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Value under threat

Commenting on the current situation of Muslim-Orthodox tension, Girma Beshah, senior journalist and media personality, says the tension should not be allowed to assume a proportion any more than it has already. Here is the full text of the article taken from the February 5, 2009 edition of Ethiopian Weekly Press Digest, a publication that Girma himself edits.

Recent incidents of communal unrest in some parts of the country are hitting the front pages of the nation’s weeklies. Unmistakable signs that we are at a critical stage of our history are there for everyone to see.
Reading the papers and listening to the daily radio broadcast would hardly give one an insight into what exactly has happened in Dire Dawa or Gonder. Inevitably we have to rely on hearsay or rumors for a better grasp of the communal incident in Dire Dawa or else where. Whether we like it or not, however, significant events are unfolding in Ethiopia’s inter-religious relations. We don’t realize or perhaps we don’t want to realize that the religious landscape in Ethiopia has changed dramatically. For what ii is worth, the recently published figure of the population and housing census gave us an idea of what are in quantifiable terms. The data drove home the reality that we are after all much less than we thought we were and in cases much more than we thought we were.
Accepting a new reality, particularly if that reality is an uncomfortable one, is not easy. I recall the of the honorable member of the House of people’s representatives who startled up and said no to the census figure which slashed the estimated population size of her regional state by more than two million. Oblivious of the fact that the census was commissioned by her party and likely to be endorsed by it, the MP called that a recount be undertaken In that region. Difficult though it may be, accepting reality is an exercise we cannot do without. Accepting reality is not merely accepting the shuddering reality of figures as in the above case but also the reality of facts.
Ethiopia is a pluralistic society par excellence: think, linguistic, religious, political reality. We should never lose sight of this basic reality. It is a reality which should underpin our aspiration for a harmonious society adhering to civilized social and economic norms.
The much-vaunted religious tolerance of Ethiopians has not been a mere rhetoric after all. Orthodox, Muslim, Protestant and roam catholic Ethiopian peacefully coexisted and observed the rule of mutual tolerance. But that was in the days when tolerance as such was relatively irrelevant to the Ethiopian context. It was a society back in the forties and fifties when a situation of imbalance prevailed in which Islam and Protestantism were the faiths of the minority groups. It was situation where the government of the day recognized open and closed areas where protestant missionaries could and could not evangelize. It was a time when petty Muslim traders, main agents of the spread of Islam, did not make significant inroads into the major urban areas of the country. I believe that the religious tolerance we have prided ourselves on should be revisited. It proved its worth at a point of time when tolerance posed little or no challenge to the mainstream belief.
Tolerance proves defying in condition of socio-religious equilibrium, where rivalry for ascendancy is inevitable and that one or more groups is increasingly self-assertive.
I believe we are precisely at the stage where religious plurality has become a meaningful reality in this country. we are a t a point where enabling constitutional atmosphere facilitated the work of religious groups: Evangelization and Islamization of the society. Obviously, the scramble for followers might involve friction among and between religious protagonists. In the case of Ethiopia, we are beginning to feel the pinch of that friction, mainly between Orthodox and Muslim communities.
The friction, which manifested itself in isolated clashes, was serous enough to spur the law enforcement body into action. While chiding both parties for what it was thought acts of provocation and appealed for restraint, the state law enforcement wing did not mince its words in issuing stern warning against acts which might be viewed to be disturbing public order. No less concerned is the community at large about the religious militancy which was at the root of much of the provocative acts which, at least for some, were no different than a brazen flexing of the muscles. I am more than certain that the current situation of Muslim-orthodox tension will not be allowed to assume a proportion any more than it has already. We are certain that religious leaders will crank up their respective traditional peace-making mechanism with which first and foremost to appraise their own pattern of behavior and then their behavior vis-à-vis one another. A quest for peace and communal harmony should be conducted with the awareness that peace means development and development means riding ourselves from poverty.
Finally, I view the on-going tension as nothing more than the birth pang of a new order of religious plurality based on mutual tolerance, equality before the law and the right and freedom of each religious leaders are willing and capable of working towards communal peace should constitute the midwifery with which to render the birth of the new order relatively painless.

Categories: Comment
  1. Mekonen
    February 10, 2009 at 9:16 am

    A well-thought and well-written article.
    As a person living outside the country, I was all at sea about this new talk of religious conflict in Ethiopia.
    It is a little hard to find a balance a somber and balanced reflection on the subject. Some websites have their own version of events unfolding but the major ones hardly raise the issue. Their only concern is demonizing Woyane, which clearly show how they are clearly cut off fro the real issue that is troubling most Ethiopians. I would not be exaggerating if I say the first article that says this provides gist of events, feeling attitudes concerning the issue. But of course religion is a very sensitive issue and the very attempt of analyzing it could e a precarious affair.
    While I am not against raising and discussing the issue the way we go about it should be carefully thought. Religious is an intricate thing for which logical analysis do not always provide the picture.

