Religion once unified Ethiopia. It can again.
Religion is being used to divide people. Ethiopia needs a new social covenant centred on the “we” of humanity, not for the “us vs. them” of politics.
Ethiopia lays claim to cultural and religious values that could have been nurtured, re-calibrated, and developed to foster peaceful cohabitation. Moreover, history has afforded it many chances to find a unifying formula and move to a more democratic dispensation. Yet many times, it has struggled to root out toxic seeds that have effectively ruined its chances of using ethnic and religious diversity as a strength, not as a threat. And so, for over a year now, the country has been at war with itself — all over again.
Ethiopia is a deeply religious nation. Both Christians and Muslims have fascinating stories to tell not only of their origins, but also of how they have managed to negotiate their shared space. The question, therefore, is: what role is religion playing in the conflict in Tigray?
It is worth starting this discussion by way of briefly capturing the role religion played in the past in addressing threats of division and disintegration.
The unifying myth
Ethiopia has survived several dark epochs in its long history. Religion was one of the reasons why it survived. Take, for example, the “Zemene Mesafint” — the era of princes.
This period, between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, got its name from the Bible because it mimicked the biblical “period of judges” in Israel’s history. That era began after Joshua, who had guided Israelites to liberation and helped them to settle in the promised land, had just died. The central point in Jewish life had started to dissipate and the nation splintered into 12 tribes. A vicious cycle of violence and lawlessness followed.
In the same way, the Zemene Mesafint was a treacherous time in Ethiopian history, its union threatened by power-hungry regional warlords. Scholars believe the heightened regionalism during this period brought the country to the brink of disintegration. But the Orthodox church, a powerful non-state actor, was in favour of unity. Religion provided a theologically informed tool — a national myth of a social covenant — to abate the looming danger.
Ordinary citizens used this notion to invent their own version of volksgiest, or way of life. Their principal concern was negotiating their space with ethnic and religious others. Ultimately, this helped Ethiopia avoid existential crisis. For many years, religion provided an epistemic framework that provided a vision for peaceful cohabitation. However, this myth — and the social values that enveloped in it — has not been nurtured and re-calibrated to fit current social and political realities. Instead of becoming a unifying force, it has become a source of politicisation and polarisation.
The religious default has been replaced by a new one: ethnicity. In Ethiopia today, ethnicity is not mere allegiance but an interpretive framework by which groups analyse and formulate their existence. Religion and its social values have been weakened. More worrying, religion is now being preyed upon and instrumentalised by politicians to score political points.
War in Tigray
The problem confronting Ethiopia now has some similarity to the times of the Zemene Mesafint. Again, we have powerful regional states, some operating with worrying levels of autonomy and with well-resourced armies. Personal animosities among political leaders often swiftly take a tribal shape. Ethnic allegiance, and resultant territorialism, has become a prism through which human interactions are imagined. Historical injustices are not properly addressed but recirculated and galvanised by hostile groups to achieve their political goals.
So, what is the role of religion now?
Firstly, what is manifesting in the social and political realms is symptomatic of moral decay within religious institutions. By their very inability to become a source of peaceful cohabitation and reconciliation, religious groups in Ethiopia are responsible for the loss of the moral compass in society.
Secondly, there is no one unified religious entity that commands attention and dictates a unifying narrative as they face their own internal crises related to ethnicity. For instance, while the Tigrayan head of the Orthodox Church, Abune Mathias, has spoken out against the government’s role in the conflict, many of his fellow clergy are outspoken supporters of the government’s actions.
Thirdly, religion has been used as a mobilising factor by both sides. Supporters of the warring groups use their pulpits to demonise their perceived enemies and paint their leaders in a messianic light. This risks turning ideological positions into dogma and desensitising people to atrocities committed against opposing groups. Religiously laced rhetoric pushes politics from ideas that can be challenged to gospel that must be defended at any cost.
Ethiopia’s future is uncertain. The country needs the efforts of every stakeholder to prevent it from descending even further into tragedy. Religious groups — Christians and Muslims — have big roles to play. I will suggest three action points:
The first, and critical, step is genuine soul-searching within each religious group. They need to ask the hard questions of why and how society is sliding into hate-filled chaos. They need to come up with corrective actions within themselves and find a unified narrative among themselves.
Secondly, there is a great need for an inter-religious peace effort. This requires coming out of small echo chambers, empathetic listening to those who are hurting, and providing a transcendent narrative that goes beyond the political divides.
Third, religious leaders need to take emotional distance from politics and find a neutral space so they can get moral clarity. They need to find courage to speak truth to power. Ethiopia is crying out for a new social covenant — the “we” of humanity, not for the “us versus them” of politics. While diversity should be respected, and even celebrated, religious teachings should now be focused on healing and reconciliation.
An earlier version of this article was first published by Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.