Challenging the simplistic stereotype of a binary geopolitical and religious landscape, defined by the inevitable opposition between the Muslim South and the Christian North, the academic work conducted by IRD and its partners reveals a much more nuanced situation. Their research has explored the multi-faceted dynamics of religious life in the global south, defined by shifting geographical centres of spiritual power, quests for identity and authenticity, individual and collective political considerations, and an enthusiastic interest in the many guises of salvation.
Religions in the process of decolonisation
Perhaps more than any other cultural domain in the global south, the field of religion appears to have undergone a spectacular process of decolonisation. Once a pretext for and instrument of colonial domination, religion is now defined by its own specific dynamics. Not least among them are the emergence of forms of spirituality deeply integrated with southern societies, the development of new forms of connection with the south, and in some respects an inversion of the old balance in north-south relations. Academics continue to study the transformations taking place in this domain, and the way in which religions create and promote their own identities in Africa and the Americas.
Appropriation and syncretism
Paradoxically, many of Africa’s newer religions have been built on the foundations laid by European colonialists, combining the gospel preached by European missionaries with the very ancestral practices they were supposed to be warding off… “The evangelisation of Africa was a process which ran parallel to the establishment of the colonial system, intended to coax the indigenous populations away from the paganism and idol worship by which they were supposedly beset,” explains anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon. “But, over time, the religious authorities made their peace with these practices, paving the way for the emergence of local spiritual initiatives.” In Togo, Benin and Nigeria, for example, Catholicism is firmly entrenched but the Vodun and Orisha religious systemsAn ensemble of polytheistic divinities and practices, the former originating in Togo and Benin and the latter in Nigeria are also thriving, even among church-goers in many cases.
The Protestant faith has yielded some even more striking phenomena, in the form of the local church leaders who relatively rapidly supplanted European and North-American pastors and founded their own churches, or even their own denominations, often with a prophetic bent. Characterised by varying degrees of syncretism and hybridisation between Christianity and traditional religions, these neo-prophetic movements often combine references to the Bible, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit with elements of local cosmologies. Most of all, they take a whole ensemble of devotional practices and make them their own: ancestor worship, fertility cults, anti-witchcraft rituals etc. “These new religions, led by Africans, represent a genuine appropriation of the Christianity imported by European missionaries,” Dozon adds. “Furthermore, these ‘borrowed initiatives,’ to use the term coined by sociologist and anthropologist Georges Balandier, inspired a degree of collective mobilisation sufficient to be a cause of concern for the colonial authorities, who often sought to repress them.”
National churches with international ramifications
Equipped with their own liturgy and clergy, many of these new religions have become established churches bearing the names of their founders. Examples include the Harrist church in Ivory Coast, named in honour of early 20th-century evangelist William Wadé Harris. More often than not, these new religions are not recognised by the official Christian churches, but they have nonetheless become churches of national significance and, in some cases, churches with international followings, thanks in large part to migration towards Europe and the USA.
The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by His special envoy Simon Kimbangu, based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), offers a good illustration of the singular trajectory followed by these new religions originating in the global south. “Having been officially recognised by the Belgian authorities just before independence, and then courted by Mobutu who attempted to make it the national church, Kimbanguism is resolutely open to the rest of the world and its influence extends far beyond the confines of DRC, with a purported 32 million followers worldwide
Kimbanguism thus has a genuinely transnational dynamic, with the faithful very actively participating in the development of their church, while also contributing to the social assistance it provides in DRC, Angola and Congo.
The dynamism of such movements shows no signs of abating: “Over the past twenty years, new religious initiatives have continued to proliferate in the region and among the diaspora,” the sociologist explains. “We have seen the emergence of Pentecostal churches preaching prosperity and healing, adopting the Bible and Jesus as central tenets of their identity without seeking to Africanise them, as well as neo-prophetic churches which reject both Jesus and the Bible and preach black nationalism, segregation from whites and the worship of Simon Kimbangu as the messiah and God of black peoples. ” But of course, religions of African origin no longer appeal exclusively to Africans…
Global enthusiasm for Afro-American religious practices
One powerful symbol of this process of spiritual decolonisation in action is the fact that religions originating in the south are now attracting new believers from the north. A number of Afro-American religions, created by fusing elements of Christianity with religions introduced to the “New World” by African slaves, are attracting followers from far beyond the confines of their communities of origin. The same is true of religions focused on “possession” such as Beninese Vodun and Brazilian Vodum. “The fascination with Orisha beliefsA religious and mythological corpus of beliefs, divinities and practices originating with the Yoruba in the south of modern-day Nigeria, and which traversed the Atlantic with the slave trade [note rollover: a religious and mythological corpus of beliefs, divinities and practices originating with the Yoruba in the south of modern-day Nigeria, and which traversed the Atlantic with the slave trade] began back in the 1970s, when a number of black Americans were looking to reconnect with their African roots,” explains anthropologist Kali Argyriadis. They were soon followed by a new wave of believers hailing from Europe and Latin America, less concerned with such questions of identity. Indeed these belief systems have a certain power of attraction, focused as they are on the individual and offering solutions to their real-life preoccupations. Better still, they have shown themselves to be reasonably compatible with Catholicism thanks to the comparable structural roles played by Orisha divinities and the cult of the saints and the Virgin Mary, still very prominent in certain regions. New religious lineages, affiliated with this spiritual movement, soon began to spring up in Latin America and the USA.
