Having returned from Uganda within the last few months, it might be expected that I would address the internationally infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill that has reared its head again, supported more openly this time by Christian leaders. Or that I would discuss the misguided and insensitive KONY 2012 campaign. Both of these are predicated on the demonization of a feared other, but it is rather the campaign to limit, if not eradicate, “traditional” forms of belief and practice in many parts of Africa that interests me in the present context.

I have been observing and analyzing religious trends in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa for several decades, with a particular focus on new religious movements, variously termed “minority religious groups,” “sects,” or “unconventional religious groups.” My years of living in southern Nigerian cities afforded me valuable insights into the workings of complex religious landscapes. As democratization, neoliberalism, media deregulation, and global religious activism increasingly change the stakes of coexistence between religious groups, and between such groups and the state, the management of Africa’s increasingly competitive religious public spheres has become a more compelling area of investigation. How do state and non-state agents act to facilitate or limit the public functioning and recognition of some or all religious organizations? How do the resources on which they draw, such as globally circulating ideas about “international religious freedom,” serve to frame what counts as (good or bad) religion? Which constitutional or statutory provisions are they informed or bound by in negotiating religious diversity? How much do local histories, politics, and demographics continue to influence the balancing of majoritarian and minoritarian religious interests?

In a recent article on “Regulating Religious Freedom in Africa” I explore the legal and non-legal strategies of keeping religious groups in check and note that African states frequently invoke limitations on religious practice and association in the name of public interest. Elsewhere I have also paid some attention to the growth of mass-mediated forms of religious expression in Africa and their capacity to open up new possibilities for religious communication, often providing increased visibility and audibility for minority religious groups. Yet this recent liberalization of the media sector across Africa also replicates or generates patterns of exclusion and discrimination through the granting of licenses, transmission power, broadcasting access, and program content.

The angle I will pursue here is the treatment of indigenous forms of African belief and practice in light of these post-colonial reconfigurations, or what Jean and John Comaroff term the Age of Millennial Capitalism. African traditional religions were particularly vulnerable during the earlier phases of Christian and Muslim missionary activity and colonization. The current dominance of Christianity and Islam is well evidenced by the Pew Forum project on religion in Africa. Indigenous religions are still largely perceived as pre-modern with ambiguous status as either religion or culture; they struggle for public recognition and equal treatment under the law. Moreover, they are hampered by being part of a generalized and heterogeneous category, with no clear designation or centralized leadership. This recalls some of the legal battles that American Indians faced in trying to prove that their traditions are “religious” so that they could enjoy constitutional protection, as Tisa Wenger discusses in her appositely titled book on the 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy, We Have a Religion.

So while it is Muslim-Christian relations in Africa that command current geopolitical attention, we should not overlook the fact that sub-Saharan Africa provides some of the most instructive examples of how indigenous religions are still religious freedom misfits. Kenyan legal scholar Makau Mutua has made the most forceful case that local forms of religious belief and practice have been subject to ongoing delegitimization by the state in collusion with missionary religions and post-colonial elites. He writes pointedly of a “constitutional silence” and an “absolute refusal to acknowledge the existence of African religions or cultures” in the country of his birth. Moreover, Mutua contends that the “liberal generic protection of religious freedoms,” with its guarantees of the right to manifest, propagate, and change one’s religion, favors mission-related religions and is ultimately inimical to indigenous African religions and lifestyles (Wole Soyinka makes similar arguments about the aggressivity of the so-called world religions in his latest book, Of Africa).

Furthermore, Mutua argues, limitations on religious freedom for reasons of “public morality” and “public health” target the elements of traditional religious practice that many colonial states found problematic, even abominable. Such fears and statutory tests perdure in modern times (see Enyinna S. Nwauche on Nigeria, E. K. Quashigah on Ghana). In his research on restrictions on religion worldwide from 2006-9, Brian Grim notes that, after Christians and Muslims, members of “tribal or folk” religious groups are the most commonly harassed group in Africa (in twenty-three countries). In sub-Saharan Africa, the harassment is generally linked to accusations of witchcraft, ritual sacrifice, and charlatanistic healing practices. Nigeria’s booming video-film market, known as Nollywood, has helped perpetuate negative stereotypes across Africa about traditional cultural practices. So, too, has the sensationalist media coverage in Africa and the diaspora of purported ritual abuse of African children suspected of witchcraft. Evangelical and Pentecostal movements generally lead the fray in demonizing indigenous religious and cultural practices.

