Eritreans as you know are unique especially in their courtesy towards one another and towards others. For example, if a Muslim is taken to jail by a Christian, another Muslim cannot state the fact without digging some Christian name from jail books and reassuring the jailer that it is OK because these things happen at random. In a cross-eyed move, people protesting the jailing of Hajji Musa end up carrying pictures of Abune Antonios from the archives. You are thinking maybe no one told them which is which and how would you tell a cross-eyed which is which when he will always pick the wrong picture if you tell him the way you are supposed to tell. That is why I try to tell in a little different manner so that they may straighten and look to see. The challenge the organizers are having is that unless everyone demonstrating signs a release of responsibility for the crimes of bigots and supremacists by clearly stating that the PFDJ is an equal opportunity oppressor, the Tigrigna will simply stay home and the drama is lost.
I try to make a quick survey of the opinions of various stakeholders before starting to write. I am very fair. The way I do it is to first split the planet into faith groups (in this case Muslims and Christians); and then dice them into ethnic regions. For some reason I do not believe that individuals are any different from robots in the way they form their “personal” opinions. There is nothing personal about an opinion as it is a culturally guided judgment on facts. The judgment itself may be personal. You own your judgment. However, for a judgment to qualify as opinion (a repackaging of personal judgment for sale to others), it must reflect a literature review (where you are coming from), a methodology (formula used to determine what is true) and a loaded verdict based on self-interest (direction in the form of true or false).
For instance, try to write your opinion on the Halloween Uprising of October 31st, 2017 in Asmara and then analyze it to see if you were able to skip any of the three pillars of ‘opinion’, i.e. literature, methodology and bias. The word “loaded” is important because contrary to what you might think is the purpose of literature and methodology, the end game is to produce a loaded conclusion. The point of referencing and methods is that instead of loading your own bias, you attribute it to some professor in a blunder for credibility. All social sciences are junk sciences as you can imagine.
Make it simple: did Hajji Musa have any right to invoke the “Sharia” as a necessary part of the way Muslims are entitled to live in Eritrea? That is the part SAAY tried to treat by reducing the debate to the root cause and calling us to agree on the definition of the word that Hajji Musa had in mind. For SAAY the Eritrean Muslim conception of ‘Sharia’ is identical to the Eritrean Christian conception of Higi-Inda’ba (a micro level cultural organization). His literature included personal experiences such as when growing up ‘aboy mohammed’ loved ‘adey tibereh’. His methodology was simple logic: the Sharia in today’s political Islam is not fit for mutual coexistence, therefore ‘aboy mohammed’ must have had a limited interpretation of the concept. Otherwise, how could he do this to someone he loved? His conclusion: since the ritualistic community courts dealing with “Muslim affairs” (marriage, divorce & inheritance) under the PFDJ (implicitly Christian atheist dictatorship) are called Sharia courts, Haji Musa must have been referring to what they do (Higi-Inda’ba). It is clear that SAAY did not ‘load’ his argument. In fact, he ‘unloaded’ some facts (negative loading): the PFDJ’s Sharia courts do not deal with whether girls should wear the Hijab or children should learn the Quran, which were at the center of Hajji Musa’s speech.
For others (including Semere Tesfai), Sharia is a macro level subjugation of non-Muslims (including bad Muslims) by good Muslims. In the latter case, it makes sense to argue that you first need to deviate from Islam for Sharia laws to apply to you as a delinquent unless you are already one by definition. The question here is to all the Red-Bull chemists in here (who have the spices to energize the table): does reinterpreting Sharia to mean Higi-Inda’ba blunt Haji-Musa’s message or strengthen it? What if Haji-Musa were a hidden ISIS operative and actually meant Semere Tesfai’s version of Sharia? Should he go to jail or should he be excused for old age and freedom of speech? What if some good Muslims decide to subjugate non-Muslims and bad Muslims through a democratic process the way good Christians have already done – do we have a deal?
The following is an attempt to understand why religious freedom is such an explosive subject for Muslims while Christians do not seem to care and Tewahdo actually cheer for more restrictions. The conscription of girls into the army was the trigger of a whole generation of Jihadi groups in the 1980s. The jailing of teachers of Islamic schools in the 1990s triggered an expansion of Jihadism to dangerous levels. Haji-Musa and what will follow of the interpretation of his arrest, is another story. So far, we have seen the Bejastan connection with hysteric trans-boundary clerics in Sudan and the rush to establish the Khilafa in Wilayet Al-Habesha. The Eritrean Christian side is desensitized. Patriarchs jailed draws zero reaction. Priest in medeber-taElim is the national anthem. Religious schools closed deserves more cheering. Dead or playing dead?
I will try the following somewhat offensive paragraphs to test the level of tolerance. Some Eritrean Tewahdo website (randomly googled) was the ref for my literature. The first article on the homepage of the website was a spooky one on Halloween. “As October 31st draws near” predicts Bishop Youssef, “I want to make all uninformed … aware … [that] ‘Halloween’ celebration pays tribute to Satan. Every act revolving around Halloween is in honor of false gods. False gods are spirits in the satanic realm.” Quoting the Bible he adds “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be partakers with them ….”
In another post, “Whom Are You Seeking?” Eritrean Tewahdo are challenged with the difficult question: “You have been serving the house of the Lord for a long time. But have you been serving the Lord of the house?” The clue is derived from the Bible, “He who built the house has more honour than the house” and “everything we do, should be ‘in Him, through Him, with Him and for Him ….” The writer concludes by “… the best way to serve the Lord of the House is to know Him and to be fixed with Him.” I was surprised at the striking similarity of Tewahdo literature with the PFDJ’s playbook. You remember the old EPLF song “kul’ntnay niAkhi”? It is actually a bible song “kul’ntnay niAkha.”
