The fervour of nationalism and group identity: the vicious forces of extremism that led to the Tigray war

By Kibrom Birhane

In his book, ‘When Religion Becomes Evil’, Charles Kimball identifies five warning signs when religion is going to turn evil.

First, absolute truth claims: Religious truth claims are based on the authoritative teachings of “inspired” leaders, or on interpretations of sacred texts. Thus, truth claims constitute the foundation on which the entire structure rests.

Second, blind obedience: This refers to a religious movement or teaching that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents.

Third, establishing the ideal time: This is about the optimum timing to strike an enemy, or seizing opportunities towards both short-term and ultimate goals.

Fourth, the end justifies any means: Some religious people focus on one component of a religion, and the end goal of protecting or defending this key component of the religion is often used to justify any means necessary. It in turn eliminates the compassion and constructive relationships of believers with others.

Fifth, declaring holy war: After narrating and solidifying a good-versus-evil and us-versus-them orientation, the next step is to wage a holy war. The just war doctrine in particular fuels the declaration of a holy war.   

It can certainly be argued that politics and the whole idea of secularism are just as powerful and pervasive forces as religion – if not more so – and follow similar patterns of violence and destruction, at least in the Ethiopian context. The atrocious war in Tigray is a typical example for how the destructiveness emanating from religious extremism has been a regular feature of the political discourse and practice in the context of Ethiopian society.

This is how Kimball’s five warning signs played out in the case of this fragile nation state at war.

The Absolute truth claim by politicians
Among other issues, the first two years until the war were periods of separating the forces of ‘good’ – i.e. leaders of the so-called political reform – and forces of ‘evil’ – i.e. leaders who had been in power until the change. Now, the absolute truth was with the ‘agents of the political reform’; all wrongdoings (or evils) had been committed by the leaders ousted from power in the federal government.

Such an narrative was a looming danger, because it was an indirect way of justifying that, should the political change succeed, Ethiopia had an absolute right to go to war with those who had supposedly done it all the harm. Indeed, it led us to the war.

During the war, the Prime Minister continually expressed that Ethiopia was fighting a just war to overturn the fatal disintegration unfolding. The government has been heavily focused on imparting the view that the war is about survival as a nation.

In fact, that has been its main argument to justify almost anything. Government and government-affiliated media, unscrupulous academics, lopsided political analysts and many other groups have tried to propagate and solidify the view that the government is fighting a just war to save an ancient nation from extinction.

Most religious conflicts are horrendous because many religions believe and teach that only their way is the right way to heaven. As such, it is only their respective causes that are absolute and acceptable to justify wars against their perceived enemies. Just as absolutist religious leaders, our political leaders incessantly depicted their war as a right and good cause. 

Blind obedience
hen political leaders portray their war as a good cause, the public on both sides, all too often, blindly follows such crooked, egoistic, selfish and corrupt political justifications. Like witless zealots who focus on the interpretation of one component of a religion from the ocean of values, the political and military leaders lied outright, and presented their personal political disagreements as a public issue.

The public, all too willingly, bought this idea, and communities and ethnic groups started labelling each other as enemies. This is a pinnacle of blind obedience to the demands of ferocious political interests. On many occasions, the mob wildly rose to quash individuals who had been advocating for peace.

The reason for this was simply that the war had been portrayed as a just war by power-greedy leaders, and the mob took this as an absolute truth. Having achieved this blind obedience of the public, the so-called leaders then changed the tone from a political conflict to a civil war.

Politicians knew that creating self-righteous narratives and people’s unquestioning obedience would be indispensable to boost the war effort. And they executed it well. Regrettably, the destructive consequences of the war might have been substantially minimised, if not avoided altogether, had it not been for the crowd’s blind obedience.   

Establishment of an ideal time
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in March 2018. In December 2019, he dissolved the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which was a governing coalition consisting of four political parties: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) – to form the Prosperity Party (PP).

This and other actions by the prime minister were not welcomed by the TPLF leadership. Among the former four coalition members, only the TPLF declined to join the PP. Since then, its ties with the federal government had eroded fast.

However, tension between the federal government and the TPLF intensified after the Tigray Regional Government held the constitutionally mandated regional parliamentary elections in September 2020, without the permission of the central government. The PM called the election illegal, and lawmakers slashed funds for the regional government. This was how the tension morphed, from a simple political difference, to a stern disagreement, and finally to a deadly conflict.