  2. SM
    February 10, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I came across this article posted on http://www.tecolahagos.com and thought it might be relevant to this discussion. Keep up the good work. Sol.

    A Case of Misdirected Zeal
    Mitiku Adisu

    Every society has its vocal minority. However, not every vocal minority has a legitimate cause or is for common cause. Some are thoroughly misguided and do not represent the consensus view. Often facts are purposely distorted to give a sectarian agenda the appearance of universality in order to sway and enlist the unsuspecting and the ill-informed. There is a potential danger in allowing a situation like this to fester. One effective way to fight uninformed zeal is, therefore, to shine light on the source, to educate, and to mobilize like-minded groups with the goal of generating a public debate. In other words, it is imperative that we bring facts to bear on dark recesses of our collective thoughts and action. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” [John 1: 5]

    It is in this vein that I would like to engage the current religious situation in Ethiopia. Despite the fact that the Constitution is clear on the separation of Church and State, it has been the case that the State would not leave the Church alone. Even worse, Church and State have continued to thrive, at times, on an unholy and symbiotic relationship. The current government and its predecessor both overreached in appointing the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Conversely, the Church was not organized or reformed enough [for lack of a fearless and graceful leader] to defend her autonomy, to dispense a bridge-building role or to provide moral guidance to a confused and scattered flock. Second, the most recent military intervention in Somalia and the growing rhetoric in the name of fighting “Islamic extremists” during the Bush/Blair years is beginning to make Ethiopian Muslims nervous. Ironically, there is no agreement on the precise meaning of the label “extremist” and even worse, Ethiopian authorities have now welcomed the “extremist” Sheik Sharif they were hunting down just a few weeks ago as the new president of Somalia. Are Ethiopian authorities playing double role?

    At roughly a third of the population Ethiopian Muslims outnumber or almost equal Muslims in Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Eritrea. Third, government officials as well as religious leaders have both deliberately and inadvertently made statements that were contrary to and unsupported by their respective faith traditions or offices. Fourth, the whole idea of a “secular” Ethiopian state has been unrealistic and unrealizable in that, unlike the West or even India, for example, a history for such a state hardly existed. Indiscriminately adopting a Western Constitution and its democratic institutional sensibilities where the requisite economic and informational infrastructures are barely in place may do more harm than good in the short term.

    The locus of religious conflicts is not always tied to a particular event or period. It is rather cumulative and not infrequently a product of short-sighted policy. Religious conflicts are at present on the rise because of a politically-charged open-ended language policy. In poverty-racked nations a weak center could be a harbinger for the kind of anarchy we’ve been witnessing lately. Increase in conflicts was also due to a misguided notion that civil strife could be quelled by direct action, i.e., the use of force. There is also the mistaken assumption that problems self-regulate or could be played down in the hope that they will go away, only to wake up to the grim reality that problems in fact self-propagate. Probably more disconcerting is the fact that the Ethiopian government is more often than not viewed with suspicion in matters pertaining to religion; religion is being inflamed by ethnicity, and vice versa, and resentment is leading to verbal and physical assaults.

    The announcement few weeks ago of a 2007 Population and Housing Census continues to generate heated discussion. Badr International Ethiopian Muslims Association almost immediately put out a statement rejecting the veracity of the report. What is revealing about the Badr statement is that the Association is not itself immune to charges it leveled against “extreme” groups who also said the report was biased and unrepresentative of the size of their members.

    Just last week during Timqat festivities many Orthodox faithful were observed wearing T-shirts bearing statements like: “I will not relinquish the heritage of my forefathers” [my translation] probably referring to border areas allegedly ceded to Sudan; or as one website pithily put it: Tewahdo = Ethiopia; Ethiopia = Tewahdo. The problem with the latter formula is two-fold. First, it out rightly denies the reality that people have both private and public reasons and the freedom to believe or not believe what they choose. Second, it negates the spirit of the Christian gospel in that inciting hatred cannot be reconciled with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, we need not fuss over “Ethiopia is a Christian island” because it is so when viewed in its historical and regional context. To put it another way, “Ethiopia is a Muslim island” will not elicit a similar sentiment.

    It is unfortunate that communicants in the Orthodox Church are not receiving a positive teaching and are being deceived by those who have a rather sectarian agenda. These see fanaticism in others but are themselves intolerant and disrespectful of the rights of others. Lastly, one observes the Orthodox faithful are increasingly being restricted to specific ethnic groups [regionally, to 95.6% of population in Tigray and to 82.5% in Amhara; and ranging from less than 1% to a third in the remaining regions; see 2007 Census] in the process contradicting the divine agenda of making the gospel accessible to each person in his/her own language and locale. This simple truth is often overlooked with disturbing and far reaching consequences.

