Religion defines the spiritual, moral, and even secular lives of billions worldwide. Although the extent and modality differs from religion to religion and even from individual to individual, religion is generally considered a frame of reference to life and living. Modern social values including the legal and educational systems are influenced by the norms and traditions of religions. This is clearly observed in Ethiopia where believers are usually actively living their religious values, norms and traditions. It is thus seminal to talk about religion as related to social cohesion and development generally.
Ethiopian Television (ETV) released a documentary on religious tolerance, referring to Islam and Christianity. I watched both parts of the release (now available as several video clips on YouTube) and wanted to share my reflections, as there are some issues that need further deliberations. First, I identified the strong sides of the documentary followed by the summary of the major issues that look quite slippery and even misleading. This is not however a professional review of the documentary.
The documentary has several strengths that are related to its intention and the process of making the documentary itself. One, the very idea of promoting tolerance of any nature and kind including religious should be among the top priorities of a national TV. It is commendable to document historical and contemporary developments that affect Ethiopia and the many religions thereof. Effective and unbiased accounts of how religions lived together in noticeable tolerance is very much instrumental for sustaining social cohesion.
Two, the process of making the documentary itself has various qualities, of which ordinary and expert people from Islam, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant religions took part. This would potentially enable a strong consideration of different perspectives.
Three, the extent of tolerance and collaboration between Muslims and Orthodoxes is quite amazing; they together build mosques and churches by contributing in cash and in kind. This is something we could find nowhere but in Ethiopia. ETV emphasized this part well and is indeed a point worth celebration. Not least useful is the title itself, “One country many religions”. It is concise, powerful and summative although one finds several contents that challenge the significance of the title.
Weaknesses and Limitations
The documentary has several, intended or unintended that might be though, weaknesses and limitations that left unwanted implications to viewers. To me the most important ones include the following.
Living the past?
The documentary gives due emphasis to past skirmishes between Muslims and Christians and to the unfair treatment of the former by Christian regimes. That left damaging tone to the title, which was intended to preach smooth relations between believers. Although it is not realistic to completely ignore past injustices, elaborating that in a film intended to create positive impact does hurt a lot. A documentary of this nature would have been much benefited by focusing primarily on past, present and future tolerance and collaboration between Muslims and Christians.
Representation or expertise?
Those interviewed by ETV are scholars and believers of the two religions and government officers. While the integrity of their thoughts and opinions seem little challengeable (primarily because only tiny parts of their views were selected and presented and without context), it is unclear whether they represent official positions of the two religions and that of the government on the wide-variety of issues raised. Do the accounts provided by the Muslim scholars, who were not linked to any official office, for instance represent the views of Islam in Ethiopia? And how about the Christian interviewees and government guys? From the documentary alone, it is not possible to discriminate individual viewpoints from the viewpoints of the two grand religions. This leaves confusion when it comes to acting or otherwise the recommendations of the participants. Careful distinction between the official positions of the religions and that of the government would have been very much helpful.
Terrorist or opponent?
A significant part of the documentary dwells on how "some individuals and groups" in both religions are creating terror in the name of their religions. This is I must say the most confusing and unhelpful part of the work. It is generally claimed that those individuals and groups, who are hardly identified by their names or affiliations, take extreme sides and are too narrow to acknowledge the presence and right of other religions. The abusive usage of the term terrorist is manifested in several ways. One, a number of religious books written by Muslim and Christian scholars are well displayed, telling the viewers that all those books are produced by terrorists. Books written for scholastic purposes and for defending religions are not excused. This is in sharp contradiction to the right of citizens to freely express ideas in all ways available and peacefully. I for instance saw books which I read that do not have a word and implication related to terrorism and/or extremism.
Two, even the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Synod in exile is implicated with terror and extremism. An Archbishop is shown condemning the government in Ethiopia, for it is trying to open a sugar factory in the holly place, Waldiba monastery. How could opposing government’s ill-planned projects be equated to terrorism and extremism? And effort is made to show to the viewers that the recent demonstrations and protests of Ethiopian Muslims are hijacked by terrorists. While I have no evidence that indicate otherwise, ETV has not the relevant and adequate information in support of their claim either. The implication ETV wanted to leave is that anyone who opposes government decisions and policies is to be labeled a terrorist and/or extremist. This confusion is too huge to be made by a national TV, from which we all expect the highest degree of responsibility and work ethics. It just abuses the overall thrust of the documentary, at least as reflected in its title.
ETV's "One country many religions" documentary is absolutely timely and interesting. It highlighted how Muslims and Christians lived in peace and in collaboration for centuries. The problem begins when recent conflicts are explained in terms of terrorism and extremism. While every Ethiopian, I must assume, denounces terrorism of any form, declaring its presence in Islam and Christian religions with no effort of specification is too big to swallow. If there are terrorists, it must be the duty of the government and the public at large to bring them to justice and prove them guilty. Until that is done, tagging individuals and groups as terrorists is counterproductive and has no legal and moral jurisdiction. Interestingly, Ethiopian Muslims and Christians need neither a national TV nor radio to sustain their age-old tolerance and collaborations. They just watched each other, and not any media, compassionately and will do so for ever.