South Africa is one of the optimal places to explore current debates over the status of traditional African religion(s) in a modern post-colonial state. The radical transformation from apartheid to democracy generated a wealth of public debates, policy initiatives, and scholarship on matters pertaining to discrimination and self-determination. On the face of it, traditional forms of religious belief and practice appear to be almost nonexistent (0.3%), according to the country’s 2001 census. Nearly 80% of the population identify as Christian. But as the contributors (mainly legal experts) to a most valuable 2011 book, Traditional African Religions in South African Law, underscore, the defining and classifying of these religions is still a live issue. These contributors discuss a number of recent legal cases that have tested the even-handed treatment of traditional religions under the new constitutional protections for religious freedom. The conflation of traditional religion and culture, and an emphasis on communal identity, proved problematic in some human rights cases, as exemplified in the public outcry and lawsuit (the Smit case, 2009) over a ritual bull slaughtering in a revived Zulu First Fruits Festival. While the case brought by animal rights activists was eventually dismissed for want of factual evidence, Christa Rautenbach argues that demonstrating that the festival was “religious” and not “cultural” in nature (despite the interdependency in practice of religion and culture) would have afforded greater protection from the judiciary. Similarly, Jewel Amoah and Tom Bennett note the surprising lack of reference to religious beliefs in legislative efforts to reform the laws of African customary marriage. They see this as ongoing evidence of the way that indigenous African religions are being treated as “incidents of African culture,” and the effect of this in depriving practitioners of the legal deference shown to other religious communities.

Another critical and contentious issue, ably discussed by Nelson Tebbe, is the outlawing of witchcraft by the government and human rights organizations. While the practice of naming witches may be permitted under free speech and religious freedom, so too limits on the practice may be allowed because of its often violent consequences. This has resulted in backlash from South Africa’s pagan and Wiccan communities, such as the South African Pagan Rights Alliance. Furthermore, the problems of trying witches in state courts and allowing religious experts to give evidence would compromise constitutional prohibitions on government involvement in religious affairs.

Because of her background in politics, broadcasting, and higher education, Nokuzola Mndende, one of the leading advocates of African traditional religion (ATR) in South Africa today, is highly critical of the ways her religious heritage continues to be misrepresented or underrepresented by media organizations. As conveyed by the title of her 2009 book, Tears of Distress: Voices of Denied Spirituality in a Democratic South Africa, she finds it problematic that traditional religion is often represented in the public sphere by “white reverend gentlemen,” African Christian converts, and syncretistic diviners, or that it only gains legitimacy as an appendage to Abrahamic religions or as a secularized form of traditional healing. Mndende therefore calls for “affirmative action” by the South African government to redress the fate of “disadvantaged religious communities.” It remains to be seen if the proposed South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms (in whose drafting Mndende has participated) will provide any such benefits.

Marleen de Witte’s insightful work on the neo-traditionalist Afrikania Mission in Ghana also addresses the challenges facing such revivalist political-religious movements as they seek to be modern and African. These local struggles are bound up in decades of subjugating encounters with missionaries, colonialists, and scholars (whether of anthropology or comparative religion). Witte provides a rich discussion of how Afrikania seeks to negotiate the new media opportunities and constraints, knowing that how it represents its “traditions” and “spiritual power” to the predominantly (Pentecostal) Christian Ghanaian public is critical to its survival as the principal face of ATR in Ghana. She argues that this overly intellectualist focus on “representation” comes at the expense of the shrine practitioners’ practices and concerns. Some of the latter feel that traditions of secrecy have been sacrificed in the quest to produce a modernized, “world religion.” Furthermore, Witte describes Afrikania’s position as “difficult and ambiguous” as it seeks to defend “superstitious” religious practices, such as libation, as part of its nationalist heritage project, even when these run afoul of “universal” human rights norms embedded in the Ghanaian constitution.

