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The Exigency of Religious and Political Toleration in Ethiopia: Reflections on The Tragic Death of Shiek Nur Imam

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD 
July 20, 2013

In the urgency of the matter with respect to political stability in Ethiopia, it is time for me to once again address the issue of religious and political tolerance in Ethiopia. This essay, in particular, is inspired by the tragic murder of Sheik Nur Imam in Wollo, Ethiopia. Some Diaspora Ethiopians contend that the Sheik, in fact, was murdered by the Ethiopian government1 though their claim is not substantiated with evidence and is very much tuned to what is often described as conspiracy theory. When I was invited by the Ethiopian Law Students Association at Harvard in 2006 as one of the panelists to address �Ethnicity and National Identity in Ethiopia,� I told the audience that I had �a gut feeling that there are some forces who want to disturb the unity of Ethiopians and destabilize Ethiopia, but since I am a scholar and I must address issues based on evidence and scientific analysis, I will not uphold conspiracy theory and/or intuitive reflections.�

In this essay, thus, I am interested in what Ethiopians could do in overcoming intolerance and achieving rather toleration that could further solidify their unity. Although we now witness religious and political intolerance in the broader Ethiopian social milieu, interestingly, but perhaps surprisingly, Ethiopian history is replete with tolerance. Some examples of tolerance in Ethiopia are critically examined in my new book2 in various chapters such as Political Culture in the Ethiopian Context and the Mindset of Ethiopians (Chapter 5), The Contribution of Education to Ethiopian Democratic Transformation (Chapter 6), and Institutionalizing Democracy in Ethiopia (Chapter 7) and in the latter chapter, a subheading entitled What Ethiopia can Learn from Its Own Historical Experience specifically deals with the rich Ethiopian tradition of tolerance.

In the above mentioned subheading, tolerance during Emperor Ezana and Emperor Armah in antiquity, during the reign of Emperor Galawdewos in the middle of the 16th century, and during Emperor Yohannes I in the 17th century are discussed. Ezana declared, �I will rule my people with righteousness and justice and will not oppress them.� Armah in the 7th century CE received the fleeing followers of the Prophet Mohammed at Aksum and in sympathy to their trials and tribulations, he gave them a place where they could worship. Incidentally, the first Muslims in Africa were those who enjoyed the hospitality of Armah, the tolerance of Ethiopians, and who settled among Ethiopians and later became Ethiopians themselves.

Similarly, in the middle of the 16th century, Emperor Galawdewos hosted a debate between himself and the Jesuits who came to spread the Catholic Christian denomination faith in Ethiopia. Instead of persecuting and kicking them out from his country, however, he engaged them in series of arguments in regards to the doctrinal differences between the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church and the Catholic Church. He prevailed the debate and ultimately wrote a treatise entitled Confession of Faith, and observers of the time have chronicled that Galawdewos was tolerant not only to religious differences but also, to diverse political perspectives.

During the reign of Emperor Yohannes I (1667-1682), a group of Armenian clergy led by a bishop visited Gondar in 1679. The Emperor was not sure whether these Armenians profess same faith like the Ethiopians or not and he assigned two of his council scholars, namely Qostantinos and Arseyanos to interrogate and open dialogue with them by way of conducting a Q & A session. Thus, Qostantinos interrogated the bishop of Armenia on pertinent religious dogmas such as the nature of Christ, the Virgin Mary, lent during epiphany etc. Ultimately the dialogue resulted in the satisfaction of Emperor Yohannes and he declared the Armenians as �brethren�. 

