Saturday, 31 January 2015 09:23

Religion and Politics in History

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Annar Cassam and Karim Hirji conducted an exchange in early 2011 relating to the role of religion in society. It occurred in the context of examining Mwalimu Nyerere’s policy of Socialism and Self-Reliance. Because of its relevance to this issue of Awaaz Magazine, we are reproducing an edited version the Karim Hirji’s main response. For a complete version of that exchange, the reader can visit by clicking here

There are twelve major points in his discourse:

1. The right of any person to follow any religion or creed is a fundamental right that must be respected. Nevertheless, the role of organized, institutionalized religion in society must be critically evaluated. While spiritual belief is a private matter, in public life, religion and politics have always been intertwined.

2. Religious movements and institutions have played a dual role in human history. At times, they have sided with human liberation and progress, and at other times they have protected the ruling elites, and promoted inequality and injustice.

3. Some examples: Early Christianity was associated with the struggles against the oppressive Roman Empire but later the Church hierarchy was integrated with feudal forces oppressing the peasants across Europe. After the tenth century AD, emergent Protestantism was allied with anti-feudal, pro-enlightenment tendencies.

Christian churches played a key role in providing ideological justification for slavery, slave trade and colonial rule in Africa. Europeans came here on a "civilizing Christian mission," thus masking the true motives of commerce, resources and inter-imperialist rivalry. Notwithstanding that, many indigenous Church based groups played a critical role in the struggle for independence. In Apartheid South Africa, one segment of the Christian church backed the system while another stood in opposition to it. In the USA of 1950s and 1960s, right wing church-based groups opposed the moves towards racial equality by claiming it was a communistic idea. On the other hand, Martin Luther King Jr. and black churches joined the fight against racism and discrimination.

That duality was manifested during the Cold War, and was strikingly evident in Latin America. The papacy and upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church were firmly allied with brutal dictatorships. This alliance predated the reign of Pope John II. The principal grievance of the peasants and native peoples concerned the highly unequal and unjust nature of land ownership, the decisive factor perpetuating poverty and misery. A few local landlords, foreign corporations, and churches owned most of the best land. The Vatican was the largest land owner in Latin America. The churches were fabulously wealthy. The peasants, tenants and workers lived miserably. During the Cold War, the Vatican was allied with US imperialism; both used the bogey of communism to hide their true motive -- that of defending an unjust global order that oppressed the people of Africa and the Third World.
When peasant and urban movements rose to confront these dictatorships, ordinary priests allied themselves with the masses under the ideology of liberation theology. Branded as communists and atheists, hundreds were tortured and murdered by US trained, funded and armed death squads.

4. In Tanzania during colonial times and the struggle for independence, church based groups played a dual role. In the days of the Arusha Declaration, the Vatican induced local churches to oppose socialism in any form, claiming that it would lead to communism. This was in conformity with its global role and as such not unexpected.
When the Arusha Declaration was announced, there was a ground swell of support from the masses. The elites did not like it at all. The Catholic hierarchy distributed flyers and preached that it would lead to "god-less" communism. In Tanzania, however, no Church based or religious grouping actively or politically favored the Declaration. Senior party functionaries and bureaucrats opposed socialism in reality, though in public they hypocritically recited Mwalimu's words and writings.

5. This was the context in which the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF) and its magazine, Cheche, were born at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in the late 1960s. USARF was a legally registered pan-Africanist, militant student group, completely independent of the ruling party, yet firmly dedicated to socialism and African liberation. Prior to that, the UDSM student body was right-wing through and through. USARF undertook major educational efforts, in alliance with progressive lecturers (as recounted in the book Cheche: Remiscences of a Radical Magazine) to organize public lectures, work in Ujamaa villages and nearby shambas, demonstrations, self-education classes, university curriculum review etc. to turn that situation around. In so doing it laid the foundation for the emergence of the most progressive center of scholarship in Africa. Slowly but surely, support for socialism and commitment to the cause of African liberation began to rise among the student body at UDSM.