David Chidester has long claimed that the “inventory” of religious elements that have come to characterize African traditional religion (belief in God, veneration of ancestors, sacrifice, initiation, divination, and healing rituals) are products of “colonial containment” and “Christian theological appropriations.” This recalls Birgit Meyer’s observation that Protestant missionaries in colonial Ghana attempted to “lock” people up in their own culture to prevent the development of syncretistic beliefs that might threaten the colonialist and nationalist project. In his latest book on the wild and surprising religious creativity of South Africa, Chidester discusses how, under the post-apartheid national motto, “Unity in Diversity,” political leaders have drawn on indigenous religion as a national resource, whether as the spiritual dimension of heritage projects or through rituals at key national and international events, such as the World Cup in 2010. Chidester also considers how traditional religion finds its way into religious tourism, school syllabi, global Zulu spirituality, New Age neo-shamanism, and traditional sovereignty. Facilitated by South Africa’s new democratic dispensation, these “transactions,” as he terms them, are often contested by those seeking to protect their sense of religious integrity, whether African traditionalists or devout Christians.

While the government of South Sudan is taking encouraging steps to include traditional religions in its new political dispensation, as noted by Noah Salomon in an earlier posting, the reality is that only one African state, the People’s Republic of Benin, officially recognizes traditional religion in its constitution, granting it a national public holiday. In Nigeria, the International Congress of Traditional Religion and Culture has advocated (unsuccessfully) for similar state recognition. This may account for why some movements such as Godianism—a traditional religious expression of Nigerian nationalism at the dawn of independence, now known as the Global Faith Ministries of Chiism—reinvent themselves as modern and family- and heritage-oriented. Cultural tourism, especially if it receives the UNESCO World Heritage imprimatur, is a way to attract state support for traditional religious festivals, as evidenced by the internationally renowned Osun festival in Nigeria’s Osun State. Another strategy is for traditional religious practitioners, especially healers, to create associations that promote their interests in the public sphere. The Zimbabwean National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA) and OrisaWorld, a global association to promote Yoruba religion, are cases in point. The latter is a vivid example of the strategic role that diasporic communities can play in the promotion and protection of traditional religious practices in their home countries. We should not neglect to mention the capacity of academic publications to legitimate the category of traditional religions for wider audiences, from the landmark works of John Mbiti beginning in 1969 through to recent texts such as Orisa Devotion as World Religion. Ugandan scholar Okot p’Bitek had already signaled the delegitmating power of the Western scholarly lens in his 1970 classic, African Religions in Western Scholarship.

While indigeneity is arguably more strategic than ethnicity in protecting the rights of traditional African religions, the indigenous rights option as a tool for social and political mobilization turns out to be a less viable alternative. In the view of Dorothy Hodgson, the criteria in Africa for deciding who is indigenous are far “murkier” than those used to identify first peoples of the Americas. A la Cultural Survival, indigeneity tends to be used to refer to those with distinctive lifestyles, such as pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. In contrast, others would claim that all Africans are indigenous.

Moreover, Ronald Niezen’s trenchant discussion of the ambiguity and paradoxes surrounding the concept of “indigenous religion” leaves us in no doubt about the effects of human rights activism and public and popular mediations of human difference in a globalizing era (see also Rights and the Politics of Recognition in Africa). Recent moves to grant institutional, protective space to indigenous expressions of “spirituality” not only essentialize and objectify traditional forms of belief and practice but also translate and recast them to appeal to cultural outsiders who formally or informally adjudge these rights claims.

Despite the undermining of African states by neoliberal policies and unreliable governance, the national level remains strategic for thrashing out respect for what du Plessis terms a “jurisprudence of difference.” The interpretation of the relationship between religion and culture is currently more consequential for traditional African religions than individualized notions of religious freedom in relation to a secular state. That notwithstanding, the local and global debates over what counts as “African,” “traditional,” “indigenous,” “religious,” and “freedom” are all grist for the religious freedom analytical mill.