Misunderstanding “Peace” and “Normality”: A Reply to Ustaz Hassen Taju

Abdurahman B. Ibrahim

Ustaz Hassen Taju recently wrote an article in which he argued in favour of bringing to an end all Muslim public protests. The reasons he gave were many, but most of them aimed at deterring the supposedly ill effects of a continued protest. In this short piece of mine, I won’t dwell on my views of his points. Nor will I take issues with his methodology—which is utterly biased. I would rather like to re-think only one of the most important mind-sets that informs most of his points: “the unjust ‘peace’ is better than the just ‘non-peace’”. This mind-set, I believe, is not only his, by the way, but underlies the process of thinking among many Ethiopians in general. In analyzing Hassen’s case, I will be very brief as follows.

The ustaz warned us of the grave effects of escalation. He thought further protests might lead, among other things, to bloodshed, more arrest, more exile and so on. He tended to ask at one place, “the protesters want to protest until the government falls…when would that be? Would the protest be fruitful? Would it be possible?” In such assertions, a certain psychological content comes up so clear: the debilitating fear of a (risky) uncertainty that struggle brings along with it. This fear gets even more pronounced when the struggle is prolonged. It is assumed that since more and longer struggle leads to more and more uncertainty—perhaps riskier—it is better to accept defeat sometimes and “make peace”. The “peace” here is understood to be the status quo ante—the condition that had been in place before the activism broke out. According to Hassen, this is the “normal” situation. The opposite, which is the “abnormal”, he thought, is the absence of that status quo ante. This “abnormal” period is the one which started to surface after the Muslims started to rise up against an overly interventionist government. So, in Hassen Taju’s mind, we need to go back to the “good old days” since the current days, and those to come, are the “bad” and “abnormal” ones. (His contention that he only demanded us to change tactics and not stop opposition is a weak argument since he didn’t show any other meaningful way of opposition—which basically means he wanted us to go back to square one.)

I think some people give normative precedence to the absence of “war” over the presence of justice. They feel the “normal” situation is when no bullet is fired. Regardless of the quality of the condition people live in, they always prefer stability and “noise-less” reality. They are ready to endure any problem (think of injustice and oppression) as long as physical violence is not perpetrated on them and others. If they by any chance start to sense a “chaotic” environment (such as the confrontation between the oppressors and the oppressed) around them, they always dream of the past days of ‘peace” and “calmness”.

Peace” is a very elusive term. It may mean different things to different people. But according to a host of scholars who specialize in the field, “peace” is not the absence of war. It is not the lack of physical violence or of “uncomfortable noise”, in other words. It is rather the presence of something else, too. Peace is as much about the existence of justice, development, freedom, and equality as it is about the non-existence of physical violence and war. It requires one to establish the foundational “good” things of life as much as it requires the eradication of the visible “evils” of it to believe that peace is prevalent.

Why is “peace” understood in this broad way, though? It is basically because “violence”, understood as the opposite of peace, should not be understood just in its physical sense. “Violence” is any damage done to anyone. According to the world-renowned scholar Johan Galtung, violence is the divergence between a person’s potential and his/her actuality, when this divergence is caused by an external factor. It is the difference between what he/she can achieve and has actually achieved as result of this factor. And this difference should not necessarily be physiological, but also structural. When people are subjected to institutionalized racism, discrimination, colonization, and segregation, these conditions should strike us as proto-typical forms of violence, too, as they gravely hamper the natural development of the human potential (they are perhaps even more lasting and more devastating in their effects than physical harm).

Peace, hence, is the eradication of all these kinds of violence; it is not just the elimination of physical abuse. It is, in other words, the presence of a favourable environment for the full actualization of one’s potential. It is about, among other things, liberation, justice, equality and the rule of law.

Ethiopian Muslims have suffered from massive violence—structural and physical—during the EPRDF’s regime (and for centuries, for that matter). Especially since recent times, the scale and depth of these forms of violence has increased colossally. Before (as much as after) the outbreak of the movement, structurally speaking, Muslims have suffered from discriminatory educational rules; disempowering forms of institutional interference and crippling lack of cultural autonomy. Even more severely, they have suffered from the lack of the freedoms of conscience and belief with the blatant and strange anti-secularist government interventions. Physically, they had been intimidated and arrested several times when they spoke against these oppressive structures. They had been subjected to a regime of fear which they never tried to break collectively as such. All these have had and would surely have long-lasting impacts on the potential of Muslims to grow and develop their own selves and their communities in all walks of life, and make a clean break from the dark past.

Now, these violent developments have not been (or were not) “normal” situations—at least for Muslims. They were not so because they were neither “natural” (but artificially constructed) nor ethical. They were not manifestations of a “peaceful” environment to live in, work in and grow. Contrary to what Hassen Taju assumed, these were not “normal” times that we should seek to go back to or be nostalgic about. They were not and should never be our reference points or standards by which all other developments are gauged and prioritized. True, there was a relatively better “stability” during these times. Granted, there were no organized oppositions or uprisings, either. And, yes, government reprisals were not as severe as they are now. However, there were in place structural modes of violence (and some physical and much psychological ones) and hence there was no “peace”—in its meaningful form.

Muslims realized this, and massively rose against the government recently. They became quite vocal and consistent in their uprisings. They demanded their rights for institutional autonomy, freedom of conscience and just treatment under the law. The government, a truly totalitarian one, responded with heavy-handedness. It arrested, tortured and killed people in the thousands (all added). It kept intact the structural violence that has been in place for long (Although the struggle is bringing about some positive changes in other aspects, one of which I will mention below).

The Muslims are now demanded, by ustaz Hassen, to stop opposition without any guarantee that the structural violence that gave rise to the opposition in the first place is dismantled and the physical abuse is stopped. One reason given for such a demand is impersonated in a question like this: for how long can we keep fighting confrontationally for the realization of our rights? The basic problem with this kind of argument is 1) It assumes it is “abnormal” to lead a life of continued struggle 2) It assumes the past is better than what is and will be 3) It misunderstands the real problem. I don’t agree with number one since it is (or should be) “normal”, at least morally speaking, to lead a life of struggle demanding one’s right. This is, moreover, a relatively “peaceful” life or, more accurately, is a path towards a more “peaceful” life since it a) is an active engagement aiming at the eradication of injustice—regardless of the immediate outcome b) is a liberating process by itself. It brings to life the noble satisfaction of inner freedom—to the very least.

Related to the above assertions (or conversely), I don’t agree with number two, either, because, I would argue, the past was not just bad but worse. This is because it harbored not only violence but also the internalization of that violence on our part. This latter phenomenon is self-defeating in and of itself. Finally, I believe the problem is the existence of violence not the will to fight that violence. One may worry about the consequences on people of fighting violence, but at least some of these consequences are what freedom and liberation— in short, peace—require (have required) from all self-respecting people in the world and in history. Sacrifice for the sake of peace is worth it. And continued sacrifice—not short-term– is just natural as long as any form of violence persists. Needless to say, we have to look for oppositional strategies that help us minimize the costs and increase the successes of the struggle as much as is possible (and, once again, ustaz Hassen has not provided us with any alternative form of opposition, alas!). But we should radically alter our defeatist mind-set and learn to live a life of resistance!