A Portrait of Jawar Mohammed by Andrew DeCort (Tedla Woldeyohannes)

Jawar _ Oromo _ Ethiopia
Jawar Mohammed surrounded by armed men. Photo : SM

By Tedla Woldeyohannes, PhD*
December 19, 2019

Andrew DeCort (PhD) interviewed Jawar Mohammed first on November 6, 2019, about two weeks right after the senseless deaths of over 80 people mostly by followers of Jawar Mohammed who are known as Qeerro,which is a reference to the youth from the Oromo ethnic group to which Jawar belongs. Andrew had a second   interview with Jawar on December 6, 2019. I decided to write this piece to raise some questions for Andrew based on his interview. I do also critically engage some issues in the interview to point out some problems in the interview and about the interview. I’m deeply concerned about some issues raised in the interview and by some that were left out altogether. Some of the issues never included in the interview are simply telling.No one who even casually follows Jawar’s political activities would fail to include one of the most important issues anyone must include in an interview as broad and wide as the one conducted by Andrew.Consequently, I’m extremely skeptical of Andrew’s neutrality, contrary to his claim,regarding the issues he raised in the interview and some he did not raise which he should have raised.Note: It has to be noted that the Qeeroos who have committed brutal killings in October 2019 are a subset of the Oromo youth. I’m not referring to the entire Oromo youth by any means. 

Note: Andrew is not a total stranger to me. He is not a mere social media friend, either. Andrew and I got chances to talk to each other in person on topics of mutual interest to both of us and also, we have exchanged messages from time to time. I value his work in his Neighbor-Love project. From time to time, I find his commentaries on issues of political nature involving Ethiopia extremely problematic. They show lack of a sound judgment on his part, especially when the issues are very sensitive.  

I

Andrew begins his interview by stating a moral principle that guides his life and this interview,which reads,“A simple moral principle guides my life as an ethicist and human being: talk to people not about people.”This moral principle is fine, but it is not complete.First, talking about people is not always morally wrong, but it looks like Andrew is suggesting that talking about people is wrong without qualification.Talking about people in a malicious way or gossiping about people is wrong. But not all talk about people is necessarily malicious or gossiping.There are multiple reasons why talking about people could be perfectly fine.(1) What is wrong, for example, with talking great things about some people whose life and work is so important when we want other people to get to know such people, or to read about them, etc.? (2)We do not always have direct access to some people to talk to them. In such situations, what is wrong if we talk about those people as long as what we say is not morally wrong?We can talk about, say, people who hold public offices to make points about them, their character, and their work, and whatever is relevant since most people do not have direct access to such people. Example: People talk a lot about Trump and Abiy Ahmed.(3) Some people are dead, no longer with us to talk to them, and the only thing we can do is to remember them if we have some experience of them and also to talk about them.(4) Christians talk about Jesus when people inquire to know about who Jesus was/is.One can add more reasons to show that talking to people is not the only thing that is right; talking about people can be and is equally fine with qualifications I suggested above.Therefore, Andrew’s moral principle is not completely without problems or is as innocent as he wishes us to believe it. 

Regarding the interview,Andrew says that it“…was neither an endorsement nor a criticism; it was an act of practicing my principles of neighbor-love and resisting the pattern of consuming second-hand information.” I doubt that Andrew has succeeded in remaining neutral with his questions.See below my comment on Questions (1) and (16) of the interview. Also, though Andrew claims that his questions for Jawar were “blunt”, it would have been better to leave for the judgment of the readers to see whether Andrew’s questions were really blunt.Some appear to be,but some are not at all, at least in my view. One does not have to endorse views of a person one interviews in an obvious way, but it is not too difficult to see where Andrew’s sympathy lies in this interview. 

