Religion And Power in Liberia

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 17, 2005


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A few months ago, I decided to resign from a Liberian organization because when I raised the issue of doing away with opening and closing prayers before our meetings, many in the group simply refused to discuss the matter. I said that as a Muslim, I should not be forced to go with their prayers in what was a secular organization. Someone said that "democracy" was about majority rule and since Christians were in the majority, the group had to adopt a Christian prayer. Democracy is the rule of the majority and the respect of minorities.

This is a lunatic notion in Liberian culture, bordering on infantilism, imported and imposed by the settlers that has found its way in the subconscious of "educated Liberians" that every meeting has to start with a prayer. As if praying made anyone more honest or truthful. Can anyone ever pray more than Charles Ghankay Taylor?

For students of colonialism in its many forms, religion has been one of the most potent instruments of alienation, because it has the capacity to submit the mind to an invisible and frightening power. In the words of Frantz Fanon, religion allows the oppressed to rationalize and internalize his/her own oppression. Where soldiers failed to institute colonial rule throughout the continent, missionaries succeeded. Where colonial powers were unable to establish their control with the use of force, they used religious missionary as a means of control. From Dakar in Senegal to Capetown in South Africa, western colonial rule came with the guns and the Bible, and in few cases the Qu'Ran to impose its rule.

Liberia is no different from any colonial state; with the exception that it was a colony of people, who along with guns and the Bible, had also the color of the skin to make domination more acceptable and insidious. After force and coercion were abandoned in the mid-1950s under William Tubman, religion continued to be the vehicle for the extension of colonial "settler" power. Public prayers were not simply a way to bless the meetings, but also to create fear and subjugation in the souls of all those present.

In Liberia, the Book, one of the greatest gifts of God to Humanity, served as a means of subjugation. Political leaders from Monrovia, descended on Poro societies, forcing elders to "accept" them and "crown" them as Zoes, usurping the last cultural space left for natives. From Tubman to Taylor, this invasion of the last private retreat of the natives went on, under the pretense of integration. Tubman, Tolbert or Taylor never opened an official government function with a Poro ritual. Taylor claimed the title of Dakpannah and insisted that he was the Dazo or the chief of all zoes in the country.

Those who could not be converted - mostly the Muslims - were tagged as "foreigners" when in fact, Muslim people had been in Liberia long before any "settler" landed on that soil. But as in any colonial situation, the real issue was never about God and salvation, but rather economic and political power using religion as an instrument of coercion and domination.

When the late President William V.S. Tubman decided to appoint Momolu Dukuly, Sr. as the first "native" Secretary of State (Minister of Foreign Affairs) almost forty years ago, he is said to have had this conversation with him: "Momolu, I want to make you my Secretary of State. If anyone deserves this position now in the country, you do. You have experience, you have culture and you are educated. But, but, ..."

Tubman took a sip of his expensive brandy, dragged smoke out of his cigar and looked at the glass of soft drink Dukuly had in front of him. "But what, Mr. President?" Tubman told him that the problem was his religion. Momolu was Muslim. This was a rare opportunity, a once in a lifetime not only for Momolu Dukuly as a person, but also for a whole segment of the population, "natives" and especially those of Mandingo descent concerned. The next day, the young Muslim scholar and diplomat gave up his mat in the mosque for a bench in the Christian church, joined "the society" and became Secretary of State.

The first female Head of State of Liberia Ruth Perry and the former Liberian Ambassador to Italy, Kenya, Guinea, and many other places, Mr. James Freeman are among many examples of Liberians born in Muslim families but forced to abandon their religions and change their names not only to have "quality" education, but to later ascend to social status.

For many generations, powerful "settlers" went into the hinterland to adopt native children who became more or less their house servants. They changed the "country" names of these children to "civilized" ones and indoctrinated them in more ways than one. This adoption did not change the nature of the relationship between adoptive children and their "sponsors." Even after attending afternoon school and after graduating from Cuttington College and later getting graduate degrees from America, they were kept a few ranks in the social strata, the "Flomo class."

It is in the area of religion that one feels the total domination of the Liberian "native" minds. Religion is never discussed. The internalization of the "supreme powers of the settlers" is felt nowhere but in the Church. The "fear" of the Lord is the same as the fear of the power, "the people thing." The true liberation would be to distinguish between what is done in the name of the Almighty, Jehovah, the Lord Christ and what is still solely an instrument of domination of a political order. The fear of questioning the role of religion in our politics is a reflection of the absolution submission of a colonial order.