6. USARF and Cheche were independent, not under Party control. They were critical of the half-hearted, bungled and misguided manner in which the policy of socialism and self-reliance was implemented. They organized public debates, challenged cabinet ministers and party bosses, and pointed out the main deficiencies. Big party and state bosses thoroughly hated USARF. And so did the representatives of the Western powers.
USARF was not a stooge of any Eastern bloc nation. It did not get any funds from them. When the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, USARF organized a demonstration in front of the USSR Embassy in Dar es Salaam and issued a strong statement to condemn it. USARF maintained close relationships with all African Liberation movements, raised funds for them, visited the liberated areas of Mozambique, and had good relations with anti-imperialist movements across the world.

The detractors of USARF said it sought to form a communist party, promoted violence and a foreign ideology, Marxism. Because it held its educational classes on Sunday mornings, it was said to be atheistic group. But these were lies and half-truths. USARF and Cheche took Marxism very seriously because it was an essential aspect of the development of socialist thought, and held classes to study it because it was ignored by the university curriculum and TANU's political education classes. So what if it originated from elsewhere? The English language we used in education was not indigenous; nor was the Catholicism which Mwalimu adhered to (and which, like it or not, influenced his political thought). The ruling party's ideological college (Kivukoni College) was modeled after Ruskin College of UK which espoused Fabian form of socialism and was staffed by people who followed that creed -- how indigenous was that? In terms of violence, USARF supported the right of the people of Africa to conduct armed struggle for liberation as did Mwalimu Nyerere, as did Nelson Mandela and the ANC.

Interestingly, the West branded the latter two as terrorists! (It is the same story today -- when they attack Libya with bombs they are protecting civilians, it is only Gadhafi who practices violence, but not the insurgents whom they arm. But in Egypt, they want the demonstrators to be peaceful and even a few stone throwing incidents were highlighted as violent acts to be deplored).

7. Socialism seeks to use the wealth of the nation for the benefit of ordinary people, not foreign investors, local tycoons or powerful bureaucrats. A socialist government always will encounter a massive opposition from these latter forces to undermine it in every way. When Lumumba said that the wealth of Congo was for the benefit of the people of Congo, he became a target of imperialism. How many times the CIA has tried to murder or overthrow Castro and destabilize the Cuban society -- think about that.

Hence their hostility and fire towards Mwalimu was to be expected – there was nothing surprising about that. (The rightwing nuts in the USA who have a wide hearing in media always come up a strange logic. As John Nichols noted recently that even though Obama has nothing in common with socialism and is quite pro-business "The Republican Party is currently firmer in its accusation that the Democrats are steering the nation “towards socialism” than it was during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare of the 1950s, when the senator from Wisconsin was accusing Harry Truman of harboring Communist Party cells in the government. Truman had stirred conservative outrage by arguing that the government had the authority to impose anti-lynching laws on the states and by proposing a national healthcare plan.") In South Africa in the sixties, Mandela was branded a terrorist and a communist, the labels which the US government retained in its official record till recently.

8. When facing hostility from powerful forces, there are in general two ways to follow: One is to empower the ordinary people, unite the progressive forces and prepare for a long term struggle on the economic, political and diplomatic front. Another is to compromise on main principles to reassure the powerful forces and minimize their hostility. The overthrow of Salvatore Allende in Chile when he sought to move his nation in a left-ward direction is relevant here. The lesson of history has been that if you are serious about building socialism, be prepared to confront intense hostility and sabotage from the West and seriously prepare for that eventuality. Mwalimu Nyerere was well aware of that but he did not try to build a genuinely socialist party to confront that situation.

