Bridging The Divide: Muslim and Christian Eritreans in Orange County
Introduction: The dominance of Tigrinya speaking Christians and their involvement in the various sectors of community-based, organizational activities representing Eritreans in Los Angeles, if not throughout the United States, make it appear as though Eritrea is a homogenous country composed predominantly of Tigrinya-speaking Christians (Woldemikael 1996; Hepner 2003). There are, however, minorities of Eritreans in the US who are Muslims and/or non-Tigrinya speakers. The largest concentration of Muslim Eritreans in the United States in the early to mid 1990s; numbering three hundred, was in Orange County, California. This article explores the formation of a group called Eritrean Student Relief Organization (ESRO), which emerged in 1992 to bridge a gulf that existed between Eritrean Muslims and Christians in this region of Southern California.
Comprised of Eritreans with diverse religious, ethnic, regional, and political ideologies, ESRO’s stated common purpose was to bring Eritreans of different religious and ethnic backgrounds together to engage in activities related to nation-building in their home of origin, Eritrea. Through an analysis of ESRO’s origins, functions, and demise in 1997, this article argues that the failure of this organization mirrors the failure of Eritreans in diaspora generally to define their relationship with one another and with institutions and organizations in Eritrea in ways that are meaningful for both of them. Using this case study, I aim to shed light on the factors that prevent Eritreans in diaspora from acting as agents in their own interests and creating long-lasting autonomous diasporic transnational institutions that reflect their desires and interests.
Review of Literature
The definitions of “diaspora” and “transnationalism” are highly contested (Werbner 2002; Kivisto 2003). Following Werbner (2002:251), I define diaspora as “communities of co-responsibility.” This definition recognizes not only the solidarity that specific diasporas feel across space and national boundaries, but also their existential connection with co-diasporas else-where or with their home country (Ibid). Transnationalism is commonly defined as “the process by which immigrants build social fields that link together their country of origin and their country of settlement” (Basch et al 1994:1). There have been a few ethnographic and historical studies addressing transnational processes among Eritreans in Sudan, Canada and the US, Italy, Germany and England (al-Ali, Koser, and Black 2001a, b; Bernal 2004; Compton 1998; Kibreab 1987a; 1991; 1996b, c, d; 2000a; McSpadden and Moussa 1993; Sorenson 1993; Woldemikael 1998, 2002; Hepner 2003, 2004). While most of them have focused on Eritreans in diaspora before independence and statehood, Hepner (2003, 2004) and al-Ali et al (2001a, b) have dealt directly with post-independence Eritreans.
In their comparative study of Bosnians and Eritreans in the Netherlands, Germany and England, al-.Ali, Black, and Koser (2001a) characterized the Eritrean state as successful in engaging the energies of the diaspora in contrast to that of Bosnia. They consider the Eritrean case an example of successful mobilization among an immigrant population, because Eritreans have maintained strong links with their families, friends, and the state of Eritrea. They also rather uncritically assert that the Eritrean state has taken steps to institutionalize transnational activities, particularly during the 1998-2001 border conflict with Ethiopia (2001a: 584-585). They argue that the success of Eritrea’s efforts contrasts with the failures of other states to mobilize their diasporic populations, including immigrants from El Salvador, Columbia, Mexico and Haiti presently living in other countries (Basch et al 1994; Landolt et al 1999; Guarnizo et al 1999; Roberts et al 1999; Glick-Schiller and Fouron 1999). In spite of their positive assessment of Eritrean emerging transnationalism, al-Ali et al (2001 a, b) nonetheless caution that this represents “enforced transnationalism,” noting that in recent years the Eritrean diaspora has been resisting the state’s demands by increasingly refusing to follow state-initiated transnational programs and activities. ‘What these researchers fail to appreciate is how individuals and organizations at the grassroots have attempted to create alternative ways of engaging in transnational activities, but have been stifled by the Eritrean state and its organizational apparatus abroad. This organizational apparatus, originally set up to mobilize Eritreans in exile during the nationalist war of independence, started in the form of student movements and later become mass organizations of the EPLF (Woldemikael 2002; Hepner 2004, see also this volume).
