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Reading Jean-François Bayart about Religion in Africa


By Xavier Moyet

Review of Jean-François Bayart, État et religion en Afrique, Paris: Karthala, 2018, ISBN9782811119485, 65 p.

Book cover - État et religion en AfriqueJean-François Bayart is a French political scientist who investigated the formation of the state in Africa, particularly in Cameroon. His theoretical work has reached the global stage, and gained traction through the now widely circulated concept of “politic of the belly”. He also contributed to the use of an ethnographic approach “from below” in French political science circles, previously more prone to an elitist view of African historicity. Currently Professor at the University of Geneva, he was previously Director of the “Centre d'Études des Relations Internationales (CERI)” of Sciences-Po in Paris. He also founded the influential journal Politique Africaine. Based on that robust experience, in his latest book he shares some thoughts on the question of the relationship between politics and religion in contemporary Africa.

The format of this short book is inversely proportional to its theoretical scope and density. Its main aim is to assess the respective influences of the political African sphere on African religious dynamics. In doing so, he builds on the secularisation thesis which, interestingly, has been increasingly critiqued by mainstream social scientists for its Eurocentric assumptions. His vast erudition allows him to insert his reflections into the field of general social sciences (e.g. Henri Bergson, Michel de Certeau, Paul Veyne, Max Weber), and to display his knowledge of respected English-speaking authors working on the issue of religious belief in Africa (e.g. John Peel, Murray Last, Wyatt Mac Gaffey).

The introduction begins by questioning the omnipresence of religion on the continent, and its impact on the political sphere. In a very Cartesian posture, he warns against the “deforming prism of emotions”, which he contends, might be the cause of an "optical illusion". Among the first examples of African religious phenomena, he refers to recent “radical Islamic” groups such as Boko Haram, the Shehab militias or the Muslim Brotherhood. He also mentions the role of what he calls “Christian fundamentalism” in the radicalisation of political crises in Ivory Coast and Central African Republic, and further notes a revival of the "practices of the invisible" (with reference to the works of Carlo Ginzburg and Jeanne Favreet-Saada). The emergence of Christian fundamentalism and of modern witchcraft beliefs are presented as the pendant of the “Islamic threat”, but they are by no means “specifically African” (p.7). The recent religious changes need to be linked with the global sphere, in line with an “eminence of the religious fact in Africa” (p.9). Bayart explains that the centrality of religion has to be envisaged through a Weberian point of view, simultaneously attentive to bureaucratisation and to the regulation of charismatic authority. During the colonial period, the public sphere benefited from a secularisation of society, as a result of the distinction between the religious and the secular that was introduced. According to Bayart, missionary religions have been instrumental in the process of secularisation and display, from this point of view, a “flagrant historical banality” (p. 12). In order to support his thesis, the author then delineates the concept of “religious/cultic city”, already developed in relation to European classical history.

In a dense chapter of only eight pages, Bayart recalls the genealogy of the concept of the “cultic city” (cité cultuelle), and makes a direct reference to the work of François de Polignac on Ancient Greece. His use of comparativism should outline “the historicity of the continent” (p. 19), a concern largely developed in his scholarship about the state in Africa, a foremost product of longue durée. In this chapter, he also recalls the presence of Christianity since antiquity in North Africa, and does the same for Islam, thus arguing for their indigeneity. Their colonial and post-colonial manifestations in prophetic and charismatic forms are the mark of the continent's belonging to global history, in as much as the figure of the prophet that characterises them is universal (p. 21). Finally, he argues that the relationship between politics and religion cannot be seen from above, but only “from below”, through a focus on institutions and the way they interplay with the public.

The main chapter entitled “Perspectives” highlights the centrality of religion for understanding the constitution of the nation-state in Africa, within the framework of transnational logic. For Bayart, the “religious” is caught in a tension between the banal and the essential. Whether Islamic or Christian, these religions have been at the heart of conflicts of sovereignty or competence encountered by the young independent African states. Religions have also played an essential role in the privatisation, sometimes criminal, of public power (p.29). Thus, those religions have played a significant role “in the bureaucratisation of African societies” (p. 31). Bayart further affirms, mostly using examples taken from francophone Africa, that “the contribution of religion to the formation of the state has taken, for the most part, a conservative orientation” in connection with “belly politics”. At the same time, he acknowledges the possibility of a new political subjectivity. Thus, the role of religion might not be only conservative, for “religion can also be a vector of social emancipation” (p.35) in so far as it contributes to the erasing of ethnic or racial categories. In conclusion, Bayart estimates that his approach can pave the way for a renewed perspective on the “colonial encounter” and the “subalternity” that is connected with it (p.51).

