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Intelligible Tolerance, Ambiguous Tensions, Antagonistic Revelations: Patterns of Muslim-Christian Coexistence in Orthodox Christian Majority Ethiopia


This dissertation examines movements between harmonic and antagonistic modalities of Muslim-Christian relations in a context of increasing religious plurality. In Gondar, Ethiopia, an educational and symbolic center of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the Muslim minority has recently sought increased public parity with the Christian majority, taking advantage of the unprecedented provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia's 1994 constitution. These developments helped fuel an episode of open antagonism, and some violence, between Muslims and Orthodox Christians in 2009. Most of the time, Gondaré Muslims and Orthodox Christians coexist without issues, engaging in practices that construe intergroup relations as harmonic. They also work to manage latent antagonistic potentials through religious codes of silence, and are able to tolerate a mixture of affinity and vague antagonistic feeling for the religious other. In addition, many Gondaré Muslims and Christians subscribe to a narrative of primordial Ethiopian tolerance, which asserts that both religious groups have lived together peacefully for centuries. However, an open "relation of antagonism" can form when latent, ambiguous tensions burst onto the social surface and become "clear" (gels̩a). This dissertation argues that religious rituals in Gondar have a role both in facilitating mutual recognition across religious boundaries and "revealing" latent antagonisms, thus fueling interreligious conflict. The potential that is realized in any given situation depends in part on how Muslim and Orthodox rituals intersect—that is, how events and human actions bring different rituals onto the same scene, and whether or not this co-presence is seen as subversive to the high values the rituals perform. The project of interreligious coexistence in Gondar involves not only negotiating the co-presence of individuals with different religious identities, but also negotiating the co-presence of different ritual complexes. Relations between different ritual complexes are important because rituals have macrocosmic entailments, transvaluing the here-now to a higher scale, bringing actors into more direct relation with higher values, and, at times, linking lived time-space to distant historical events. In Gondar, ritual's propensity to link up with higher scales can evoke imaginaries of both macro-recognition and macro-conflict, typifying the religious other as a primordial friend or archetypical foe.

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