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Can Africa reinvent secularism? Debate and public lecture kick off packed Tana weekend

A lecture hall, six vice-chancellors or presidents of universities, and a sensitive issue: « secularism and politicized faith ». That is what it takes for a refined debate with about 150 students and teachers of the Bahir Dar University.
The 4th Tana High-Level Forum could not have had a better start, a day ahead of its official launch on Saturday 18th April 2015. Professor Andreas Eshete, Deputy Chairperson of the Tana Board and Advisor to the Prime Minister with the rank of a minister, immediately stated provocatively that “secularism does not guarantee tolerance and civic peace”. The tone was set for a thoughtful debate.

First to address the issue, Dr. Baylie Damte, President of the Bahir Dar University posed the question: “The issue of secularism comes down to the issue of identity: how can we create a system where everyone feels they own it, knowing our diversity on the continent? Universities should be attractive and generate this debate with the students.”

On such a culturally-diverse continent that sees its fair share of faith-branded conflicts, what role should play African universities play? Professor Vivienne Lawach, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Cape, answered it best.

“There is a big difference between having secularism in a Constitution and the way it is engaged and taught in universities. Curriculums must be locally and globally relevant. Looking to the West does not always bring the solutions to our own problems.”

The relationship between secularism and politicized faith does not play the same way in South Africa, Kenya, or the Ivory Coast. “We should not take for granted the idea of universal values of secularism that should be implemented as such in Africa. We must question it in our universities and build a new universality together with the students,” echoed Lazare Poane, President of the University of Alassane Ouattara in the Ivory Coast.

“We must not be afraid of faiths, but remain vigilant of all forms of extremism,” concluded Abdul Mohamed, Chief of Staff and Political Advisor of the African Union High-Level Panel for Sudan and South Sudan.
Rached Al-Ghannouchi, President of the Tunisian Ennahdha Movement, offered his views on the issue in the annual Meles Zenawi lecture series. Head of a political and religious organization, as well as an eminent proponent of the Arab spring in Tunisia, Rached Al-Ghannouchi did not mince his words.

“Islam and democracy are compatible. Tunisia proves it true. An Islamic state is a civil state, not a religious one. There is no author above the parliament. Everyone can interpret religion as they like so that they can become a democrat and tolerant.” The Muslim scholar went on to add that the need for the continent to find Africa-centred solutions to its own problems without looking to the West as the source of solutions.

“As often in universities, one question led to many more,” summed up the debate’s facilitator Tim Murithi, Head of the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa. “Can secularism become tyrannical? Is secularism the only system to guarantee a diversity of political views and faiths? How can African cultures be adopted to create African secularism?”

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