Consider this: Andrew puts together“excerpts” from Jawar’s interview before his readers get a chance to read the interview itself.Andrew gave an explanation for providing the excerpts as follows:“Since this interview is nearly 8,000 words, here are some excerpts from the interview that continue to linger in my mind.”One can’t help asking questions: Why did Andrew choose the excerpts he chose, not others? Why those excerpts continued to “linger” in Andrew’s mind? Isn’t Andrew indirectly sowing the thoughts from the interview that linger in his mind as some interesting ideas that his readers should also find interesting? If Andrew did not think those excerpts were valuable or insightful in some ways, I do not think he would even think about sharing the excerpts before the actual interview as he did.Note this as well: The excerpts themselves are 841 words long! Unless readers skip the excerpts, readers of the entire interview would read these 841 words twice! I doubt that Andrew thought that by adding the 841-words-long-excerpts he was making the entire interview shorter.Quite to the contrary! In my view, his intention is to indirectly lead his readers to see some value in the excerpts that would make them think favorably of Jawar. This by no means shows neutrality as an interviewer at all. 

Before proceeding farther,I want to raise one issue that is about the TIMING  of the interview:Why did Andrew rush to do, especially his first interview with Jawar just about  two weeks after the senseless deaths of 86 people which all began with Jawar’s Facebook post?In the two weeks after the senseless massacre,the country was still mourning the deaths of 86 people which had features of ethnic cleansing for which so many people were blaming Jawar for the deaths.Was Andrew trying to help Jawar create his own positive portrait in which Jawar would claim his innocence as he actually did in the interview?As an advocate of neighbor-love, why did not Andrew also sit down for interviews with some of the families of the deceased, following his moral principle of talking to people, so that he could also hear firsthand from some of the families of the victims?As far as I could tell,Andrew did not do such an interview.Consistency of the moral principle that led him to Jawar Mohammed demands that he should have given his heart and mind to some of the families of the victims of the senseless deaths.If Andrew interviewed the families of the victims, at least that would show that he was not siding with Jawar to help Jawar create a positive portrait for himself.In this, one can see a shaky ethical ground on which Andrew stands and his partiality instead of impartiality. 

The ethical problem above gets even worse when one takes into account the fact that Andrew is a Bonhoeffer scholar.As a Bonhoeffer scholar,one can’t help wondering why Andrew was not even more interested in taking the side of the victims.What would Bonhoeffer do if he were in a situation in Ethiopia two weeks after the senseless deaths of 86 people which has a feature of ethnic cleansing?People who have the same publicly available evidence about this tragic event believe that Jawar was to blame, whether that is correct or not, for the deaths of the 86 people.Andrew is aware, as I do believe, that targeting people based on their ethnic identity has become  a fact of life in Ethiopia and the Amharas in the Oromia region, most prominently, could be in a position similar to the Jewish people in the Nazi Germany during the Nazi era.This is a concern many Amharas share and in all this Jawar’s name is intimately connected to potential ethnic cleansing or a potential genocide of the Amharas along with other minorities in the Oromia region.The comparison of Jews in Nazi Germany in the Nazi era and the Amharas in the Oromia region can be quite an extreme at this moment, but it would be naive to completely dismiss the analogy. Ethnic cleansing or genocide STARTS with the killing of SOME people based on their ethnicity or race. It is in a context such as this that Andrew rushed to interview Jawar just two weeks after the senseless deaths of 86 people.In my view, based on my observation in the interview, Andrew seems to have an agenda that is meant to help Jawar. I’ll say more below, in the last section, on how at least Jawar’s name is connected to the recent ethnic cleansing or to a concern of a potential genocide in Ethiopia.Now let us look at a few things from the interview questions and answers. 

II

Question 1. Andrew asks:“You were raised by a Muslim father and an Orthodox mother.Tell me about your childhood experience of faith.” 

This question is problematic in a way that shows that Andrew is telling as a matter of fact that Jawar’s father was a Muslim and his mother was an Orthodox Christian. If Andrew was seeking a factual answer from Jawar, his question could have been something like this: Jawar, tell me about your father and mother,especially about their religion. Such a question would give Jawar an opportunity to answer the question in a manner that allows him to tell the truth, if he is inclined to tell the truth.But Andrew apparently had already made up his mind about what religion Jawar’s parents practiced.The very answer Jawar gave to the above question shows that Andrew’s question was biased since Jawar did not suggest that he was raised, without qualification, by an Orthodox Christian mother and a Muslim father.He said his mother was a convert to Islam.Note that even this answer leaves our understanding in the dark as to when Jawar’s mother was converted to Islam,how old Jawar was when she was converted.One thing a reader could infer to get clarity on this issue from the interview is that probably Jawar’s mother converted to Islam when Jawar was about 8 years old or so.But that does not show us that his mother was an Orthodox Christian through and through as Andrew’s phrasing of the question is designed to suggest to his readers.What Andrew did here regarding his first question is intentionally misleading.Or, Andrew was so sloppy in his thinking when he raised this particular question, which apparently is among the key questions in the interview. 

