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The relevance of the study of religion in Ethiopian context

The twin threats to the future of Ethiopia as a nation, in my view, are the fusion of ethnic and religious identities with political goals and religious extremism. These threats often have irrational foundations, which must be countered with rational discussions, writes Desta Heliso.

Ethiopia’s current status as one nation is dependent on different people groups associating themselves with a shared narrative about Ethiopia. Religion is at the heart of this narrative and indeed the whole formative process of the nation. So Ethiopia’s history from the 4th century onwards cannot be divorced from the history of religion. As it is well known, Christianity came out of the palace in Axum, flourished amongst ordinary people and then expanded southwards, with the king as defender of Orthodox Christianity. The introduction of Catholicism in the 17th century and Protestantism in the early 20th century inevitably changed the Christian landscape of Ethiopia, but the Orthodox Church and the empire continued to be dependent on each other until 1974. To this, Judaism can be added. Although the role Judaism played in the socio-political life of Ethiopia is difficult to determine, the influence of Judaism and Jewish literature on the socio-cultural frameworks, intellectual values and religious beliefs and worldviews of the Ethiopians cannot be denied. The Judeo-Christian influence was coupled with the Islamic influence from the 7th century onwards. Following Muslim territories in the east becoming part of the Kingdom in the medieval period, and the campaign of Ahmed the Left-Handed and the Oromo expansion in the 16th century, Islam and Christianity have co-existed in the country. 

Although religion is part of the socio-political fabric of the nation, religious or theological education is not part of the categories of disciplines that make up education in Ethiopia. The government, in accordance with the Constitution (Article 27:2), support any religious body establishing its own religious institution. But the government prohibits the study of religion in the Academy as well as accreditation of theological institutions by the Ministry of Education. The basis for this prohibition is a constitutional article, whose English translation reads: ‘Education shall be provided in a manner that is free from any religious influence, political partisanship or cultural prejudices’ (90:2). This translation lacks accuracy.  An unbiased translation of the Amharic should read something like this: ‘Education shall be provided in a manner that is free from any religious, political and cultural influence’. One could then interpret this Article as saying that a certain program or course should not be designed and offered in public institutions in order to promote a particular culture, religion or political ideology. And yet, this Article has been used as a legislative key to lock the door against the provision of religious studies in schools and universities, which are recognized by the Ministry of Education.

This clearly distinguishes Ethiopia from many countries in the northern hemisphere and some countries in Africa, where religious and theological education is kept in the public domain through departments of higher educational institutions. I understand our government’s fear, which is that academic studies of religion could lead to academic debates based on honest assessments of intellectual underpinnings of a given religion, which might result in insensitive or unwelcome remarks, which could lead to religious controversies or even religious conflicts, hence national instability. This fear is not completely unjustified in the Ethiopian context, but any meaningful discussion on the issue has been successfully ducked so far. However, risk of religious conflicts cannot be removed or lessened by keeping the lid on something of such central importance in the context of Ethiopia and the region as a whole.

Admittedly, determining the social and political significance of the study of religion or theology remains difficult. Many in the West and, indeed, in Africa do not see theology as socially and politically significant, as it is not political science, economics, medical science, engineering or law. Some argue that theology is an illegitimate enterprise, as it focuses on a non-existent ‘object’ (namely God). Others argue that since the role of religious or theological education is to prepare people whose role does not go beyond religious borders so as to encompass broader societal issues, such discipline should remain within the religious sphere. I beg to differ and would argue that religious/theological education has societal significance and, therefore, should be offered in state recognized institutions of learning and, in the case of Ethiopia, theological institutions owned by religious bodies must gain government recognition. I would like to outline four reasons very briefly.  

  1. As indicated above, the history and identity of Ethiopia as a nation cannot be understood apart from the Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths. Understanding the past and present religious literature, music and art, and religious ideas, myths and symbols is absolutely vital to understanding the diverse socio-cultural and historical foundations and values that constitute Ethiopia as a nation.
  2. Ethiopia is a deeply religious country with 97.3 percent of the population claiming to have a religious affiliation of some sort. Indeed, for the vast majority of Ethiopians (like all Africans), the idea that they are believers is center stage. But believing ought to be matched with thinking in order to achieve societal flourishing and moral and intellectual progress. Faith that is not thought through is not capable of overcoming racial, religious and political prejudices or preventing tragic circumstances such as that which took place in Rwanda and Kenya in 1994 and 2007 respectively and that are currently taking place in South Sudan. Faith that is not thought through can even become an instrument of death and destruction rather than peace, unity and development, as is the case in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Libya, etc. Faith can be thought through in particular religious or denominational institutions but it also needs a neutral environment, where it can be critically examined and constructive frameworks can be developed towards understanding of faith, and societal progress, order and cohesion. This brings me to my third reason.
  3. A better understanding of religion in Ethiopia can be achieved only through more serious academic studies of religious ideas and ancient sacred and other writings. This academic enterprise could create a new generation of Ethiopians who would be able to think critically and analytically, develop religious or theological frameworks through which existing wisdom can be critiqued, explained and articulated in a responsible and constructive manner. All this could have a practical result for our country in at least four ways. First, public beliefs about God and morality can be shaped with the results of positive social capital in faith communities and promotion of the ethical concept of common good for peace and creation care. Second, issues facing the country – such as poverty, corruption, governance, citizenship, identity (ethnic and religious), justice, freedom, democracy (its efficacy and limitations), gender issues and economic development – can be better understood from religio-cultural perspectives and, consequently, context-bound, reasonable and realistic solutions can be worked towards. Third, disciplines such as public theology can help bring faith to bear in the world of politics and contribute to public policies shaped by desirable attributes of public morality such as individual self-discipline, sacrifice, compassion, truth, justice, equity, and striving for the highest good. Fourth, ecumenical and inter-religious initiatives and dialogues could be successfully undertaken in a neutral place of learning whose mission and objectives are integrated with the educational goals of the country. 

Let me come to my fourth and final reason. The twin threats to the future of Ethiopia as a nation, in my view, are the fusion of ethnic and religious identities with political goals and religious extremism. These threats often have irrational foundations, which must be countered with rational discussions. How are the threats manifesting themselves in Ethiopia? For example, there are some Ethiopians who believe that political processes must center on the fusion of the Amhara identity with Orthodox Tewahido Christianity. There are also others who believe that political processes must center on the fusion of Oromo identity with Islam and/or Waaqeffannaa. Some go even further and argue that a true Oromo is a Muslim. More worryingly still, moderate Sufism is threatened by extremist Wahhabism in our country. In addition to all this, some extremists claim that Ethiopia was part of ‘land of Islam’ (dar al Islam) and must be reclaimed. Such claims could renew historical wounds and result in dangerous religious tensions, which could endanger peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

There are no simple solutions for many of the problems our country is facing, but academic inquiry of religion in the public and intellectual arena can help produce people who can stand on the side of reasoned faith. It can also increase understanding of the religious and intellectual grounds upon which the nation was founded, prevent dangerous historical revisionism, encourage mutual understanding and appreciation between faith communities, and promote societal peace, order and cohesion.

Desta Heliso (PhD) studied at the London School of Theology and King’s College in London. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

Contributed by Desta Heliso
Contributed by Desta Heliso