Tricia Redeker Hepner, based on her ethnographic study of Eritreans in Chicago, found that the Eritrean transnational social field was “an arena of power where the Eritrean state and its diasporic subjects struggled over meaning, belonging,and authority” (Hepner 2003: 278). She observed that Eritreans in diaspora were internally divided and their community activities were irregular and troubled. She attributed the difficulties to several internal and external factors. Internal factors included the small size of the community, its invisibility in the local immigrant landscape, weak connections to American institutions, and internal fragmentations over politics and identity. External factors consisted mainly of problems caused by the transnational relationship between Eritreans in diaspora with the Eritrean state. Hepner observed that Eritrean diasporacommunities in the US have increasingly drawn on religion as a basis for building community and national identity, and argued that religious identity and practices tend to mitigate against fractured political identities in diaspora (2003:269). Moreover, she noted that religion is “transnationally reconfiguring Eritrean nationalism according to complex engagements with American society and the exigencies of Eritreanexperience” (Ibid). She suggested that the “diaspora churchesrepresent part of Eritrean transnational civil society … whose incipient institutionalization helps insulate them from the state’s intervention by creating a more depoliticized, autonomous space from the ruling regime’s hegemonic, deterritorialized power“ (Hepner 269-270).
In contrast to the community in Chicago, which seemed tobe successful in making religion a basis for helping create community and national identity, the Eritrean Student Relief Organization (ESRO) in Orange County tried to create a bridgebetween Eritrean religious identities. Hepner’s study explored how religion provides a solution to the intervention of the state or “enforced transnationalism” and therefore becomes a safe place for interaction. The group I studied, however, saw itself as trying to transcend religion-based associations altogether. They saw religious identities as limiting their activities,especially in terms of making contributions to the newly emerging state of Eritrea. In what follows, I discuss the Islam-Christian divide and how Eritreans in Orange County, California bridged that gap, by bringing the religiously-divided Eritrean community into one and establishing a secular organization which respected the two religions equally. It documents why and how this effort came about and describes its purposes and achievements up until the organization’s final demise in 1997.
The Case Study: Eritreans in Orange County and its Surroundings
Eritreans in Southern California live scattered throughout Orange County and in the suburbs surrounding the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. Muslims and Christians tend to live apart from each other and have their own family and friend-ship networks. Muslims know one another either through friendship and school networks formed in Eritrea and/or from their travels in Sudan, Egypt or Saudi–Arabia, where religion isa major mode for organizing social life, prior to immigration to the US. Traveling to predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East increased Muslim Eritreans’ awareness that Islam is a powerful transnational presence in the world. Indeed, there have been some attempts to unify Muslim Eritreans into one group along religious lines, thus creating an Eritrean community based on religious identity. One such effort has been the Islamic Jihad Movement, which sought to mobilize Eritreans in Eritrea and in exile in order to overthrow the existing government and establish a Muslim state. These efforts failed largely because Muslim Eritreans are themselves internally divided into various ethnic and linguistic groups. Moreover, like their Christian compatriots, differences in back-ground and experience shaped their personalities and expectations of life in the US. Finally, most Eritrean Muslims are bothsecular and aware of the pluralism that predominates in Eritrea, which consists of nearly fifty percent Christians and fifty per-cent Muslims, and nine different ethnic groups.
The biography, migration history, and reasons for leaving Eritrea to resettle in the US were not altogether different for Muslim Eritreans in Orange County than they were for Christians. All came to the US because of the thirty-year war between Eritrean nationalists and the Ethiopian government, which ended in 1991. Most came as refugees following the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which allowed large numbers of Ethiopians and Eritreans to resettle in the US in the 1980s. A chain of migration developed as friends following other friends chose to stay in Orange County. Once they arrived in the US, however, Muslim Eritreans found themselves experiencing a reversal of social position. They found them-selves a minority within the exiled Eritrean minority; most felt alienated from the Christians who dominated the community and its leadership of the existing Eritrean organizations.
