Q + A: Religion and Politics in Eritrea.

Michael Abraha
October 07, 2009
photo: Omar Jabir

Moslems and Christians have lived in peace and harmony for centuries in Eritrea. However, over the past decades the two sides have been victims of the wrong judgment of their elites, says Omar Jabir, Eritrean thinker, politician and democracy advocate based in Sydney, Australia. Omar says the Christian elite misled the grass-roots and mobilized them against the slogan of independence. "Now the Islamist elite are using and abusing religion to recruit supporters claiming that the regime is sectarian" says Omar, adding that they are connected - some of them - with foreign powers and scholars.

On his role in the Eritrean Islamist movement, Omar says:

I have never been a member of any Islamist organization or group. What I am trying to do is to involve them [Islamists] in the program of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance - and make them part of the national force for change and for building the future.

On questions of justice and liberty in Eritrea

Omar: Since the dictatorial regime is targeting all Eritreans - Christians, Moslems, young and old, male and female - the response should be equally "national"- all sectors and groups, political organizations and civil society groups, intellectuals, religious leaders, journalists and social activists should join efforts and say NO to the dictatorship - inside and outside--written or verbal.

On Islamists and Islamized politics as a way of empowering Moslems:

Omar: I am against leaving them "behind" - that will be the real danger for them and for the whole country. I want to convince them that their "rights" should be and can be part of the common rights - so they should be part and parcel of the force of change.

The role of Sharia in future Ertirea

Omar: Sharia will never be a common law for all Eritreans--as for the "private laws" for the social life of Moslems - marriage, death, divorce etc. That part is going on even now!

On possible relations of Eritrean Islamist groups with foreign Islamic movements:

Omar: I am not sure what you mean--as a nation we should have relations with those regional organizations and states that we expect support from them, the Middle East states, Islamic League etc., the same as with the Vatican.
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On whether it was right to call opposition leaders like Woldeyesus Ammar Christian politicians

Omar: I didn't describe Woldeyesus Ammar as a Christian - that is what some Islamic fanatics say--he is a democratic, nationalist fighter. He is a personal friend. I used to know him long time ago. As for dictator Isayas, he doesn't believe in religion - but he abuses both religions, Christianity and Islam, to solidify and strengthen his authority.

On the ´us-and-them´ approach in Eritrean politics

Omar: Here some clarification is necessary--what we mean by ´us and them´ is not religious classification or categorization--rather it is "cultural" - all Eritrean nationalities feel that there is domination of Tigrinya speaking highlanders everywhere. Here comes the ´us and them´. I have written a new series about this issue, I hope Awate.com can translate it.

On keeping religion out of politics

Omar: I agree that religion should not be used to keep people apart, on the contrary all religions advocate for peace, equality and co-existence. But when there is lack of justice and freedom, the last resource for human beings is religion! Northern Ireland, Pakistan and India etc., the extraordinary prevails.

Islamist groups´ role in national life

Omar: Promotion of national unity, genuine partnership and coexistence - principles and values shared long time ago during the era of the Eritrean Independence Block in the 1940s

Major challenges facing the Eritrean opposition

Omar: The Eritrean opposition lacks the vision, the practical tool and means and the leadership that can have the confidence of the Eritrean people.

On American threats to sanction and place the Eritrean government in its list of terrorism sponsoring states

Omar: External pressure or measures is the last thing we need -- that means we are unable to handle our issues in our hands and the future will be uncertain.

Omar Jabir used to be a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front, and within that organization he was a member of the Marxist Labor Party. Omar was also one of the founders of the progressive Eritrean National Student Movement during the country´s struggle for independence from Ethiopia.
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