Editor’s Note: This article on tolerance is timely since it comes on the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance (16 November). In 1996, the UN General Assembly (by resolution 51/95) invited UN Member States to observe the International Day for Tolerance on 16 November. This action was a follow up on the United Nations Year for Tolerance, 1995, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 at the initiative of UNESCO, as outlined in the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance and Follow-up Plan of Action for the Year.
Importantly, in a world of rich diversity and great differences, tolerance is a prerequisite for peace. It is also a lever for sustainable development, as it encourages the construction of more inclusive and resilient societies that are able to draw upon the ideas, creative energy, and talents of each of their members. Regardless of location, it is imperative that as individuals, communities, and countries, we come together to build societies that are more tolerant, more inclusive, and more peaceful.
A nation is not only defined by its geographic size, population, or other tangible material possession. Intangibles are also often important in defining a nation. Usually, the national character of a country is determined by the mental and psychological dimensions of its people, rather than just its physical characteristics. For example, Eritrea is defined by the collection of its people comprising nine different ethno-linguistic groups who have been unified by a national identity (Eritreanism) and value system (traditional and revolutionary culture), and who are resolutely committed to a vision for a just and prosperous future. As a people, we determined, long before independence, that our cultural differences should not separate us, and instead our diversity should be channeled to bring collective strength that can benefit us all. Like many other African counterparts, we may have different ethnic groups, religions, and languages – but we all belong to Eritrea.
Tolerance and mutual respect are among the vital ingredients that help in the making of an Eritrean national identity. Tolerance is to have a fair and permissive attitude toward others who have ideas, actions, faiths, and cultures that are different to yours. Tolerance is a strong chain that binds the society. It’s an expression of a wider outlook and positive humanist perspective. Considering the diverse social structure of the Eritrean people, tolerance is of paramount importance in promoting national unity and social harmony. Tolerance and mutual respect are among the qualities that provided Eritreans the strength to stand before aggressors and oppressors. For many years, our leadership and our people’s tolerance and foresight have turned our differences and diversity into harmony, grace, and beauty.
During and after the struggle for independence, unity in diversity served as the foundational precept of the EPLF, the country’s leadership, and the people. We are united in a common struggle for our independence and we firmly stand on the ground of unity laid by our martyrs. After independence, the political, economic and social institutions of the country have been designed in a way to establish a developed country, guided by the basic principle of unity in diversity. In Eritrea, tolerance and mutual respect are key characteristics of the culture exhibited in the political workings of the government and within the daily lives of the people.
Ignorance and low level of consciousness lead to narrow possibilities and twist the mind of the people. Intolerance is the first result of an inadequate education. An uneducated person behaves with arrogant impatience whereas those with a truly profound education express humility. As a people, we are overcoming ignorance with knowledge, fanaticism and narcissism with tolerance, and marginalization with acceptance and inclusion.
Tolerance and mutual respect are deeply rooted in the cultural and spiritual lives of the people as well. There are many oft-used proverbs and sayings in the Eritrean society that reflect this. One such a saying is “your true brother is your neighbor.” The collective humility and strong bonds of Eritreans are quite unique, particularly considering the broad canvass of social relations in Africa filled by horrific pictures of ethnic, religious, and tribal conflicts. Instead of resolving the discord within their own territory many African governments, engage in useless conspiracies to export chaos to neighboring countries. In our case, examples abound of efforts to introduce chaos to dilute our generally harmonious and stable social structure. Nevertheless, the plans have failed in the face of the impenetrable social cohesion and high level of consciousness of the people coupled with the meticulous handling of our leadership and government. Despite the turbulent nature of the Horn of Africa, Eritrea has experienced lasting peace and stability, and we will safely arrive at our destination and vision. We will continue to tolerate the actions of demons for the sake of preserving an angel. Sometimes, it is an act of wisdom, as reflected by the local Tigrigna proverb, “mEnti mogogo thlef anchwa” roughly meaning “for the sake of the oven, let the mouse go.”
Some contend that excessive tolerance of governments in some areas threatens national security. Unlimited tolerance could lead to the disappearance of tolerance. Extending unlimited tolerance to those who are intolerant could destroy the tolerant society and the sense of tolerance among the people. It is true that showing tolerance only to those who agree with you is no tolerance at all, but it is also equally right that the tolerant society must be protected from the extremely intolerant. Tolerance isn’t about entertaining and accepting every idea and action, which may further lead to having no purpose and belief. Peace cannot exist without tolerance, mutual respect, and justice. And development cannot exist without peace. In Eritrea, peace is not something maintained by the police and security forces. But rather, by mutual respect and tolerance. The peace prevalent in Eritrea did not come through unity in similarity but rather the result of unity in diversity. Our national unity and social harmony have been derived from our ability to understand each other and our common experiences.
Building tolerance and trust in diverse societies like Eritrea’s is not done overnight, but takes much time and commitment. The tree of national unity and social harmony is rooted in the graves of our fallen heroes and heroines. Our martyrs sacrificed their lives to bury divisive attitudes and to expel the Ethiopian colonial army. Building tolerance also requires access to education. The intensive political education and the illiteracy campaigns conducted during the struggle were the foundation for the present national unity and culture of tolerance. Education is a proven tool for the promotion of tolerance and understanding. Education liberates our minds from bias and prejudice to respect and appreciate the cultures, religions, and traditions of others. The governments of our region and continent should help and empower their citizens through education to overcome their intolerance and prejudice. Article 26(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
The diversity of the Eritrean people makes tolerance more than a virtue. It makes it a requirement for survival, development and national security. Our diversity is the essence of our beauty and strength. Our national unity is attained not by eliminating social differences, but by celebrating our diversity. Unlike the social structure of many diverse societies, built on the foundation of hatred, tension, and suspicion, Eritreans from the nine ethno-linguistic groups and different faiths live together in peace with one another as neighbors. In the Holy Bible, we find how people around Jesus asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12 28-31). The Holy Quran also says to “worship God… and be good to the parents, and the relatives, and the orphans, and the poor, and the neighbor, and the close associate, and the traveler…God does not love the arrogant showoff” (4: 36). We Eritreans are not only known for tolerance and respect to each other. We express respect to our enemies, too. The polite and humane treatment of the captured Ethiopian colonial soldiers by Eritrean’s tegadelti during the struggle for independence is a classic example.
In this age when societies across the globe are plagued by polarization and torn by conflict, Eritreans are focused on tolerance and mutual appreciation. Unpolluted by the riots and crises engulfing the region, and free from the extremism on the continent or around the globe, Eritreans collectively seek peace, tranquility, and unity. The sense of tolerance is the foundation of Eritrean nationalism and our collective strength is our diversity and tolerance.