Not In Our Name

The argument that talking about societal disparities would divert us from more pressing matters at hand is a bit shallow and immature. As a matter of fact, these issues should and must be the focus of our debate and the centerpiece of our struggle. If we have learned anything from our most recent past, it is the fact that these real or perceived inequalities and injustices could not and can not be dismissed merely with a scornful chuckle, a wave of a hand, or with a simple utterance of nice, but empty slogans. These utterances are invariably out of a quaint sense of moral indignation. In this day and age, we should not accept any promise that does not have a price tag on it. Everything has to be on the table and above-board. 


I think it is time that we take the bull by the horn. The struggle for justice, at all times and places, requires courage: the courage to speak the truth. Our struggle and quest for justice and freedom will not have any lasting effect if we fail to tackle issues that hold great sway among a significant portion of our population. Any attempt of unity that fails to account the inconvenience of truth and facts is bound to be short lived. It is like sowing on barren soil and would not have a sliver of impact on the much hoped national progress. 


It is important that we understand the make-up of our social forces that give rise and are giving rise to our political forces. After so much sacrifices and years of struggle, a consolidated Eritrean national identity should have been a forgone conclusion. Sadly, the state of our affairs tells a different story. Today, we have several ethnic and religious organizations that are exclusionary in nature. There is, however, one redeeming value about these ethnic and religious entities: they are honest. It is not hard to understand who they are, what they are all about, and what they are made of. And as far as we are able to know and understand them, we should be able to engage them constructively. 


Just like the PFDJ, these sectarian groups also use ethnicity and religion not to promote the comprehensive aspirations of their respective communities, but to meet and satisfy factional and individual ambitions. How else would one explain the many organizations that are sprouting in the name of Islam? Now, this does not mean they don’t have legitimate ethnic or religious grievances, but to just point out that they are disproportionately tilted in favor of factional and individual goals.  


The same is true about the PFDJ- it promotes its factional and individual member interests and not highland and Tigrinya interests. Perhaps, it is not too late that we all rise up and tell them in unison, “NOT IN OUR NAME.” 


I am, however, more concerned and perturbed with the closet-regionalists and religious bigots that have made a nasty habit of peeing in the water we are all drinking from. We need to lift the cloud of darkness and expose them to the sunlight of truth so we can stop them from breeding and multiplying further.  


There is no doubt that we are at a point in our history where we cannot afford any kind of mistrust and misunderstanding among our diverse society. We can not defer talking about it any longer. Our foolish and cowardly indecisiveness would only make it worse down the road. Failing to meet it head on now will only mean passing on a sure recipe of disaster for future generations.  


Like many of my colleagues in the civil societies, I have been at the forefront of the movement and we have unfailingly championed non-partisanship and impartiality with the sole aim of promoting trust and understanding. Unlike some of them, however, I have categorically refused to be a member of any political organization with the unflinching conviction that non-partisanship is the only currency that can help us to promote understanding and mutual respect among our people and organizations. Time and time again, I take great pride in my judicious stand.  


The good news is that there are enough people like me in all over Europe, Australia, America, South Africa and elsewhere who believe that non-partisanship is the only ticket we have to promote trust. Personally I would rather work with these people and focus on issues that would have lasting impact on the fate of our people and country. In doing so, I hope that we will do our part in ennobling the enormous sacrifices our tegadelti/munadleen have offered, both dead and alive, over the course of thirty years.  


I am of the belief that the saga of our revolution and the Adal-to-Asmera odyssey should be the source of inspiration that should force us to soar to greater heights and give birth to a nation that we will all go back to and not run away from. That much we owe it to them. That is the Eritrea they died, fought and sacrificed for in ways that I don’t think I’ll ever fully comprehend. The scope and magnitude of their loss is beyond my limited understanding. The lives that could have been, the careers they could have had, and the children they could have raised…where do I begin and end? I hope we will have the wisdom to recognize their sacrifice and honor them not in a superficial way, PFDJ style, but in a more substantial and meaningful way. 


Our goal should always be on how to scatter the clouds that would dim the horizon of our future. It is very important that we strip some layers from the surface of our realities to see what is happening underneath. We need to avoid the pitfalls of the past. We have to find a way of how we can effectively use the rich trove of wisdom we have inherited from our ancestors on one hand, and the amazing knowledge of our modern world on the other. We have come a long way and we should be able to make a convenient and easy merger of the two. But, it all begins with a small step of acknowledging the truth that we have a problem.  