As interest in such beliefs has grown, a genuinely global market of initiation has sprung up between Africa, the Americas and Europe. In addition to the pull of its beaches and musical culture, since opening up to international tourism and allowing greater freedom of religion in the 1990s, Cuba has also become a popular destination for those seeking Orisha initiation. Nigeria, the original source of these beliefs, is the destination of choice for purists interested in authenticity, and the steady flow of believers and candidates for initiation has helped create a transnational network of ritual kinship. But the global south in general, and Africa in particular, are now coming to dominate the workings of more ancient religious institutions.
A new “eldest daughter of the Church”
The spiritual emancipation of the south has also given rise to some striking examples of historical irony. For example, having formerly aided and abetted colonial conquest and government, Europe’s Catholic Church now finds itself highly dependent upon its African followers. “Christianisation of the colonies took place despite the fact that many of the European nations involved in the conquest of Africa were secular states,” explains Jean-Pierre Dozon. “In some respects, the Church staked out a place in the colonies which it was more or less in the process of losing in Europe.” This experiment in spiritual grafting worked so well that nowadays, as the new “eldest daughter of the Church,” it is Africa which is propping up European Catholicism. Even as Catholicism began to wane in Europe – particularly in France, where attendance at mass spiralled along with observance of the sacraments and seminary intakes – the religion was growing steadily in Africa. “And so, as the number of dioceses in Africa has continued to multiply, the continent has become a key component of the Roman curia and the global dynamic of the Catholic Church. That has included providing vital assistance to make up for the shortage of recruits joining the priesthood in Europe,” the anthropologist adds.
Indeed, in recent decades priests originating in the global south have become a common feature of city and country parishes across the old continent. They now account for more than a third of the 7,000 active priests in France, according to the estimates of the Conference of Bishops of France
More astonishing still is the transformation observed in missionary orders and congregations, the very organisations founded to spread the gospel to the south, dispatching their troops to convert the African continent. As time has gone by they have been forced to totally rethink both their recruitment policies and their missions. In a total about-turn, they have begun to recruit missionaries from the south, to make up for the lack of candidates from the north. The Congregation of the Holy Spirit, the last of these orders to open its ranks to recruits from the global south in the 1980s, is now predominantly composed of members from African nations. Meanwhile, these institutions have also shifted the focus of their missions, which increasingly see them coming to the rescue of European dioceses in decline. And there is more to this story, since Africans are also breathing new life into old churches as a result of migration…
The resurrection of Christian churches in the Maghreb
“Intra-African migration is revitalising and reconfiguring the religious landscape of the major cities of Mediterranean Africa,” explains socio-anthropologist Sophie Bava. “Since the drastic change in the conditions placed on entry to Europe in the early 2000s, many Africans – including students and economic migrants – have spent time or settled in big cities in the northern reaches of the continent.” This influx has reactivated ancient Christian presences and added new ones, as Ivorians, Congolese, Cameroonians and Central Africans give a second lease of life to Catholic and Protestant churches in Morocco and Tunisia which had become relics of the colonial period, abandoned in the 1960s after independence and the departure of their European congregations. After decades of slumber, these neglected centres of worship are once again offering regular masses and other services. In addition to these official churches, recognised by the political authorities, the presence of large numbers of migrants has also contributed to the emergence of a variety of informal Christian religious practices entirely unprecedented in these predominantly Muslim nations.
These evangelical churches, often neo-Pentecostal in inspiration, are led by preachers who are themselves migrants. The Maghreb is simply a temporary stop on their route to Europe, and they will pass their pastoral duties on to a successor should they decide to move on. Founded by migrants and devoid of any legal status, these religious communities gather in apartments in working class neighbourhoods – they are sometimes known as “home churches” – and are tolerated by their neighbours as long as their members behave discreetly. In the suburbs of Rabat alone, the city with the largest number of African migrants, around thirty home churches now make up a structured, stable religious network, in spite of the regular turnover of pastors and worshippers as new opportunities for emigration arise. “Generally speaking, religious faith and practice are reinforced and reoriented during the migration experience, marking the transition from an inherited religion to a chosen religion, which is why we sometimes see people switching between faiths, and new churches springing up without any need for formal conversions,” explains the researcher. “Due to the lack of legal, political and social recognition which migrants face in these host countries, religious recognition can provide a sense of attachment, as can the various forms of solidarity associated with religious communities and organisations.”
Since 2015, the Moroccan government has conducted two rounds of regularisation encompassing more than 50,000 individuals, thus allowing many migrants to obtain papers, to feel a greater sense of freedom of worship and, ultimately, to request the same “papers” for their churches, i.e. official recognition of their religious practices. “These waves of regularisation have given rise to a tangible sense of hope, which is visible in the themes addressed by these religious groups and the rise of what I like to call a “theology of migration,” the researcher adds. “These multifarious spiritual dynamics, which have seen the south shake off the domination of the north to create its own autonomous belief systems and affirm its place in the global religious landscape, are worthy of serious study. They can help us to better understand the individual and collective trajectories associated with these beliefs, which is why they have been and will continue to be a topic of great interest to social scientists,” Sophie Bava concludes.
Religion, a factor conducive to the integration of migrants?
