African Exceptionalism

Christopher Davis, of the Anthropology Department at SOAS, is doing what Savage Minds aspires to do: injecting anthropology into public discourse. In an article in the Guardian (found courtesy of the ever alert, Dr. Davis attacks what she calls “African exceptionalism,” the tendency to see religion as the solution to the failings of the African state:

We are told that religion succeeds where the state fails, that faith leaders have a significant role to play in shaping social attitudes, that religion can be a model for the state and that it commands the kind of loyalty and energy that was given to nationalist causes during and just after Africa’s struggles for independence.

To regard religion in Africa in these terms is to put their religion where our politics should be. Our error begins with the place in our imaginations that we force Africa to occupy. We are subject to “African exceptionalism”: a sense that Africa is so different, so impossible to organise, that any undertaking is practically pointless. It is the sense that African people are unruly as citizens and irresponsible as politicians and bureaucrats. Africa’s state is always behind. We never perceive it as leading the way. Economically and politically, Africa is held back, not yet caught up. Exceptionalism heightens the temptation to look at the continent as a problem or an illness.

After criticizing the ethnocentrism and colonial mentality of such views, she makes what I think is her key point: that religion is appealing to policy makers, not because African states have failed, but because religion offers an alternative to market forces; and that these forces are challenging the state not just in Africa, but at home as well.

What happens in Africa happens violently, more vividly and rapidly than here, but where that change leads is also where we are headed. The logic of the marketplace seems unassailable in its entry into the politics of public services. In Britain, recent decades have seen the persistent advance of privatisation in areas formerly held in the public interest. Religion has the benefit of not being about profit or profitability. In the context of religion’s redistributive logic, cost and benefit are perhaps more equitably balanced. When we see things in this way we are in a better position to compare like with like, and the results can be enlightening.

We see the same thing with the rise of religion in the United States. No party wants to do anything that would challenge the forces breaking apart the fabric of society, so religious institutions are propped up in the name of “family values.” But in the long run these will be insufficient to stem the tide – and the failings will be felt dearly both at home and abroad.

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