Religious Extremism and Africa

Any long-standing religion may experience outcroppings of the fundamentalist impulse, the desire to return to some imagined pristine social and cultural state by rigid adherence to a set of beliefs and practices deemed central or fundamental to that faith.  

Religion looms large in African national politics as it does elsewhere in the world. It is often used to mobilize people. It can also be used to confuse and divide.  

This is what it is like-the rural Africa of no running water or electricity, no hint of the modern world of instant communications, computers and mobile phones. In a scene so quiet, it is impossible to imagine the terror that gripped this continent for nearly four decades, when millions of people were butchered in an organized genocide against humanity.  

Not long after Uganda made the world’s headlines with the discovery of the mass graves of some 400 religious zealots, the headless bodies of three babies were found buried behind a house in western Kenya-apparent victims of some religious sacrifice.  

The pain of a child is my dominant image of moral horror, even more unbearable than a child’s death, and an emblem of everything that threatens to wreck whatever meaning and coherence life may seem to have. The child’s pain-our awareness of the child’s pain-is where our moral world ends. To my mind, there are two ethical implications to this horrible episode. One, relatively facile and slightly snobbish, is that tyrants and thugs have no taste, that evil is a form of vulgarity. This may be true in some ultimate spiritual sense, but I doubt it, and it doesn’t look as if it is true in any world we are likely to inhabit. Evil is if anything more stylish than good, and to think of it as vulgar is mainly a way of refusing to contemplate its attractions-and of making its occasional, fortunate vulgarity seem more important than it is. The banality of evil is a different matter, but at times we seem to forget its moral implications. The other implication is very powerful, and very difficult to follow out because it takes us beyond words. It is that evil is literally unspeakable; that all speech about it incurs and legitimizes a conversation that should never have taken place. If we need to debate these things, if we can debate these things, we are already morally lost. What must strike these children is the terrible lateness of our act of rescue and the drastic demand it makes on our imagination. How much more pain did we want? How much more could we take? Under the circumstances, I might accept to think of God as a name for silence.  

I wonder if the extremism says something about this particular time in Uganda, in Kenya, in Liberia, Rwanda, Congo, Egypt, Algiers, Angola, in Africa. Is it a symptom of deep despair from a people grabbing for anything that will give them hope in troubled times?  

How does it all start? When and where do the curious become zealots? At street corners, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others also looking for answers to their problems? Or does it happen much closer to home?  

Stroll through Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, during any lunch hour and you will see throngs of people listening to unkempt prophets stridently preaching hope, usually complete with Swahili-English translations. Language, even the most brilliant language is a kind of shortfall of reason, a leap into graphic or phonetic chaos, the beginning of a story which loves nonsense and probably has no end.  

People familiar with the dire situation in Africa are convinced that the extremism is linked to efforts to retain traditional African beliefs and practices. The Kanungu victims were part of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. This is no mainstream church-nor are the several other increasingly popular churches emerging throughout the region.  

What sets them apart is that all mix Christian teachings with traditional African beliefs. Instead of condemning popular culture, as they did in the past, many evangelicals are now feverishly adopting its forms to create a parallel world of entertainment, a consumer’s paradise of their own. Just ten years ago, it was still a fledgling subculture; today, it is anything but.  

I wonder if the extremism has something to do with a strange over-respect that Africans seem to have for authority in general, and for divine authority in particular, even when common sense rebels. A recent poll showed that 82 percent of African Christians believe that the events in Revelation are going to come true; the extraordinary popularity of the apocalyptic Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments is something to be taken seriously indeed.  

I think that money and power-and thus politics-are contributing to the sharpened religious identities, the heightened religious tensions, and thus to the growing religious extremism.  

The followers of the leaders of these new religious movements, for whom they reveal alternative sources of identity and hope, often generously open not only their hearts but their wallets and purses. And it seems that the more extreme and exclusive the message, the more money and possessions new converts are willing to part with.  

Enter politics. For alternative centers of power tend to unsettle governments, especially if, like several in this region, they are insecure about their popularity.  

A few days after the Kanungu massacre, the government warned it would withdraw the licenses of any non-mainstream-also called "born-agains"-churches involved in suspicious activities. This was clearly intended to demonstrate a no-nonsense response and score political points, but may be backfiring.  

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Indian politician and philosopher warned on November 25, 1949: "Bhakti or hero-worship in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship."  

One must be reminded that Ugandan dictator Idi Amin likewise banned all religious groupings other than mainstream Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.  

Meanwhile, mainstream Catholics and Protestants-who still claim a majority of the country’s Christians-argue that the Kanungu calamity damaged the status of Christianity, and may even affect its long-term sustainability in the country. They blame the born-against, whom they label "cultists," and approve of government control of their activities.  

Whatever comes of the political maneuverings, the horrible facts of the killings remain. Almost certainly, others will be discovered. Yet I feel there is more to it than African psychology and its culture. Happiness and harm, at this level, are only stories, a matter of guesses and wishes; and both are easily contradicted by actuality at any given moment. Doom and harm, by the way, are ways of making things ethically sound, of making them match our supposedly sensible assessment.  

Memory, the disappearance of ordinary identity into writing, is a dissolution of the self. It is a wreckage of self, an act of hesitancy which leaves only odds and ends behind. But Christian hesitancy has deeper grounds than prudence and more compelling motives than wariness of practical blunders. Hesitation expresses a consciousness of the mystery of being and the dignity of every person. It provides a moment for consulting destiny. After all, existence is not a qualification, any more than being alive is the same as living. Reality is an accolade for life, the name of an achievement or an exceptional piece of luck.  

Human difference, the incomplete human project, will be asserted against the indifference of the real world where all echoes are the same. What matters is not the consequence of one’s absence, but the need for consequence; it is that need that makes us what we are.