It should be noted that until the end of the independence war, various nationalist fronts were vying for power in Eritrea, and most Eritreans aligned with one or another that espoused their vision for independent Eritrea. While most Christians supported the dominant movement, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), most Muslims supported the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) or its various factions. With the successful defeat of the Ethiopian army in Eritrea in 1991, the EPLF transformed itself from a nationalist movement to a provisional government of Eritrea in 1991, and finally into the permanent government of Eritrea in 1993. In 1994, the People’s Front for Justice and Democracy (PFDJ) was formed, which has since dominated the political landscape of Eritrea as the only recognized political party.
Researchers have pointed out that immigrants’ economic, political and social relations pressure them to create social fields that cross international boundaries. This tends to occur especially when immigrants are confronted by social exclusion in both their countries of origin and destination, and also feel the need for family reproduction in the face of economic and political insecurity (Basch at el 1994). As Eritreans constructed their family lives in the US, they needed a community that transcended all pre-existing divisions. All Eritreans faced a common basis of alienation from the dominant white society: being foreign and black. As al-Ali, Black and Koser (2001a, b) found, however, there were divisions based on the political views of Eritrean in diaspora towards the government in Eritrea. In particular, many Muslim respondents perceived the Eritrean community structure in the United Kingdom to be dominated by Christians. This feeling of exclusion limited their desire to participate in community level activities, from charitable collections to cultural festivals (al-Ali et al 2001b:631). Similarly, many Eritrean Muslims in Orange County found themselves not only suffering from numerical minority status among the Christian majority in the US, but were also aware that the ELF, which had espoused their vision of national identity in Eritrea, had failed to achieve its goal. Although a few of the Muslims were sympathetic to the EPLF, most of the Muslims and some of the Christian participants of ESRO were not supporters of that front.
At the same time, as many Eritrean Muslims were exposed to Muslim societies in the Middle East and Africa, and participated in Islam-focused activities in the US, secular Muslim Eritreans came to realize they had more in common with secular Christian Eritreans who shared their national identity than they did with Muslims from other African and Arab countries. Therefore, Eritrean Muslims had to negotiate their relations with their Christians compatriots, who already maintained organized and institutionalized relationships with the government in Eritrea. In addition, they also had to negotiate their relationship with the nation being crafted by that government. Because of their clear minority status, Muslims found them-selves at a loss in how to continue identifying with their new nation, Eritrea, and with the Christian-dominated organizations that claimed the social fields and political spaces that were the only legitimate links between exiles and the nation state. Especially following the euphoria that accompanied Eritrean liberation from Ethiopia in May 1991, many Muslim Eritreans opted to connect and participate in the national re-construction and nation-building efforts by bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims. One such group committed to this goal was the Eritrean Student Relief Organization (ESRO) of Orange County.
The Story of ESRO
ESRO, based in Irvine, chose the name Eritrean Student Re-lief Organization because some of its members were students and former students of the University of California, Irvine. But its membership actually included both Eritrean students and working adults. Its status as a student organization provided ESRO the space to meet once a month and access to some resources at the university. The initiative to start the organization began with Eritrean Muslim residents of Orange County, some in their late twenties who were still finishing their studies and some who were freshly graduated members of the work force. They invited others to join them who were sensitive to the pluralistic cultural origins of Eritreans and were willing to work together for a common cause. They sought to prove to both Muslim and Christian skeptics in Orange County that such common ground could be a fundamental basis of participation. ESRO’s founders sought to construct an organization that accepted the cultural differences between the members as given and normal. As the founder and the first president of ESRO stated:
When we first started this organization (ESRO) wedidn’t know exactly where were heading. We didn’tnow what we wanted to do or how we could achieve it. But we all know that if we came together, and exchanged our ideas, we would comeup with something. And we did. Each one of us committed to put as much time as we could to overcome our differences and respect each other so that we could help the need in Eritrea: people who had been in a thirty years battle for independence from Ethiopia. Since we organized ourselves we sent some materials like Ultra Sound, gloves, scissor and telephones. Right now we are trying toget some aid from big companies. We are also trying to find easy way of shipment. In addition, we are making effort to get cheap medical equipments. This is not it. We want to do more and we can accomplish more if we get as many people as possible to get involved in this noble cause. Our numbers and capacity are limited. We need some inputand active participation from people around us. Let us be one community and voice our opinions together (Eritrocentric Newsletter 1993:2).
