UCSB Africa & the Middle East Workshop

Question 2: What is the impact of Social Change on Civil Society Organizations?

Robert Dowd

The Impact of Christian and Islamic Religious Communities on Civic Engagement and Respect for Basic Freedoms in Sub-Saharan Africa


In very few regions of the world are both Christianity and Islam as robust as they are in sub-Saharan Africa. Evidence indicates that more people spend more time gathered in Christian and Islamic religious communities in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere in the world. Can we predict whether these religious communities will effectively encourage or discourage civic engagement and respect for basic freedoms, including freedom of conscience or religion? To predict may seem hazardous and inappropriate to some analysts. However, I do believe that it is possible and necessary if our work is to be useful and policy relevant.  While there is a great deal of work that remains to be done, my own experience and research in sub-Saharan Africa indicates that there are two factors that are crucially important for explaining why religious leaders choose to apply their faith traditions in ways that encourage or discourage civic engagement and respect for basic freedoms. These are educational attainment and religious diversity. I have found that the combination of high educational attainment and religious diversity increases the likelihood that religious leaders actively and openly encourage civic engagement and respect for basic freedoms. Thus, I propose that ways to maximize the likelihood that religion contributes to the formation of a politically active and socially tolerant culture include enhancing educational opportunities and encouraging the formation of religiously diverse neighborhoods, cities, and polities.

Jacob Olupona

Religion and Global Civil Society
For the purpose of our conversation I intend to talk about the role of religion in civil society in post-colonial Africa, particularly in Nigeria. I take civil society to be those non-governmental organizations and associations that function either in relationship with or in opposition to the state through an exercise of power on the part of leaders in a given community. The distinction often made by political theorists between the state and civil society is one that becomes particularly important in the context of Africa in the post-cold war era when military rule and political upheavals gave way to a democratic transition to civil rule. Civil society began to challenge the hegemonic powers of the military rulers because of the devastating economic wastages and political violence. The intervention of religious organizations in Africa, particularly the church, was very pertinent as central bodies within the civil society that attempted to stem the tide of the failed state and call for greater civilian political participation, and eventually democratization. In the new era when religious institutions, especially the mega churches, even though they are not involved in governance nevertheless have great power in shaping public opinion and public interest. Paradoxically, religious institutions also constitute a source of destabilization, particularly where they promote ideologies that are inimical to citizenship, religious and political pluralism which are beneficial national interests, for example in the case in contemporary Nigeria where religious violence has constantly stifled national integration and Muslim and Christian conflict have resulted in wanton destruction of life and property. 

So I will explore cases especially in the Nigerian context to illustrate not only the transformative role of religion in public life but also its negative influences as well. My presentation will also show how religious institutions have both franchised and disenfranchised certain segments of the society such as women and the poor by maintaining patriarchal structures that are both reflective of religious traditions including African indigenous practice. Are these institutions fulfilling their stated “humanitarian” missions of providing guidance and relief to the most vulnerable members of the society? Do these religious institutions permit ideological stances to trump what is in the best interest of the nation and its objectives? These are some of the central questions and topics I will explore in my discussion.