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PERSPECTIVE ON ERITREA : Putting Nationalism in a Good Light : A fierce love of their land, newly independent from Ethiopia, unites a diverse people against powerful odds.

March 19, 1995|TOM KILLION | Tom Killion, a historian and artist who specializes in Africa, is working on a book on the creation of modern Eritrea. He taught African history at the University of Asmara under a Fulbright fellowship

ASMARA, Eritrea — Does America have something to learn from an African country devastated by 30 years of war and divided by ethnicity and religion?

Seventy thousand young Eritrean men and women gave their lives to free this land along the Red Sea from the brutal grip of its big neighbor, Ethiopia. The struggle ended only three years ago, after claiming the lives of a quarter of a million people on both sides and forcing one-third of Eritrea's 3 million people into exile as refugees.

The Eritrean freedom fighters who gave their lives are universally called martyrs, a name with deep cultural significance in this ancient Christian and Muslim land. Their sacrifice is seen as a sacred trust by most Eritreans, and the new government is using this popular sentiment to mobilize people to work to rebuild their war-ravaged and destitute country.

When I first arrived in Eritrea, I found this level of national sentiment astonishing. But after living here for a year, I've been forced to reconsider my own long-held view of nationalism as a negative and a largely mindless prejudice in favor of one's own country. Instead, I've come to agree with political theorists who divide nationalism into two types: a negative nationalism that divides people between mutually intolerant ethnic, territorial or religious groupings (as we see happening so often around the world today) and a positive nationalism that unifies people of many different ethnic groups and religions in a shared quest for justice and freedom.

Eritrean nationalism is clearly of the positive variety, for the Eritrean nation is not based on a common ethnicity, religion, language or culture. All the things that seem to have made a negative nationalism so strong in the 20th Century are lacking here. Eritrea's small population is divided into nine ethnic groups with their own languages, split evenly between Islam and Christianity.

Despite an overwhelming 99.8% vote for independence last year, Eritrea's newly won national identity is not uncontested. Although the issue of political linkage with Ethiopia is settled, another group threatens the new nation's stability: Islamist fundamentalism, which has developed as a powerful political force across Eritrea's border in the Sudan.

This growing movement has the potential to mobilize Eritrean Muslims against the secular ideals of the current government, and has already recruited and organized an "Eritrean Islamic Jihad" among some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who still remain in Sudan. Last December, the Eritrean government broke diplomatic relations with Sudan, alleging that the Sudanese were supporting a movement that seeks to create an Islamic republic in Eritrea through armed attacks on the new government and its supporters.

Against these forces, the Eritrean government is actively promoting a positive, multiethnic, religiously tolerant, secular nationalism--the type of nationalism on which the 19th-Century republics of Europe and the Americas were founded. It is the form of nationalism that created the best ideals of the United States, including equal citizenship under the rule of law, irrespective of ethnicity, gender or creed.

Eritreans are also embracing the mechanisms of liberal nationalism, such as universal education and universal national service. This summer, more than 35,000 school-age Eritreans participated in national service programs, planting trees, resurfacing roads and harvesting crops. The former guerrilla fighters who organized this effort know that to ensure peace and prosperity, there must be equal educational opportunities and shared sacrifice toward the common good, particularly in a country so fragmented by ethnicity, religion and geography.

Why are the Eritreans, the first African nationalist movement to win its independence in the post-Cold War world, turning to the old ideals of liberal nationalism? Probably because nothing has yet appeared in the world that seems as capable of promoting the common good as positively as the liberal, democratic nation-state and its 19th-Century bulwarks of universal education and service. Perhaps we Americans should also rethink our attitudes toward these ideals and mechanisms, to which we pay constant lip-service, but which our real national policies have consistently undermined since the 1970s.

The Eritrean example, consciously based on some of the ideals of American society but elevating the national good above special interests, would serve us well in our own national debate over how to create a positive future for ourselves.

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