Reflection on Meseret Bahlbi vs Mirjam van Reisen: A New Platform

meseret bahlbi vs Mirjam van Reisen
Amsterdam court decides Prof. Mirjam van Reisen not guilty of libel and slander for comments she made based on ‘reaserch’. However, all Prof. Reisen‘s research on Eritrea suffers from hindsight mainly because the ethos behind her intellectual judgment drives her to look information that matches her imagination of the Eritrea she wish.

By Temesgen Tesfamariam,

It was last week that I saw the epic court case of Meseret Bahlbi vs Prof. Mirjam van Reisen. It was historic event for it is elevating the global struggle of Eritrean diaspora into a stage never before was imaginable. Its transformational virtue outweighs the immediate value of the verdict.

In light of this, I decided to put effort writing this article because, I, personally believe it requires a special attention not just to mention it as a new event in a long-standing history of diaspora struggle against defamation but for what it means in changing the course of the struggle.

Until this epic episode took place the conventional method of struggle of Eritrean diaspora was confined in the social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Websites, where bullets are replaced by words. What a wonderful platform!

Unless circumstantial factor demands, facial recognition of a friend or a foe are optional, which inspires many to express their feelings limitlessly without even sometimes reckoning the consequences of their speech? Of course, a mention should be made that this has come with some grave defects, for it induces stupidity and cowardice simultaneously.

For sure, such powerful move asked Bahlbi courage and boldness at the same time. For this incredible part, he deserves applaud. But he deserves recognition for his act is changing the course of struggle by resurfacing the fight from computer screens into court, and from arbitrary debates into justice system.

Nevertheless one should not expect justice be served in this episode so easily nor should see it as a failure because the verdict is not in favor of Bahlbi. I must insist that whatever results may have been produced by this epic trial, if one situates it in history, it is a pathfinder as for many of us myself included such method was an imaginable.

Moreover, part of my attention is attracted not by the fact that this court case is between female and male nor is it between two people of different color and origin. But it is between a university professor and an ordinary citizen.

I try to imagine at what point in time would a university professor, who claims the ownership of proper methods of looking at things, engage in such collision. I depicted two scenarios, one either s/he is involved in some sort of profit making by defamation or s/he claims the monopoly of truth.

After I read some of her papers on Eritrea, I grasped that Prof. Mirjam van Reisen somehow very fashionably looks for profit by monopolizing the truth about Eritrea. Her very survival depends on talking about Eritrea. This is terribly bad. More so, she literally echoes the old cliché of ‘civilizing mission’. This is not to deprive her of the knowledge she has about Eritrea, but it makes me look irresponsible if I am not posing question on the validity of her knowledge and the reliability of her method.

The fundamental question is how come she has not visited Eritrea, the very subject of her study, yet she makes very big claims about it. What I would guess is that her claims are founded on two academically unsubstantiated assumptions, that is, first the western media is neutral, and always covers true stories. Hence what is said about Eritrea is the fact on the ground. Second, victim’s justice is always true justice.

I hope she does not forget that in academics assumptions are reflection of preconceived ideas. Merely relying on them may eventually, as it is reflected in hers, have sloppy outcome.

No doubt, I would have an interesting engagement with Mirjam van Reisen, if I had a chance to meet her in person. Yet, let me use Internet through which much of her information has been gathered to produce knowledge about Eritrea. But this time, I should emphasize that I am not using Internet to gather data but just to relay my question.

In this court episode, it seems prof. Mirjam van Reisen plays the drama of “The White man’s burden”. I am sure she is familiar with this notion. In case I would like to recall Valantine Mudmbe who argues post-colonial Africa is not Africa of the Africans but it is a different Africa that is invented by European Knowledge.

It is pretty much the same what prof. Mirjam van Reisen and the alike of her linger to do about Eritrea. I hope she knows she is assembling pieces of information to reinvent a new Eritrea, which is destitute of its own dynamic historical course but to the one that the western media by the support of such professors depict.

I am sure if I am not saying this, I can only be judged as coward, which I cannot afford at this particular time. Prof. Mirjam van Reisen‘s research suffers from hindsight. Not because there is insufficient information about Eritrea in the market but because the ethos behind her intellectual judgment drives her to look information that matches her imagination; one does not need to have a super IQ to recognize this fact.

The danger of applying wrong diagnosis mechanism is not limited in identifying the outcome. The real danger lies what prescription will be given afterwards. Obviously, a wrong diagnosis leads to fatal prescriptions. Frankly speaking, what kind of keen observer would miss the intention of prof. Mirjam van Reisen; one does not even need to go couple of steps in history to realize her intention of making Eritrea of her wish.

Let me close my short reflection of the case by stating a reminder on the risk of running to abrupt conclusion with half-baked information. Well, we will see soon if prof. Mirjam van Reisen will be able to breathe again after a series recent visits to Eritrea by her fellow Europeans produces a revelation counter to her claim.

Let’s pray she will not suffer from intellectual insolvency. Otherwise, like what just Francis Fukuyama has done to remedy his sloppy conclusion on “the end of history”, she may need to write volumes, as he is doing, not in the second life but in the current one.


The writer is a PhD candidate from Makerere Institute of social Research (MISR) in Uganda and can be reached through [email protected]