Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

Attacking religions doesn’t aide secularism

The Arab spring is yet to count its last casualties. Brutal dictators in Syria and possibly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are yet to step down to let their people be led by an elected government.
Not everything is smooth in the nations that successfully overthrew their dictators. Libya is a mess; civil war is still a concern. Egyptians seem still to have some old guards they need to get rid of before embracing democracy and human rights.
The West including the United States, who like to make us believe that they care about democracy and human rights in the third world, have lost some of their dearest allies. And no longer would Israel be the only functional democracy in the Middle East, an excuse the West had to justify in the form of blind support to some of the Jewish State’s brutal measures against the Palestinians.
This is not to say that the West may lose its grip in North Africa and Middle East. After all they decide who heeds popular demand or who can crash it. Otherwise why would one rush to slay Muammar Gaddafi but sit by until Bashar al-Assad finishes off his opposition?
If the African Union was given ample time to avert the bloodshed in Libya that ended with the despicable murder of Gaddafi, things could have gone quite differently. But for Syria the waiting period seems to be indefinite.
The silence in Bahrain is another interest-driven, a further evident that the double standard still persists and human rights advocates actually are not supported by the self appointed moral-police of the West.
A rather troubling sign for the West however is the rise of political Islam and extremism in the Arab World. The dictators’ past ties with the West left the public sympathizing with some of the radical groups. And this as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently told parliament is encouraging extremism to gain momentum in the Arab Spring movements.
Meles said some ‘sects’ are of the opinion that the growing trend could reach Ethiopia. And attempts are being contemplated to call for a religious government. As he rightly said some parts of the society with political or economic gripes, could aid such attempts.
I think secularism; an ideal braced by the country’s 1995 constitution, enjoys and faces two major factors.
It is probably the only ideal unanimously accepted by all, legal or outlawed groups in the country. Even when federalism is called into question by some, it enjoys a wider support which means the ideal won’t see its demise whoever is in power whenever.
At the same time in the deeply religious society we live in, secularism is vulnerable.
There was only one time when it appeared the ruling party lawmakers were not cohesive. Lawmakers, including opposition members were torn as to whether or not to endorse the 2008 census report. When Amhara population was below projection concerning some MPs, more worrying were the numbers about Christianity and Islam’s faithful. MPs from each group suggested that they are majority and were under reported.
The fact that the politicians dared to cross strict party line and expressed individual stands show us how political groups can be drawn to calls to attack the country’s secularism.
This is why defending the country’s constitution from such attacks should be a task for all of us who wish to see a vibrant democracy in Ethiopia.
While I fully subscribe to Meles’ analysis and attempt to teach and defend the nation’s pact to see religious and state separate, it was deeply painful to hear him attacking, sometimes by name, both Ethiopian Orthodox and Muslim followers.
Regarding Muslim, he almost ranked between the sects, even describing one of the groups as vulnerable to terrorism. Thus he sort of implied who is favored and who is not.
Attacking Orthodox faithful similarly, he ridiculed “one country, one religion” preach.
Meles cannot blame a group, as he did, for such ambitions or prayers as most if not an out majority believe in it as the lone opposition MP Girma Seifu in his party paper confessed this week.
There is nothing wrong with preaching religion or trying or wishing to make the whole country Christian or Islam. As long as one doesn’t try to make the government, not the country, its faithful, there should be no problem.
This isn’t the first time Meles attacked religious leaders. When they were about to jointly condemn an international gathering that discussed Gay peoples’ rights and HIV related issues, a senior cabinet minister reportedly was sent to “convince” them to “indefinitely postpone” the scheduled press conference. This was not only attacking the leaders but also their followers and the ideals they uphold dearly.
Meles, who at times calls for patriotism even in the wrong places like to defend criticism against jailing Swedish journalists convicted of disputed terrorism acts, forgot that let alone from a moral stand point, even legally speaking, homosexuality is outlawed in the country.
As the country faces extremist challenges, attacking religious ideals or favoring between sects, or even trying to dictate the course is neither legal nor preferable.  When politicians and the government mingle to discredit or approve lines of thought and groups in religious establishments, they would be resented and the majority could actually sympathize with extremists whether it is within Ethiopian Christian or Islam faithful.