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Articles: Africa Archives

The Catholic Church Can Save Zimbabwe

Filed under: Africa

"The structures of sin [are] rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behaviour."

Pope John Paul II wrote the above in 1987 on the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western leaders of liberty Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were driving home a campaign to hasten the evil empire's demise from abroad, but the Pope had something unique that they couldn't have hoped to match: a direct connection with the more than 90% of people who were professed Catholics. Besides the fact that he himself was Polish, the church itself could connect with people in a way that even the ideas of freedom coming from Western leaders never could. Religiosity can transcend borders, fear, and even death itself.

What matters most is that by the 1980s, Catholicism and the church's organizational structure had completely permeated Polish civil society. The Pope's message of resistance -- his identification of the inherent evil in the totalitarianism of the Soviet-sponsored state -- passed through the ears of the cardinals, from their mouths to the ears of the archbishops, and so on to the ears of the laity. For example, significant support had been given to the Solidarity movement, which was crucial to filling its ranks.

The Church was also instrumental in preaching non-violent struggle; using its organizational structure to ensure compliance with this tenet. Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the unofficial spiritual adviser to Solidarity who became a martyr following his murder by state security officers, constantly urged millions of believers not to be goaded into violence. Doing so would only recreate the same structures of inhumanity that they currently lived under, whereas mass non-violence would ensure a peaceful transition from oppression.

Do not struggle with violence. Violence is a sign of weakness. All those who cannot win through the heart try to conquer through violence. The most wonderful and durable struggles in history have been carried on by human thought. The most ignoble fights and most ephemeral successes are those of violence. An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord. An idea which is imposed by violence collapses under it. An idea capable of life wins without effort and is then followed by millions of people.

The fight against foreign communist occupation was one such wonderful and durable struggle, and it succeeded in transposing that regime with new, democratic one based on respect for human rights and dignity. This was able to occur precisely because of the doctrine of non-violence. Its adherence by both the leaders and people of the new Poland created a new structure from which opportunity and freedom could flow rather than corruption and destruction. An idea capable of life grew out of the people who had created the new structure.

Even the security services, whose very nature was based on the violent protection of the previous regime, would not fight the millions of countrymen, neighbors, and families who stood in their way. The price of participation had become too high, and it dissolved away.

In Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe has ruthlessly oppressed his own people, religiosity has begun to take on an increasing light in the social sphere. Whatever is left of civil society takes place very often in the sanctuary of the country's churches. With nearly a quarter of the population identifying with Roman Catholicism, and many more clamoring for spiritual leadership against oppression, the church is in a significant position to lead the people of Zimbabwe in their quest for freedom.

Church involvement in Zimbabwe has been going on for quite some time already. But as the country reaches the height of its crisis, its organizational outreach has also sought new levels.

Over the Easter holiday, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, which includes the nine archbishops and bishops of the country, released perhaps the most condemning pastoral letter since the struggle for independence. Titled, "God Hears The Cry Of The Oppressed", it was posted to congregation bulletin boards, distributed roundly, and read aloud all over Zimbabwe, with people scrambling to know its content. In the letter, the bishops call Mugabe's regime exactly what it is, using the same quote by Pope John Paul II above. Additionally, it relates the current struggle to another that all Zimbabweans know dearly: the one for independence.

Black Zimbabweans today fight for the same basic rights they fought for during the liberation struggle. It is the same conflict between those who possess power and wealth in abundance, and those who do not; between those who are determined to maintain their privileges of power and wealth at any cost, even at the cost of bloodshed, and those who demand their democratic rights and a share in the fruits of independence; between those who continue to benefit from the present system of inequality and injustice, because it favours them and enables them to maintain an exceptionally high standard of living, and those who go to bed hungry at night and wake up in the morning to another day without work and without income; between those who only know the language of violence and intimidation, and those who feel they have nothing more to lose because their Constitutional rights have been abrogated and their votes rigged. Many people in Zimbabwe are angry, and their anger is now erupting into open revolt in one township after another.

The people are growing in their revolt. Even the security forces, loyal to Mugabe only because of the paychecks, are torn in their actions. Underneath the oppressive regime is the development of an alternative structure to supersede it. This structure must continue to be nurtured and led, with a focus on mass non-violence, so that Mugabe's replacement does not follow his lead.

For this reason, the Catholic Church at the highest levels should become involved. Generally, it has yielded to protecting its flock, which at times has meant forgoing resistance under the threat of a severe crackdown. At other times, such as in Poland, it has resisted when its flock comes under the great pressure of totalitarian or atheistic ideas.

The time for that resistance is now. In his "Urbi et Orbi" Easter address, Pope Benedict XVI spoke all too briefly of the impending crisis: "Zimbabwe is in the grip of a grievous crisis and for this reason the Bishops of that country in a recent document indicated prayer and a shared commitment for the common good as the only way forward."

More can be done. The mantle of Pope John Paul II needs to be taken up. Pope Benedict is in the position to endorse the bishops of Zimbabwe, aid them, and speak to them and their congregation directly. He can fly in, preach resistance to a huge crowd in the middle of Harare, and even Mugabe wouldn't be able to touch him. (If he did, he'd really be in trouble).

