Nationalism and Democracy: Rhetoric vs. Reality

“I will speak to it”, Shakespeare once wrote in Hamlet, “I will speak to it though hell itself should gape and bid me hold my peace.” Hell is not “gaping” but Ali Salim and Semere Tesfai are certainly generating enough heat to cause us to gape and will not “hold their peace” it seems until the land grabbing issue grips the nation (Ali) or until all issues are subsumed under the overarching imperative of national unity (Semere). We can dramatize their exchange as follows:

Ali: you can’t keep quite while I am being robbed in broad daylight. What is wrong with you, man? Are you one of them?

Semere: I swear I have nothing to do with it. It was he (Isaias) and his Government who did it. They are the guilty ones. Not I. Remember we are all in it. Our entire nation is suffering.

Then why in the name of my God-given ancestral land are you happily up there with land and resources while I am down here with few resources and with my land being stolen away? You are too high up there (in the highlands) to appreciate the situation. Come down here in the lowlands to see facts on the ground.

I don’t need to come down; I perfectly feel your pain from up here. You just need to blend, engage and adapt a winning strategy.

How can I blend and engage with you when you wouldn’t even drop down a rope to pull me up and you wouldn’t even say “Newri” when your cousins steal my land in broad daylight?

Correction: say our land; not your land or my land. We are one nation under God. When you win, I win and when you lose I lose. Our national unity is all that matters.

No, no! I say dignity and freedom supersedes all. You guys control everything and you want to keep it that way. 

Well, like it or not, it is called democracy abu ulwa and we are the majority. But you guys do not believe in majority. Do you? You are up to no good. But be forewarned, we are not only the majority but also high up there which means we can throw stones at you faster than you could from down there.

I still say no! Bring back the refugees and we will see who is the real majority but majority or not, mark my words; I will secure my rights “by any means necessary”. If you won’t negotiate, I will find other ways to force you to listen.

…end of dramatization…

Standing on opposite sides of the political spectrum, espousing two divergent viewpoints, two regions, and two faiths, they truly epitomize Eritrea’s cultural multiplicity, its dilemmas, challenges, beauty, and ugliness. But if Ali Salim’s vigorous campaign can be described as a concerted attempt to warn or frighten Tigrigna Speaking Christians into sympathizing with the particular problems of Muslims and lowlanders; then Semere’s articles would be an equally forceful attempt to dissuade or discourage Muslims from even airing them without including others.

As is usually the case in cyberspace duels, they both got carried away with their respective positions: Ali Salim energetically extolling regional and ethnic politics as if they were all that we can ever be as a people and Semere totally discounting the relevance of religion and ethnicity as issues that sometimes need to be addressed separately by its adherents.

It is however possible to look at their respective views in a more positive light by pondering: What is Ali Salim’s outcry of dignity/freedom above all principle but a localized version of Patrick Henry’s dignified resolve: “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” And what is Semere’s starry eyed idealism but an Eritreanized version of Mahatma Gandhi’s: “I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.”

Semere is not a Gandhi, nor Ali, a Patrick Henry (and the analogy would quickly fall apart if we were to probe a little deeper) but we hope that their underlying sentiments are as sound as the sentiments of these two historical figures. As I have said in one of my previous articles, Ali Salim is to be commended for raising and harping on the issue of land grabbers (but not for his ethno-regional advocacy) and I now applaud Semere for reminding us of the importance of national unity (here again as we shall see, we find serious conceptual irregularities). I have already given my views about Ali Salim’s proposals in my previous articles. In this article, I want to do the same to Semere’s well articulated views.

Semere makes his case in a series of “bumper Stickers” that he proudly lays out numerically as logically constructed pieces. As if that is not enough, he makes sure his bumper stickers stick out through liberal use of underline and bold for emphasis. Armed with this elaborate setup, Semere then sets out to paint – from bumper sticker to bumper sticker – an image of himself as someone who is intensely nationalistic, democratic, and free from regional and religious biases. That is the rhetoric part of our topic.

As we shall see a little later in the reality part, this image is not sustainable. In fact, we find the opposite to be the case. Semere the theoretician is strikingly different in both temperament and persona from Semere the real person (deducible from his own writing). It must also be noted that Semere’s articles are not what one would call a carefully crafted set of arguments. They are rather Semere’s opinions, ideas, and presuppositions masterfully presented. I say this not to belittle his important opinions but to correct his characterization of them as “reasons” or arguments. To see what I mean, let us take an example. Here are some of what Semere calls “reasons”:

Reason #1 The Naras (baryas) and Kunamas don’t have a dog on this fight. They are not in the business of chasing power. They are busy trying to keep their head above water. They are desperately trying to survive. They are in the brink of extinction in front of our very eyes. Please don’t try to drag them in to this muddying.