One other example that could be mentioned in relation to political tolerance is the 17th century Ethiopian rational thinker and philosopher Zara Yacob (not to be confused with Emperor Zara Yacob), who was for his time very advanced and whom we could call, in retrospect, �citizen rights advocacy giant� of the late 16th century and early 17th century Ethiopia. In challenging the status quo, Zara Yacob said, �Citizens who are morally and rationally formed need not be silenced and intimidated by an authoritarian or manipulative sovereign�and men should be accountable for their actions� 

It is against the above backdrop that we must now view or examine contemporary Ethiopian society. The above examples of tolerance that I have cited are not simply ideological bents of individuals; on the contrary, they are manifestations of durable institutions of justice that Ethiopians have founded and established throughout their history. These sense of justice, embedded in the Ethiopian psychological makeup, in turn, have become a culture of hospitality and tolerance. A good example of the latter Ethiopian ethos is the fair treatment of immigrants by the larger Ethiopian society. Arabs, Armenians, Indians, non-Ethiopian Somalis, and other immigrants etc have lived among Ethiopians for centuries and they felt comfortable and at home in Ethiopia. 

The ancient Greek poet, Homer (800 BCE-701 BCE) is believed to have remarked about Ethiopia as �land where the goods sojourn for vacation.� Homer�s depiction of Ethiopia is still valid today, because Ethiopians have extended hospitality to all immigrants and refugees irrespective of their ethnic origins, religious affiliations, and their culture. A good example of this Ethiopian tolerance is the reception facilities and temporary medical clinics set up by the Ethiopian Government for the Eritrean refugees flocking into northern Ethiopia. For the last decade or so, Eritrean refugees have been well received by the people of Tigray in particular and the Ethiopian people in general, and as a result there are now 71,833 Eritrean refugees3 in four camps in the Regional State of Tigray and in two other camps in the Regional State of Afar. 

Now, if we compare the Ethiopian culture of tolerance to the torture and dehumanization of Ethiopian labor immigrants in the Arab countries, it is a devastating blow to Ethiopians and an ironic twist to their hospitality. In the final analysis, we could argue that the murder of Sheik Nur Imam, though executed by Ethiopians, is somehow influenced by the countervailing non-tolerant behavior that is for the most part exogenous, perhaps originating from where Ethiopian labor immigrants are tortured. 

The irony is that Sheik Nur Imam himself was preaching religious tolerance and became a target of intolerant forces. Before he was murdered, however, the Sheik have insinuated in one of his sermons by saying, �these days religious toleration have increasingly become impossible.� It is also ironic, because the assassination of Sheik Nur took place in Wollo, the most tolerant place in all Ethiopia that I described once as �microcosm Ethiopia and exemplar of Ethiopian unity.�

In the Wollo article that I wrote on October 2011, I remarked in admiration to �the 13-member committee who took the initiative, or who was bestowed to act as a task force, and worked in unison till the completion of the construction of the Church were not, as some may assume, entirely Christian. In fact, six of the Committee members were Muslims. Among the Christians too, it was not Orthodox Christians only who were engaged in the making of the St. Gabriel Church. Followers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church were equally devoted as well. And it is for this reason that I like to call Wollo microcosm Ethiopia and exemplar of Ethiopian unity.�4 

Other relevant themes that I have brought up in light of tolerance were discussed in my article, Education for Tolerance: Sustainable Dialogue for Human Dignity and in that article I attempted to address the problem of bias and prejudice in fomenting intolerance and violence: �The cause of human suffering, in almost all cases is the psychological makeup of people (individuals and groups) manifested in the form of ideological fanaticism, jingoistic nationalism, religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, and ethnocentrism. The phenomenon of prejudice occurs as a result of ignorance and/or misunderstanding, but it is not only a psychic dimension that is enveloped within the minds of individuals or groups; it is rather a developmental social process that breeds hate against certain group of people, and once it is ingrained in the ontological fabric of society, it could become dangerous. At this stage, prejudice could be obsession [nal] and could foment paranoid politics at state level.�

In order to find solutions to prejudice and intolerance, thus, I have stated the following in the same article: �In order to minimize prejudice and counter all other negative psychological make-ups, we have no choice but to counter-attack the negative attributes and reverse adverse social processes via education for tolerance. However, being tolerant to ones own detractors or enemies does not imply �turning the other chick� or unwarranted concession. It is rather an attempt to maintain ones soul, humanity and dignity and trying to save humanity from sinking further into the abyss of the monsters. Our best bet, therefore, is to cultivate a culture of tolerance via our won schools and higher institutions of learning, governmental (inter-governmental, non-governmental), institutions, the media and other public forums.�5 

