Religion has become the new politics

By Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar

Financial Times

Published: January 18 2005

Religion is the emerging political language of our time. In the United States and the Middle East this is clear, but also throughout most of what we used to call the third world. Even in Europe, which introduced the separation of church and state, religion is taking on a new significance through the political expression of Islam.

One of the best places to see how religion operates as a political idiom is Africa. Everywhere there are signs of religion in public space, whether it is rows of kneeling men saying their midday prayers on the street in Muslim areas, or the proliferation of churches, especially Pentecostal and charismatic ones. There are also visible revivals of traditional religion, including in the numerous private armies whose young fighters wear amulets for spiritual protection. The media are full of religious stories, often concerning witchcraft and frightening spiritual experiences. Tales of people who claim to have visited the spirit world are common. Often, they concern transactions that determine the distribution of power in the material world.

Odd though it sounds, stories such as these are political comments by people who believe that all power has its ultimate origin in the spirit world. Consequently, they consider spiritual and political power to be connected. Many Africans debate issues of governance in spirit terms, a popular idiom with deep roots in local cultures. Popular stories often describe not only corrupt politicians but also international institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as purveyors of evil, without moral sense.

The separation of religious from political thought was invented in the west and exported to the rest of the world in colonial times. However, most Africans believe in the existence of a spirit world that is distinct but not separate from the material one, one that affects their daily lives. In fact, this is the sense in which people in most continents experience religion - as a world of spiritual beings, to paraphrase the Victorian anthropologist Edward Tylor. Most westerners do not think of religion in this way. For them, religion is more a matter of ultimate meaning.

To believe in invisible forces that govern our lives is not at all eccentric. It could be argued that this is what capital is. The manipulation of spiritual forces is essentially no different from speculation on international markets. In both cases, gains and losses depend on interaction with an invisible force. Intrinsic to Europe's financial revolution more than three centuries ago was the use of mathematics as a way of calculating risk, prompted by a new theology emerging from the Reformation. The spirit of capitalist enterprise was originally associated with a religious view of the world.

In most of the world, the current religious revival and its political consequences have to be understood by reference to colonial conquest. There was nothing novel about being ruled by foreigners in most of the territories colonised by European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor was foreign influence unprecedented in places that were never formally colonised, such as Turkey or China. What was new about the European imperialism of those days was the eventual attempt by metropolitan powers to modernise and develop traditional societies. This was often associated with an ideology of the civilising mission, but it was above all an attempt to develop colonial resources for the benefit of the imperial rulers.

The golden decades of African economic development were the 1950s and 1960s, during the longest and widest economic boom in the history of the world. Millions of people moved from villages to towns. Many gained salaried employment. They sent their children to school. Development planners generally saw this as a movement from tradition to modernity but neglected the spiritual aspect of this transition, seeing religion as an obstacle to progress. But for many people, it now transpires, progress is not a material issue alone. Moreover, development has too often failed to deliver even the material benefits it promised. The end of the cold war and the new wave of democratisation made space for the re-emergence of religious ideologies. The current resurgence of religion is a modern attempt to harness traditional resources for contemporary use.

Religion has emerged as a new global language also because both the White House and al-Qaeda see themselves as locked in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. When they insist that the world is either for them or against them, they create a risk that political and social struggles everywhere will be redefined as religious battles. Politicians may encourage such a stark approach as a way of gaining support.

Religion is simultaneously a way of understanding the world and of relating to other people. These are important ways in which it is allied to politics. This fact alone should impel us to understand this new idiom.

The writers are co-authors of Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa, (Hurst/OUP 2004)