Left Up To Faith

Secularism, Religiosity and Human Rights in Kenya and Beyond

My engagement with the intersection of tradition, culture and religiosity has a rather long and contradictory history. As a young activist against apartheid in South Africa, I was inspired by the leaders of all faiths who were appalled by a system that perpetrated the ideology of white superiority and that oppressed black people, women and those perceived as nonconforming to heteronormativity. This oppression was through law, and it was, therefore, as systemic as it was violent.

In South Africa, the ideology of white supremacy and its racialized patriarchy was buttressed by a particular strain of Christianity—conservative Calvinism. The apartheid state was a Christian state. Christianity was part of the apartheid state’s constitution, and laws on racial segregation and the oppression of women and sexual minorities were based on laws informed as much by this conservative Calvinist religiosity as by Roman-Dutch law.

As part of our struggle against a system of oppression through law, organized clergy from all faiths rallied around the traditions of liberation theology. The African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress were born in churches, and their challenge to apartheid was premised on the moral tenant of the equality of all people. This morals-based stance became more radical through faith-based formations such as the South African Council of Churches and the Young Christians League. Radical Muslims were organized by the Call of Islam and the Quibla. These Christian and Muslim organizations, with few exceptions, were part of liberation movements, and the brand of liberation theology that emerged was grounded on a firm belief that no person should be oppressed on any grounds whatsoever. This belief ultimately guided the post-apartheid constitution.

The experience of being oppressed based on both religious and legal grounds was, therefore, a key driver for the South African constitution’s embrace of secularism and laws that prohibit discrimination on any grounds.

South Africa’s example also highlights the importance of separating religion from the state and the economy. This separation helps ensure social and political pluralism, avoidance of the dangers of “political religions” and access to resources for all.

Professor Kazem Hajizadeh undertook a study, published in 2013, to ascertain the extent to which countries in the world have embraced secularism. This study looked at the extent to which nation-states have embraced the modernization–secularism narrative. This theory asserts that religion has become less important as a political and social force and that religious criteria defining appropriate behavior have been replaced by laws that define the parameters of acceptable social behaviors.

The study also looked at the extent to which religiosity influenced these laws in modern societies, and the findings are interesting. While most countries have provisions in their constitutions that formally seek to separate religion from the state, many of these countries also have clauses that include an official religion. In Africa, this includes Zambia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia. But this is not only particular to African countries. In Europe, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Malta have official religion clauses in their constitutions.

The majority of African countries do not have a state religion. Many of the African and Arab countries that do have an official state religion, however, are the same countries that ban religious political parties. More than 50% of the countries that ban religious political parties are in Africa. This is despite most of them having clauses that protect freedom of religion, thought and conscience, a clause also found in both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights. The reason for this needs to be studied further, but the banning of religiously based political parties could be to secure the hegemony of political elites who already work alongside powerful religious groups in a sort of de facto political–religious dictatorship.

So there are tensions between formal legal provisions on secularism and actual state practice. Kenya’s 1963 Independence Constitution sought to engage in nation-building. Therefore, as scholar Hassan Ndzovu suggests, the Independence Constitution described Kenya as a sovereign state, free from outside influence. In the same legal framework, provisions were made for Islamic law through formal recognition of the Kadhi courts. This dualism created tensions in the early Kenyan state-formation processes and was exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the population self-identified as Christian.

When the Kenyan Constitutional Review Commission produced the so-called Bomas draft constitution in 1998, three issues became sources of debates. These were the continued inclusion of the Kadhi courts, the extension of provisions related to legal abortion and the appearance of provisions for same-sex marriage.

The Federation of Kenyan Churches demanded the removal of all three provisions and mounted significant pressure on the commission, and, ultimately, the Bomas draft was revised. While the suggested provision for same-sex relations was removed, the more progressive provisions on reproductive rights remained, counterbalanced by the wording of the life begins at conception clause. The Kadhi courts remained in light of vehement advocacy by Muslim groups. While the Kadhi courts are seen as subordinate to civil law, their existence muddies the water on the separation between religion and state, especially in the day-to-day lives of those operating within their jurisdiction.

The irony of the advocacy by what was then referred to as the Federation of Kenyan Churches is that it essentially argued against the inclusion of the Kadhi courts, on the basis of the constitutional imperative for “separating religion and state,” but argued on the basis of religiosity for the inclusion of the clause that life begins at conception.

People should not disengage from discourses in society that touch on deeply held moral worldviews or mysticism. Instead, people can tap into the positive elements of that mysticism and use that to strengthen global rights-based cultures and practices.