Now, there is no issue dearer to my heart than inclusion and diversity. It is a standard by which I judge Eritrean organizations and by which I am willing to be judged. There is a need to respect genuine differences that range from history, culture, religion, language and aspirations. I am quite aware that the diversity tree has suffered and it has been cut off in post independent Eritrea. But I am confident that the root of diversity is healthy and ready to sprout forth new vegetation and flowers in the spring of a new era of justice and equality. It is a new day of hope and the specter of justice is all over Eritrea. We are reevaluating our values and priorities and that is a very good position to be in. There is enough reason to believe that we will get it right this time. 


The older I get, I am becoming more interested in social justice, not just in the Eritrean context but, all over the world. The torch of idealism has not died within me. I think the French were right that liberty and equality cannot be truly enjoyed without a genuine fraternity. I think when all is said and done people come to those that seek them in a spirit of love and mutual respect and they are lost to those who ignore their being. Against mounting evidence and not so encouraging record, I still believe that with the right leadership, unity and the other lofty goals that have eluded us so far are within reach and attainable in Eritrea. I don’t harbor these sentiments out of naïve optimism but on a core belief that the best days are ahead of us.  


We have to approach the struggle for justice (or resistance against injustice as Saleh Gadi Johar has aptly described it in his last column. Truly, the term ‘opposition’ is misleading in our context and it is weakening our resolve to take action.) with a sense of urgency, purpose and passion we have never seen before. We live in extraordinary times and it is only fitting that we take extraordinary measures. Justice does not only require the courage to speak the truth but the readiness to make the necessary sacrifices when called upon. I happen to believe that the greatest struggle is the one we wage within ourselves and it is this personal inner struggle that serves as the best launching pad for social justice. 


Social justice is a subject that has continued to arouse a burning and undying interest in me. Unfortunately, the Eritrean landscape can only be seen through the hazy light of dusk. As a people, we are saying too little on too much. The Eritrean people are not openly and freely talking about what ails them, what matters to them, and what keeps them awake at night. Aside from the lack of a meaningful public discourse, what really disappoints me is the tendency of otherwise good people to unleash insults at some and to lavish praises on others out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. Our loyalty should be to our fundamental principles and ideals. This business of promoting some individuals or organizations and demoting others would not do us any good. We need to discuss with each other but not cuss at each other. Our focus should be on issues and not on personalities. 


Talking about issues, the thrust of our ongoing debate is justice, fairness and the wider system that does not respect Eritrea’s diversity. The cultural imbalance cannot be simply attributed to the PFDJ regime, but to a deeply rooted cultural legacy. The PFDJ and the man at the helm of power are the products of a culture- an agrarian, hierarchical and sedentary culture that equates power with control. The PFDJ is an Eritrean reality and we have to ask ourselves some hard questions of how it came into being and what cultural and social factors are keeping it going. We have to get out of our comfort zone and look deep into ourselves to find out what we are truly made off. Doing so could finally help us to understand how we are inadvertently allowing the miscarriage of justice to take place in front of our eyes.  


The intent is not and should not be to place blame on some group and exonerate others, but to find some answers to some hard questions. Without understanding a situation, we can not expect to sow the seeds of harmony and harvest justice. This is a reality we can not escape from. Sometimes, we have to give our thumb-sucking kids some aloe juice so they could give up that nasty habit. I’m raising four kids and I know from personal experience that this time-honored and time-tested kitchen remedy works well. It is time to give it a try. 


We know from anthropology and sociology that people who are raised in a culture that grows crops are completely different from those that grow in pastoralist societies. The sedentary, stratified, farming and densely populated highland has a very strong sense of group identity and a structure that promotes cooperation. The nomadic, semi-egalitarian, pastoralist and sparsely populated lowland has a strong sense of individual identity and a relatively weaker group consciousness.  


Islam and Arabic were the bonds that were hoped to fill the void in the Muslim and lowland communities by the Muslim League and by subsequent generation of Muslim and lowland leaders and thinkers. Arabic and Islam came handy because they both transcended ethnic, tribal, regional and linguistic differences and served as a rallying cry of nationalism. An attack on these two pillars was perceived as an attack on this emerging nationalism. No wonder the PFDJ policy of mother tongue was seen as a direct affront on Muslim nationalism and a scheme to divide it and keep it under control. 


The idea of an all Muslim identity and nationalism was hoped to foster a balance of culture and to minimize the risk of one group dominating another. Anyone who fails to understand this balance of culture fails to understand modern history of Eritrea. Any kind of analysis on Eritrean politics has to start from this basic but crucial observation.  


