Research Communications

National Identity 

Graduate Student Spotlight: Joe Venosa

April 15, 2011

History graduate student Joe Venosa isn’t welcome in Eritrea, an African nation the size of Pennsylvania. Though he based his 320-page dissertation on the country and learned its two official languages (Tigrinya and Arabic), its government has denied his entry since Venosa’s last trip in 2007.

“The government is extremely repressive, recently ranked last in Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 press freedom index, just below North Korea,” Venosa says. “But even today, there really are no religious or sectarian problems.”

Hounded by one empire after another for centuries, the people of Eritrea—about 50 percent Sunni Muslim, 50 percent Orthodox Tewahado Christian—have developed a unique national identity. Religion played a major role in that development, as well as in Venosa’s research.

His work centers on the country’s Muslim intellectual class and how their contributions from 1941 to 1961 inside and outside Eritrea created a nationalist identity. To fight the European colonial powers and Ethiopian government, Muslims in Eritrea partnered with Christian activists to resist Ethiopian influence.

Ethiopia took over Eritrea during this period, outlawing ethnic languages and independent media. Many Eritreans fled to neighboring Sudan, where they built opposition groups that fueled a nationalist movement to rally Eritrea’s two million citizens.

An independent country since 1993, today the highly militarized Eritrean government consists of both Muslims and Christians. Despite its many challenges and authoritarian policies, Venosa says, the country itself maintains relative religious harmony. It controls virtually every facet of life, however, which has driven away many Eritreans. Now instead of creating a national identity, opposition groups in the United States, Canada, Northern Europe, and the Middle East are building a government in exile.

Still, Venosa has hope for future generations. “If the people of Eritrea have shown anything in recent decades, it has been an ability to persevere against a seemingly hopeless political climate,” he says. “You cannot look at the current situation and simply say that it’s somehow a lost cause.”

By Katie Brandt

This article will appear in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.