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IEET > Location > Africa

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How the Separation of Church/Mosque and State Will Benefit Africa

Leo Igwe
By Leo Igwe
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jun 25, 2014

To most politicians across Africa, separating religion and state presents a very difficult challenge. Secularism is viewed with suspicion, and sometimes with opposition. Many countries across the region have the principle of separation enshrined in their constitutions. But this constitutional principle is hardly translated into reality because of enormous influence of religious establishments on politics and governance.

Secularism is a 'paper tiger' that has little or no bearing on practical politics in many parts of the region. Secular government is seen as a ideal form of government, a western contraption. Separating Church(Mosque) and State is perceived as a form of political utopia that is alien to the African notion of government. Religion and state mix in real African politics. Church(Mosque) and State merge in real governance. The reality of mixing religion and state is not the same in countries across the region. The situation is worse in muslim majority states because there is lack of appreciation of separating mosque and state. Countries are described as islamic republics. States are not res publica- public property but islamic public property. There is no distinction between the islamic space and public space.Islam is the state religion and sharia is the de facto state law or the basis of the state law.

Separating church(mosque) and state poses a serious challenge to politicians because democracy is a game of numbers and votes count. No politician wants to be seen to be anti religion. Democracy is characterized by the rule of the majority. The will of the people is often motivated or swayed by religion. Religious interests determine the fate of politicians. So state actors pander to religious sentiments in order to legitimize themselves- to win elections or maintain their hold on power. Politicians use religion to enhance their political ambitions despite constitutional provisions. Politicians do- and can do it anything to win the majority of votes even if it means replacing secular state laws with religious laws or making religious sins state crimes.

In consequence, this ambiguous relationship between church/mosque and state has not reflected positively and progressively on democracy and governance in the region. Mixing religion and state has led to conflicts, division and discrimination. It has resulted to a politics of exclusion, a form of religious divide and rule. Lack of separation of church and state has hampered the evolution of a modern democratic Africa because politics is not shaped by the will of the people but purportedly by the will of god or allah or better by the will of godmen and women. Unelected priests, Ulema, Bishops and Imams, not the elected representatives of the people determine the laws and policies which states adopt. Many democracies in Africa are de facto theocracies because religious Africans have translated their articles of faith in god into political norms. The politics of the states is determined more by what goes on in churches and mosques than what transpires in the parliament or state houses.

Lack of separation of church(mosque) and state in practical politics has undermined the realization of a peaceful, tolerant and progressive society because state laws have become religious dogmas writ large. Presidents, governors and lawmakers are quasi clerics- priests, sheikhs, bishops and imams.

One aspect of African society where the negative impact of mixing religion and politics is so manifest in Africa is in tackling religious extremism particularly islamic militancy. Many muslim majority countries in Africa are grappling with the problem of islamic fundamentalism. They have recorded with limited success in this fight due to lack of separation of mosque and state. For instance, in Nigeria, an islamic militant group, Boko Haram has been waging a violent campaign to implement a stricter version of sharia law and enthrone an islamic state(1). Boko Haram leverages on the prevalence of political islam in the region including the ongoing state implementation of sharia law.

Due to the merging of mosque and state by the government in this region, states are not neutrally positioned to tackle the problem of islamism head on because there is some commonality between the agenda of the sharia implementing states and that of Boko Haram. Disentangling state law, justice system, policy making from Islam will better position the African governments defeat Boko Haram and other militants groups fighting in Nigeria, Mali, Somalia to enthrone an islamic state.

Another area where the negative impact of mixing religion and politics is very manifest is in the area human rights protection. This has clearly been demonstrated in the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a christian woman who was sentenced to death in Sudan because she refused to renounce her christian faith. Ms Ibrahim has reportedly been freed from jail but the circumstances that led to her conviction and imprisonment in the first place require some reflection(2). Meriam was born to a muslim father and a christian mother. But she was raised a christian by her mother. The islamic court in Sudan ruled that Meriam's profession of christianity was apostasy and that she be put to death.

Ms Ibrahim was pregnant at the time of her conviction and gave birth to her baby while shackled in prison. The judgement was possible because sharia law is currently in force in Sudan. Since 1983 Sudan has enforced a translation of the patriarchal misogynistic norms of islam that are incompatible with universal human rights. And I ask, Why must the paternity not the maternity of Meriam count in her profession of religion? Why must paternity or maternity count at all? Is religion inherited? If someone's father or mother is a muslim, must the person remain a muslim? Why the compulsion to remain a muslim? Religious profession is a right which every individual exercises despite the religion of the parents. Religious confession is not inherited from one's father or mother. Is it? Changing one's religion or converting to another religion is and should be free. It should not be on the pain of death. But it is the case in Sudan due to lack of separation of mosque and state

The secularization of Sudan will help the country end this legalized discrimination that makes a caricature of its claim to protecting human rights, especially the freedom of religion. Disentangling the state of Sudan and its justice system from islam will make the government an impartial arbiter and guarantor of the equal rights of all individuals in the countries. Islam and christianity are ancient religions with norms that are incompatible with those of a modern democratic state.

Separating church(mosque) and state will enable African governments tackle poverty and improve their economy. Mixing religion and politics is impoverishing African countries and undermining their efforts to conquer poverty and underdevelopment. Due to lack of separation or its violation by politicians, many poor African states spend billions of dollars every year sponsoring pilgrimages to the holy lands(3), building churches and mosques(4) and paying clerics(5). These pilgrimages contribute to the economies of host nations like Israel or Saudi Arabia not those of Africans. If African governments separate church/mosque and state, these funds will be saved and will be better utilized in building schools, improving the standard of education, creating jobs and embarking on real developmental projects that can yeild tangible measurable returns that could lift millions of Africans out of poverty.

Separating church(mosque) and state has become a most urgent and compelling project for African peoples and their governments in this 21st century. So let the secularization of Africa begin.






Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.
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