Aware that cultural differences could easily become politicized and fracture their efforts, the group focused on reconstruction and nation-building efforts and intentionally proclaimed its purpose as non-political. As the editor of ESRO’s newsletter stated, “We encourage non-political topics. We as Eritreans have long been engulfed by politics and I believe it is time for us to discuss other issues such as community matters, educational and other cultural and social issues” (Eritrocentric News-letter, January 1993:1). The statement implied that the group wanted to move away from the divide based on Muslim and Christian identities that have characterized politics in Eritrea and function instead as an organization that united the two groups and made meaningful contributions to the nation. In its newsletter, ESRO described its formation in the following way:
Eritrean Student Relief Organization is an independent student organization aimed at bringing Eritreans together to participate in the reconstruction effortsin Eritrea. With this spirit in mind, steps were taken to convey the message to other Eritreans. After making person to person contacts, a seminar washeld on May 17th, to explain the aims of ESRO. In addition two prominent scholars were invited to speak on their experiences in Eritrea. The speakers were Thomas Keneally, author of “Towards Asmara,“ and Roy Patemen, author of “Eritrea: Even the Stones are Burning.“ These two scholars,known for the support of the Eritrean cause, gaveeloquent speeches about the Eritrean struggle. Theyalso spoke on the necessity for a different kind ofstruggle in Eritrea today: peaceful economic reconstruction.
Even the name of ESRO’s newsletter, Eritrocentric, was deliberately chosen to indicate that every member was committing themselves to give the nation, Eritrea, priority over their religion, language, ideology and prior history of involvement in Eritrean political organizations.
The group met once a month in the cultural center at UCI from 1992 to 1997. The medium of communication of the meetings was Tigrinya, a language native to the majority of Christians, although most of them knew and spoke Tigre, the second major language in Eritrea. The group consisted of about twenty-five men and women in their late twenties and thirties and almost equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. The majority of the Muslims spoke Tigre as their first language. Some members spoke in Arabic, but rarely. The participants seemed to accommodate speaking in three languages, English, Tigrinya and Tigre. The women from both Christian and Muslim origins dressed in fashionable western style. One woman covered her head to indicate her devotion to Islam, while another dressed in traditional Tigrinya style. The women were not inhibited and participated equally with the men.
There was a genuine attempt to bridge the gap between Christians and Muslims, which included an emphasis on Eritrea’s shared popular urban culture and its social tolerance between Christians and Muslims. The group shifted focus from the cultural differences between Muslims and Christians by emphasizing the modern culture of equality between genders and individualistic self-expression. Members also avoided discussing sensitive and divisive political issues, for many of them had been sympathetic to ELF. Other members were ardent supporters of EPLF and maintained close connections with organizations in Los Angeles that served as a supervisory body to PFDJ. Part of the failure of these EPLF-affiliated organizations as unifying bodies can be traced to the lack of concerted efforts among the predominantly Christian leadership to bring local Muslim communities in Orange County into a pluralistic and multicultural organization. Instead, these leaders wanted everyone to participate as Eritrean nationalists who were organized under the hegemony of predominantly Christian leaders. Moreover, ESRO members feared that the relief assistance they provided would go to government preferred or controlled organizations and activities rather than directly to the civilian population. ESRO wanted to be an independent, non-governmental agency that reached people directly.
The organization, however, met with a number of problems. First, its members stayed small in number, not more than thirty people at most. Second, transportation problems and shortage of funds prevented ESRO from sending the materials it had gathered to Eritrea. It also lacked a way to access to civilian Eritreans without going through established organizations such as the Eritrean Relief Agency or others linked to the government. For example ESRO had wanted to support a hospital in Keren, which had only one doctor. The members collected and were prepared to send enough beds and stretchers to furnish the entire hospital, but gave up because of the financial, transportation, and bureaucratic problems.
