PART 1: THE UNHOLY ALLIANCE OF RELIGION, CULTURE AND POLITICS .
I think it’s about time we had this conversation.
What happens when we treat culture as immutable? Society fails to develop; people cannot evolve, thereby, forcing everyone to adapt their choices and views to whatever that culture dictates. In many African countries, the conflation of culture and religion has ensured that we do not progress socially and that our morality, priorities and views are biassed. The rules of religious institutions are presented as unquestionable guidelines for living our lives. Essentially, our laws function to preserve the social order as dictated by religious institutions; and the religious masses sharpen their pitchforks to blindly defend these institutions and promote their dangerous rhetoric and the “othering” of anyone who contradicts what they have defined as the norm.
Religion, Culture, and the Law
There is a warped idea that the rules of religious institutions form a part of our culture or tradition. However, this should not be the case, especially in religiously diverse societies. Yet, people in positions of power make decisions not based on what is best for people but on what their religious rules and principles dictate. This inevitably means that those who do not conform to the majority's beliefs are effectively isolated or harmed. It is no longer about morality or spirituality but about maintaining power and societal norms dictated by religious institutions like the Church.
For example, Ghana is in the process of passing a deeply homophobic law, the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill, aimed at criminalising those in the LGBTQ+ community. "It is against our culture, it is against our norms, it is against our tradition," notes Emmanuel Kwasi Bedzrah, one of the members of parliament (MPs) whose name is on the anti-LGBT bill. "We don't want things that are against our sensibility to be given priority in our society, and therefore, this will be a deterrent to anyone who supports them." Ironically, their anti-LGBT laws continue their colonial legacy, as, before colonisation, Africans had a more open attitude towards homosexuality. However, the British administration and the spread of fundamentalist Christian attitudes meant that homophobic laws were passed.
The Church has led the rhetoric that being queer is an abomination. According to a census carried out in 2010, over 70% of Ghanaians are Christian (of that 70%, 28.3% identify as Pentecostal/Charismatic, 18.4% as Protestant, 13.1% as Catholic and 11.4% as other), thereby making the homophobia and the inevitable violence that accompanies it, a Christian problem. The Chairman of the Pentecostal Church in Ghana made a public statement claiming that the Church would not vote for any MP that does not support the bill. He further went on to state that it is not political. This begs how directly lobbying against a bill and influencing policy is not political? If the Church’s concern were really about the nation's future, their support would have been evident in the #Fixthecountry protests in 2021. Instead, this is about the Church maintaining its power and ability to dictate the social norms.
Another example is the way Islamic law is applied in Nigeria. It is administered as either personal or territorial law. As personal law, it is part of customary law, only applicable to those communities who have included it as part of their jurisdiction. Within this context, Islamic law is subject to local law and customs law in Nigeria. However, Islamic law also functions as territorial law. For example, the bill for the adoption of Sharia was passed by the Zamfara State House of Assembly into law in December 1999. By the end of 2001, 11 other states (Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe), and several local governments within them, had joined Zamfara. For those states, Islamic law presumably operates as full-blown territorial law. Sharia law is not subject to other rules within this context but will instead override them.
It must be acknowledged that there are different interpretations of Sharia law. However, there are many problems with how Sharia law is currently applied in Nigeria, and it has raised many human rights concerns. For example, under Sharia law, people are sentenced to death for blasphemy; twenty-two-year-old musician, Yahaya Sharif, was sentenced to death for a song he shared on social media.
Moreover, child marriage and other harmful practices are prevalent in communities where customs and religion make it acceptable. The incompatibility between Nigeria’s statutory, customary and Islamic laws creates uncertainty and creates an atmosphere in which human rights, specifically women's rights, are vulnerable.
The OIC’s Secretary-General, Iyad Madani, said, “There are a number of issues that go beyond the normal scope of human rights and clash with Islamic teachings.” In this sense, Islam and human rights are compatible only to the point that human rights infringe upon Islamic law. Then, if the two are to be reconciled, Islamic law would prevail whilst human rights would have to be adjusted to fit around it.
When religious rules govern society, those who stray from what is considered socially acceptable are castigated and at risk of harm. There is little room for evolving when the basis of how society should function is linked to the divine. Further, it gives religious leaders too much power to dictate the functioning of society.
Religion, Charlatans and the Exploited.
The messiah-like status religious leaders are given, and the dynamism that comes with rules of religious institutions means that they can easily exploit their congregation. ‘The profession seems to attract a disproportionate level of charlatans’, noted Wole Soyinka when asked about the unholy alliance between religious leaders and political leaders in Nigeria. In addition to this, I will note that there is a disproportionate level of people ready to believe and defend those charlatans.
In 2019, Pastor Fatoyinbo, leader of Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (Coza), one of Nigeria’s fastest-growing Pentecostal churches, had several allegations of rape made against him. The case gained public recognition when Busola Dakolo, a well-known Nigerian photographer, spoke against the pastor. However, there was still an outpour of support from Churchgoers during the investigation and many who believed that men of God could not be held accountable under the law, as it was for God to decide. The COZA church referred to the allegations as an ‘unprovoked satanic campaign of calumny orchestrated against its leadership and members by agents of darkness.’ Further, the judge subsequently dismissed Ms Fatoyinbo's case as waste and abuse of judicial process (although this was only due to the statute of limitation expiring) and awarded Mr Fatoyinbo 1 million naira in damages. Religious leaders have historically evaded responsibility.
In 2016, TB Joshua’s Church collapsed, killing 116 people. A coroner's report blamed the collapse on poor construction work. Still, Mr Joshua's church denied this and instead blamed the collapse on a mysterious plane that had been flying above the double-storey building, thus causing it to shake and fall. No one was held accountable. Of those killed, more than 80 were from South Africa, illustrating the international nature of some of the more prominent churches. In South Africa, two churches - Rabboni Ministries and End Times Disciples Ministries - made headlines when they posted images of their leaders feeding followers snakes and rats. In 2018, thof End Times Disciples Ministries pastor again made headlines for feeding his congregation dog meat.
These examples highlight how ecclesiastical leaders can manipulate their congregation and how far these congregations are willing to go in blind support. However, the more pressing question is how this relationship with religious institutions was formed and why it thrives.
For the second part of this article, click here for part two.