In times of migration, religious belonging can be an effective force for integration. In some cases, conversion is an effective route to a new life in a new place… Research conducted in Burkina Faso as part of the ANR Relinsert project has focused on the capacity for social integration associated with religions in the context of mass migration. Burkina Faso, like other countries in the region, has seen a considerable degree of migration for economic or employment reasons since the 1930s, first to Ivory Coast and more recently to Libya or the other side of the Mediterranean. But the tables were turned in the early 2000s, when a crisis in Ivory Coast saw the return of a vast number of Burkinabe who had been long-term residents of their more prosperous neighbour. Previous studies have shown that the workers who made the move to Ivory Coast often converted to one of the dominant religions of their host society, in order to fit in in their adopted home or else to ensure that they would receive proper funeral rites if they were to die. A number of anthropologists, historians and socio-demographers are now examining the religious practices of those migrants who subsequently returned, or whose children decided to relocate to Burkina Faso. Their goal is to better comprehend how religion, understood as a social practice, can be a resource conducive to reintegration in their country of origin. “These studies have shown that local religious structures (associations, NGOs, churches, mosques etc.) and leaders – of all confessions - have helped to welcome and reintegrate their fellow citizens who have been obliged to return home, partially compensating for the shortcomings of the overburdened social services and providing a vital service in a society ill-prepared for such large-scale return migration. They have continued to play this role since the end of the Ivorian crisis,” explains anthropologist Alice Degorce. “Religion can therefore be seen as largely a factor for cohesion and integration in these countries which have been strongly affected by migratory movements.” Networks of mutual assistance based around religious communities can often open up opportunities for social or professional integration that state-run services and traditional kinship networks are not always able to offer.
Between quest for identity and desire for authenticity
Demonstrating your beliefs can be a way of affirming who you are. From the geographical and social margins of India to the worship of an incarnation of death in Mexico, not to mention the growing presence of Islam in Jamaica, we can cite a vast array of contexts in which religious belief is utilised as an instrument for expressing identity. This phenomenon also has a political dimension, as communities strive to secure new rights or simply affirm their existence in a national context dominated by another ethnic or religious group. It may also reflect a more personal spiritual journey and search for identity. As with those Africans and Caribbeans who have adopted the Jewish faith, religion can provide a way of reconnecting with real or merely symbolic ancestral roots as part of an individual or collective quest for authenticity.
Standing up to the Hindu giant
In a remarkable example of historical irony, some minority communities in India and Nepal now draw upon an ethnographic vision inherited from the British colonial period to affirm their own identities in relation to the dominant populations of their respective countries. Religion plays a key role in this process. “The British identified those sections of the population who were organised into castes as belonging to the Hindu world, while the more marginal groups living in distant reaches of the mountains and forests were considered as ‘tribes’,” explains anthropologist Grégoire Schlemmer. “And they imbued this term with a legal dimension, which is to say that those populations considered to be ‘tribal’ had specific rights.”
Unlike Nepal, the newly-independent India chose to perpetuate this system of division and retained the concept of “scheduled tribes” with their own official status, a definition which also implied differences of religion. “This had a major impact on the way in which groups expressed their specific identities, in both India and Nepal; the fact of belonging to a different religion thus became a component of their autonomous identity,” adds the researcher. Naturally enough, it was this sense of identity which mobilised Nepalese minority groups
Elsewhere, in Jamaica for example, the challenge is not to invent one’s religion but instead to stake out a place for it in contemporary society via the intermediary of national history.
An Islamic rewriting of Caribbean history
Affirming one’s Islamic faith is not always easy in an ardently Christian nation such as Jamaica. And yet, a small minority – 0.2% of the population – is going to great lengths to establish a homogenous community and define its own specificity, and even historical legitimacy, at a time when the Jamaican government is keen to promote a “Creole” national identity based on a combination of Christian heritage and a commitment to ethnic and cultural pluralism. “Having first been institutionalised by descendants of indentured labourersAsian labourers contracted to work on the plantations after the abolition of slavery from India, after independence the position of Islam in Jamaica was reinforced by the emergence of the Nation of Islam. The movement attracted many poor Afro-Jamaicans, Rastafarians and former supporters of Marcus Garvey – who now account for around 70% of the faithful – followed, more recently, by migrants arriving from predominantly Muslim parts of the world,” explains anthropologist Simon Frey. “These groups are radically different in terms of ethno-racial categorisation and social class, but in 1982 they founded an umbrella organisation called the Islamic Council of Jamaica, which has been working ever since to further the cohesion of this diverse religious community and its integration into the national paradigm.” One aspect of this process has been the promotion of narratives legitimising Islam in the post-colonial and post-slavery context of Jamaica. In a selective rewriting of Caribbean history, Islam is thus presented as the region’s original, authentic religion: Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas is re-evaluated with a strong emphasis on the role played by MoriscoSpanish Muslims who converted to Catholicism between 1499 and 1526 sailors on the expedition, the presence of Muslims among African slaves provides grounds for reinterpreting slave revolts as acts of jihad, and the organisation of maroon communitiesFormed by Africans who had fled slavery is held up as typically Islamic in nature…
In addition to this collective effort to construct a specifically Jamaican vision of Islam, the majority of Jamaican Muslims, as descendants of African slaves, situate their individual and family trajectories in the context of this shared Afro-Islamic past. Meanwhile, Jamaican Islam has also become part of a more global narrative through integration into the Ummah, the global community of believers. “In a post-slavery and postcolonial society riven with inequality, and moreover within a fundamentally diverse Muslim community, this idea has been a big hit,” the researcher adds. “On the one hand, it is a manner of reconnecting individuals to a vision of humanity unburdened of its dark past. On the other hand, it is about establishing absolute equality between Muslims from different origins.”
