Third Workshop on Meeting the Challenge of Religion and Pluralism in Africa

January 24th, 2023

 Date: July 10–12, 2007
 Location: Dakar, Senegal

Our third workshop, held July 10–12 in Dakar, focused on meeting the challenge of religion and pluralism in Africa. Specifically, participants reflected on the following questions:

  • How can we help to amplify the voices and role of marginalized believers within major religions?
  • What strategies have proved successful in promoting interfaith dialogue and how can we help strengthen and replicate them?
  • How can TrustAfrica best assist religious leaders and organizations to promote peace and social inclusion in Africa?

Concept Paper

The “Religion and Pluralism” initiative is a special project of TrustAfrica to support the efforts of African religious leaders, scholars and practitioners in promoting tolerance and pluralism throughout the continent. Specifically, the initiative aims to:

  1. Foster a community/network of organizations, religious leaders, and experts who can promote interfaith dialogue, support each other, and strengthen the civic role of religion in Africa (for peace and pluralism).
  2. Amplify the religious traditions and experiences of Africans in their own voices, rather than through externally imposed frameworks and definitions.
  3. Identify and disseminate successful faith-based strategies for promoting pluralism and inclusion in Africa.
  4. Expand spaces within religions for dialogue and greater openness to allow for different understandings of religious precepts as well new ideas and new categories of believers.

Although religion plays a central role in the lives of Africans, serious academic and civil society work around religious issues have been of a scattered nature, and often marked by a considerable amount of caution. This is largely because religion is one of the most sensitive aspects of people’s intimacy and also because religion has sometimes been used as a pretext for violent conflicts between communities that have lived side by side and shared everything for centuries.

Yet, despite the intense emotional weight that religion carries, for Africans religion encompasses also a certain légéreté d’être that makes it an extraordinary vehicle for social integration. In most African countries different religions coexist, and families and individuals with different faiths live in harmony. Some people even go as far as reciprocally sharing rituals with neighbors, friends and relatives of different religions as a way of strengthening the group’s cohesion. Indeed, many Africans are more syncretism than purely Christian or Muslim for instance. Pre-Christian or Islamic beliefs have also survived in the face of radical orthodox movements in both religious and cultural practices. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to state that Africans’ religious experiences provide a strong foundation, potentially, for promoting dialogue and pluralism.

Conceptual Framework

Africa’s religious landscape is marked by two primary features. The first is that the major religions have orthodox elements that tend to dominate their mainstream practices. Second, traditional African religions remain strong and enduring even if they are often subaltern and “below the radar” of researchers and analysts. These features make for a vibrant context in which religion plays a significant civic role.

In what is widely considered as one of Wole Soyinka’s more reflexive and accessible plays, The Trials of Brother Jero, the protagonist, Jeroboam, sets the stage with the following:

I am a Prophet. A prophet by birth and by inclination. You have probably seen many of us on the streets, many with their own churches, many inland, many on the coast, many leading processions, many looking for processions to lead, many curing the deaf, many raising the dead… Some prophets I could name gained their present beaches by getting women penitents to shake their bosoms in spiritual ecstasy.

Beyond the immediate pastoral import of Brother Jero’s words, they reflect both the ubiquitous and identity-shaping qualities of religion in Africa. They also highlight the fact that religious leaders can be both a force for good or for evil. On the one hand, there is the example of Simon Kimbangui, who led one of Africa’s most important nonviolent religious mass movements for independence from Belgian colonialism in the early 1920s. Bishop Desmond Tutu is another, more contemporary, example. On the other hand, there is the example of Alice Lakwena, a self-proclaimed prophetess, who started and led one of Africa’s most brutal rebel armies called the “Holy Spirit Mobile Forces” (now called the “Lord’s Resistance Army”) in Northern Uganda.

In the history of the continent as a whole, religion has had a powerful effect on political change: not only have spirit mediums led popular revolts against oppressive rulers, rulers themselves have been known to routinely seek the help of priests and medicine men to achieve power and wealth. The history and political economy of religion in Africa is perhaps best summed in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous statement: “When the European colonialists and missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Between the extremes, however, most Africans normally express their religious affinities and identities in less dramatic ways. For them, religion is at once a basis for spiritual bonding with the ancestors and deity, an expression of communal solidarity, and an opportunity for harmonious cross-cultural interaction. For this reason, among others, religious identities in Africa tend to have more syncretistic qualities than they do elsewhere. For example, African Christian or Muslim beliefs and practices frequently and comfortably incorporate distinctly African cultural media, icons and rituals. And, as pointed out earlier, it is common to find closely knit families and communities with devout Muslims, Christians and Traditional Religious Practitioners.

Historically, too, religious identities in Africa have tended to accommodate and tolerate, rather than undermine, political and cultural pluralism. During the Almoravid Jihads of the 11th and 12th Centuries, for example, the conversion of any traditional community to puritanical Islam never meant the wholesale exclusion of nonbelievers from the community. Equally striking is the fact that traditional African religions have, over the centuries, demonstrated admirably more equitable gender relations of authority/power than is the case in other established religions. The traditional “priesthood” is gender-equal, and the intermediate gods or spirits between humans and the supreme deity are often equally split between male and female. Such inclusion is by no means applicable to the entire continent, of course. The Algerian nationalist, Mohammed Harbi, recently said of Algeria for example: “To understand Algeria today, you have to begin with the massive exclusion of people from power and the rejection of pluralism.”

