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Eritrea: Embracing Unity in Diversity - Islamic Leader's Perspective

 Edited by Michael Abraha

Embracing unity in diversity is key to peace and harmony in Eritrea, says Mr. Hassan Salman who is Head of the Sudan based Eritrean Islamic Congress – one of the 13 members of the opposition Eritrean Democratic Alliance. In a paper prepared for a conference organized by CDRiE’s Eritrean scholars, intellectuals and professionals in London last week, Mr. Salman expresses his deepest convictions for a free, just and harmonious Eritrea. His thesis entitled “National Harmony and the Question of Government and Religion”, offers answers to factional and sectarian ideologies by challenging citizens to fight for a common national goal. Here is a summary of Salman’s presentation.

National Harmony and the Question of Government and Religion Hassan Salman - Sudan

National Harmony

National harmony is the fundamental and objective desire and demand of all religions. It is the only guaranty to peace, unity, and national sovereignty.

One of the requirements of national harmony or coexistence is to live in peace with others despite fundamental differences, as a matter of policy.

Co-existence requires common understanding and national policies which respect the rights of all religions, tribes, regions and cultures. This could be practiced at three levels.

  1. Political and ideological: Narrowing gaps and preventing religious differences from deepening.
  2. Economic: Developing free trade among regions and encouraging co-operation between people of different cultures.
  3. Developing cultural diversity. Different religions and cultures working toward peace and harmony.

Based on the afore-mentioned propositions, I would like to point out the four basic factors that promote national harmony: Preserving co-existence; common desires; common understanding of common goals; and working together to achieve those goals.

National harmony in turn promotes:

  1. Human dignity
  2. Justice and equality
  3. Freedom
  4. Tolerance and accepting differences
  5. Dialogue
  6. Co-operation and understanding each other
  7. Abiding by agreements

Requirements for national harmony in nations with diverse cultures

  1. Accepting differences and pluralism
  2. Accepting diversities
  3. Respecting permanent differences
  4. Managing pluralism and differences peacefully
  5. Equal representation of all sides
  6. Decentralized democratic system

To this end, acceptance of the value of co-existence by all citizens, regions and cultures is of vital importance. Strengthening national unity, internal peace and harmony is everybody’s responsibility. However, political parties, civic societies, all governmental agencies, religious institutions should be vanguards in this effort.

Relations of State and Religion

In Islam, relations between State and Religion are based on the fact that Prophet Mohamed conducted religious and political duties without separating state and religion. Qur’an continued to be the basis of all social, political and economic activities for Muslims. Except for some political structures, Sharia (Islamic law) has been the common factor for all Kulafate and governments that followed Prophet Mohamed.

Islamic Experiences and Christian influence in the West: Historically, the Islamic experience indicates that religion did not have absolute control over the state as was the case in the West under Christian influence. This is because in the West, Christianity had absolute control over all institutions of government. There are different types of relations between people and their political institutions. In Sudan and Iran there is no separation of state and religion. In Turkey, it is a secular system in that there is a complete separation of state and religion. In most Islamic countries there is some form of partnership between religious and political powers. There are also other realities that call for religious and political entities to work together while ensuring that religious authority remained free and separate.

Relationship between church and government in the West: Historically, Christianity in the west developed a special outlook because of the dominant position held by priests and the church. The religious attitude toward government followed the Biblical doctrine which states: “what belongs to God should go to God and what is Caesar’s must go to Caesar.”

Christianity viewed religion and government separately from the concept of nation state and its institutions. The absolute dominance and control over the life and thinking of people resulted in the separation of religious power from political power as demanded by intellectuals; This in turn leading to the idea of secularism.

Current relations between religion and state in view of Western experience: As a result of continuous conflicts between religion and state in the West the following explanation can be offered regarding the development of a new secularist concept. One: As seen in France and former communist countries, power was seized through confrontation and use of force against religious establishments. Two: As in Scandinavian countries, there is a pragmatic separation of power between church and state. And third: as in the UK, Italy and Greece, there exists a relationship convenience between religion and state.

Relationship between Religion and State in Pluralistic Societies, Such as Eritrea: According to the conventional political theory, a nation is made up of land, people, and government. This theory holds that religion is inseparable from the people and that it is one of the main pillars of a nation. Within this framework, the separation of religion and state will be considered to be at variance with the interest of the people.

For the adherents of the Islamic faith, there are three pillars upon which Islam is based: Faith and prayers, morality and its values, and Sharia.

First, there is no direct relationship between worship/prayers and the government. What is required is granting freedom of religion and facilitating an environment conducive to its practice on the one hand and freeing centers of worship from becoming breeding grounds for political rivalries.

Secondly, it is up to the government to uphold the shared moral values which is the essence of religion.

And finally, the application of Sharia might be possible in a situation where a shared rule exists under the instruments of both the national constitution and its institutions. Any other exclusive religious laws, however, should operate independent of constitutional instruments consistent with individual faiths and in consideration of conditions that affect social groups that are involved in such faiths.

In the event of disagreements, the principle of majority rule should be accepted as a means of coexistence and as a way of avoiding conflicts between different groups.

In the interest of national harmony, the form of government preferred would be one that embraces neither theocratic nor secular political system. And yet, the form of government we choose should win the acceptance of the people; it should be a government based on political plurality; it should be a government that accepts the peaceful transfer of power; it should be a government in which its power derives from constitution and rule of law; it should be a government that respects human, civic, and political rights; it should be a government that allows devolution of power between central and regional governments; it should be a government that embraces religious, cultural, social diversity; and a government that allows civic society organizations to play the role of holding the government accountable for its actions.

Recognizing the importance of coexistence of all sectors of society in the framework of our common nation and our pluralistic political and social discourse as part of an essential factor for our unity, we need to foster the culture of respect, compromise, greater goodwill, and avoid the culture of animosity and exclusion.

Thus, the biggest challenge facing Eritreans today is how to live in peace and harmony, how to tolerate our differences, and how to embrace the concept of unity in diversity. In conclusion, I urge the upcoming Eritrean Democratic Alliance conference to formulate policies and resolutions that would foster a process of building unity and harmony within our society.

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