In other contexts, of which Mexico is a prime example, the challenge in terms of religious identity is to stand up to the arch conservatism of the Catholic Church…
Mexico’s apostolic, non-Satanic Catholics
For some Mexicans, worshipping Santa Muerte, a representation of death depicted as a skeleton, is a manner of affirming their Catholic faith in spite of the staunch opposition of the church itself. Indeed, they march in the streets with banners bearing the slogan “We are Catholic, apostolic and non-Satanic.” First emerging in medieval Europe at the time of the great plague epidemics, depictions of skeletons are commonly encountered in paintings and engravings of the age (popular examples include the “dance of death,” or “vanities” showing women looking into mirrors and seeing a skull reflected there). In religious processions, skeletons often represent death being defeated by Jesus. Imported into Mexico in the wake of the Spanish Conquest, this iconography made a considerable impact and was venerated, particularly by indigenous Americans, until it was prohibited by the Inquisition in the 17th century. The sole survivor of this ban was an image of death in the robes of a Franciscan monk, carrying either a scythe or a globe and known as the Just Judge. This image has spread throughout Latin America, appearing on little printed cards with a prayer on the back, linked with magic rituals. “Since the 1990s, in parallel with the rise in social and economic violence connected with the adoption of neo-liberal policies, the popularity of this figure has grown to the point that it is now prominent all over Mexico,” explains anthropologist Kali Argyriadis. “The idea behind it is that death, who does not distinguish between people, can grant miracles to anybody, regardless of their background, the colour of their skin or their lifestyle choices.”
The movement has grown rapidly. Prayer groups and Catholic-adjacent associations founded under the aegis of Santa Muerte, who organise street rituals and processions featuring the image of death, are attracting ever more followers, including many who have been refused communion by the rigidly conservative Mexican Catholic Church – divorcees, unwed mothers, homosexuals, poor people with nothing to put in the collection plate etc. In response, the church has decried Santa Muerte as a Satanic sect and castigated its followers. Meanwhile, certain sections of the press have drawn a link between this macabre devotional figure and the very real violence which has beset the country since the 2000s, describing it as a “narco-Satanist” movement. The aim is to doubly discredit devotees of Santa Muerte, tarring them both as Satanists who worship a representation of death and also as supporters of the narco-cartels responsible for the country’s rampant lawlessness. “These people feel that they are under attack, despite the fact that they are strongly attached to their Catholic faith. But, ultimately, participating in the collective worship of Santa Muerte, outside of the confines of the church, can be a symbol of identity which enables them to preserve their Catholic faith while also denouncing the role of the clergy in the perpetuation of a highly unequal society,” the researcher concludes.
Finally, in some cases, as with those converts of Caribbean and African descent embracing Judaism, we can observe a highly personal, individual desire for authenticity.
Some French people of African and Caribbean descent are turning to Judaism
Since the early 1980s and the much-publicised operations to “repatriate” them to Israel, the whole world has been aware of the existence of black Jews in Ethiopia, descended from an ancient Jewish tribe. Other groups in Africa invoke similar roots, including the Igbo Jews in Nigeria, Lemba in South Africa and Danites in Ivory Coast. Less well-known is the existence of black Jews among France’s Jewish diaspora over the past few decades. “That includes a good number of Africans, and descendants of Africans and Caribbeans, for whom Judaism is a personal choice, linked with questions of identity,” explains sociologist Aurélien Gampiot, who is studying the implications and practical workings of such aspirations to convert to Judaism.
People of African and Caribbean descent seeking to convert to Judaism take one of the two routes currently available in France: the path overseen by the Consistoire Israélite de Paris – considered to be the most legitimate, even if the procedure is deliberately arduous – and the more accessible route offered by the Masortim movement A contemporary Jewish movement which believes that commandments, customs and traditions should be adapted to the constraints of modern life, while remaining highly traditional in matters of worship.and by the Liberal Judaism movement. Converts appear to be drawn to both the Orthodox and the Liberal movements.
“The motivations which inspire these individuals of African and Caribbean descent to convert to Judaism are many and varied: a subjective belief in a Jewish heritage via identification with the Hebrew people or one of the lost tribes of Israel, a spiritual quest, a search for existential answers which go beyond Catholic or Protestant dogma or, more prosaically, a desire for formal recognition of their religious status after living in Israel or in preparation for an inter-ethnic marriage,” Gampiot explains. Some people of African and Caribbean descent identifying with Judaism have found encouragement in reinterpretations of the Torah which perceive the ancestors of the Jewish people to be black. Intermarriage between Hebrews and black people is also often invoked, with reference to the Biblical union between Moses and Tsipporah, the exodus from Egypt and the legendary relationship between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon… Similarly, circumcision and KashrutJewish dietary laws are often considered to be African cultural features, since they correspond to practices shared more or less widely by many communities on the continent. “Their discourse also includes a sense of identification with Israel, which remains associated with Africa, since the Torah is handed down by God in Egypt, a region which Afrocentric Egyptologists hold was exclusively black in this period ,” adds Aurélien Gampiot. “Finally, some converts of Caribbean descent draw explicit connections between the legacies of the Shoah and slavery in their affirmation of their Jewish faith.”
