Neither ethnicity nor religion has any genetic basis. This confirms that there is nothing coded in any one ethnic or religious group that goes, “this human has to monopolize power and resources while that should be marginalized and silenced.” But the realities in our world are totally different. Social injustice that takes the form of monopolization of power and valued resources are so rampant and exist at a dangerous magnitude to the extent of amounting to discrimination, racism and sectarianism. I would put one question, a crude question but a relevant one: Should we accept such injustice as normal and do nothing to resist it?
No doubt, the quest for equality and social justice just brings a better end-result for the individuals, groups and for the society as a whole rather than just accepting the social injustice undoubtedly inherent in all societies. With this in mind, ending injustice and division by addressing the legacy of the past is the cornerstone of creating a shared future, whereas on the contrary, refusing to recognize the injustice is an important ingredient for dropping dialogue between different sections of a multi-cultural society. Refusal to recognize injustice and ignore the situation, as if it does not exist, would have far reaching negative consequences on a society as a whole. Could we imagine socio-economic progress in the absence of peace and stability?
It is sad to say that Muslims of my generation have never seen a single day of equality in pre-independent and post-independent Eritrea in all walks of life: education, justice, job opportunities, economic, political, military power, etc. The absence of social justice in the post-independence period is more glaring and devastating in terms of its scope and the depth of the frustration of our people who had expected Post-Independence Eritrea to transform fully into a totally peaceful, stable and prosperous society where colonial segregation ends and a shared future is created for everyone. What has this injustice done so far to our country? What has it generated? This is a question that deserves a separate treatment but we can say in sum that it excluded the Muslim part in ways that deny their existence, devalued their contributions in the national struggle for independence, which they began and led until the eruption of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, and trivialized their aspirations to participate in the re-construction of the over 30-year war-ravaged country as full-fledged members of the society. Furthermore, it has distorted the political perceptions and values of the Eritrean society, severely damaged our reputation as a country and people, and left the country deeply wounded. How nasty, shameful and spiteful is it for the “national government” to continue the colonial policy of reducing 50% of the Eritrean population to second class citizens? This does not mean that the regime is favorable towards the second half of the Eritrean people but it is a matter of comparison. The shocking statistics attached to the Eritrean Covenant have said it all. However, the man is a total disgrace for all of us, Muslims and Christians alike. He will leave behind a very big mess which the people will be have to clean up for generations to come.
Should we stick our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is well. How can we live in permanent peace while this irrationality persists? Is there anybody who would think that the persistence of this situation will not be an obstacle to progress? If anybody thinks that way, then he/she would be plain dishonest. It is for this reason that we opt to speak openly about our concerns and the necessity of building a better country for our children in which they would live in permanent peace and harmony with their brothers and sisters of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Like any Muslim and Christian, I aspire that my children live in future Eritrea where they feel equal in their accessibility to all resources of the nation, including civil rights and political power. My children should not have to look over their shoulders all the time, just like I did the whole of my life.
Of course, belonging to one ethnic or religious group is not a sin. It is, on the contrary, a great pride and a national asset. But planting dangerous roots for sectarianism in the country, as the dictatorial regime did, is the greatest sin of all. Differences in our society must cease to be barriers. Difference must be recognised, appreciated and celebrated. This is the way we can build a genuinely shared future. Where should we begin? The authors of the Eritrean Covenant undertook the first real initiative for us by producing a document which could hopefully serve as a breakthrough and lead us toward a genuinely shared future.
The Muslim intellectuals who authored the Eritrean Covenant aspired to a new Eritrea where tolerance, respect for cultural and religious diversity, equality and justice are the foundations of the relationship of our different communities. They showed their keenness to see a secure, safe, stable and shared Eritrea where any isolation, exclusion and monopolization of power and resources are totally removed. This does not mean obliterating all signs of difference and diversity but it rather means developing a respectful relationship among our different ethnic and religious communities. I am justified to assume that the authors of the document look forward to grow bigger and spread their ideas, in an attempt to reach every Eritrean citizen who is eager to live in pride and dignity. The most pressing question is: Does this document drift us apart or create a unique opportunity for our different ethnic and religious communities to work together and achieve a common goal? I will leave this question for every Eritrean to answer. Though I have few points to share, before that, I would say that what the document is asking is to remove all of those discriminatory barriers discussed in detail and substantiated with shocking statistical data that took the form of attachments. Is this unfair to ask by 50% of the Eritrean population?
