Skip navigation

Religion and the Rise of Africa

Rise of Africa
Amy S. Patterson


The September 2013 terrorist attack by al-Shabaab on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, heightened the world’s awareness of the role of religion in sub-Saharan Africa. When members of the Islamic terrorist organization, which controlled large swaths of Somalia from the late 1990s until recently, stormed shops and killed patrons and shopkeepers, they attacked symbols of consumerism, globalization, and Western influence. Indeed, most shoppers were either expatriates or middle- and upper-class Kenyans. Yet, while al-Shabaab’s actions generated media attention, they also contributed to a simplistic understanding of religion in Africa that paints religion as violent, primitive, and anti-Western. These assumptions depict religion as a new force in African security, politics, and development. As this article illustrates, these portrayals misrepresent reality. As actors with perceived legitimacy in society, religious leaders and institutions play complicated and diverse roles in Africa, from mobilizing parishioners for conservative social policies to negotiating peace agreements.