Paradoxically, many such converts have themselves experienced a crisis of individual identity, as a result of the general lack of awareness of black Jews in France. They may thus turn to ostentatious displays of their religious affiliation through collective action, organising colloquia, concerts and other events to boost the visibility which they feel that they lack on an individual level. “The social implications of asserting a visible, confident black-Jewish identity include the spectre of antisemitism, in addition to the racism endured by black people in mainland France,” the researchers notes.
“The issues of identity linked with religion provide a rich seam of material for researchers, helping us to better understand many of the individual and collective motivations behind spiritual devotion,” opines Kali Argyriadis. “The social sciences in general, and anthropology in particular, will continue to explore the many facets of these phenomena.”
Delicate, precious religious statistics
The demographic profile of different religions is often a sensitive subject. In some countries, such as Lebanon, where politics has been structured along confessional lines since the compromise struck in the 1926 Constitution, the stakes are high enough to prevent any attempts to count the population1. In some cases, censuses deliberately omit any questions about religious affiliations – in Nigeria, for example, this has been the policy adopted since the end of the colonial era, for fear of the tensions which might arise were such statistics to be published. And even when statistics on religions are available, their reliability is often called into question, particularly in Africa where the “demography of religions” is virtually non-existent.
“Social sciences are wary of these data, which are often derived from a single declaration made by the head of the family on behalf of the whole household, making it difficult to distinguish between believers and practicing devotees,” explains Marc Pilon. The demographer is part of an interdisciplinary group (with members drawn from the fields of demography, sociology, anthropology and political science) working to question the reliability and pertinence of data collected in this manner, comparing them with information derived from works of a socio-anthropological nature, and in doing so assessing their true analytical potential. “A comparative study conducted in Burkina Faso ultimately demonstrated that the figures contained in censuses and demographic studies do have a certain scientific value. It would be interesting to expand this approach to other countries,” he muses.
For researchers, this is about much more than simply quantifying different religious groups. Using the results of censuses and studies, their goal is not only to analyse the evolving demographics of different religions, and the factors behind these demographic dynamics (conversion, birth rates, polygamy etc.), but also to compare the socio-demographic profiles of the faithful (gender, age, level of education etc.). Last but not least, these data sources also allow researchers to study the phenomena associated with multi-religion households (spouses from different religions, changes between generations etc.).
As part of their efforts to make full use of census data, researchers have already compiled an inventory of all existing religious statistics for the whole of Africa, as well as the development of different categories within each country. This database has been created using all available census data, demographic surveys, health surveys and the studies conducted by UNICEF.
1. There has been no general census in Lebanon since 1932.
The multifaceted political implications of re-Islamization in West Africa
From public debate to the private sphere, from government policy to development work and individual trajectories, the links between religion and politics in the global south are multiple, varied and constantly-evolving. The academic work done on the phenomenon of re-Islamization observed in West Africa over the past three decades serves to illustrate different aspects of this ongoing reconfiguration, exploring the roles played by religious organisations, individual aspirations, international development organisations and the faithful themselves. These studies also demonstrate how social and political vacuums created by the weakening of the central state contribute to this phenomenon. Finally, they warn against jumping to simplistic conclusions about the role played by religious divides in political violence.
Opportune historical transformations
Over the past thirty years or so, societies in the global south in general – and West Africa in particular – have seen a significant increase in the presence of religion in the public sphere. While this may be connected to global trends in the spiritual domain, the phenomenon also owes much to the alignment of historical transformations conducive to the return of religion. Since the late 1990s, the decline of Marxist and Third-Worldist ideologies has opened the door for the return of religious expression – particularly religions focused on salvationBelief systems which offer solutions for improving one’s life on earth, while also guaranteeing a better world to come. – while processes of democratisation have restored freedom of opinion, freedom of belief and freedom of association. Meanwhile, neo-liberal economic policies and structural adjustment programmes have plunged many into poverty and thoroughly discredited the state.
“In West Africa, the phenomenon of resurgent religion is evident in the spectacular re-Islamization of society, which has involved efforts to raise the level of public and political morals, to win back hearts and minds with the reaffirmation of the link between this life and the great beyond, and to compensate the shortcomings of the state in the social sector,” explains anthropologist Gilles Holder.
This reappropriation of private matters and “remoralisation” of public affairs, which can also be observed in many other countries in this region, has been accompanied by a resolutely Afrocentric vision of identity and civilisation. “To a certain extent this is an extension and reinvention of the pan-Africanism of the independence movements, combining the rejection of Western values, lifestyles and political models with the de-Arabization of Islam, in a bid to stake out a new political status for religion in Africa: Islamic Afrocentrism,” the specialist argues. The phenomenon of re-Islamization can take on many forms, depending on the scale of observation and the geographical context…
Entering the debate and defying the state
Entering the debate and defying the state
“In Senegal, new brotherhood movements, which seek to forge a new, closer connection between young believers and their religious leaders, began to appear in the early 1990s within the existing Sufi brotherhoodsReligious associations under the authority of a spiritual master, with shared rituals and disciplinary requirements which have long been a feature of the religious landscape in this overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country,” explains religious and political anthropologist Fabienne Samson.