    For the Orthodox Church to regain her vitality she must get down to preaching the unadulterated gospel of the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus Christ, stop negative campaigning [as in equating those who turn to Christ outside her fold with those who convert to Islam], and work hard to not give the appearance of being tied to a particular ethnic group or to uninformed patriotic sentiments. The latter requires reaching people where they are in the language they can understand and treating them with the respect they deserve. Here I am only reiterating, in all humility, a universal truth that has sustained the Church of Christ through centuries of opposition and distraction. In the end, one simply cannot hate people into the Kingdom of God.

    It is not unhealthy to feel patriotic. Patriotism that merely turns inwards and shies away from facing the cold truth is, however, unhealthy and a danger to the body politic. Christianity is not necessarily an offshoot of patriotism no matter how one defined the term. It was mainly because the Apostles of Christ [especially Peter and Paul] were brought to the realization that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” [Galatians 3:28] that they were able to transcend a limiting Hebrew nationalistic and racial world-view. Obviously, someone’s patriotism could be another’s ethnic superiority or just plain old hatred. Uninformed patriotic zeal was what led many US evangelicals to side a government policy that endangered the lives of minority Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq and left many others confused.

    The worsening religious situation in Ethiopia is further aggravated by less than credible missionary groups who need a fantastic story line to raise funds and/or play the “numbers game.” For example, the statement that “Ethiopia is a predominantly Muslim nation” [though the reality is 61% Christian and 33% Muslim] is preferred in order to mobilize zealous groups than if one stuck to the facts alone. Hence, Philip Jenkins’ report that there is an unprecedented numerical growth in churches in Africa [Ethiopia, etc], though true, should be tempered by the fact that an aspect of that report is a result of preaching a strange and rapacious “prosperity” gospel that has created unrealizable expectations at the cost of becoming true disciples of Christ.

    What could be done?

    • Learn to adjust to the truth even when it may not be to your liking. Ethiopian Muslims are Ethiopians and not Arabs.
    • Religious leaders should handle such matters with little or no outside intervention – not even from the government.
    • Intellectuals should refrain from making inflammatory and reactive remarks and instead take a proactive stance to educate themselves as well as the public. In case of arson, there is no use arguing who struck the angry match; the sober thing to do would be to put out the tiny flame before it grew to consume everything in its path.
    • Groups opposed to the government should refrain from using religion to further their political adventures.
    • Missionary advocacy groups and Ethiopian Christians living abroad should do well to tone down their rhetoric and instead pray for Ethiopian religious leaders to be able to work it out the best they could.
    • The next generation has to be allowed to come up with creative ways to deal with issues of the day; the present generation may not be of much help in this endeavor – other than perhaps polluting the pond with unmannered discourse and destructive agendas.
    • A productive balance must be struck in regard to diversity. “Diversity” is the most abused political term in that it continues to be suppressed or manipulated by successive Ethiopian rulers – perhaps more so by one than the other. The minority government should stop “democractizing’ religion the same way it tried to democratize ethnicity. The difference is that in the former one could change one’s religious outlook [as some of my readers have done by leaving the Orthodox Church to adopt atheism, Islam or Protestant practices. I might add, it is none of our business to complain why this is so.] In the latter, one cannot change one’s ethnic origins without experiencing an identity crisis.
    • The current government thus far failed to comprehend three destructive realities: a) by promoting a misguided ethnic policy and openly displaying hatred for difference [Amharas and Amharic language, for instance] it has inadvertently dug its own cultural grave; b) ethnic policy has had a direct consequence in the split and declining membership within the Orthodox Church. Now as never before the religious fault-line has widened requiring us to work hard to narrow it. Present concern within the Orthodox community is legitimate except it is misinformed and misdirected. Leaders are looking for a scapegoat everywhere else but within their own circle. The laity needs to be awakened to this fact; c) the fact that political leaders and intellectuals delight themselves in imported views on religion must concern us all. Such a view invariably leads to underestimating the issue and/or making wrong prescriptions.
    • At this juncture only a proactive stance could identify the problem and possibly stop matters from spinning out of control. Ethiopian opinion leaders should work hard to create awareness and not cocoon themselves in neutrality. Neutrality, alas, is not synonym for impartiality.

    Copyright, February 4, 2009 by Mitiku Adisu
    All rights reserved

    Related articles by the same author:

    † Observations of the accidental Ethio-web surfer
    † The Rastaman cometh, so will 55 days of Lent
    † Of the “Opposition Pentecostals” and the Road Ahead
    † Who Speaks for Ethiopia and Why?

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