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Religious imperialism? Count me out

26 Apr 2019 at 07:18hrs | Views
I WAS pleasantly surprised when people from near and far, from within Zimbabwe and beyond the borders, white and black, Christian and non-Christian came to the defence of the Zimbabwe Bird after the national emblem was belittled by MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa as representing "institutional idolatry".

Chamisa went further to make the startling claim that the Zimbabwe Bird was behind the problems besetting the nation, thus, little or nothing to do with endemic corruption in both the public and private sectors and economic sanctions imposed by the West.

Before we delve into that feedback, it is necessary to point out that people should not mix issues. For one, Zimbabwe remains a constitutional democracy whatever one's holier-than-thou notions about one's brand of religious faith; Zimbabwe is an inter-faith nation with freedom of worship, so one can choose whether to be Traditionalist, Muslim, Christian, among others, or not to be a believer at all. People - myself included - should keep their doctrine to their own church - not impose themselves on the nation. As for myself, while I am spiritual and very much believe in the existence of God and continue to see His hand in my life, I have no religious hang-ups. I go along with the late world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali's profound observation: "Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams - they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do - they all contain truths."

As for those who insist on obstinately and wrongly mixing and confusing the issues, fellow Zimbabwean Takunda Chaurura Chingombe has laid it out for you: "The Bible is not Zimbabwe's Constitution. Our Constitution does very clearly allow freedom of worship, meaning idolatry is perfectly legal in the secular State called Republic of Zimbabwe."

As any clear-minded person can see, two points have been brought out. The first point being that no religion should impose itself on the nation because Zimbabwe is not a theocracy, a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god. The second point, as brought out by Chingombe, is that even if in the eyes of some people having the Zimbabwe Bird is idolatry (which it is not), idolatry is permissible according to the law. The only constitutional recourse for those who strongly object to the Zimbabwe Bird as a national emblem is to call for a referendum for the nation at large to decide. That is how those with political maturity go about it, not make bald declarations fatwa-like. But they will lose that referendum for sure.

This is not to imply that Christianity is being vilified, not at all. As a matter of fact, Christianity has become one of the most embraced religions on the continent and influences the way many think. It has become part and parcel of our language and culture. It has evolved and transformed. It has been seared into the African psyche to the extent that even those who do not profess to be Christian have internalised many Christian ways and habits.

But Christianity should be channelled positively and productively, and not be weaponised. This twisting of religion to suit one's political narrative that literally everything is being done in a totally wrong way in Zimbabwe - including having the Zimbabwe Bird - makes Chamisa sound as insincere and as expedient as Jonathan Moyo, who is notorious for being thoroughly dissembling, deceitful and dishonest.

Back to the idolatry issue, I was pleasantly surprised when a foreigner - a white American - emailed me expressing his love for Zimbabwean ethnography such as the Zimbabwe Bird.

He wrote to me thus: "My name is Andrew Milanek (you can call me Mr Dew). I am a USA citizen. I went to the University of Zimbabwe in 1993 as an international student. I studied the history, sociology, geography, and Shona language at the university for one year. Zimbabwe is like a second home to me. I made caring friendships with several Zimbabweans. I returned to visit them in 1995 and 1996. I produced a 36- minute documentary regarding environmental conservation in Zimbabwe for my bachelor thesis in 1994. . . If you are interested in seeing my Zimbabwe video documentary, then I will gladly send it to you . . . I appreciated your article concerning this matter of religion and the Zimbabwe Bird. Your viewpoint and style of writing are quality. Therefore, I decided to reach out to you as a new friend." Any higher tribute than this to Zimbabwean ethnographical riches, of which the Zimbabwe Bird is part? Only through studying peoples, their cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences from their standpoint will you truly and fully understand them - that is what ethnography seeks to do and my new-found friend Mr Dew, despite not being Zimbabwean, is now one of the foremost authorities on Zimbabwe, and is in a position to enlighten and educate those who denigrate the Zimbabwe Bird.

More was to come. I also received the second email from a white compatriot, Lorraine Knox, who has fully and proudly integrated into the norms and values of Zimbabwe. I found her observations most profound. Cox wrote: "Thank you for writing such a good piece on The hypocrisy of equating Zimbabwe bird to idol worship. As a 58-year-old European woman with Christian beliefs so far from my Bulawayo home, at this time I know how proud I am to have had an upbringing knowing about the Zimbabwe Bird and its history. The Zimbabwe Bird is a symbol of our country, as a unifier of everyone of all diverse groups and we always knew of the Zimbabwe Bird as our story, instead of all the British culture we were forced to learn. My only regret is we were not made to learn our language instead of the fluent French I can speak. I have my flag with me and my son who passed away at five years old respected and was proud of his anthem and the Zimbabwe Bird . . . Mr Chamisa is confusing religion with the historical significance to Zimbabweans worldwide that through the Zimbabwe Bird we are all one with a love of the land, the most wonderful people and a wish to be where we once were due to circumstances not political."

Indeed, we should guard against having a narrow and parochial perspective, which makes us fail to see the bigger picture.

This week on BBC's HardTalk, internationally-acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author and human rights activist Wole Soyinka referred to this illogicality and insularity as informed by "religious imperialism". This goes a long way to explain the deep-seeded ignorance behind regarding the Zimbabwe Bird as symbolic of "institutional idolatry", while not viewing, in the same breath, the US as equally idolatrous for having the Bald Eagle as its national emblem. Ignorance can be planted deep and, thus, have deep psychological roots. And, by the way, the Lion of Judah is the national emblem of the Jews themselves, so what's idolatrous about the Zimbabwe Bird?

Religious imperialism may involve the refusal to acknowledge the existence of other religions or other viewpoints - like with those speaking as if Zimbabwe is a Christian theocracy.

There are also times when religious imperialism morphs into religious terrorism, with the destruction of sacred sites and icons of other religions. The destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan by extremist Taliban Muslims in 2001 is one example. In the Middle East, the attempted genocide against religious minorities - including Christians - by the Islamic State (ISIS) would be another example.

Any takers for religious imperialism?

Although I consider myself a Christian, please count me out.

Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email:

Source - newsday
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