“Since the days of the independence movements, religious leaders have often been seen as de facto ambassadors of the ruling powers. But the new generation of leaders are casting off that role, railing against the state, its elites and their shortcomings, as well as the general decline in morals which they attribute to urban society. Their message is aimed at young city-dwellers in particular, urging them to be both good Muslims and good citizens, working to change themselves and their country. The uptake has been massive, and these preachers are now monopolising public debate with their high-profile media operations and moralising discourse.” This movement has found concrete expression in the form of “citizen action,” where young believers help to build new schools and clinics, clean the streets and run blood donation drives. Attitudes are changing too, with the emergence of a more militant form of Islam, publicly expressed by its followers in the way they dress and speak. “These religious groups are more clearly politicised, forming parties in order to exert pressure on the political class to tighten religious rules,” Samson adds. “Senegalese society as a whole has been transformed, with a heightened sense of religious fervour and the omnipresence of religion in day-to-day life, at both the individual and collective levels.”
The other Muslim-majority nations in the region – Mali, Guinea and Niger – have seen similar developments: there is a renewed sense of faith among believers, Islam is more present in the public debate and religion is also present in the social, political and economic spheres. In Burkina Faso, where the Muslim community does not have this degree of political power, religious groups have been more conspicuous by their social work, particularly in the form of religious associations demonstrating solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society and stepping in where public services are insufficient. Above and beyond the social and societal implications, this phenomenon of re-Islamization has had an impact on the private sphere which has also been explored by researchers.
Keen to examine the ways in which the return of religion has been experienced in the private sphere, researchers have studied the factors which compel young people from Muslim families to question the way they practice their religion – which may mean questioning the practices and beliefs inherited from their parents – and instead pursue a more authentic vision of Islam. This quest for authenticity may lead them to join Islamic associations, to study the Quran in night classes, or to attend lectures to learn how to handle different situations in a manner befitting of their Islamic beliefs etc.
“There are many different ideas of what constitutes ‘true’ Islam,” says anthropologist Maud Saint-Lary. “The Salafist tradition promotes puritanism and sobriety, particularly by shunning the profligacy of marriage festivities. But the rhetoric of ‘true’ Islam is also used to criticise inequalities in society, such as caste systems which oblige individuals to marry within their social groups. Some women have invoked ‘true’ Islam to challenge religious practices which are detrimental to them.” This has included offering new readings of Islamic texts to show that Islam in fact embraces the principle of equality between men and women, and fighting back against what they consider to be patriarchal interpretations of their religion. Without perhaps realising it, they sometimes express positions close to those espoused by a global movement with which they have no direct affiliation: Islamic feminism.
The construction of an Islamic civil society which expects to play a prominent role in public affairs has not gone unnoticed by development organisations and international donors.
Development actors and intermediaries
“Having noticed the increasing prominence of the religious dimension in West African societies, by the early 2000s the World Bank was already advising governments in developing countries to cooperate with religious and traditional leaders. The respected standing they enjoy within their communities makes them effective mouthpieces for public policy messages,” Maud Saint-Lary elaborates. This contributed to the emergence of new dynamics in the region: for example, several West African nations saw the emergence of Islamic networks focused on development and population issues.
Backed up with Quranic verses and the weight of prophetic traditions, the Islamic intellectuals at the head of these networks are closely involved with awareness-raising campaigns against female circumcision and early marriage, in favour of planned parenthood and on issues such as reforestation and child beggars. Religious leaders (of all confessions) have been involved in public health projects (AIDS, malaria), and in campaigns to promote women’s rights and protect the environment. Furthermore, religious associations play a major role in the fields of healthcare and education, in countries where central governments struggle to provide these public services. As such, and at their particular level, they make an active contribution to the definition and implementation of public policy on social issues and matters of development.
Nonetheless, the link between this re-Islamization and the rising tide of violence in the region gives cause for concern.
No wars of religion
One of the most violent manifestations of this phenomenon is Boko Haram in Nigeria, a clear example of how the re-Islamization of West Africa can sometimes serve to exacerbate the misconception that there are terrible tensions between Muslims and Christians in the country. “Like all of the world’s jihadi organisations, the aim of this movement is to re-Islamize, willingly or forcibly, those Muslim believers whose practices they consider to be wayward. They are not interested in converting Christians,” explains political scientist Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos. “This means that Christians are not the main targets of Boko Haram’s violent actions, since the group mostly kills Muslims. Although they may well fall victim to criminal gangs, Christians actually represent only a small minority of the population of the north-eastern regions where Boko Haram is active.” Nor does the situation in Nigeria correspond to the reductive schema of continual tensions between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. In some parts of the north, Christians – who often move to the region to take up jobs in the public sector for which no suitable candidates are available locally – account for as much as a third of the population. “While we do encounter certain examples of sectarian exclusionary discourse, from both Muslim and Christian leaders, in reality people’s political affiliations are more likely to be informed by the communities to which they belong, especially since the constitution expressly forbids political parties based on religious identities,” the expert adds.
Similarly, the growing power of groups which have been too rapidly and inaccurately lumped together under the umbrella term “jihadist”in the so-called “Three Borders” zone – spanning Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and extending a fair way into each of the three – cannot be entirely attributed to religious factors alone. “What has been happening over the past decade in this region stems from multiple causes, with factors and processes which are often intertwined,” notes anthropologist Maud Saint-Lary. Among these factors are the fading legitimacy of central governments in regions which have long been neglected (such as the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, or the Azawad region of Mali), flare-ups of violent extremism in response to indiscriminate reprisals perpetrated by elements of the army or self-defence militias, arms becoming more readily-available thanks to trafficking, the economic lure of signing up and the increasing pressures placed on land already depleted by desertification and the resurgence of bitter conflicts between livestock and arable farmers in certain zones. “All of which means that the ‘Islamic revolutionary’ tag sometimes attached to rebel groups in this zone actually conceals a range of underlying antagonisms,” the researcher concludes.