The international community cannot be relied on, or trusted, to pressure Mugabe to leave power and dismantle his regime. Many countries driven by the ideology of freedom, such as the United States, simply do not have enough influence and organizational structure with the people of Zimbabwe. Other governments that are much closer and influential, such as South Africa, have proven that they do not feel the moral imperative to act on the behalf of simple human dignity alone; only proving that its leadership is of a similar kinship. Denying him would be denying themselves.

The considerable influence, not to mention moral and spiritual authority, of the Catholic Church and its leaders may be the only thing standing in the way of Mugabe. At this critical point in the country's history, these brave souls who are already in the thick of this struggle for freedom need all of the support and guidance that they can get. It is only right, indeed only moral, that the church's doctrine of resistance to oppression not lay solely on the square of the shoulders of the laity, but on those of pontiff as well.

There need not be martyrs, just the belief in the eternal righteousness of human liberty and the desire to see it made. In this, the church can help Zimbabwe save itself.

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The Middle East's new democratic model

Filed under: Africa ~ Middle East

Mauritania's military coup in 2005 yielded widespread international condemnation from all quarters of the globe. The United States, for example, unleashed a barrage on the junta by stating, "We oppose any attempts by rogue elements to change governments through extra-constitutional or violent means." Such statements were not only premature at best, but completely baseless and hypocritical at worse. The junta of colonels had just overthrown a tyrant that had himself curbed all constitutional laws, released hundreds of political prisoners ordered into jail by said tyrant, and promised a return to democracy under a more transparent constitutional system with a reinvigorated civil society. This was an opportunity, not a setback. And as the months pressed on, it became readily apparent that the promised reforms were underway with the inclusion of all segments of society.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, reforms have come to a halt in all but the most rapidly liberalizing countries. The hope brought by Iraqi elections has burned out for now, leaving the region's dictators legitimately ruling under the popular fear the democracy will breed civil war. Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is being crushed by the overbearing Syrian security state and Iran's imperialist ambitions. Egypt is cracking down hard on Islamic and secular activists alike. Algeria is effectively doing away with term limits for its very own strongman. The list goes on and on. Once sought after, the holy grail of a democratic and liberal Islamic world has disappeared out of reach.

Except for Mauritania. But you wouldn't know that because the media hasn't been reporting on its astounding moves toward democracy.

Mauritanian women stand in line to cast their ballots in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Sunday, March 11, 2007. Men in flowing white and ochre robes lined up under the light of the moon at voting booths Sunday with hopes that whoever wins Mauritania's first presidential election since a coup two years ago will not plunge the country back into totalitarian rule. Courtesy: Associated Press

A new constitution developed through the inclusion of all of society's major groups was widely approved. Just as we may be seeing some of today's leaders around 30 years from now, this new constitution guarantees that presidential terms will be limited to two five-year terms. They must also swear to Allah that they will not try to change this law. The legislative branch and judiciary have also been strengthened relative to the president -- good news for a loose opposition coalition that garnered 41 of 90 seats in parliament. The country is hosting an open presidential debate. Civil and political society have strengthened greatly without government interference. The rise of radical Islam is now on the decline.

This month's presidential election is the real test, though. Out of twenty candidates running, none had a majority in the first round, which means that a runoff will be held in just less than two weeks now.

For continuity and stability's sake, the military has favored Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi even though his opponent, opposition candidate Ahmed Ould Daddah, is neck'n'neck with him. But what current government would not prefer that a certain candidate win? What matters is what they are doing about it, and up until now, the election process has been regarded as totally peaceful, transparent, and with every attempt to make it as fair as possible.

In fact, Reporters Without Borders, hardly an uncritical institution, had this to say about the first round of the presidential election: Presidential campaign being covered fairly by public media. Eghad! Is that milk that just flew out of my nose? And while RWB says that media coverage of the junta's favored candidate has been skewed, it admits that it is largely due to the amount of former candidates defecting to him which results in more media coverage. Aside from that, other imbalances have been corrected. Furthermore, there has been no intimidation of candidates or restrictions to their or their supporters' ability to speak and act freely.

How often does this happen in the Islamic world?

This isn't to say that Mauritania is a shining bright spot on the world. It's one of the only places in the world where slavery is still practiced to a large degree; racism has historically been extreme. Economic and cultural liberalization have been slow to take hold and in most cases outright suppressed since independence.

Yet politically, Mauritania is becoming generations ahead of its neighbors in the rest of Africa and the Middle East. The development of a more democratic system, complete with free elections and a newly found spirit of civil and political society, has clearly put the country on the path of liberalization. Its people will be able to drag themselves out of the same spiral of repression under backwater dictatorships that is only intensifying elsewhere.

While the media may not be paying attention to these historic developments, you can bet that regimes from Zimbabwe to Iran are paying attention. Mauritania's transition to democracy is predicated on a split by the country's own military with the government's corrupt officials, rather than an all out intervention from Western forces. They acted as a temporary stabilizing force rather than a new tyrant. The transition is therefore wholly its own rather than one overseen and partially illegitimized by a foreign power.

If successful, Mauritania's experiment will prove to be a landmark and precedent for other countries to follow. It shows one way that democracy can potentially be established while also stemming the rise of radical Islam. Most of all, it shows that democracy itself is not a dead idea and must be taken seriously by democrats and dictators alike. Iraq may have turned many off, but Mauritania's successes show that such reforms can work.

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