In the timeline of the war, one can observe that almost immediately after Abiy came to power, both his and the TPLF’s camps were aware that their political differences could explode into war. In a way, the question of ‘who started it’ is not critical. What is important to understand is the chronology of the political upheaval in the country that alerted us that war was imminent.

As indicated by Kimball, it is in such a similar way that religious zealots also start and fuel deadly conflicts. They brace themselves to attack anytime they believe their opponent has less might to retaliate considerably. To prepare their followers for attacks, extremist religious leaders often dehumanise others outside of their religions.

Similarly, the ‘us versus them’ political narratives and the political blame-games played for years before the war were ominous political developments that braced the people for horrendous attacks anytime. 

The end justifies any means
hen the war started, politicians and of course the vast majority of the public, too, were blind about the human and material costs. It was probably not because people believe there is such a thing as a good war, but rather because they were in a blissful witlessness, convinced that the end would undoubtedly justify the means.

Many shouted to ‘die for their country’, university lecturers carried guns instead of pens, journalists and public figures advocated for the war instead of taming the anger, singers usurped the power of music for violence, and religious leaders blessed the fighting instead of condemning it.

The consequence, ultimately, was that hundreds of thousands of people died, millions were displaced, billions of dollars vanished into thin air, and venerable historical sites were ruined. This end is supposed to justify the means, that is, the egoistic and ignoble political leaders’ interests. This is blissful obliviousness – to say the least – and absolute ignorance to be precise.

Such sickening justification is squarely at the centre of any religious terrorist groups’ justification of the tragedies they inflict on innocent people. Just as religious extremists manipulate their followers to kill and die to inherit heaven, the political manipulation of the ‘dying for the motherland’ sentiment was at work to justify the terrible loss of innocent lives.

According to Kimball, reinforcing group identity is one component of religious life that can easily be elevated to an end that justifies any means – i.e. cold-blooded killings for religious ends. Similarly, Ethiopia’s so-called political leaders also used the idea of maintaining sovereignty as a means to justify the atrocious killings and the widespread suffering people faced during and after the war.   

Declaration of holy war
o justify their atrocious acts, most violent religious leaders nurture a just war doctrine in the minds of their followers. Similarly, before the war, the Ethiopian government had labelled the leaders from Tigray as cancers that threatened the very existence of its people. Therefore, God surely is on its side to ‘erase the cancer’.

Moreover, a series of documentaries and other media content ‘uncovering’ the alleged wrongdoings of Tigrigna-speaking political leaders was among the central propaganda messages to deepen public grievances against the TPLF in particular, and a tactic to consolidate power by labelling the deposed Tigrayan leaders as evil and the new leader as Messiah.

Therefore, whoever started the war, it was a no-brainer for the majority of Ethiopians that it would be between the evil and the Messiah. And being on the side of the Messiah was undoubtedly the right call. During the war, both sides – the attacker and the attacked, wrongly and rightly, respectively – distanced themselves from the culpability of genocidal acts by declaring that they were fighting a just war in defence of their respective holy lands.

Hence, just as religious groups are influenced to die in defence of their sacred spaces, the impulse of defending one’s land was manipulated to turn communities against each other. Religious extremists call their followers to violence whenever they feel their sacred spaces are attacked. Likewise, political leaders in Ethiopia bound up political manipulation, nationalist agendas, and group identity to justify the holiness of the war for their people, because it was about defending their sacred spaces – the motherland.

The political justification given for the war was on par with religious fanaticism in triggering conflicts and inflicting traumatic deaths in any society. The nationalist fervour and the zeal for one’s ethnic group are as absolutist as ultra-religiousness.

If anything, the latest Ethiopian war has taught us that a secular ideology that does not consider public interests has a greater tendency towards bloody violence as ultra-conservative religious teachings. If not managed carefully, both the political ethnocentrism and the nationalist fervour propagated by the current government can be deadlier factors than any other force. Just as there are religious extremists who commit crimes in the name of religion, politicians in Ethiopia do the same in the name of public interest. Hence, the way politics is conducted in the country is as vicious as religious violence. 

To conclude, according to Kimball, when religion becomes evil, it manifests several signs such as absolute truth claims about God and the meaning of selected sacred texts, blind obedience to influential leaders and unquestioned doctrines, and misguided efforts to reinforce or defend group identity. Alas, similar ominous political developments led to the Tigray war. The political naiveté and fraud in the country was, doubtless, a breeding ground for the violence and destruction the people faced like any other vicious force.

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