Memory, Religion, and Authoritarianism in Post (1994)-Genocide Rwanda
Keywords:authoritarianism, collective memory, cultural memory, religion, trauma, Rwanda
This article attempts to theorise governmental efforts of the Kagame regime to construct a common national identity that precariously hinges on the adoption of an official revisionist history. Guided by Jan Assmann’s theory of cultural memory and Maurice Halbwachs’ collective memory, it may be argued the government’s official narrative of Rwanda’s idyllic history is a strategy for securing Rwanda’s future by linking it to an ancestral past. This narrative is largely supported by museums and the frozen memories of Tutsi returnees — to the exclusion of competing narratives — as materialised and publicly disseminated through traditional dances and tandemly pursued through private spaces through infiltration and closure of churches and mosques. However, per Rebekah Phillips DeZalia, a new version of history must successfully replace the former in the personal narratives of the people and not simply control public discourse through a top-down approach. Hence, the Kagame regime is also utilising a bottom-up strategy of infiltrating day-to-day, intimate spaces — one of which is religious spaces by both exploiting and curbing religious influence, appropriating religious language, and referencing the divine right of kings — all which are designed to sustain public confidence in the possibility of post-1994 genocide reconciliation and to realise Kagame’s vision of a unified and prosperous Rwanda. The regime’s strategy involves inverting the overall passage of personal memory to collective memory to history as well as repressing memory in official memorials by excluding narratives that contradict or do not legitimise the Kagame regime’s agenda. This tandem manipulation and suppression of memory is aided by the aggressive campaign of church and mosque infiltrations as well as closures, respectively, which may be functionally understood using Thomas Luckmann’s notions of invisible religion (Rwandan government) as competing with visible religions (Christianity and Islam). These government strategies are detrimental to the trauma-coping potential of visible religions and undermines reconciliation — highlighting the fragile architecture of Kagame’s authoritarian vision for peace.