The Bewketu Seyoum Fiasco

Just two days ago I found out from Ethiopian blogs (the few that exist) that the Ethiopian writer Bewketu Seyoum, known for his satiric creative juices in Amharic, has been in a critical condition after some angry Ethiopian Orthodox Church members attacked him because they considered a recent satire he penned on an Orthodox saint very ‘offensive’ or ‘anti-church, anti-religion’. I haven’t yet read the article (Many thanks to Markos @ Eweket blog, I finally got the chance to read the famed article, on which I may write a follow up piece! The power of networking via blogging, don’t underestimate! :)), but I sure think it must be (is) a good article.

Before I add my two cents, let me mention two blogs that addressed this topic from, more or less, an objective stand point:

The first one is Emi’s blog:

Mahlet, blogger of Emi’s, tried her best to appear objective. However, when one closely scrutinizes her piece, her bias towards defending her religion is clearly obvious, understandably. She purposely chose ‘responsibility’ as her title, which indirectly portrays Bewketu as an irresponsible fool who shouldn’t have played with fire.

From Mahlet’s writing, on one hand, I sensed that she believes Bewketu is irresponsible for writing an inflammatory piece, on the other hand, it felt that she defends ‘freedom of expression.’ That for me is self-contradictory. If one gives her the benefit of the doubt, it may look like she is in a dilemma, unsure which side to take. I got the vibe that Mahlet wants to appease both her religious and liberal sides, but deep down she does believe he is wrong and so he shouldn’t have written that piece, which certainly contradicts her colorful talk on freedom of expression; perhaps the only difference between her and his attackers is that she does not endorse his beating, at least in her article.

According to Mahlet, a responsible writer must be respectful, must be politically correct, must not offend the status quo, must submit to society and to its belief systems—that is what I squeezed out of her article, she didn’t write that openly, but she has sprinkled it all over. Though I disagree with her, I do admire her honesty, and her ability and willingness to participate in a civil discussion. She wrote:

Even though what had happened to him was tragic and in no way acceptable, his article lack time and value considering responsibility and especially in a society that itself is the bearer of the moral values. … the persuasive and Christian approach is to give written response and critique to such piece of writings [Bewketu’s and others that criticize religion]. Being offended is unnecessary but to demand conformity in writing is necessary.

That is where she lost me and that is the core of her argument, regardless of what she said before or after it. My question to her: Why must one call oneself a ‘writer’, ‘philosopher’, ‘comedian’, ‘poet’, ‘revolutionary’, etc, if all one needs to do is ‘conform’ to society’s demands??? (The world already has more than enough conformists in its belly, dearest sister!)

Mahlet clearly exposed her bias when she typed this statement: his article lack time and value. Really? Is that so? By whose standard? She sounded too confident about that, but I may not be the first to tell her she may be wrong.

In my view, time and value perhaps are the two most important reasons that made the ‘blind believers’ attack Bewketu. Time and value made Bewketu write the infamous article. Time and value made the religious fundamentalists furious, irrational, and emotional. Time and value offended those that can’t see the big picture within the article. Time and value made Mahlet write a semi-objective article concerning the fiasco, time and value made me react to Mahlet’s post. ETC … If there was no value, Bewketu would not write the piece, he wouldn’t be attacked, we wouldn’t waste our time blogging about it!

The second blog that touched this topic is Endalk’s Blog:

Endalk unequivocally defended Bewketu and condemned the assault on the writer’s freedom to express his thoughts. The blogger wrote:

One of his recent essays, titled “እግር ዐልባው ባለ ክንፍ” [legless but no wingless] brought aggressive beatings up on him, but I see this article as a literary piece which exceptionally dig deep down into the roots of some of our beliefs and challenge our convictions. Bewketu has tried to present food for our thought. I strongly believe that this piece would have ignited some ferocious controversies had it been read by more people and I decided to write this piece in defense of his right to freedom of expression.

