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Review ‘Reconciliation and Religio-political Non-conformism in Zimbabwe’

Date:21 December 2016
Author:Roos Feringa

The day before Christmas we will conclude our series on Joram Tarusarira’s new book ‘Reconciliation and Religio-political Non-conformism in Zimbabwe’ (read the previous review here) with yet another review written by Vlado Kmec. Vlado currently works at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of the CRCPD. He offers expertise to the Centre in religion and migration; religion in conflict and peacebuilding; ethnic and religious conflicts; religion and international relations; mediation and negotiation; the United Nations peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and the EU Common Security and Defence Policy.

The relationship between politics, society and religion has never been an unproblematic one. Yet, the three elements have coexisted in different formations in different political and societal systems. Scholars in various disciplines have been intrigued by the impact of religion on politics and society and vice versa. By looking at the interlinkages between religion, society and politics in Zimbabwe, Joram Tarusarira has undertaken a difficult, yet important, task of exploring the role that religion plays in democratisation and reconciliation in post-colonial Zimbabwe. According to the author, reconciliation and democracy are the two key elements crucial for the stability of the country, which, in spite of being regarded as a modern nation-state committed to liberal democracy, has an awful record of political violence, conflicts, authoritarian rule, and human rights violations. Nevertheless, the author observes that the mainline churches are not at the centre of the social and political change in Zimbabwe. In contrast, the change is driven by civil society organisations which are best positioned to advocate democracy and reconciliation. Among these organisations, religio-political actors play their valuable role. Tarusarira’s book looks at these new kind of actors who carry characteristics of both civil society organisations and religious groups. Religio-political actors develop a symbiosis of political, religious and social patterns that empower them to challenge the oppressive regime and promote reconciliation. They find a plausible rapport with people in the country that the author describes as a secularised state with sacralised society.

Tarusarira frames the behaviour of these actors as ‘religio-political non-conformism’ which he conceptualises in a strong contrast to mainline churches in Zimbabwe. Many religious leaders from traditional churches, such as the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist churches, nourished colonial mentality during the period of the colonial rule. After the independence, these churches endorsed the new authoritarian regime or remained silent. African Initiated Churches that were at the forefront of the anti-colonial movement also supported the post-colonial oppressive regime. Due to their in-ward looking, hierarchical, bureaucratic and elitist character, dominant religions have been ineffective in facilitating democratisation and reconciliation. In contrast, religio-political non-conformism is liberated from such burdens. Religio-political non-conformism refers to a form of a direct religio-political activism capable of reaching to grassroots levels and developing relations with secular as well as religious actors. The structures of religio-political non-conformist groups are flexible, non-hierarchical and non-bureaucratic. Driven by the belief in everyone’s charisma, they aim at the transformation of society. They do not separate religion from political participation. They resemble civil society organisations and social movements as they promote societal change through the means of direct activism. They are also religious movements as they justify their motivations and actions on the basis of their biblical vocation. Tarusarira develops the concept of religio-political non-conformism with the use of other scholarly perspectives, such as Benthall’s definition of faith-based socio-political groups. Such groups deploy faith as a political construct in pursuit of political objectives on the basis of faith identities.[1]

Although emphasising the valuable contribution of religio-political non-conformism to democratisation and reconciliation, Tarusarira restrains from its idealisation. He highlights that the transformative character of religio-political non-conformist groups is not given. Instead, it depends on the flexibility of structures, the focus on grassroots and laypeople, and moral determination to challenge the consensus even in the face of antagonistic sanctions. He provides a realistic picture of this phenomenon by analysing three particular religio-political non-conformist groups: the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance (ZCA), Churches in Manicaland (CiM) and Grace to Heal (GtH). The three organisations have emerged from 2000 in the wake of the country’s economic and political turmoil. Although these organisations are relatively small in comparison to mainline churches, they demonstrate the ability to pursue strategies for political and social change. The organisations fit the categorisation of religio-political non-conformism that he adapts from Lederach’s pyramid of peacebuilding actors.[2] The ZCA is a type of a radical non-conformist group with focus on a high-level political engagement and a strong vocal profile. It advocates radical constitutional change through public demonstrations and prayer rallies. CiM represents moderate non-conformism that targets mainly the middle class. The forms of action that CiM uses can be both radical, such as prayer rallies, pastoral letters and press statements, as well as low-scale, such as workshops with pastors. GtH fits the category of passive non-conformism as it employs non-threatening and quieter approaches. It orients its activities towards communities and individuals at local levels. In particular, it organises mass training workshops, dramas, songs, games, sport activities, and community healing sessions. The author observes that, despite its low-profile approaches, GtH has a greater impact and influence on people compared to the ZCA due to its ability to establish and maintain direct contact with many people. Tarusarira concludes that, although the three organisations differ with regard to their activities and methods, they share the same objective of the promotion of democracy and reconciliation. They pursue their agenda despite an apparent threat of sanctions and dispraise.

This insightful and elaborative book senses further critical questions, thus opening avenues for new research. The author makes an important observation about the absence of women in the three studied organisations. It is important to further study the gender aspects of religio-political non-conformism to understand the role of women in such groups. Such an analysis should also look at internal hierarchical relations. Although the absence of hierarchical structures is one of the defining features of religio-political non-conformism, non-conformist groups may gradually develop informal, invisible hierarchies, as observed by researchers in other contexts.[3]Furthermore, the question remains why especially Christian actors, as emphasised in this book, are best equipped to develop religio-political non-conformism, and thus most effective in facilitating social and political change. Is the concept of religio-political non-conformism exclusively a Christian phenomenon, or can it be found in other religious and cultural contexts? Do other religions have a potential to develop capabilities for democratisation and reconciliation? Similarities with nonconformist movements in other religions – with regard to the modes of the development of religio-political activism to pursue societal change – are striking.[4] Finally, the question of sustainability of the transformative effect of religio-political non-conformism is crucial in determining the future development of religio-political actors. As the author notes, several mainline churches, some of which started as non-conformist movements, were also once drivers of political change – for example when they opposed the colonial oppression. Nevertheless, they became comfortable with the authoritarian practices of the new regime. Similarly, in another context, Catholic movements in Eastern Europe were a decisive force that challenged the authoritarian communist regime. After the fall of communism, churches and religious actors in some countries have gained significant powers that they utilised to control important ethical and political spheres of their society. We need to further study the reasons and circumstances under which nonconformist movements change their tactics, norms and ethics after achieving their primary goals.

[1] Tarusarira, Joram. 2016. Reconciliation and Religio-political Non-conformism. London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis, pp. 5.

[2] Idem, pp. 74, 157-8.

[3] Bendixsen, Synnøve K. N. 2013. The Religious Identity of Young Muslim Women in Berlin: An Ethnographic Study. Muslim Minorities 14. Leiden: Brill.

[4] Lentin, Ronit, and Elena Moreo, eds. 2012. Migrant Activism and Integration from Below in Ireland. Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan;
Schwartz, Stephen. 2008. The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony. Princeton: Doubleday;
Yurdakul, Gökçe. 2009. From Guest Workers into Muslims: The Transformation of Turkish Immigrant Associations in Germany. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars.


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