The cultural equilibrium in Eritrea can not be maintained by merely invoking slogans of unity-in-diversity but they would require physical and meaningful participation of all the people. It is not just the weight of ideas, but more so the weight of people that keeps the cultural and political seesaw in balance. Diversity is good for its sake and its effect. 


It is true that these deeply rooted historical, cultural and economic experiences have given rise to two starkly different communities. The two communities have different values and attitudes towards land, wealth, work and power. But these values are not irreconcilable. The national system has to consider both values on equal terms. There is reason to believe that the current regime in Eritrea sees the whole nation from the highland perspective only. One could dare say that if the PFDJ quacks like a duck and walks like a like, it is a duck. Our nation, Eritrea, must not be a Tigrinya, a Christian and a highland entity or its’ Arab, Muslim and lowland equivalency. Eritrea has to be a hybrid of the two traditions. This fusion is the source of our true Eritrean identity. 


Regrettably, the PFDJ, just like its predecessor, the Amhara dominated Ethiopian government, has unilaterally abrogated the national accord of having Arabic and Tigrinya as official languages of Eritrea. This was enshrined in the 1952 Eritrean constitution, a tradition the ELF was wise enough and smart enough to carry on and to promote. No wonder, the good old ELF, with all the demographic changes it went through, not to mention the obvious that it came off second best, still enjoys a great deal of warmth amongst the majority of Muslim Eritreans. This should serve as a clue. 


The language issue and the flag issue were settled in the 1950s and that should have been the end of it. What drove the political and later armed struggle was the desire to restore these national identities. The PFDJ, in its infinite wisdom has shown utter disrespect to a large portion of our society. I have yet to meet a Muslim Eritrean who does not want Arabic to be Eritrea’s official language along side Tigrinya. That is one issue Muslim Eritreans continue to agree on and enjoy not only strong consensus but almost unanimity. I’m a believer that the people should get what they want. For those Eritreans who do not follow the Eritrean Arabic debates, this is part of the often mentioned concept of thewabit weTeniya; permanent national pillars of Eritrea that are regarded as the bedrock of our unity and identity. If we are to move forward, we have to first, and once and for all, slain this beast that divides us.  


We should not let a cocoon of mindless prejudice and a pettiness of our narrow-mindedness sap the vibrant energy and vigor of a promising young nation. We need to exercise our “Frown Power” whenever we witness the ugly faces of bigotry, prejudice and small mindedness. We need to declare zero tolerance to all those forces that try to create a wedge among us. There is a way we can efface differences without effacing our unity and that is by embracing the comity of religions, ethnicities and regions. If the wisdom of our ancestors had lapsed into obscurity, I suggest that we start by looking at the exemplary comity of religions among the Blen and the Mensa groups. In a way Keren, more so than Asmera, is the microcosm of Eritrea. Keren has its mesmar-mdr, the natives nailed to the land population and everybody in-between. That is as Eritrean as any city can be. 


I’m of the opinion that we should continue and build upon what our wise forefathers have tried to establish and to nurture a lasting national accord. As far as I am concerned the issue of Eritrea’s official languages was settled before I was born and I don’t have any desire or inkling to revisit it. As a kid in ELF schools, I was educated in both languages and I know it works and I believe I’m a better person as a result of it. Amanuel Hidrat has shown us wisely that we are not captives of our history and upbringing.  We can change our attitude and outlook in life. With reason comes knowledge and with knowledge comes understanding and with understanding comes love and with love we will be the salt on earth. 


Now, I’m amused by the argument that we should follow the example of other African countries and adopt English as Eritrea’s official language. I don’t question the nobility of those making this argument and their good intentions but I believe the idea is so outlandishly impractical that it would not help us to move forward and make the kind of progress we’ve been looking for. Eritrea had a similar system to that of Israel, a country known for producing the highest number of PhDs per population, where students are educated in their national languages till the sixth grade and then move on to English as the main medium of instruction. I bear personal witness that this system also works. The ELF education was similar to that of Israel.  


(I can’t pass by without expressing my gratitude to those Eritrean teachers, ELF fighters and leaders like Dr. Habte Tesfamariam who made it possible for hundreds and thousands of Eritrean refugees to benefit from a first class education while living in exile in the Sudan. Thank you.)  


Sorry for the digression and let me come to my point: 


Eerily, this seemingly clever argument of having English as Eritrea’s official language reminds me of how Christian fundamentalists in the US who subscribe to creationism have reinvented and reincarnated themselves as Intelligent Design people on their ongoing war against evolution. 