When he became President in 1997, one of the first actions Taylor undertook at the Executive Mansion was a "cleansing ceremony" headed by some Christian leaders. Armed with buckets filled with "holy waters" and chanting biblical hymns, the presidential religious crew washed every wall in the palace. They claimed that they were chasing evil from the Mansion, but why was this process done solely with the Bible, excluding other forms of religious beliefs?

Throughout history, many political decisions in Liberian history were reached during those short conversations in churchyards after Sunday service. This is where one had the chance to meet with or sit next to leaders or be introduced by the Priest or the Pastor. The Church became the center of real power. Everyone who ever held power in Monrovia belonged to one of the few grand places of worship in the city, all of them located somewhere between St. Stephens and the Catholic Church up Broad Street. Political or economic as well as social linkages were established in these lieu. Every imaginable political and economic crime committed against the state or individuals could be absolved during those Sunday gatherings. Praying together established a community of destiny, brought into the land by those who came with the Book. One did not simply join a Church; one was born a member, with rights that bestowed certain social privileges.

After being comfortably seated in the presidential chair of the man he assassinated, Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe also went after his bench in the Providence Baptist Church. He was given an accolade and was made to sing and he put bountifully in the coffers of the Church. For Samuel Doe and others around him, the supreme powers in the land were not to be found at the Executive Mansion, in the Temple of Justice or at Capitol Hill, but rather in a crowded Providence Baptist church were he shared prayers with "the upper class."

Often times, upon returning in the country from an official state visit abroad, the president of the republic and his convoy first head for an intercessory service at a given church before reaching the Executive Mansion. This service where government money is spent to give "thanks to the Lord" for the safe return of the leader, is one among many archaic actions where state power and religion are used by one set of group in the nation. Churches compete to have the "honor" of welcoming the president home. The usual US $10,000 - $20, 000 donation is not stranger to the matter. One can only imagine being an official in the president's entourage and being constantly absent from these ceremonies! Only in the 1970s, did President Tolbert make attempts on such occasions to visit mosques on a few occasions. And then again, in those cases, those who were neither Muslims nor Christians and proudly held to their African traditional beliefs were left out.

During my arguments with members of the group mentioned above, one speaker said that he was "ready to offer a compromise" and that we should allow Muslim prayers. His argument was that Islam and Christianity were the two major religions and that those in the traditional settings are now leaning towards either religion. Officially, and according to a recent study released by the US State Department on Religion Tolerance in Liberia, there are 40 percent Christians, 40 percent traditionalists and 20 percent Muslims. When he recently spoke at a forum in Washington, DC, the former UN Special Representative to Liberia Ambassador Jacques Klein said from what he has observed, the Muslim population is much larger than 20 percent. This is understandable because those who gave the statistics are most often the same ones clamoring, "Liberia was founded on Christian principles."

There is a difference between a dominant religion and a majority religion. When the ruling class uses religion as a means of control, its religion becomes dominant. A majority religion is simply the case where in places like Guinea or Algeria, the majority of the people are Muslim, pure and simple and one needs no statistics to prove it.

Some Liberians political leaders simply say that Liberia was founded on "Christian principles" and therefore they are looking at including that in the constitution in the future. There is no explanation as to what Christian principles are. Does it mean that people should not cheat, lie or steal? Does it mean that the affairs of the state are run according to the 10 Commandments? Does it mean that we all have compassion and respect for each other? Does is mean that everything that is forbidden in the Bible is also forbidden in Liberian's life? In truth and reality, the assertion is that "only those who go to church would rule Liberia." In response to a letter written by a reader who asked, "Is Liberia ready for a Muslim leader," published in The Liberian Observer, Reverend A. Momolue Diggs, the former pastor of the Providence Baptist Church wrote in the same paper on may 3, 2005: "Don't let us be blind to the fact that Liberia that has sunk into anarchy and confusion was led by Christian leaders throughout our history."