Reason #2 The Afars are in their own world at the outermost shell of the orbit away from the center of gravity, they are not into the Western Lowlanders power play business.

Reason #3 The lives of the Jebertis and Sahos is intertwined and interwoven with the lives of ethnic Tigrigna so deep, it is not even worth a try to untangle the centuries old web.

The above 3 paragraphs are supposed to be “reasons” why the “eight ethnics” will not “gang-up against Tigrigna ethnic group.” But where is the “reason” in the above? How does Semere know, for example, that the Naras/Kunamas “don’t have a dog on this fight”? What makes him think, for example, that the Naras and Kunamas would not join hands with other disadvantaged groups in a common cause, for mutual interest, or to fight a bigger enemy if it comes to that? What natural law states that an endangered community will always be passive? In fact, isn’t the opposite the case? Wouldn’t desperate victims, having little to lose, have more reason to fight against a system or group that they may perceive brought them to such a path?

Again what makes him think that the Afars, Sahos, or Jebertis would not reach out to lowlanders to respond to a just call to fight against land grabbers? I certainly would not hesitate. Thus, the above remarks are not “reasons” or logical arguments but mere assertions, presuppositions and oracular-like predictions about other communities that Semere probably knows little about.

Let us take another example. Semere writes:

if Muslims and Lowlanders lose don’t we all lose? If Muslims and Lowlanders win don’t we all win? If every ethnic group gets its fare share isn’t that a win for all?

Yes, of course. What could be more obvious? You and I, dear reader, may be too dense to appreciate the above statements but they are profound philosophical assertions. If I lose my land and you keep yours, trust me we both lose! If I become a millionaire and you remain a pauper, we are both millionaires even if I keep mine. Isn’t that great?

Unfortunately, many of Semere’s bumper stickers fall into this type of semantic drivel but there are exceptions like the one below that are worth considering:

I challenge Ali Salim to accept this fundamental principles of democracy in which the majority’s right to govern is honored and the right of minorities to be represented fairly, live in peace and prosper is protected under the law.

Above, Semere throws a very legitimate challenge at Ali. I can’t speak for Ali, but I accept the challenge. I, Ismail, (my right hands lifted up) solemnly declare my belief in the majority’s right to govern provided that this majority does not become a dictatorship in disguise and further, that minorities or the disadvantaged do not become a permanent underclass. That would be a telltale sign of a fake democracy which is precisely why democratic theorists often speak of the “Tyranny of the Majority” as a poisonous offshoot of democracy. Incidentally, Muslims are not a minority by any census estimates we know of but they are clearly disadvantaged and marginalized making them a de facto minority in terms of real influence.

Muslims would be against “tyranny of the majority” but not against a rule by the majority whose powers are derived from and limited by law and constitution that protects minorities. Speaking of constitutions, I want to mention in passing why many Eritreans (including Muslims) reject the 1997 constitution. It is not because those who wrote it lacked the requisite qualification or expertise in the field. No. The authors were fully qualified to handle the task and they did an excellent job considering the circumstances under which it was written and the limited input they received.

It is not lack of qualification but lack of participation of all segments of our society in the constitution making process that invalidates the document. And as we would expect from a document that was tainted at birth by the dictator’s touch, an ignominious and painful death at his hands was its inevitable end!

For a constitution to be representative and binding, it must spring from and come into being with the full blessing and participation of all segments of a given society. A Constitution should also attempt to safeguard not only the wellbeing of the nation as a whole but also its individual or group constituencies. Semere probably would object to the last point because for him no compartmentalization of issues is acceptable. All issues are Eritrean issues. In his words:

The issues that you’re grieving about are not Muslims and Lowlanders issues. They are Eritrean issues that need Eritrean solution.

Semere is absolutely right when he asserts that Muslims’ and Lowlanders’ issues are also Eritrean issues that need an Eritrean solution (if we can assume that was what he meant to convey). We can even extend this idealism into a global perspective and say that there are no Eritrean issues but global (human) issues that require a global solution by all humans.

That much can be tolerated as a theoretical ideal or model. Yet, we must consciously and reluctantly forgo such idealistic visions at this stage of human civilization because it always fails in practice except perhaps in some remote planet yet to be discovered. I would therefore say that a more sensible and useful rendering of Semere’s statements would be to state that the particular problems that afflict Muslims should also be the concern of all compatriots. The operative words here being “should also” since we have no way of enforcing or legislating attitudes and inclinations.