The document separates religion from political life. It integrates the notion of belonging to a political nation. Here it strikes a balance whereby what people hold dear is not threatened but is firmly kept away from matters of the state. That is why it declares that the state is secular. At this point, the document was keen to address the thorny question of the relationship of state and religion by recommending their separation. This definitely stems from the realization that we can only be strong and successful if we have a shared future, and to ensure that, we have to eradicate at all levels, all possible loopholes that could lead to any division. This way, the authors of the document showed their awareness that the country needs a government that works, not one that limps from crisis to another and stalemate to stalemate.
Islam, like all religions, is a fairly flexible phenomenon, capable of many different interpretations. Nevertheless, unfortunately, many people believe that there is something inherently wrong with Islam that makes it more prone to violence and terrorism. This came out of the distorted understanding of the religion while some misguided Muslims might have contributed towards that distortion too. Furthermore, we cannot deny that it is also a product of a political agenda on the part of some circles that keep raising these issues and manipulate them. Did the Eritrean Covenant say that it wants to produce a carbon copy of the 7th Century Caliphate or a government similar to that of the “Swat Valley” to which a highly respected opposition politician was reported to have referred? I believe that our politicians should always be especially sensitive in making such statements that could show the knowledge they have, about the people they lived with since their birthday and aspire to lead, is desperately deficient, and cast doubt on the love they have for their people. If this was really said, how are these politicians going to face the people they equated to primitive tribes, whose habitat is just beginning to undergo change from donkey to motorized transport? If this was really said, how justified is this analogy by an intellectual who lived the whole of his life among his Muslim kith and kin, knows the reality of Islam in Eritrea in its past and present context? If it was really said, I will call it “a friendly fire” and pass, hoping that it would be a learning experience for everybody.
I would expect that some would ask: Why the Eritrean Covenant was published at this particular time? To me, this is the time in which we are standing at a major junction in our nation’s future because the dictatorial regime is on its death bed. This is to say that it is necessarily now that we have a massive choice to make. Should we choose the path of sectarianism and have the same Eritrea but without Dictator Isaias or the path that ensures a shared future for all citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds? In a nutshell, the timing is perfect: it is either now or never at all. This is the best way to start from day one a new era of shared future in which decision making and decision enforcing should be the duties of every citizen.
One of the key questions to be raised is: What is the opposition’s vision or action plan on reviewing this Muslim initiative for shared future? This is what the Eritrean Democratic Alliance has to answer. But I can say, with full certainty, that the Eritrean Covenant is an acid test for the opposition, as individual organizations and as Eritrean Democratic Alliance, if they want to find greater cross-community acceptability. The Muslims are definitely seeking assurances from the opposition on a shared future and dealing with the legacy of the past. To that effect, the opposition politicians should know that they cannot duck the concerns of 50% of the population any longer. The challenge for them now is to move away from petty squabbling and posturing, and take ownership of the process initiated by the authors of the Eritrean Covenant. People are eagerly waiting to see comments endorsing the principles of a shared future and the need to build a shared society from the opposition leaders and highland intellectuals, a fact we have not seen yet but hopefully it would come soon.
It is also important to note that why don’t we see our highland brothers and sisters well-known on this forum for their contributions getting down to this real issue, is the most common plea among the Muslim community in and outside the country. This earnest plea is the result of a strong zeal to put all aspects of a divided society behind us once and for all. I am sorry to say that averting our eyes and at same time promising to get around to the matter when the conditions are “right”, cannot be the right strategy. Some are fully justified to see it as an evasion. The problem is not a Muslim problem. It is a national one. “Where has the empathy gone when it comes to the injustice this document presents?” I would ask. Are we disturbed that these vital issues are raised?
I am honestly sorry if I was a bit mean somewhere, but it is a constructive criticism from a citizen, and it should be taken with a piece of salt. This is a national effort and we all have a part to play. It is our highland brothers and sisters who can make the biggest difference. The document set our common ground; not “fighting ground”. Let us discuss it and give it its final shape so that we could go the last mile and enjoy it. If we believe in justice and equality, no citizens should shy away from nagging “Where is our share?” We have to fight to rip off injustice and the monopolization of power from its roots, if we want Eritrea to become a country for all its citizens.