The local organizations and offices under the control of the government of Eritrea in Los Angeles were clearly aligned with the ruling party in Eritrea, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). They saw it as their duty to conduct surveillance and intimidation of ESRO members in order to undermine the initiatives taken by ESRO, an organization out-side of their control. They utilized several strategies to under-mine the purpose and intent of ESRO. One method was spreading rumors among Eritreans in diaspora that ESRO was an Islamic organization and wanted to use religion as a basis for undermining the secularist aims of the Eritrean state and divide the Eritrean diaspora along religious lines. Another method was to label ESRO as an organization in opposition to the government of Eritrea. ESRO members were accused of using the organization as a cover for other opposition movements, such as ELF, which has long contested PFDJ’s hegemony on Eritrean politics.
A third problem was that the direct attempts of ESRO’s leaders to develop cooperative relations with both Eritrean government representatives in Washington DC and established Eritrean relief organizations, and yet maintain their independence, were frustrated. Instead, the leaders of ESRO were encouraged to work as local chapters of PFDJ, the ruling party in Eritrea. As Tricia Hepner (2003:278) found, “independent community organizations in Chicago existed in competitive tension with the two other secular institutions: the local chapters of the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (formerly the EPLF), both of which remain firmly within the transnational orbit of the Eritrean government.” ESRO members were also discouraged from making any attempts to connect to grassroots organizations without the blessings of local chapters of PFDJ, meaning that ESRO would lose its autonomy, and hence, its credibility among Muslims as an independent organization. The leaders were similarly asked to abandon their focus on relief and shift to securing materials for establishing resources for multimedia services in Eritrea that could help the state to communicate with its subjects using television and other means of mass communication. Finally, seminars sponsored by ESRO that addressed relief and health issues, such as HIV/AIDS in Eritrea, were seen as suspicious acts that undermined the development efforts by the government of Eritrea.
In short, by applying direct pressure on ESRO to work under the directives of PFDJ and using indirect sanctions like rumors about the motives and intentions of the organization, the agents of the Eritrean regime were able to effectively disempower ESRO. Slowly, ESRO weakened because of the pressures from the agents of the Eritrean government as well as its internal organizational weaknesses.
Similar to the Eritrean organizations Hepner studied in Chicago (2003; 2004), ESRO remained small and lacked active and consistent participation of members. Most of the responsibility fell on few members. With the departure of some of its key leaders to other parts of the US, the organization floundered into oblivion and formally ceased to exist in 1997.
On the positive side, ESRO opened new possibilities for friendship between Christians and Muslims by creating a safe place to build rapport and enduring trust among these different groups. It brought together independent-minded individuals who wanted to work together to bridge the religious divide that has been endemic in Eritrean communities abroad. ESRO was an organization of secular Muslims and Christians who created solidarity among each other by focusing their energies on the construction of a diaspora organization that was linked to other secular Eritreans at home and abroad who shared their yearning for a forward-looking, modern Eritrean nation-state. Further, they wanted to be active participants in realizing that vision. To that effect, ESRO members wanted to know each other, thereby breaking the boundaries that kept Muslims and Christians separate from one another. For many secular Eritreans, maintaining divisions based on ideological and organizational membership became unnecessary once the nationalist aspiration of independence was achieved.
Creating a group like ESRO was not a mean achievement, considering the deep historical roots of distrust between Muslims and Christians in the Horn of Africa. In fact, one can make the argument that religious affiliation has been an organizing principle of the social and political life in the Horn of Africa for centuries. That is, when a movement or regime wanted to organize and mobilize people to do something beyond their local village politics and ethnic concerns, framing the two major religions as opposite and antagonistic provided a powerful motivation. As a result, the two major religious groups maintain deep fears of domination and persecution at one another’s hands, leading to distrust of the religious Other at the core of shared religious identity. Such divisions and distrust have been effective tools in the construction of self-proclaimed Christian states like Ethiopia, or Islamic states like Sudan. Caught between these two, Eritrea has also played a role in the drama of religion and state in the region. Part of Eritrea’s own internal struggles, and those within the ELF and EPLF nationalist movements, has involved the question of how to transcend divisions based on language and religion and focus on constructing an Eritrean nation that can both play a role in the international arena and represent the interests of all Eritreans.