Moreover, it is important to remember the difference between issues of national significance that directly impact all Eritreans (national defense for example) and issues of local or community level concerns (such as religion, region etc…). In other words, while the issues that affect Muslims and lowlanders can also be considered Eritrean issues in the broader or indirect sense, their effect on Muslims and lowlanders is direct and immediate.

And it is this immediate and intimate contact with their own problems and concerns that gives Muslims the prerogative to define and quantify their issues among themselves. It is also in that sense that they would naturally be the ones who would have a sharper vision and insight into those problems than somebody looking in from outside the fold. It would be unrealistic, for example, to expect non-Muslims to be as concerned about issues such as Arabic language and the closing of Islamic schools to the extent Muslims would.

Semere does not see it that way. After all, he would say, “I perfectly see the pain, the grief, the frustration, the anguish and alienationyou are feeling. [But Sir,] he would add, the solution is simple: Blend and engage is the only venue to the promise [sic] land.”

Quiet extraordinary statements indeed … Semere not only sees Muslims’ pain, he does so perfectly. And his perfect vision sees a “promised land” over there that can be reached by “blending and engaging.” Whether such blending or melting into the national pot practically results in “blending and withering” for one and “blending and thriving” for the other is immaterial to him.

Now, Semere’s “I perfectly see the pain” may simply be a rhetorical flourish on his part to impress upon us that he fully empathizes with the concerns of Muslims. And we would even grant that he did not mean it literally but we can’t because he pushes this theme further by telling us: “you can’t call on people of certain religion or ethnic [sic] and leave others even if you believe these are problems that affect only Muslims.”

The last statement contains an implicit hypothesis: Don’t make targeted calls; don’t rally each other; and don’t organize without including me in every deliberation you make (even if the issue is only of marginal concern to me). If I can feel your pain (and I sure can), you should include me in every call you make.

As we can see, his surrealistic perception that he could perfectly feel the pain of others is informing his belief that Muslims and other communities should not rally or consult one another to frame their own issues without including other Eritreans. Semere’s sentiment of equating our concern with his is of course appreciated but his underlying philosophy or unspoken idea that envisions a nation that speaks and acts in unison is too close to Shaebia’s bogus and failed mantra of “hade lbi hade hzbi” to deserve any serious reexamination and must therefore be summarily rejected.

Gandhi used to say “to trust is a virtue” and that may have worked for him but for us (non-Mahatmas), a better motto would be Reagan’s signature axiom “trust, but verify”. Along with a healthy trust in public goodwill, a good dose of community level activism and consultation is needed by all communities (disadvantaged groups most of all) to guard against betrayal of that trust. If there is anything we Muslims learned (or should have learned) from our bitter experience in the past, it is that sacrifice and national service alone (placing total faith in the national goodwill) will not always protect us or guarantee our rights or freedoms.

Find out what people will submit to”, Frederick Douglas once observed, “and you will have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong the people will allow to have imposed upon them.” This time around, Muslims must unabashedly demand, insist, and act as one block (in the tradition of Muslim league) for our fundamental rights. It is my considered opinion that Muslims will never amount to anything (will never be empowered) in Eritrea if they continue to fragment themselves along tribal and regional issues. 

Contrary to what we have been conditioned to believe, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Muslims struggling as one block to claim their rights within the greater national context. It is our fundamental right. That incidentally is also exactly what freedom of association and democracy is all about! – A concept fundamentally different from Semere’s “blend and engage.” Democracy does not demand or require blending, homogeneity or a uniformity of opinions, cultures, or beliefs. In a democracy, all are invited and expected to participate (including Islamists).

This brings us to Semere’s exclusion of what he calls “Islamists” from his vision of democracy and it is here also that we begin our journey into the “reality” portion of our topic. Rhetoric aside, this exclusion alone reveals Semere’s equivocal and half-hearted embrace of democracy. This attitude is all the more astonishing coming from a person who unambiguously expressed in the same article his readiness to grant “absolute immunity” to all including the President himself! Apparently, his immunity will include everyone (tyrants, mass murderers, jailers, and torturers) — all except “Islamists”. Needless to say, this is not the attitude of a genuine nationalist but that of an exclusionary, parochial, and paranoid mind. It even casts serious doubts to his vaunted belief in pluralism and democracy.

I think the best way to evaluate Semere is to employ Reagan’s “trust, but verify” on him. In Semere’s case, this would mean accepting his claims at face value initially (as we have done) and then evaluating his claim against his own statements. Doing so reveals Semere’s dual personalities: along with the familiar Gandhi-like Semere (a Dr. Jekyll) who “perfectly” feels our pain, we find a more belligerent Mr. Hyde that is in the habit of blurting out aggressively.