Consider the following answer from Jawar about his childhood and his parents’ religion or religions.Jawar says, “My earliest recollection about them being two religions was food. It’s the meat thing.I was six or something. When somebody dies,they attend one another’s mourning. So they [Christians and Muslims] slaughtered different animals but cooked them side by side. I figured out that that they didn’t want them to touch each other. I used to hide behind them and put the spoon from one pot into the other pot to mix them!” Note what “they” refers to as Jawar indicated. It’s not about his parents. He is talking about Muslims and Christians and how they make sure people from these two religions cook and eat food according to their religious practices.Those of us who grew up in Ethiopia know from our personal experiences something similar about religious practices and preparation of food. This experience includes even a similar care when Orthodox Christians and Protestants get together during times of mourning or celebrations such as weddings. Food has to be prepared with care for those who fast, say, Orthodox Christians, during fasting seasons, when they are together with Protestants.So, what is the point of Andrew’s phrasing the question as he did in light of Jawar’s answer, which does not clearly show much about his upbringing in his parents’ home regarding religious differences.Note also that Jawar said that his Muslim father died early, and his Orthodox mother was a convert to Islam without telling us at what age these things happened in Jawar’s life.To be fair, Jawar’s answer when he talked about his grandmothers and grandfathers and their religious differences and how they lived without antagonistic relationships better captures his experience and the experiences of many other Ethiopians.But that answer is far from how Andrew phrased his question. Now go back and reread Andrew’s phrasing of the first question to see what Andrew wanted his readers to believe. Any careful reader can see how biased Andrew was in his interview,at least with his first question. 

Question (16).Andrew asks,“What does it mean to be Oromo?” Note: I collected the following answers from Jawar’s answer to questions mostly on the topic of what Jawar thinks about what it means to be Oromo for himself and others. 

Jawar’s answer: “To be honest, being Oromo for me has little to do with biological lineage or ethnicity. I look at the Oromo as the struggle…. [The Oromos are] the people who identify themselves as Oromos. I think the Oromo is the political or the political community for me…. But for me being “less” or “more” Oromo has less to do with blood or your ethnic or racial background. Mostly, it’s about how committed you are…. I never compromised on the Oromo struggle and the Oromo position – never. I never compromised that the Oromo issue should be solved from within Oromia.”

Needless to say this but I will say it: Jawar has always been talking about the Oromo people, probably 99% of the time, as an ethnic group defined by its language and culture and the main pillar of the Oromo struggle is to regain ownership of the Oromo ethnic identity and  culture from an alleged domination or marginalization  by the Amhara or the Abyssinian  culture, etc. I submit that his answer to Andrew changed from what he has always been saying because Andrew is a foreigner and he was trying to make a point that Andrew could be considered an Oromo too. All Oromo nationalists I know have been claiming that their language and culture have been marginalized and language and culture are two key factors in defining an ethnic group. Just look at the last sentence from the above quotation in light of what came preceding it. If the Oromo issue should be solved from within Oromia, what does Oromia refer to? What about anyone who identifies himself or herself as a political Oromo including foreigners? According to Jawar (in the interview) such an identity does not need to be confined to a certain region, Oromia, but then Jawar (before this interview) never compromised when it comes to the issue that the Oromo issue should be resolved from within Oromia! Ether there are two Jawars or we’re dealing with a contradiction! Neither option is defensible. The reason many people do not believe or trust Jawar is because of his outright, demonstrable lies. This is one of them.