The issue is not whether there should be an Imam or another religious presence at public functions according to majority rule. That means that attendees would be polled as to what religious group they belong to before entering a venue. The issue is that people who do not pray to Christ should not have to feel threatened in their humanity and made to stand up and bow their heads while someone is blessing food they are going to eat or discussion they are going to take part in. If we went by the statistics cited above, 60 percent of Liberians have no reason to tell the truth or be sincere, since discussions are all sanctioned by one religion. Maybe that is why, a former Liberian president once said in a joke: "You could put the whole of Monrovia through a lie detector on Broadstreet and you will not catch one person!" What he meant was that people have incorporated so much lies in their lives that it has become a second nature. The same goes for religion. Many Mandingoes who were forced to join the Christian religion for a job went home and pray to Allah. How could they speak the truth when asked to take the oath on a Bible? Many people who still believe in the Poro teaching would not miss a Sunday service, but deep inside, they would never lie in the Poro bush and however would swear anything on the Bible.

Liberians must grow out of this age of infancy and fear to accept what has been in the constitution from day one: there are many religions in Liberia and nobody should be made to pray or attend a religious service against their will. Political maturity would also mean that there is a separation of Church and state, that secular services need not start with reading pages of the Bible or the Qu'Ran to be sincere and truthful.

By opening party meetings, academic gatherings and other public social functions with openly religious prayers, political parties or others are shutting out minorities who may have different religious beliefs or simply may not adhere to any religion. Human beings, Liberians in particular should not be judged by their religions, as one politician recently said in his acceptance speech as Chairman of his party branch in the United States. However, the ceremony was opened with prayers to Jesus and a Reverend blessed the food in the name of Jesus notwithstanding the fact that many leaders of the party present at the ceremony were Muslims, including the Chairman who was being inducted. When I asked him why he went along, he said he did not want to scare people away as if being anything other than Christian in Liberia was scary. One can put that assertion along with that of election registrars who refused to accept people who could not speak English, in a country with 80 percent illiteracy rate...

Religion is an important aspect of human spirituality. But it is and still is a personal relationship between a human being and his/her God. In Liberia, it has mostly served to dominate and divide. For decades, it has been an instrument of intimidation and coercion. Liberia would have great difficulties in achieving democracy, a notion based on equality as long as public expression of religious belief continues to be part of the body politics. The separation of religion and state is only a reality on paper as many other aspects of our constitution.

A few months ago, I raised the issue with the organizers of a government-sponsored function in Washington, DC; their response was that they did no know of any Imam. "If you can find us an Imam, we would gladly let him say a prayer, because we know this is a public function and there are also Muslims among us." The issue was not to bring in another religious leader into the fray, but rather, to separate our publicly funded secular functions and religions. Because allowing an imam to pray along a reverend does not solve the problems for those who are of another faith, and most importantly those of traditional African faith, who are neither Muslims nor Christians and who are the great majority in Liberia.

It came as no surprise that Charles Taylor, feeling the heat from rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) tried to jump of the anti-terrorist sentiment of the US by accusing them of being Muslim fundamentalists.

There is a great religious diversity that is being pushed under the mat. And that is not a Christian value, especially in a country where the great majority of the people are not necessarily of the same faith. The great cultural and religious diversity can be a source of strength for the new Liberia.

As the political season begins and will unleash caravans of political job seekers, candidates will crisscross the nation, promising democracy, the respect of human rights and freedom of speech and religion. One can say almost with certainty that every one of those functions, especially in the countryside would be opened with prayers, forcing the local leaders and elders to stand and bow their heads to a religion they do not know and do not respect. One can imagine an aspirant political leader in a small Cape Mount Muslim town asking a priest or a pastor to read a few lines from the Bible and expect the Imam to bow his head down and later vote for him. Or it could be somewhere, in deep Grand Geddeh, a few feet from a sacred forest, a candidate for president chanting the Glory of the Almighty and asking elders to bow down in prayer with him.

As Reverend A. Momolue Diggs said, in the same text quoted above, "in the new Liberia, we musty find creative ways for Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha to work together. [...] The new agenda is a new Liberia for all people."A moment of silent meditation would allow all to pray according to his or her beliefs with nobody forced to say "Amen" to someone else's God. If there is anything all Liberians have in common, it is certainly the death of 300,000 of our compatriots. A silent prayer to their memories could remind all of us of the sanctity of life and the respect for other humans. Nobody should be made to feel small or a lesser human because s/he has a different religious belief.Can we all just pray in our mosques, churches, temples and Poro bushes and get on with nation building, together as one people? And let the Almighty Bless our good work and deeds?