The waning political influence of Ivorian religious guides
Although they are not, strictly speaking, part of the political class who share or fight over institutional power, today’s Ivorian religious leaders have at least taken on the mores of this caste. As their country emerges from years of military and political crises, during which some of these dignitaries adopted partisan positions or took courageous moral stands, they now seem to be interested primarily in furthering their own ambitions. “Many of these religious figures, including traditional kings and chiefs1, imams and prelates, have now taken on a status or position on the state payroll, sitting on various assemblies, committees and commissions,” explains religious anthropologist Marie Miran-Guyon. “Having become more dependent upon the regime, they have lost some of the independence of spirit and freedom of speech which, in many cases, were the main reasons for their popularity within their respective communities.” Other religious leaders continue to rack up multiple jobs and, ultimately, stifle the advancement of younger generations. Still others, particularly within protestant and evangelical churches, have turned to highly-aggressive methods – internal coups d’état, buying fake diplomas, intimidation – to gain or retain power over their respective churches and the resources they control. “None of these religious guides now seems to have the charismatic stature required to inject a degree of morality into the public debate. On the contrary, they are following in the questionable footsteps of politicians in the way in which they have organised their religious operations, particularly in terms of financial management and leadership styles,” argues the expert. “This means that they are no longer in a position to act as credible mediators in the public sphere, transcending party-political lines and remaining independent of those who are solely concerned with acquiring or keeping power. This decline in credibility has been accompanied by a decline in their influence in the public sphere. It may also be nurturing a growing mistrust among the faithful, with tentative signs already emerging that people are looking to politically emancipate themselves from religious authorities and break with the deference to political and religious grandees which has prevailed heretofore.”
1. Supposed to embody the heritage of traditional religions, although the majority of them are Christian or Muslim.
Societies in search of salvation
Many societies in the global south provide particularly fertile ground for the expansion of what we might call ‘religions of salvationBelief systems which offer solutions for improving one’s life on earth, while also guaranteeing a better world to come’, especially the more dynamic among them. The absence or withdrawal of central government and established religions, the rise of individuation, growing inequality and poverty and the omnipresence of religion in many societies and languages are all factors which have helped to prepare the terrain for this phenomenon. Researchers are now examining how and why, from Brazil to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not forgetting the Arab world, evangelical movements and militant Islam are gaining ground, sometimes at the expense of the dominant religious order.
The changing faith of Brazil
After unilaterally dominating the religious sphere for five centuries, Catholicism appears to have been brutally unseated by the evangelical movement in modern Brazil. Within thirty years, the proportion of the Brazilian population who identify themselves as Catholics has fallen from over 90% to below 65%, a spectacular and unprecedented collapse. While it still remains the world’s largest Catholic nation in terms of number of believers, this is set to change in the near future: more than half of the population of the state of Rio are now members of various evangelical churches, and Rio generally sets the trend for what the next two decades will look like elsewhere in Brazil. The impact of these evangelical movements is being felt at every level of the country’s sociological, economic and political life, not to mention the attendant social transformations: people are dressing differently, in more modest and ample clothes, and expressing increasingly conservative opinions on social matters – demand for law and order, nostalgia for the dictatorship years etc. What’s more, these changes are affecting the way people vote, paving the way for the current, highly-reactionary government which has drawn great support from the evangelical movements.
The spatial dynamics of this evangelical takeover – which has been particularly dynamic in the distant suburbs of the big cities, in the rural outposts and among the Amazon villages – provide some indication of the underlying trends. “These religious messages have been carried to the city’s small towns and far-flung hamlets by itinerant evangelists not formally attached to any church, who to some extent make it up as they go along, in response to the situation on the ground,” explains anthropologist Véronique Boyer. They have been warmly-received in those areas where neither the government nor the Catholic Church appears capable of providing the necessary moral or material support, and have been particularly successful with vulnerable groups: migrants from other regions, women, young people, the elderly etc. Through a long series of small initiatives, the evangelical churches have gradually gained ground, setting up places of worship and prayer groups in even the most neglected neighbourhoods, offering solidarity, sociability and even a degree of distraction, with their sung services in which the whole congregation is expected to participate.
Finally, the diminished influence of the Catholic clergy – whose commitment to serving the humblest members of their flock has waned with the decline of liberation theology – combined with the need for greater visibility for poor people, has helped to swell the membership of Brazil’s evangelical churches. In addition to the waning presence of the government and the Catholic Church, the emergence of the individual as a force independent of the community has played a major role in the success of new religious movements in Brazil.
The triumph of the individual
“By ceding the pulpit to members of the congregation, inviting them to stand up in front of the community, take the microphone and testify to the miracle of their conversion or cure, evangelical churches, both big and small, have hit a nerve with their target audience,” says Véronique Boyer. “This new sense of attention focused on them perfectly corresponds to their pressing need to express themselves, to publicly assert their individual existence.” This is an opportunity which has heretofore been denied to them, by the existing hierarchy and social structure. Often drawn from the lowest rungs of society, these converts have become accustomed to being treated as second-class citizens, whose voices are of little or no importance in the public debate. Moreover, they often come from disadvantaged social or cultural groups and rural areas, where the individual must play second fiddle to the interests and cohesion of the community. The evangelical churches offer such people their own space, somewhere they can come into their own as autonomous individuals, both by deciding for themselves to join a new church, and also by having the opportunity to testify and engage with people on their own behalf.