If in many parts of Africa, religion is singled out as the cause of clashes, exclusion and social disorder, it is equally true that in other contexts religion is a catalyst that helps to maintain a sustainable social equilibrium. The real challenge then, it would seem, is to achieve a broad recognition and acceptance of pluralism as a basis for advancing social dialogue and understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence in situations where the centrifugal forces that tear people and communities apart weigh heavier than the centripetal ties that could bind them.

The concept of pluralism (rather than the ideas of multiplicity, diversity and plurality), as Diane Eck aptly explains in the quote below, provides an illuminating lens for capturing the imperative of social dialogue:

…pluralism is not the sheer fact of … plurality alone, but is active engagement with plurality. Pluralism and plurality are sometimes used as if they were synonymous. But plurality is just diversity, plain and simple—splendid, colorful, maybe even threatening. Such diversity does not, however, have to affect me. I can observe diversity. I can even celebrate diversity, as the cliché goes. But I have to participate in pluralism…. Pluralism requires the cultivation of public space where we all encounter one another.” (cf. Diana L. Eck, “The challenge of pluralism,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, at:

Hence, the premise of religious pluralism is that we must encounter each other based on the idea that “each religion is true, valid and legitimate viewed from within its own culture”, and that all religions deserve respect. We don’t have to agree with the premises of the other’s beliefs to respect them as such.

But if Africans are open enough to adopt totally new religions and further integrate their own cultural and traditional practices into them, why at a certain point in history would they refuse cohabitating with what/who they see as different from them? There are ample and competing responses to this important question, but the recurrent one is that the continent’s intractable economic crises and limited possibilities for political choices have produced uncertainties and attendant perception of the “other” as a source of one’s insecurity. In that context, religion and religious identities offer a refuge. Self-proclaimed prophets and zealous leaders easily exploit this social and psychological vulnerability by preaching hate and exclusion of the “other.”

Issues and Challenges

These features of the religious landscape in Africa raise some critical issues and questions about the role of religion in meeting the broader challenges of pluralism in Africa, such as:

  1. The need to explore the contributions that traditional African religious values and identities can make toward addressing the challenges and tensions around social exclusion in Africa. What role could the most inclusive and tolerant religious traditions play in strengthening the way Africans address the challenges of pluralism?
  2. Strategies for utilizing existing opportunities to foster interfaith dialogue as a counterweight to religious sectarianism.
  3. Strategies for taking existing interfaith dialogues at the local and national levels to scale regionally or adapting them to situations of protracted exclusions and conflicts.
  4. How to make the successes and lessons of the African religious landscape part of a broader stream of work to promote tolerance, pluralism and interdependence at the global level. How can we help build bridges linking the local and the global for religious tolerance and peace?

Workshop Goals

This three-day workshop brings together about twenty-five organizations and experts with the goal of identifying priorities and strategies for addressing some of the critical issues and challenges of religious pluralism in Africa. It is expected that the workshop will set the stage in fostering constructive and lasting exchange of ideas within and among religious communities about how to build and strengthen a culture of inclusion and pluralism in Africa. The convening is also expected to produce strategies for building on the many positive examples of religious pluralism that already exist in different parts of the continent. We are also seeking to identify and support promising organizations and groups that are doing innovative ground-level work on these issues. Specifically, workshop participants will discuss the following key questions:

  1. How can we help to amplify the voices and role of marginalized believers within major religions?
  2. What strategies have proved successful in promoting interfaith dialogue and how can we help strengthen and replicate them?
  3. How can TrustAfrica best assist religious leaders and organizations to promote peace and social inclusion in Africa?

Participants will not give formal presentations. Instead, they will be encouraged to engage in a constructive exchange of ideas and experiences in a collegial atmosphere. The workshop will be chaired by selected participants, and facilitated by a consultant. At the end of the workshop, the consultant and TrustAfrica staff will produce a report for feedback by all participants. The report will cover the substance of discussions and the recommendations that emerged. After the report is finalized, TrustAfrica will consider modest funding to implement some of the key recommendations.

It is expected that the workshop will mark the beginning of a long-term process of building a community of actors that is committed to the promotion of religious pluralism.


The Golden Rule On Social Reciprocity

Christianity: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” —Matthew 7:12

Islam: “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” —Fourth Hadith of an-Nawawi 13

Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” —Mahabharata 5:1517

Buddhism: “A state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” —Samyutta Nikaya v. 353

Quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “I am a believer in the truth of all the great religions of the world. There will be no lasting peace on earth unless we learn not merely to tolerate but even to respect the other faith as our own. A reverent study of the sayings of the different teachers of mankind is a step in the direction of such mutual respect.” —Mahatma Gandhi

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