In order to deflect the charge that people who accuse Jawar of lying or that Jawar says  something and does something else,he claims that he is using “multiple factor analysis” of things while others are not accustomed to such thinking and consequently they do not understand him. Jawar claims that “One thing could be caused by a million different factors.So when I emphasize one cause today and another cause tomorrow, they think I’m saying two different things.But I’m actually saying the same thing but giving more emphasis on this or that.”Following this answer Andrew puts to Jawar what looks like a question by saying:“People do struggle to think multidimensionally.” Jawar then goes on to explain the problem with people who do not, allegedly, understand him by talking about the education system in Ethiopia in that it does not teach students to think “from a multitude of angles.” 

I’m not going to defend the education system in Ethiopia.I agree that there are serious problems. Some of the problems Jawar mentions that we have in the Ethiopian education system like testing students with true/false questions, giving exams with fill in the blank questions,and multiple-choice questions are part of America’s education system as well. I’ve taught at several American universities and do still teach at a university and I know this from personal experience though I’m personally against such exams unless some circumstances dictate adoption of such exam types. But for Jawar to claim that other people do not understand him because he can think from a “multitude of angles” or “multi-dimensionally”, as Andrew puts it, is just plain wrong.So many people who criticize Jawar for his demonstrable lies and double standards are educated in the West as well. Note that Andrew only agreed with Jawar about the explanation without challenging him to explain why Jawar apparently thinks that those Ethiopians who are educated, for example, in America also lack an ability to think from multitude of angles.Andrew let Jawar tell his readers whatever Jawar wanted to without asking serious questions that needed answers.  

III

In this final section,I want to direct my readers’ attention to one of the most important questions Andrew never raised.I can only think of the omission of what I think of as one of the most important questions as deliberate on Andrew’s part. The missing question is about Jawar and OMN,a media whose director is Jawar himself. 

The role of OMN in the recent Ethiopian politics and especially its function as an engine for sowing seeds of hate towards certain ethnic groups notably the Amharas is a well-known fact.If Ethiopia experiences a large-scale ethnic cleansing or genocide, the negative or incendiary role of OMN is beyond dispute. In what has already happened in Ethiopia, for most ethnic conflicts that happened in the Oromia region, Jawar’s followers,the Qeeroos, have been indoctrinated with hate filled propaganda about the Amhara people, among others, by OMN. Those of us who have closely followed one of the regular OMN programs called Gadissa Raba Dori, have heard the ammunition of hate propagated by extreme Oromo nationalists on this program including Jawar himself. The senseless deaths of the 86 people would have been very unlikely if it was not for the hate-filled propaganda from OMN over the years.In the name of the struggle for the Oromo people, lots of misinformation about the history of Ethiopia, Ethiopiawinet,and especially about the Amhara people as the oppressors, and settler colonialists  in the Oromia region, among other things, have been propagated on Gadiss Roba Dori on OMN. Most of the misinformation the Qeeroos have been fed came directly from OMN. I’m only referring to programs conducted in Amharic which I could understand.One can imagine how much hate filled propaganda has been aired in Oromigna. As a Bonhoeffer scholar and someone who is well informed about the history of the Nazi Germany during Bonhoeffer’s lifetime,how did the role of the media escape Andrew’s thought when he interviewed Jawar who is behind everything that goes on OMN?I’ve no reason to believe that this is an innocent omission on Andrew’s part. It’s plausible to conclude that this glaring omission in the interview of Jawar’s role as the director of a hate-propagating machine OMN is intentional. 

In conclusion,I’ve tried to show some serious problems in the interview Andrew conducted with Jawar.Despite the fact that Andrew claimed that he was not endorsing the views expressed by Jawar,it is not hard to demonstrate,  as I showed above, that the interview is significantly biased to portray Jawar in a favorable way  right after the senseless deaths of 86 people following Jawar’s  Facebook post after that fateful day in October 2019.  There are a lot of things Andrew needs to explain to his readers of the interview he conducted with Jawar.I do not know whether he will do that or not. 

*Tedla Woldeyohannes, teaches philosophy at Harris-Stowe State University in St Louis, Missouri. Could be reached at twoldeyo@slu.edu



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