, as systemic as it was violent.

In South Africa, the ideology of white supremacy and its racialized patriarchy was buttressed by a particular strain of Christianity--conservative Calvinism. The apartheid state was a Christian state. Christianity was part of the apartheid state's constitution, and laws on racial segregation and the oppression of women and sexual minorities were based on laws informed as much by this conservative Calvinist religiosity as by Roman-Dutch law.

As part of our struggle against a system of oppression through law, organized clergy from all faiths rallied around the traditions of liberation theology. The African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress were born in churches, and their challenge to apartheid was premised on the moral tenant of the equality of all people. This morals-based stance became more radical through faith-based formations such as the South African Council of Churches and the Young Christians League. Radical Muslims were organized by the Call of Islam and the Quibla. These Christian and Muslim organizations, with few exceptions, were part of liberation movements, and the brand of liberation theology that emerged was grounded on a firm belief that no person should be oppressed on any grounds whatsoever. This belief ultimately guided the post-apartheid constitution.

The experience of being oppressed based on both religious and legal grounds was, therefore, a key driver for the South African constitution's embrace of secularism and laws that prohibit discrimination on any grounds.

South Africa's example also highlights the importance of separating religion from the state and the economy. This separation helps ensure social and political pluralism, avoidance of the dangers of "political religions" and access to resources for all.

Professor Kazem Hajizadeh undertook a study, published in 2013, to ascertain the extent to which countries in the world have embraced secularism. This study looked at the extent to which nation-states have embraced the modernization-secularism narrative. This theory asserts that religion has become less important as a political and social force and that religious criteria defining appropriate behavior have been replaced by laws that define the parameters of acceptable social behaviors.

The study also looked at the extent to which religiosity influenced these laws in modern societies, and the findings are interesting. While most countries have provisions in their constitutions that formally seek to separate religion from the state, many of these countries also have clauses that include an official religion. In Africa, this includes Zambia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia. But this is not only particular to African countries. In Europe, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Malta have official religion clauses in their constitutions.

The majority of African countries do not have a state religion. Many of the African and Arab countries that do have an official state religion, however, are the same countries that ban religious political parties. More than 50% of the countries that ban religious political parties are in Africa. This is despite most of them having clauses that protect freedom of religion, thought and conscience, a clause also found in both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights. The reason for this needs to be studied further, but the banning of religiously based political parties could be to secure the hegemony of political elites who already work alongside powerful religious groups in a sort of de facto political-religious dictatorship. …

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