The general aim of this book, understanding the interaction between religious and political realms in Africa through sociological and comparative history, is commendable, at a moment of a thorough re-evaluation of the past, in Africa, and in the subaltern urban spaces of the West, but it comes short of credibility for different reasons.

A first criticism concerns Bayart’s theorisation of the “banality” of religion in Africa. While recognising that religion is a salient feature of African societies, he thinks nonetheless that it could be comparable with the European religion of the “cultic city”, and is furthermore fundamentally either “conservative” or “disruptive”. This understanding of religious activity can hardly be reconciled with the case of Pentecostal Christianity in Africa. Ebenezer Obadare for instance shows, with reference to Nigeria, that the kind of theocracy he labels a Pentecostal Republic is rather a cohesion between different segments of society, belonging to distinct economic, political or religious realms. Also, Pentecostal religion cannot univocally be labelled conservative in the sense it rather brings about a revolution, a change, even if the direction of it may not fit the westernised categories of “progress”. I will take as an example the Reformed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Nigeria, which, while adopting a neo-liberal gospel of prosperity, has at the same time moved away from the traditional patriarchal organisation. In RCCG as well as in other contemporary (neo-)Pentecostal churches, gender roles significantly move away from the strict spatial separation observed in the Aladura Churches that were popular in the 1960s. More importantly, by encouraging individual initiatives, whether they come from youth or women, these churches promote a form of religious redefinition of social relations of gender and age.

At an epistemological level, Bayart debunks the originality of religious phenomena in Africa, and advocates a universal and arguably ethnocentric model of religion, based on the exit from religion through bureaucratisation, as documented by Weber. However, his approach is, at least, questionable. Religious processes in Africa can hardly be conceptualised in the paradigm of secularisation that followed the emergence of Protestantism in the West, for its specificities are interwoven with the (post)coloniality of the state. From this point of view, the use of the work of authors focusing on the “Middle Ages or the First Modern Age”, if not Antiquity, seems somewhat forced. Furthermore, this abrupt pairing of the dynamics of African religious phenomena with a Eurocentric model is coupled with a centration on the colonial history of the state. However, it is pertinent to examine how the contemporary religious dynamics examined here are, in fact, strongly connected to the post-colonial state, and related to the trans-national reach of local religious entrepreneurs.

At an ontological level, the secularisation process of religious activity, through the “Cité cultuelle”, thrives on a dichotomy between ‘public’ and ’private’, à la Habermas, but it may not be relevant to the same extent in Africa. Pentecostal Christianity for example, is distinctly local, as it engages with local cosmologies, while at the same time it represents a transnational and global discourse and network. It also challenges any dichotomy between ‘public’ and ‘private’, as the Eurocentric model suggests, as it contributes to a Pentecostalisation of the public sphere.

Also, the examples of Christian fundamentalism, Islamic radicalism, and spectacular witchcraft that Bayart discusses do not reflect the polymorphous field of religion in Africa. He seems to choose his examples to make the point that contemporary religion in Africa is at odds with a vision of public space as reflected in the order of secularism (laïcité in French). However, with other (and perhaps some of the same) examples, Bayart could have discussed religion through its “progressive” engagement with activism, development or interfaith dialogue. Religion is not only about a matter of power regulation but can also incorporate concerns for transformational change. As a political scientist, Bayart appears to be overwhelmingly concerned with the question of religion and power, which seems to be inspired by the concern with “radical Islam” as a problem both in the French banlieues and in African Francophone countries such as Ivory-Coast, Cameroon, Burkina-Faso, and Niger.

Notwithstanding these reservations, reading this book is recommended. In the landscape of the social sciences of religion, it illuminates the French world-view on African post-colonial societies.


Dr Xavier Moyet is visiting fellow of the Centre for Religion and Public Life, University of Leeds. An earlier version of this review was published in the French journal Archives de sciences sociales des religions (188).