Eritreans in Orange County therefore wanted to establish a durable community of immigrants in the US. However, what constitutes a community is rarely clear. In this article, I define the concept of community as “aggregates of people who sharecommon activities and/or beliefs and who are bound together principally by relations of affect, loyalty, common values, and/ or personal concern (i.e., interest in the personalities and life events of one another)” (Brint 2001:8-9). Brint makes a typology of communities based on the following considerations:
the context of interaction, wherein he distinguishes geographic and choice-based communities; the primary motivation for interaction, distinguishing activity-from belief-based motivations; and the rates of interaction, which are predicated on ecological and motivational factors. The various combinations and permutations of these variables yield eight community sub-types: communities of place; communes and collectivities; localized friendship networks; dispersed friendship networks; activity-based elective communities; belief-based elective communities; imagined communities; and virtual communities.
ESRO could be characterized as an activity-based elective community, which in its short life became a community of dispersed friendship networks. The continuance of exile even after Eritrea’s independence made its members realize the needto redefine their relationship to the host society and build bothsolidarity and linkages with others from their region. The challenge for Eritreans in Orange County was to bridge the gap between different groups who had been fractured not only ac-cording to regional and political attachment, but most importantly, in terms of religion. By participating in ESRO, they felt they were contributing to a nation building project which lessened their sense of alienation, exile, and impotence. They wanted to participate in national reconstruction and not re-main outsiders in this important moment in Eritrean history. They were proud of their achievement and came to trust one another.
The Political and Social Context: The Emergence of a New Era
Nobody could anticipate the exuberance and good-will that Eritreans in diaspora displayed upon the 1991 successful de-feat of the Ethiopian regime by the Eritrean nationalist movement, represented by EPLF. Soon after, the question most Eritreans in diaspora asked was how to participate in the new state. The sudden collapse of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, and the emergence of the provisional government of Eritrea, changed the political landscape of Eritrea and the diaspora in profoundly new ways. Eritreans in diaspora were united by their desire to participate in nation-building, and gave EPLF a full mandate to form a government that would lead the nation. Even other liberation movements and con-tenders for power in Eritrea, like the Eritrean Liberation Front, enthusiastically declared their willingness to work towards the achievement of the nationalist agenda.
For its part, the new government adopted a position that allowed groups like ELF to join the nation-building process, not as organized groups but as individuals who could contribute to the building of the new state. Although some sectors of ELF opposed such a policy and wanted to negotiate power-sharing with the new regime, there was strong desire among most Eritreans in diaspora to participate in this new era. They were hoping the government would formulate mechanisms to facilitate their participation. The good-will that was extended to the newly formed provisional government of Eritrea was not limited to Eritreans only. There were many international organizations and agencies, mostly non-governmental organizations (NGOs), that offered their services to Eritrea in what-ever ways possible to help build the new nation.
The first weakness of the new regime appeared in its organizational incapacity to capitalize on the new support it was gaining and use it to energize and manage these initiatives. The problem might be related to the fact that EPLF was al-ways a military organization with a limited civilian component. After independence, the civilian sector gained greater power but lacked managerial means and skills to handle the complex demands that appeared in the form of offers to help and participate. The new government resorted to various means of delaying and blocking the initiatives from taking root and thriving. It covered its weakness by passing decrees and making political declarations whose main thrust was that every individual and organization must work under the umbrella of the new PFDJ party. These decrees did not work effectively with the energetic good-will and desire for reconciliation and unity among Eritreans and their supporters. Today, this has lead to the retreat of civilian participation in independent community organizations. The case of ESRO is one example. Whether intentionally or by default, the government’s policies slowly succeeded in killing the widespread enthusiasm.
Ten years ago, before the institutionalization of enforced transnationalism (al-Ali et al 2001) or the retreat to religion (Hepner 2003), there was exuberant hope among diasporic Eritreans that they could maintain their autonomy and still participate in the nation building and national reconstruction efforts in their home of origin. One organization that reflected this hope was ESRO. By the year 2003, however, as Hepner observed, “inter-denominational Christianity” remained the only depoliticized sphere of Eritrean collective social life. She noted that “religious settings provide a way for people to practice Eritrea identity beyond its tortured politicization and offer different organizing principles for the community” (Hepner2003:279). Even religion as a sanctuary from the demandingand exhausting politicized life of Eritreans in diaspora might be truly a temporary safe place until it too is penetrated by the government. This retreat to religious institutions is a sign of the failure of secular Eritrean nationalism to become a unifying force in the way PFDJ conceptualized it.
