Religion and Power in Liberia

By J. Patrick Flomo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 19, 2005


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I was surfing the net one day last week and came across an interesting article by Mr. Abdoulaye W. Dukulé, posted on the Perspective Web site. I found Mr. Dukule’s argument intriguing and think it worth the attention of all Liberians who care deeply about the sociological composition of the new Liberia that is in the making. I commend him for standing up for his principles by resigning from an organization dominated by Christian practices or rites. No Liberian should compromise his or her principles just to fit into the general population where Christianity seems to influence every thought and action. Although I am in complete agreement with Dukule’s idea of “religious diversity and tolerance,” I think most of his argument about the influence of “Christianity” in Liberian society is way off the mark.

The dominance of Christianity in Liberian politics and society is not an accident; but a “design.” I am one who appreciates this dominance of Christian religiosity as opposed to Islamic dominance. However, in the same breath, I must confess that I am a devout “secularist” who thinks that rationalism is the key to the improvement of the human condition here and now. Of the two religions, Christianity and Islam, Christianity seems to have better link to rationalist theory than does Islam. Heretofore, Christianity, as the source of power and political influences in Liberia, was a “good” thing. Here is why: To understand how a minority religion, Christianity, became the source of power and influence in Liberia, one has to deconstruct the historical contextual premise that gives rise to the formation of Liberia in the early part of the 19th century. In brief, the birth of modern Liberia is an outgrowth of an American domestic problem---slavery. The purposes for which Liberia was founded in 1822 are many; but the two most compelling are: 1. to establish a beachhead on the African continent from whence the spread of Christianity and “civilization” could take over native African culture;. and 2. for fear of a slave uprising, modern Liberia became a place far from North America where free slaves would be exported and forgotten about.

Although the role of religion was influential---the Christianization of the native Africans in Liberia did not succeed as was intended by the religious members of the American Colonization Society (ACS). However, the influence of Christian religiosity on Liberian society did become a power to reckon with by the mid-20th century. The influence of Christianity took centre stage in Liberian society, as opposed to Islam, because early education of the seacoast natives was predominantly through the protestant churches and later the Catholic churches. Christianity was slow in moving to the heartland of Liberia. As a result, the hinterland inhabitants were left to the dominance of their “Pro Society” and to some degree Islam. However, by the mid 1950s, the Methodists and the Lutherans did make a substantial inroad to the heartland. Although Islam was present in what is now modern Liberia before the arrival of Christianity, it failed to take root in Liberia as it did in other African countries such as Guinea and the Ivory Coast, Liberia’s next door neighbors. The people of the Islamic faith were more interested in trade than conversion of the hinterland to Islam.

I am for the influence of Christianity as the dominant religion in Liberia, as opposed to Islam and other religions. I am not a student of Islamic history, but my layman understanding of Islamic teachings in today’s world sometimes runs a chill down my spine. This is because Islam is a religion that seems not to provide an opportunity for debate. Its rigidity to evolving human conditions seems to make it arcane in this age of human “civilization.” There are two examples I would like to mention in this article: the status of women in most Islamic society and the fate of intellectuals who dare to interpret the Koran. Take for example the idea of honor killing in the name of family honor, which is barbaric and inhumane. Yet Pakistan and some North African countries condone such an act. The best example for the fate of Islamic intellectuals who dare to critique the Koran is Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, who was sentenced to death by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of The Islamic Republic of Iran. With respect to Christianity, it has one of the worst historical records of barbaric acts. However, its doctrine is open to debate and continues to evolve to meet the demands of today’s society. For example; Martin Luther’s 95 Theses opened the door directly between the common man and God. The doctrine of Liberation Theology in Latin America in the 1980s forced the Catholic Church and protestant religions to pay attention to the condition of man on earth as opposed to only preparing his soul for “Heaven.”

The flexibility and tolerance of Christianity for open debate of its doctrine in society has been a powerful source of human development and “civilization” since the 1500s. As I stated above, I am a devout secularist and not a fundamentalist or devout Christian. But I am a strong believer of the Protestant ethic and the moral teaching of Christianity. With this view, the dominance of Christian religion in Liberian society must be preserved at all cost. Until the draconian doctrine of Islam is moderated or opened to debate, its station in Liberian society must be marginalized, but protected by the constitution. I do not wish to see my daughter or any woman in Liberian society be a second class citizen and especially a victim of “honor killing,” no matter what their action might be. Moreover, I do not wish to see Liberian intellectuals subjected to threats of violence by an Imam, just for the free exercise of his intellectual freedom on any subject, especially religion.

Although some of us would like to see Islam contained as a minority religion, it has the potential to become the dominant religion in Liberia at any time. This is possible because Islam has a better attitude toward the “poor” and poverty and provides better social services than does Christianity. Islam looks at the condition of the “poor” as a societal issue, whereas Christianity looks at it as individual problem. In a country such as Liberia, where the poor have outnumbered the rich 20-to-1, as a result of 15 years of chaos, the prospect for Islamicization of society is very strong. To maintain Christianity as the dominant power and influence in Liberia society, the Liberian Christian community has to do a better job in attending the needs of the poor, fighting against the systemic corrupt practices in government, condemning ritual killings, and above all fighting for economic and social justice for all. Failure to appropriately address these social ills will result in Islam filling the void and Christianity becoming the marginalized religion.

Mr. Dukule’s article has brought to the forefront the question of religion and its role in Liberian society. This provides a forum for earnest debate on the question of religion as we undertake the arduous task to rebuild and redefine Liberian society for the next quarter century and beyond. The role of religion as the moral compass of our society is paramount. The question as to which religion (Christianity or Islam) will dominate has to be answered and I think the debate has begun, thanks to Mr. Dukulé.