Ethiopia provides a significant example of the struggle governments are undertaking to find and implement effective policy responses to faith-based violent extremism and sectarian conflict. Given both demographic shifts and greater religious freedoms, the management of religious conflict and practice has of necessity been a complex and sometimes fraught task. A changed context has seen the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government shift from mediating conflict between faith groups to regulating religious practice, especially where there are political or extremist overtones. Local actors have used the state’s interventionist inclinations in the confessional realm to gain advantage in wider leadership struggles within Ethiopia’s ethnically based regional states. Opposition groups, not always within formal parties, have also used religious issues to score political points. The Ethiopian experience shows not only how faith is an increasing political resource, especially at local levels, but also lessons that can be learned from top-down interventions in the religious sphere.
Although often regarded as a predominantly Christian country, the confessional landscape is diverse and evolving, and religion is increasingly politicised by a range of domestic actors, including the state. Faith runs deep, and its religions (particularly the Orthodox Church) have at various times in history been intimately connected to the Ethiopian state and its administration. Always a significant but institutionally disadvantaged minority, the Muslim population has grown in relative terms in recent decades and is at least as numerous as that in Sudan, Ethiopia’s predominantly Islamic neighbour. Previously discriminated against (including by the state), Muslims and Protestants have embraced and capitalised on the lifting of religious restrictions by the 1994 secular constitution.
Faith-based communal conflicts have, in modern times at least, been rare though deadly, bringing prompt community and government responses. Sporadic confessional violence over the last decades has not translated into a real threat to a long tradition of religious (though often unequal) co-existence. While inter-confessional tensions remain, they appear to have been largely superseded in recent years by tensions between the government and faith communities. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike have accused the former of undue interference in their internal religious affairs, whereas the government sees itself as holding the secular line against politicisation and extremism.
Ethiopia, like its immediate neighbours, is faced with difficult policy choices involved in guarding against internal radicalisation through systematic (at times constitutionally questionable) interventions that have tended to favour established religious authorities. The government, and donors keen to support global efforts against violent extremism, should always consider first, the risk of such interventions to the state’s neutrality as mediator, and secondly, that taking sides in intra-religious debates could exacerbate communal faith-based conflicts. Above all, those backing interventions should always seek better understanding of what faith means to multi-ethnic, religiously diverse societies like (but not limited to) Ethiopia, in which the distinction between group and individual identity is often not well defined, and rival local actors are apt to make use of religious disputes where social and governmental constraints inhibit open political competition.
Nairobi/Brussels, 22 February 2016