As Will Kymlicka (2001:176) writes, multiculturalism takes western liberal democratic values as given and assumes that the immigrants will accept them. In addition, multiculturalism is encouraged in the US, as long as the core values of liberal democratic societies are not threatened (Kivisto 2003). At same time, Soysal (1994) has argued that there has been an emergence of “postnational citizenship” based on immigrants becoming aware of universal human rights, and demanding their own rights, based on a universal code. Researchers, however, do not seem to address the fact that the American democratic tradition of allowing civic participation and respect for individual rights and civic action provides an open field for transnational individuals and agents of foreign governments to operate with a free rein and influence transnational communities. For instance, local organizations representing the government of Eritrea use transnationalsocial fields as an opportunity to mobilize and organize freely, and to control and discipline local, grassroots transnational initiatives and community activities like that of ESRO. The uneven fields of operation do not empower transnational Eritreans unless they agree with the politics of the Eritrean state. The regime in Eritrea has exploited the cultural norm of American middle class society that emphasizes civic participation with impunity. Yet it does not tolerate the same kind ofaccess to civic participation in Eritrea, an area under its hegemonic control.
Recent literature on transnationalism stresses the role of nation-states in encouraging or hindering transnationalism (Guarnizo and Smith 1998; Smith R. 1998; Ong 1999). Aihwa Ong (1999) for instance stipulates that the nation-state “along with its juridical-legislative systems, bureaucratic apparatuses, economic entities, modes of governmentality, and war-making capacities – continues to define, discipline, control and regulate all kinds of population, whether in movement or in residence” (Ong 1999:15). Basch et al (1994) show that nation-states increasingly view their communities in exile as legitimate constituencies. Nation-states not only shape transnational spaces by setting their boundaries (which, in some cases, might be “transcended”) but they also provide channels for transnational activities (al-Ali and Koser 2002). This case study of ESRO in Orange County is an attempt to show that bridging the gap between secular Muslim and Christian Eritreans was possible, and that the effort failed to move for-ward not because of lack of initiative at the grassroots, but because the Eritrean state asserted hegemonic control over grassroots organizations in diaspora.
Most of the organizational linkages for Eritreans in the US are under the hegemony of the predominantly Tigrinya-speaking Christians who work as a bridge to the organizationsand institutions at the state level in Eritrea. It should be pointed out the failure to create meaningful connections between the exiled communities and grassroots communities in Eritrea wasnot limited to ESRO. There were many such initiatives among diverse, autonomous groups of exiled Eritreans following the success in the Eritrean nationalist struggle that floundered be-cause of organizational inflexibility and lack of capacity at the state level to transform these into enduring and institutionalized transnational communities.
Nevertheless, as Peggy Levitt (2001) has pointed out, rapid globalization in recent years has made it possible, either by choice or pressure, for immigrants to maintain strong ties to their countries of origin even when they are integrated into the countries that receive them. Except for one preliminary investigation, there has not been a systematic study of how Eritreans have been integrated into American society (Woldemikael 1998). In response to globalization, countries are distinguishing residence from national membership and extending their boundaries to those living outside them. They have created mechanisms to facilitate immigrant participation in the national development process over the long term and from afar (Levitt and de la Dehesa 2003). In the case of Eritrea, intensified globalization has enabled the new Eritrean state to enhance its power and maintain the upper hand in defining its relationship with Eritreans in diaspora. This power has enabled the Eritrean state to undermine the grassroots efforts of ESRO, and as a result it has restricted ESRO from acting as an independent agent which reflects the interests of its members. Perhaps this case study sheds light on one of the major reasons why Eritreans in diaspora have been unable to create long-lasting, autonomous, diasporic transnational institutions that reflect their desires and interests.
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