Unfortunately and in many ways, he elected the latter option. Staunchly socialist voices in the government (like Babu) and party (like Ngombale Mwiru) were sidelined. After nationalization of major firms, the management was handed over to Western companies (as detailed by Shivji in Cheche No. 3 -- The Silent Class Struggle), the World Bank went on to play a decisive role in economic planning. Socialism designed by the World Bank is surely the biggest joke in the world. Workers were suppressed by force when they upheld TANU's socialist guidelines, and so on.
When Mwalimu visited UDSM, USARF members called on him to establish structures to empower the grassroots and set up self-defense people's militias. He derided these as infantile moves. But later the militias were set up and used to herd peasants by force into so-called ill-conceived and unplanned ujamaa villages. Regional decentralization structures were established but as planned by an American management consulting firm and which became the basis for top-down control of the masses and not of giving power to the people. Independent moves and groups of peasants were quashed by the party. Many books have documented a wide number of such examples.

9. USARF, Cheche and other progressive media exposed this vast gap between rhetoric and reality, and drew the ire of the state. That was the primary reason underlying why they were banned or removed from the university. There were other reasons, but those were secondary. Religion may have been used as an excuse but it was not the real reason behind the ban.

10. Mwalimu thereby banned a consistent and dedicated voice for socialism in Tanzania. Progressive supporters of Tanzania were stunned; there was negative reaction in the media; almost the entire student body at UDSM (including the detractors of Cheche) was unhappy. African liberation movements wondered why a group firmly supporting them, espousing Pan-Africanism and socialism (be it of a Marxist variety or not) was banned. The state and the party back tracked a bit but the damage was done. The details of this history appear in the book Cheche.

11. Though progressive students and staff re-grouped and continued the struggle, the party functionaries now running the university administration slowly but surely got rid of progressive lecturers (local and expatriate) till a just few voices remained. What was once a stellar source of serious socialist scholarship eventually became an academic morass that was neither a fine traditional academic institution nor an innovative arena of learning of the left-wing variety. What we got was the worst of both worlds. While we have to respect Mwalimu Nyerere for many tremendous achievements on the national and international arena, we must be faithful to historical truth and remember accurately what transpired in the days of the Arusha Declaration. Only then can the youth learn from the achievements and mistakes of the past and propel Africa towards genuine liberation and progress. There are many critical books from that era which give a detailed picture of the situation.

12. The major point relevant to this context is that what transpired under Ujamaa in Tanzania cannot be reduced to a matter of religion, race, ethnicity, cultural differences or personalities. It was a complex process involving internal and external social and economic forces. Thereby the issue of religion should not be used in a selective and narrow way to divide people and progressive forces. Movements for justice and equality should respect all forms of religious and other beliefs but recognize the social role played by some institutional religious forces for their narrow ends, and educate the people about that. The imperialists like to identify Islam with terrorism and many buy into that bogus rhetoric. Religious groups, like any group in society, have the full right to express and disseminate their political views. Their critics also have the same right. But the rights and expressions of ordinary people and social institutions is not the same as the use of state, financial and imperial power to disseminate, by local and international media, the propaganda serving the interests of the rich, powerful and imperialism. The latter has to be exposed and people have to be educated about its nature and content. Particularly, we have a lot to learn from how Mwalimu Nyerere strove to diffuse religious tensions and promote social harmony.

Similarly Cheche was not banned due to any religious or nationalistic reason. The ban was a reflection of the fundamental antagonism between socialism and state capitalism which went under the name of Ujamaa. The key lesson from that period is to firmly respect the rights of all viewpoints, however unpopular or unpalatable, to express themselves, and to expand the avenues and ability for ordinary people to express their right of free speech widely, effectively and in a timely manner without undue hindrance. At the same time, modern activists should continually educate themselves on the nature of social reality, and struggle with their own resources, not donor funds. Without practicing self-reliance, coming up with creative forms of struggle, avoiding narrow divisions, and daring to sacrifice to serve the masses, we will not go far.

Karim Hirji is a retired Professor of Medical Statistics and long-time writer on social, political and educational issues in Tanzania.

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