One good example of this Mr. Hyde in action is to be found in one of his previous articles where he nonchalantly lashes out at Islamic Sharia calling it “Unfair, Cruel and Unjust.” Semere either does not know (or does not care?) that an attack on Islamic law is tantamount to an attack on Islam and Muslims. This antipathy of his towards the provisions of Sharia may be due to ignorance, arrogance, or both. Obviously, we can’t help with the latter (the arrogance) but we may with the former by answering any questions he might have on the issue even if it means we have to revisit his characterization of Sharia as “Unfair, Cruel and Unjust.”

Semere’s attack on Islamic Sharia and his other references to “Islamists” with utter disdain invalidates his claims to empathy and are themselves a measure of the level of understanding or tolerance he is prepared to extend to Muslims in general. What Muslim in his right mind, would be eager to “blend and engage” with someone who has a priori formed such a rigid and venomous attitude towards his religious traditions. Many Muslims would also find his blanket condemnation of “Islamists” as a bad omen.

I am not sure exactly how Semere defines the term “islamists” but it is hard not to sense the abnormal dislike he has for them. If the term “Islamists” is being used by him to describe people who believe or wish for their beliefs to have wider influence, why should that distress him? The stark reality no one can deny (expect a hypocrite) is the fact that we live in a world where competing values interact continuously and simultaneously. When we chose democracy, we are consciously and freely opting to put up with the plethora of views, inclinations, and allegiances -hook, line, and sinker – that come with it.

All believers including secular ones will strive for what they believe. There is no oddity for a Hindu, for example, to strive hard to make Hinduism the most influential religion in his country; nor for a true Christian to hope for a Government whose laws conform to the essential doctrines of his faith. The same holds true for purely political ideologies and other secular beliefs. In like manner, a Muslim hopes and dreams for a Government whose laws are compatible to his beliefs. All this is natural and to be expected. A hope or wish becomes a crime only when brute force is used to transform that wish into a reality.

We are discussing here inner sentiments of course but when we have to live in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society like ours where there are competing ideologies clamoring for attention, democracy provides a mechanism for peaceful coexistence. But happy coexistence, dear brothers and sisters, does not necessitate that we throw overboard our own convictions or that we blend, merge, or dilute our identity. What it calls for is mutual respect and due consideration for each other’s needs.

For many of us, this means breaking free from a mind-set that was forged in the Marxian dialectic of the past and reorienting ourselves towards inclusive, participatory democracy. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Although dialectical materialism has long been discredited and now permanently relegated to the dustbin of history, it has left a semi-permanent stain upon the minds and hearts of many Eritreans particularly those who were intellectually inchoate when they first came in contact with it.

But once we succeed in removing this blemish and embrace democracy, we will quickly find that there is no justifiable legal basis in a democracy to deny any group (Islamist or otherwise) from participating in the affairs of the nation so long as each pursues its interests peacefully and democratically. That is what democracy and pluralism require of us. If semere could find it in his heart to be magnanimous enough to pardon confirmed tyrants and their cohorts, why can’t he do the same for “islamists”?

But as we have seen, rhetoric is one thing and reality another. Remarks such as Semere’s “I perfectly feel your pain” are sometimes made in good faith and sometimes mischievously to bamboozle us. Semere was unable to fully conceal his biases even within a single article or two, but many others can successfully do so until they are in a position to cause harm to others. By then, it would be too late or extremely difficult to reverse the process. It has happened many times before and it can happen again.

So, we are “no longer at ease”. That is why we ask you (our non-Muslim compatriots) to understand when you see us a little more cautious and a little less trusting than we have been in the past. Prejudices and biases, dear beloved compatriots, are not easily conquered but the more we dialog and communicate with one another, the less we will suffer from their ill effects. The recently published “The Eritrean Covenant” is an effort in that direction and will hopefully give you a rough idea of the issues that deeply concern your Muslim compatriots.

Allah (swt) or God has decreed for us to share this little wonderful piece of land with you and we would have it no other way. InshaAllah, we will continue to work together in mutual respect and love to transform this nation of ours into an oasis of peace, tranquility, and prosperity – not by blending and diluting our identities but by valuing and respecting our diversity. If we are too old to realize this in our lifetime, let this be our legacy to future generations.

Needless to say, we want your support, your cooperation, and your help to smoothly transition ourselves into normalcy – into full citizenship theoretically and practically speaking. This does not mean, of course, that we will abandon the struggle if we don’t get your support. No. Of course not! It will be rougher for us certainly but we are determined to reclaim our rights and will continue to demand it and will not hold our peace though hell itself should gape and bid us hold our peace!

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