In the efforts to transform the Eritrean Tewahdo church into a cult, Aboy Qeshi in his Tupac Bandana has enormous powers in determining public opinion among the Tigrigna. There is no God (in the perfect sense of the word) in the Christian faith in general and more so in the Ethio-Eritrean Tewahdo cult-ure in particular. “The Lord” in the above quotes is far different from what a Muslim thinks “Allah” is. The latter is an Almighty whose word goes as He wishes. His followers have no option other than submission (or Islam as we call it in Arabic) because there is no other intermediary who can save them if He gets mad or block the flow His grace when he is in a good mood. The former is a King whose powers are limited by what the armies of intermediaries decide to do or not to do. If all Aboy Qeshis decide to quit tomorrow and close down the churches, the Christian God is dead and Tewahdo ceases to exist.
Take this simple example to see the Devine authority delegated to the lowest of these intermediaries, Aboy Qeshi. Of course, you know the only way to become a Christian in the first place is if you manage to get a priest who is willing to Baptize you. If there are too many people in queue this Sunday for his holiness to perform the ritual, you have to wait for one more week before you are a Christian and hope that you do not die in between. The “Mystery of Baptism” (in the same website) describes the magic worth waiting for: “when the priest recites the prayer of baptism over the water and blesses it, it changes and becomes the water that flowed from the right side of our Lord Jesus Christ and one receives the invisible grace of the adopted son-hood of God.”
I am not making fun of the believers themselves and I have utmost respect for their absolute right to believe or not to believe that they can fly. I am also willing to mingle everything up, intermarry, and just be one – “khasrana-khasrana” as my friend used to say – only if you can convince them. Of course: “God not only forbade believers [Tewahdo] to marry unbelievers [such as Muslims], but asked His people to destroy all the inhabitants of the land … instructing ‘you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods.’ ‘Ezra torn his garment [all his garments so that you may see] and fasted and prayed when he heard that the people of Israel [equivalent to Eritrean Tewahdo in the implicit claim of the website] took for themselves wives from the peoples of the lands. Nehemiah made the people go into covenant saying, ‘We would not give our daughters as wives to the peoples of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons.’” Fine … but can you at least move out of their land first?
Tewahdo priests assume they are playing simple minds and that is probably how one can say silly things with a straight face. In one post the website has an example: “Fr. Daoud Lamei in one of his sermons jokingly suggested that the Samaritan woman could easily have been a Coptic woman.” How come? “She asked Him silly questions.” Such as? ‘Should we worship on this mountain or over there?’ Have today’s Tewahdo smartened up? Not at all! “The same with us, ‘Are these biscuits fasting or not? If I can’t fast until 2 pm can I fast until 12 pm’?”
If the above quotes have different interpretations that make sense, be my guest. If you can convince me Tewahdo is not becoming more of a cult than a church, I am all ears and by all means. Having said that, the argument I am trying to make is for Muslim Eritreans to understand why their Tewahdo brothers and sisters will never understand the sensitivity of religious freedom as conceived by Muslims. For the Tewahdo, whatever the Patriarch decides sets the limits of what they are entitled to. For Muslims, their government may fire the idiot that we have and hire a real saint for a Mufti and he will never have an impact on the space of freedom that a Muslim thinks he/she is entitled to. If the government fires the Patriarch and hires an idiot to run the show; and the latter decides Sawa is the church and Barka is the promised land all they have to do is stampede. If the government decides to appoint an extremist Tewahdo as Patriarch, the best he can do is to guarantee that every believer shows up in church once a week on Sundays. Of course, there has to be a church to go to first for any religious obligation to be executable. Where there is no priest, there is no church; and where there is no church, there is no God.
That was the case during the armed struggle. Being atheist for a Tewahdo is a pure mental exercise, it costs zero, and there are no consequences to becoming one. You may remember the long-bearded Taliban style communists of the armed struggle. You ask them a one-minute question and they have a three-hour response on the non-existence of God. We thought they were making up stuff but they were genuine. There was no church therefore there was no God. Two weeks into independence, church and priest were spotted. Tigrigna communists were reunited with the Lord. They went back to being Tewahdo crushing every ‘nigdet’ in ‘sre’waTa’. Atheism for a Muslim is a life sentence. The men who tried to wrap their heads around what happened after independence lost their minds and ended up alcoholics and suicides. The women turned qorchachat and misfits – with ‘Awet-n’Hafash’ for Mewlid Al-Nabbi. The good news is that Muslims usually know that atheism is a one-way street to hell and they do not attempt. During the armed struggle when every Tewahdo communist demanded that Adey-Mariam be brought to Sahel for a pregnancy test, there was never a single Muslim including those who met the devil in person that ever produced Mohammed cartoons or mocked the Lord.
The argument above is clear and simple: religious freedom in Eritrea is an exclusive Muslim affair. I am not saying they deserve to be denied the right but religious freedom has two very different meanings for either side. Do not be deluded by “a patriarch has been arrested” or “a Tewahdo school has been banned.” These things may sound religious stuff to a Muslim. For a Tewahdo, the patriarch is simply a guy the government hired to do a job. His arrest is no more moving than the arrest of a Sawa kid for ‘mkhublal’. The Tewahdo school is just a school where parents send their kids for socializing with other Tewahdo. There is nothing special, that the child will learn at the school that the parents are not able to teach at home. No Christian is expected to memorize the bible. Muslims have to memorize at least some of the Quran in order to perform simple prayers.
Editor’s note: the author of the article is Younis Omer (picture) whose “trademark” name has always been Ali Salim