The reason I want to involve the academic community in fostering religious and political tolerance is because academic freedom, which is the bedrock of tolerance in thought, is the basis for all other toleration and schools and universities could be the best platforms for this purpose especially if they are led by visionary and farsighted scholars. The nucleus of tolerance that begins in academic circles could have a far-reaching impact in the making of a democratic society in Ethiopia. In order to realize the latter, we Ethiopians should either regenerate the culture of tolerance of our forebears that I have noted above, or reincarnate ourselves with new thinking of tolerant culture. Either way, we are challenged in transforming our psychological make-up. When I was interviewed by Ethiopian Observer on January 2012, I stated, �in the final analysis, democracy does not flourish by the whim or decree of a given regime or because we simply wish it to happen. It can flourish and Ethiopia can make a genuine transition to democracy only if we wisely come up with alternative forms of discourses in which Ethiopians construct some sort of permutation in their thinking. Simply put, Ethiopians must adjust their psychological makeup to tolerate one another and lay the foundation of a political culture in which democracy thrives.�6 

The making of a tolerant democratic Ethiopian society should not be the burden of the Ethiopian Government only. All Ethiopians, including myself, are responsible in this mammoth historical task, but the Government must lead the way. As I have indicated in many of my writings in the past, the basis for institutionalizing democracy in Ethiopia are transparency, accountability, and the courage to accept criticism. I like to use this opportunity to call upon all Ethiopians to begin laying the cornerstone of criticism and self-criticism and not simply indulge in blanket criticism against ideas that are perceived as diametrical or contraire to ones ideas. The laying of this cornerstone, again, should not be solely the burden of the Ethiopian Government; we all must make the input but the Government should lead the way. The Government can lead the way by tolerating opposing agendas, ideas, and political programs of the opposition forces in Ethiopia and the opposition forces have responsibility to tolerate the ruling party and if possible initiate national reconciliation. The opposition cannot always negate Government initiatives and hope to garner support from the Ethiopian people; it should craftily balance its political program of recognizing the contribution of the current Government in development and perhaps criticize it on its failures. If this delicate balance is not maintained, we Ethiopians would not be able to establish a tolerant society as our forbears did.

Before I close, let me see if the opposition and the Ethiopian Government could tolerate my ideas that are incorporated in my new book, ETHIOPIA: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and The Developmental State. In this book, I criticized the ruling party in regards to democracy but I have extended accolades with respect to the sound development projects that the government initiated especially in infrastructure, education, agriculture, and industry. Now, the challenge to the government is that it should not only pick the criticisms and make reservations and highlight the accolades and be elated. It should accept both. However, if the Government levels counter-criticisms against my critique, I would welcome it and that is my challenge. If I don�t accept criticism from the Government, I would not be able to keep the promise of my two-penny input in the making of a tolerant society in Ethiopia. Likewise, the opposition should not highlight my criticism of the Government and ignore its contributions in development that I have noted in my book; it should, as a matter of course, maintain the balance and consider both angles in the continuum; otherwise, it would ignominiously fail itself, let alone marshal the vicissitudes in tolerant Ethiopian society, to which all of us have an historical obligation.


  1. Nasrudin Osman, Government Kills Sheik to Incriminate Opposition Parties, Ethiomedia, July 17, 2013
  2. Ghelawdewos Araia, ETHIOPIA: Democracy, Devolution of Power, & The Developmental State, IDEA, Inc., 2013
  3. Reported by Kisut Gebre-egziabher from Addis Ababa for UNHCR
  4. Ghelawdewos Araia, WOLLO: Microcosm Ethiopia and Exemplar of Ethiopian Unity, www.africanidea.org/wollo.pdf
  5. Ghelawdewos Araia, Education for Tolerance: Sustainable Dialogue for Human Dignity, www.africanidea.org/tolerance.html
  6. Interview on Contemporary Ethiopia, www.africanidea.org/Dr.Ghelawdewos_Contemporary_Ethiopian_issue.html


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