This relatively recent phenomenon of individuation – or emancipation from the social constraints imposed by group identities, elders and customs – replacing long-standing, ancestral community structures can also be observed in other contexts and religions. “For many young people in majority Muslim nations such as Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, part of the attraction of religious practices which involve a transformation of their social (or even political) environment is the opportunity they offer for followers to assert themselves as unique, independent individuals,” explains religious and political anthropologist Fabienne Samson. “It’s about proving, to yourself and to the rest of the world, that you are in control of your own destiny in this world, and even in the next. This prospect is all the more appealing when associated with new religious movements, enhancing the sense that one is acting on one’s own initiative.”
Full of promises as they may be, such religions may also appeal to the instinct for survival.
Prosperity v. poverty
“For many people living in the global south, including the majority of Congolese people, this earthly life is a daily struggle, and religion may provide symbolic or concrete opportunities to escape that,” explains sociologist Aurélien Gampiot. “This goes some way to explaining the great success of evangelical churches amid the religious maelstrom which has been the Democractic Republic of the Congo in recent decades.”
These churches appeal first and foremost to people in precarious circumstances, those who are most vulnerable economically and socially, beset by health problems, poverty and unemployment, among other ills. Churches offer solutions to people in distress, providing an explanation for the obstacles and evils they have encountered in their lives: all they need to do is abandon their old beliefs, convert, adhere to a certain religious discipline, participate enthusiastically in services and prayers and these obstacles will evaporate, replaced by healing and miracles. Placing the emphasis on the personal decision required to attain conversion and salvation, celebrating individual initiative and economic success as the fruit of divine benediction, these churches also know how to appeal to the middle classes and elites
This theology of prosperity, a defining feature of evangelical churches based on the tantalising prospect that religious engagement will be repaid with both material and moral benefits, is not the only draw. “In more concrete terms, and like many other religious organisations, they also play a vital role in compensating for the lack of basic public services,” the researcher continues. “They provide tangible social assistance, particularly by opening clinics and schools, which does not go unnoticed in DRC.”
If religion can thus seem almost like a pragmatic solution to the adversity and poverty endured by many people in the global south, it may also come to exert a dominant influence over the collective consciousness.
The dominance of the Islamic worldview
“The great prominence attained by movements on the Islamist spectrumA catch-all term for movements calling for the re-Islamization of state and society, at the expense of all other movements, and in spite of their diversity, reflects the fact that the dominant discourse, the language readily available to the majority of the population, is that of Islam,” argues anthropologist Sarah Ben Néfissa. “This dominant Islamic language owes its prominence and its effectiveness to the fact that it is rooted in a religious and cultural worldview understood by all Muslims.” This worldview, and the Islamic language associated with it, represent the “fundamental social understanding” shared by all Muslims and passed on through family and social bonds, the religious education dispensed by public and private schools, Quran study groups and mosques and, increasingly, by online sources, preachers on satellite TV channels, religious series etc. Based on a shared epistemeThe system of knowledge and premises associated with a given period in time which holds that the reforms and solutions demanded by all problems at all levels of Muslim societies can be found in the Quran and the example of the Prophet, this worldview naturally encourages believers to see the future through the lens of religion, and to follow their by religious leaders.
“Beyond the narrow confines of academic circles, the implications of this shared religious worldview are rarely examined and criticised,” the researcher continues. “On the contrary, Islamic vocabulary is regularly revived, instrumentalised and redefined in increasingly conservative ways by various different parties: political opponents to the current regimes – through Islamic charitable organisations in particular – but also, and above all, by the region’s authoritarian regimes as they form alliances with certain Gulf nations and their Western allies, compelled by their own political and strategic agendas.” This is how the most literalist interpretation of Islam has come to dominate religious thought and practice, paving the way for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhoodand various Salafists , fundamentalists and jihadi groups in the wake of the popular uprisings of 2011, which were originally propelled by a demand for greater social justice and democracy.
“It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the changes we are witnessing today, linked to the individuation of religious initiatives in the global south, require us to fundamentally rethink our scientific approach. With regard to Islam in particular, there has been a proliferation of publications in French, English and Arabic, re-examining the work of great Islamic scholars from previous decades but also reflecting the vibrancy of the academic debate in this field,” Sarah Ben Néfissa concludes.
Individuation and secularisation in Arab societies
Social and societal evolution may have the effect of shaking up long-standing political and religious certainties. This is certainly true of the structural transformations reshaping Arab societies, including the spread of literacy, the enhanced economic and political standing of women, the role of young people and access to information from all over the world. The resulting process of individuation has led to a severe crisis of authority. “Over the past decade, authority has been challenged from all angles, and this phenomenon has not spared religious leaders of all stripes: institutionalised Islamic and Christian authorities in countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, traditional or “popular” Islamic groups, institutionalised preachers and independents,” explains anthropologist Sarah Ben Néfissa. “This new sense of defiance has laid the groundwork for a wave of ‘bottom-up secularisation’ i.e. at the initiative of the people rather than the ruling authorities, in sociological terms never before seen in these societies.” There have, of course, been previous attempts to restrict the role of religious forces, such as the forced secularisation imposed upon many countries in the region in the twentieth century, as well as the de facto secularisation ushered in by education, the law, justice, healthcare and intellectual debate since the late eighteenth century, albeit never formally recognised by the political powers that be in order to avoid conflict with the religious authorities.