He further argued:

Though it is on the paper … our constitution defends the right to freedom of expression. If not government at least people who claim themselves as a freedom pugilist should be abided by it. I am even deeply worried by some folks who started a cause page on facebook against this “እግር ዐልባው ባለ ክንፍ” piece of writing. Many people despite their claim of being civil and gentle … seem to have displayed impatience towards the spread of extremism by joining this group. For me this act of my friends is an inability and unwillingness to challenge different ideas.

He appeared a little wishy-washy here:

Please understand that I am not saying what Bewketu has written is right or wrong I am supporting his right to freedom of expression, which is also mine and yours and which means nothing if it does not include the right to say stuff that upset other people.

That wishy-washy-ness comes from the desire to appease his religious friends, it’s understandable. But even here, his defense of Bewketu has remained intact; I doubt Endalk would agree with Mahlet that Bewketu is an irresponsible person for writing a controversial piece of writing.

I personally think the attack that has happened to Bewketu is both a good and bad thing. Why?

Let me start with the good part:

  1. It is one way of getting a wider and wilder publicity. The more controversial you become, the more people find your work interesting. Look, I never thought I would ever write about Bewketu, but here I am …
  2. It exposes the still rampant stone age mentality of religious extremists. It does not matter what religion they follow. They all the same: blind, illogical, irrational; they can be cruel, too. Disagreeing with them or challenging their faith only brings hell to earth.
  3. As much as the attack satisfies the attackers, it angers those who oppose such savageness.
  4. It exposes the hypocrisy of the hypocrites: those that want freedom for themselves, but want to deny it for others; those that want to be considered a liberal, but deeply think like a neo-conservative; those that consider themselves Christians, but do not act like one; those that say they are democrats, but would make very good dictators were they to be given a chance, etc.
  5. Probably he did not even say anything negative about the good old saint … as a satirist he must have a very good reason for picking on the mentioned Ethiopian saint … the article may not even be about the saint at all even if the writer throws him under the bus. Damn, now I have to read it!!! (I just did!!) His poor attackers may one day regret their actions!
  6. Such an attack reassures most of us that society needs artists like Bewketu! Such artists are society’s bells of consciousness! They are born to upset the status quo!!
  7. Once you choose the path of the rebel, then you will have to face obstacles, and will have to pay heavy prices, unavoidable sacrifices for that cause you strongly believe in. If you retreat, you must have a convincing reason, or you will be considered a coward, sellout or an opportunist. A true artist rarely retreats, and when he or she does there must be a believable reason! Remember Bealu Girma or Salman Rushdie?

Now, the bad part:

It is of course a slap on the face for those of us who truly believe in freedom of expression to know that there are still people who cannot tolerate point of views, even if such point of views mean challenging religious dogmas, saints, what have you!! Imagine: if Christopher Hitchens—who renamed the Catholic ‘saint’ Mother Theresa as Hell’s Angel—were an Ethiopian, he would probably be burnt alive for writing this book: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything! If a tiny article by Bewketu results in beating and assaulting, just imagine what a book like that in Amharic would do!!

We must tolerate one another, we must agree to disagree!! It is our inability and unwillingness to entertain diverse point of views (to borrow Endalk’s expression) that we Ethiopians remain in a continual political and social quagmire. And more than anything else, we must not take the law into our own hands. No matter how screwed up our justice system is right now, we first have to believe in the rule of law to actually demand it. It is obviously a broken system that we have, but we must not forget we are the only ones who can fix it. No angel from above, down or across the sea will do that job for us.

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4 thoughts on “The Bewketu Seyoum Fiasco

  1. wondering …. how come I missed this informative post???!!!!
    [you should be seeing a confused expression now] :)

    what people do in the name of defending religion is beyond my understanding.

    kudos to you for writing stuff like these. we need more people like you :)

  2. I am a late comer here. Soory.

    That attack was orchestrated by the security services, not the religious fanatics you mention here. It is part of an orchestrated campaign to divert attention from real issues.

    • That could be possible, Washeraw. I wasn’t there. But I would not also rule out the possibility that the civilians did it, knowing how extreme and sensitive people get over religious matters back home. I have seen how easily things escalate to violence because of fanatics without the involvement of any political actors or security personnel.

      And welcome to the blog! :) Better late than never. :D Thank you for your comment!

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