It was also on the basis of this religiosity that the Kenyan Federation of Churches challenged the expanded provisions that sought to reduce mortalities and morbidities linked to unsafe abortion and the inclusion of any references to same-sex relationships. In its advocacy on the latter two issues, the Kenyan Federation of Churches was strongly supported by the organized Muslim clergy with whom they had disagreements on the Kadhi courts issues.

The influence of religiosity in Kenyan public life was further demonstrated when, in 2013, the policy on “Standards and Guidelines for Reduction of Morbidity and Mortality from Unsafe Abortions” was withdrawn, largely because of opposition to it by the two most senior politicians at the time, both of whom self-identified as committed Christians. The words of these politicians aptly sum up the continued role that religiosity plays in shaping public policy in a manner that is at odds with provisions in international human rights instruments, including the African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights. In addition, they agreed that their coalitions were objecting to the issue of same-sex relationships because it posed serious moral issues, especially in a “God-Fearing country like Kenya.” They also justified their actions on the assertion that no religion “talks about homosexuality.”

This dichotomy between formal separation of religion and state and the continued influence of religiosity is not confined to Kenya in particular, or to African countries in general.

In the United States, the election of Donald Trump, and especially his vice president, Mike Pence, has served to sharpen concerns among many sociologists and human rights activists about the rekindling of the relationships between religion and politics and religion and societal norms. Modern right-wing religiosity in America essentially started with Ronald Reagan, and was continued by the Bush presidential dynasty. The Obama administration sought to roll this trend back, and the result was the rise and strengthening of the ultraconservative “Tea Party” movement and the adoption of a politics relying on a conservative Christian ethos.

Even in Latin America, where the post-military revolutionary windows ushered in an era of progressive, secular politics, the religiously inspired conservatism that shaped politics and social policy in the 20th century is resurgent. In Brazil, with the Workers Party in crisis, there is now a strong Christian Fundamentalist lobby that actively opposes reproductive rights and other rights for women. The role of the church in Nicaragua and in Guatemala remains pivotal in terms of shaping social norms and serves to curtail the rights of women.

What observers are seeing in Kenya and across the world is a very serious challenge to basic human rights, especially sexual and reproductive health and civil rights for a diverse group of citizens. Across the globe, a few religious representatives, often conservative, are able to influence or monopolize the political space. But the world must question how representative religious leaders are of their respective constituencies. Taking into account the 2013 global Pew poll, the majority of Muslims worldwide prefer democracy to strong leaders, and many embrace religious freedom.

Secularism allows for social plurality and the protection of human rights for all. Ironically, aren’t these the most basic religious values? Yet certain forms of secularism have also served to curtail human rights. That is, secularism necessitates its own checks and balances.

Increasingly, what can be termed “secular fundamentalism” is found in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe. This is essentially a platform for a virulent form of Islamophobia. This Islamophobic secularism is perhaps most evident in France, where Muslim women in particular are becoming targets of discrimination for wearing head scarves and burkas.

In fact, Islamophobic secularism has given rise to a situation wherein the human rights of Muslims are being bounded in much the same way that religious fundamentalism circumscribes the rights of people in other parts of the world. In essence, the emergence of religious fundamentalism and secular fundamentalism are rolling back the consensus of building a rights-based world, wherein fundamental human rights, including the freedom of religion, conscience and belief, would be the bedrock on which to build peace and prosperous societies.

Religious fundamentalism might be the outcome of the religious reaction to the possible marginalization of religions and religious values and the failure of the modern state from certain moral perspectives. The rise of religious fundamentalism is an outcome of the failed promise of modernization, characterized by persisting levels of poverty and inequality, and the manner in which individual worth is often narrowly measured in material terms. The sinners in these failures include those who chose to approach human rights from within a secularist framework that privileged individualist civil and political rights over social, economic and cultural rights.

States should continue to pursue the separation between religion and state. People should continue to discourage the shaping of public policy on the basis of narrow interpretations of religious texts. But people should not disengage from discourses in society that touch on deeply held moral worldviews or mysticism. Instead, people can tap into the positive elements of that mysticism and use that to strengthen global rights-based cultures and practices. This mysticism, for example, includes the fundamental belief that all people are equal and should be treated humanely.

It is the progressive mysticism found in almost all faiths that gives rise to liberation theology and movements that helped fight against the oppression of colonialism. It is this liberating nature within faith that can build respect for all human rights, including sexual rights, reproductive health and rights and economic inclusion and equality.

Zane Dangor is the past Director-General of the National Department of Social Development in South Africa.

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