(For fairness sake, I did not get that impression from Mogos Tekeste, the author of “A modest proposal for a way out.” In fact, I enjoyed his well constructed reasoning and he strikes me as a person beyond this kind of nonsense.  But I’m afraid that it might give the anti-Arabic people a new weapon in their hatred arsenal.)  


I have heard all the arguments against having Arabic as an official language, but, this one is particularly interesting since it is willing to give up Tigrinya as far as Arabic does not call Eritrea home. I’ve news for those who suffer from Arabic-phobia: Arabic will always remain important to Muslim Eritreans as far as Islam remains their religion and Tigrinya will always be so as long as the torch of Christianity keeps on burning. Arabic and Tigrinya are a piece and parcel of our moral and intellectual compass and we cannot simply do away with them. This is where I respectfully disagree with Mogos Tekeste, although, I thoroughly enjoyed reading him. 


I think it helps, for those of us Christian Eritreans, to close our eyes, put ourselves in Eritrean Muslims’ shoes and imagine if we would be willing to give up a language that is so important to our spiritual, moral and intellectual life and cut-off ourselves from the Muslim and Arab sea that gives us a stronger anchorage to stay afloat, vast ocean to freely navigate and open space to soar to higher heights and frontiers.  


Let’s not forget that the mezhab (Muslim school of thought) that particularly flourished in Eastern Eritrea (my ancestors’ original home) for hundreds of years, as the Umayyad dynasty took over the Red sea, never made the distinction between Arabic and Islam. Historically, Arabic is as important to these segment of our people as Islam is and many kudos to aya Omer Jabir of Australia for shedding some light on the history of Arabic in Eritrea. 


The fact that Arabic and Tigrinya are not languages of modern science and technology should not be an excuse to abandon them, but, it should be a clarion call to embrace them immediately and put them into practice without any further due. Every day we lose in not embarking on the journey would only prolong the problem and not rid of it. Arabic is not a threat to Tigrinya. Arabic’s wider circulation in twenty-two nations, spanning two continents, and its vast, long and rich history of literature can be an asset to us as a people and to Tigrinya as a language. 


In fact, Tigrinya stands to gain more from Arabic since Arabic is the closest Tigrinya has as an older sister. We need to capitalize on the natural kinship between our two Semitic heritages and march forward to make our desire for unity a reality. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by re-adopting Arabic as our official language along side Tigrinya. This is an idea that has a long standing and it has been with us for more than sixty years. It is not prudent to tinker with it to the detriment of our national unity. 


If the Muslims don’t have a problem with us, Tigrinya speakers, choosing Tigrinya as one of our national languages, why should we have a problem with them electing Arabic as one of Eritrea’s official languages? Decency and fairness dictates that we should reciprocate. Besides, isn’t this their fundamental right? Isn’t this what the Eritrean revolution was fought for? 


I was first exposed to the idea of self-determination through the outstanding works of no other than the architect of the 1997 ratified constitution, our own, Dr. Bereket Habteselasse. Actually, I’ve autographed copies of all his books- some of the perks of knowing this great man. The idea simply stipulates that people have the right to determine the kind of political life they want. It is how the good lawyer, scholar, and rebel used his intellectual arsenal to articulate and justify the Eritrean revolution. Perhaps, we need to revisit those issues and reread those books.  


If the idea of national self-determination helped us to liberate our country, I am sure it can help us to secure the freedom that has eluded us. I’m sure it was this understanding and the noble desire to protect our fundamental rights that drove the good doctor to tirelessly work on the Eritrean constitution. I am sure the good Asgedetay, or wedi gerhi lba, as he referred to himself in an endearingly self-deprecating humor, in one of the public seminars he gave in Dallas,  would live up to the great legacy of his ancestor, the famous degiat Asgede- the defender of Debre Bizen- and facilitate for a new dawn in Eritrea where every Eritrean would rise up to defend the basic rights of our people from the plains of Ela Abdella to the plains of Ela Berid, from Hirgigo to Hazemo, from Qarora to QoHayeen, from Aseb to Afelba, from ToKhombia to Tekhela and all the way to the center of the country; Arb’ate Asmera.


The author is an Eritrean-American writer, activist and founding member of Eritrean Global Solidarity (2006) and was elected chairman of the umbrella organization in its first formal congress (Dec. 2007) and served as its chairman until Dec. 2008. He is also a founding member of Eritrean Public Forum-Dallas-Fortworth.


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