Religion’s cutting edge: lessons from Africa

Tina Beattie
14 February 2007

The scholar Conor Gearty, writing in the Catholic weekly journal the Tablet, has argued that the relationship between religion and human rights is likely to become an increasingly significant area of debate, and that human-rights activists have "sought to suppress the role of religious faith in underpinning their movement and giving it a covert zeal and purpose" (Tablet, 1 February 2007). I found myself reflecting on this in light of my attendance at the World Social Forum in Nairobi on 20-25 January 2007, where two related issues seemed central to many of the campaigns and organisations represented: the role both of women and of religion in the struggle to realise the vision of the forum that "another world is possible".

The idea that religion may be a close ally of those in civil society and human-rights organisations campaigning for a better world might surprise or even scandalise the growing number of western secularists who believe that religion is always and everywhere the enemy of just and free societies. Influential commentators such as Richard Dawkins, Polly Toynbee, AC Grayling and Martin Amis have contributed to a growing climate of hostility to religion in British culture, so that there is a widening gulf between public perceptions of religious and secular worldviews with regard to issues such as freedom of speech, democracy and equality".

Tina Beattie is reader in Christian studies, Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002) and New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005)

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and jihad: beyond words" (18 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate"
(24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era"
(10 January 2007)

Tina Beattie's most recent article is:

"Has liberation theology had its day?", Tablet,
(10 February 2007)

There is good reason for this if one defines religion as George W Bush's version of Christianity or Osama bin Laden's version of Islam. The problem is that many of the commentaries on religion in the British press or in works such as Dawkins's recent book The God Delusion are highly polemical and ill-informed in their failure to acknowledge the diverse cultures and values which fall within that inadequate term "religion".

There is indeed a worrying rise of violent forms of religious fundamentalism and the reasons for this are complex, but the phenomenon still encompasses only a small minority of the world's believers. At the World Social Forum, it became clear that there is a much wider and more representative movement of people from different faiths who work together with others in civil society and human-rights organisations to challenge the injustices of the prevailing economic order.

Strolling amidst the jostling multicultural melée of activists, demonstrators, and slum-dwellers, it was startling to realise how many of the stalls and workshops were run by Christian groups in particular, campaigning on everything from justice for street-children to HIV/Aids projects and rights for women. In the daily newspaper published during the forum, Hilmi Toros wrote: "it is in a multitude of steaming tents run by faith-based groups that crucial issues ranging from good governance to peace building or poverty and HIV/Aids - are being freely debated."

In one workshop I attended on religion and the media, it was suggested that disillusionment with politics has led many to turn to religious institutions as the most effective forum for bringing about political change. A Honduran activist for women's rights told us that in Honduras the churches are the only places where a woman can speak.

The high visibility of religious groups caused consternation to some campaigners, with one observing that he had trouble understanding this coalition between the left and religion. The executive director of Oxfam Netherlands, Sylvia Borren, acknowledged the role played by religious groups but expressed concern that they were also "selling their religious message".


Women at the centre

Yet proselytisation was clearly not the aim of the religious organisations represented at the WSF. Rather, from positions shaped by different varieties and degrees of faith (including many forms of faith in non-religious world views ranging from liberal democracy to Marxism), people transcended their differences in order to make a show of solidarity against the combined forces of rampant capitalism and political corruption which blight the lives of too many in the modern world.

That blight is conspicuous in Nairobi, where a third of the people live in slums while corrupt politicians cling to power in a city marked by vivid contrasts which could be a metaphor for the global community. The rich live imprisoned behind high walls topped with razor-wire, with bars on their windows and armed guards at their gates, while those seeking to venture out onto the streets must negotiate their way through hawkers, beggars, pickpockets and armed robbers in a city where the traffic situation lends a new meaning to the word chaos. Yet Nairobi is also an exhilarating city, vibrant and teeming with an entrepreneurial spirit which turns every street corner into a market stall.

The significance of religious perspectives at the World Social Forum may have been heightened by the fact that religion is arguably the dominant cultural influence across much of Africa, and this is certainly true of Kenya. The daily obituary columns include photographs of those who have died under bold headings which say "Promoted to Glory". Nairobi's battered buses and matatus (a cross between a taxi and a minibus), display bright slogans proclaiming faith in God, which seems like a wise insurance policy for those travelling in them.

Also in openDemocracy on the World Social Forum:

Patricia Daniel, "Is another world possible without the women’s perspective?"
(18 January 2007)

Anthony Barnett, "The three faces of the World Social Forum"
(30 January 2007)

I was part of a group visiting Kibera, Africa's largest slum and home to some 700,000 people, on a Sunday morning. As we walked through the stinking alleys negotiating our way round stagnant puddles and piles of rubbish, the voices of American-style preachers resonated around us, each proclaiming his version of salvation from a corrugated tin shack. This is indeed religion as the opium of the people, a form of Christianity inspired and sometimes funded by American evangelists, which offers potent emotional release but little by way of social action.

But I also met groups of women (they were nearly all women) in the slums and the rural areas of Kenya and Tanzania in the week following the forum who, sustained by their Christian faith, form self-help groups for the destitute and vulnerable, run microcredit schemes, visit those who are bedridden because of HIV/Aids, and share their pitiful resources with those who are even more desperate than they are, while speaking out against the corruption of politicians who buy votes and make false promises to the poor.

The next time somebody tells me that feminism is the preoccupation of a minority of affluent white women, I will tell them about the women I met in some of the poorest places in Africa, for whom the struggle for human dignity and full equality is a living daily battle against the combined forces of culture and economics, which puts many western so-called feminists to shame.

The light within

This is not to deny the problems and tensions that arise when religious organisations are central to the struggle for justice. The World Social Forum was host to a brave group of Kenyan gay and lesbian activists who, defying the country's laws against homosexuality, sought solidarity and protection within that international gathering to proclaim their rights. There were several groups campaigning for women's sexual and reproductive rights, although interestingly, the workshop I attended gathered together a diverse group of men as well as women, including a religious sister in full habit and a veiled, Muslim woman. Religious sisters were prominent in the struggle against the trafficking of women and children.

The fragile coalition which allowed for religious campaigners to work side-by-side with those lobbying for sexual rights in the hopeful ambience of an international gathering beneath the blue African skies may seem somewhat less sustainable when we disperse to our chillier home environments, but the spirit which inspired it surely deserves recognition if we seek to be better informed about the complex relationship between religion and civil society. Long after the last western campaigners have jetted back to their homes in London, New York and Rome, a committed network of religious believers - priests, nuns and ordinary women and men - will continue to provide the only effective form of social support to millions across Africa.

We should cherish the freedom of speech which allows public figures like Richard Dawkins to vent their spleen against religion as vociferously as they wish to. But in giving them the oxygen of so much publicity, we are fuelling a culture of prejudice and ignorance which might militate against the very values they claim to be defending in the quest for a more just and equitable world. If a better world is possible, it is unlikely to come about without the dedicated struggles of religious believers and the visions which inspire them.

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