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Religion and citizenship in modern Africa

An AHRC funded project led by Dr Felicitas Becker and Dr Joel Cabrita


We are used to thinking of citizenship as something conferred by states, implying very specific, formalised rights and obligations on the recipients. In this sense, citizenship was limited to a privileged few in many parts of the world until the dissolution of empires and the formation of new nation states in the mid-twentieth century. But despite the rarity of legal citizenship in colonial empires, African colonial territories were alive with groups that sought to establish one or another kind of belonging in the places where the dramatic social changes that preceded and accompanied colonisation had deposited them. African actors often drew on religious languages, Christian and Muslim as well as indigenous ones, and on stories of migration that asserted that foreign origins were an asset, not a shortcoming. The proposed network starts with the view that these eclectic, improvised ways of claiming belonging and entitlement, as well as the vigorous debates between and amongst claims-makers, can also be viewed as forms of citizenship. The network holds that this investigation will be most fruitful if it includes Africa as well as those places in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans that Africa has interacted with in the modern period.



The network therefore proposes an innovative trans-regional and trans-oceanic approach to the study of how twentieth century non-elite Africans made and imagined their identities as citizens, a process that the network locates under the highlight notice of ‘Translating Cultures’. The network draws inspiration from a growing scholarship which focuses upon interaction across oceans in understanding political and social processes in Africa. In recent decades, Africanist scholars have begun to consider the importance of the ‘Atlantic World’, exploring the consequences of the transit and traffic of people, ideas and goods from and to Africa across the Atlantic. More recently, they have also turned to the study of the circulation of workers, traders, religious leaders and written texts through the Indian Ocean, and to chart their impact on political, social and religious identities on the shores they touched. But so far these two groups of scholars have operated independently of each other. This network seeks to clear away disciplinary and conceptual boundaries by bringing together Africanist scholars concerned with similar processes within both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. We are also concerned with the history of migration in the colonial period and after, and with the study of religious claims-making in a globalising age. The proposed network forms part of the on-going effort to break down the boundaries between history and the neighbouring disciplines of anthropology and religious studies, and to break out of the conceptual as well as geographic ‘boxes’ of colonial territory, and the post-colonial nation-state.


The network is premised also on the conviction that the study of ‘languages of citizenship’ is relevant beyond the academy. In today’s trans-national world, and particularly in Britain’s multi-faceted diasporic constituency, idioms drawn from many sources not automatically identified as political, such as religious traditions and migration narratives, play an important public role. Moreover, in both Africa and its diaspora, politics does not merely operate through formal, state channels; informal affiliations and loyalties influence citizens’ conceptions of belonging. Understanding these forces is crucial to policy makers, public educators and grassroots communities, in Africa, as well as to those in the UK concerned with relations with Africa, and African migrants in the UK. The academics in this network will cooperate with relevant charities and think-tanks to convey their insights to practitioners. Network participants will open their research to wider public engagement by providing a platform for speakers who straddle the divide between academics and practitioners, and by disseminating their activities through electronic and ‘virtual’ media.

For questions on this project please contact Felicitas Becker,, or Joel Cabrita,  


Drs Becker and Cabrita would like to thank CRASSH for the workshop funding that they provided.