Will Ethiopian crackdown stir Islamist backlash?

Peaceful protests continue in Addis Ababa this week among Muslims angry over what they see as Ethiopian government interference. The government sees foreign extremist threat.

By William Davison

With arms raised and wrists crossed, silent Muslim worshippers surrounding the largest mosque in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, again today peacefully protested what they call a violent government response to legitimate demands.

The act of civil disobedience from Muslims, who constitute at least one-third of the population, is a rare sign of instability in a country seen by US policymakers as a bulwark against radical Islam in the volatile Horn of Africa region.

Last month, members of a committee mediating the dispute over perceived unconstitutional state interference in Islamic affairs were taken into custody, while unrest broke out on two occasions around separate mosques in the city of around 5 million people.

“We are showing solidarity with leaders who have been arrested but who are strong,” says a demonstrator named Mohammed, referring to the vigil latched onto the end of midday prayers at Anwar Mosque. “They should be released; they were arrested for nothing.” Moments later, nervous friends ushered him away.

Through military interventions in neighboring Somalia, crackdowns against a separatist movement in its Muslim-majority Ogaden region, and now the detention of Muslim activists in its capital, Ethiopia has taken on a role as front-line defense against the spread of political Islam in East Africa. It’s a stance that broadly enjoys support from the West and neighboring countries, but some observers argue that Ethiopia’s hard line may be creating a backlash, strengthening the appeal of insurgents whom it is battling to suppress.

Human rights group Amnesty International called on the Ethiopian government this week to either formally charge or to release those currently in detention. Amnesty also called on the Ethiopian government to investigate allegations of torture of detainees, to allow peaceful protest, and to use “proportionality in the use of force” against demonstrators who turn violent.

For its part, the Ethiopian government justifies its actions by saying that the real troublemakers are a tiny minority of foreign-influence Salafi extremists.

“This group actually deals day and night to create an Islamic state,” says Shiferaw Teklemariam, the minister responsible for religious affairs. “This in the Ethiopian context is totally forbidden and against the constitution.”

Activists scoff at the accusations. Ethiopia is a secular, multi-ethnic state, where Orthodox Christians predominate, they say. How could any Islamist group hope to create an Islamic state in such a country? The dismissal is seconded by Terje Østebø, an academic at the Center for African Studies and Department of Religion, University of Florida, who studies Islam in the Horn of Africa. He says that Ethiopia’s historically oppressed Muslims are enthusiastic backers of the current secular system.

Islamic reformists in Ethiopia have been very little concerned with politics, and certainly not advocated ideas in the direction of an Islamic state,” he says. “In my numerous conversations with Muslims in Ethiopia, I never came across anyone favoring such ideas.”

Other regional experts lean toward the official line that there are some externally-supported radicals that have hijacked the language of democratic rights to covertly pursue fundamentalism.

Protester demands

The committee’s stated demands are for Islamic council elections to be held at mosques rather than at local government offices; for the government to stop its unconstitutional promotion of the moderate al-Ahbash sect popular in Lebanon; and for the Awalia Mosque in Addis Ababa to be returned to the community from a corrupted Islamic council.

The committee and its followers accuse Ethiopia’s Islamic Affairs Supreme Council of being an undemocratic body packed with government stooges. Shiferaw, the Minister for Federal Affairs, denies any state meddling, saying there has been no promotion of al-Ahbash, and elections that begin on August 26 for two weeks are overseen solely by the Ulema Council of scholars, which he describes as Ethiopian Islam’s highest authority.

On July 13, violence broke out for the first time in the capital since the nine month dispute began, after Muslims at the Awalia Mosque compound ignored warnings from the government to not hold a sadaqa (charity) gathering on the day that African heads of states were in town for an African Union meeting. The real purpose of the event, which was shut down before it began through a police raid, was to plot the Islamic takeover, Shiferaw claims, and the timing was “deliberately provocative.”

“It’s about killing the image of the country and trying to destroy the trust of African leaders in their own capital,” he says. “I don’t think you quarrel with your wife when guests are at the door, if you’re really genuine enough for your wife.”

The government said 74 arrests were made, which was followed a week later by the detainment of the leadership committee based at Awalia. The crackdown, however, did not prevent a huge number of worshippers at Anwar Mosque in the Mercato area on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan a week later, showing solidarity with those arrested. Ahmedin Jebel, a now-detained spokesman for the 17-man committee, said the government’s attitude betrayed its authoritarianism. “Even if Muslims come to the AU summit to protest, if it’s peaceful, it shows Ethiopia is democratic,” he says. “Preventing and attacking shows Ethiopia is undemocratic.”

Unrest followed the next day, instigated by masked extremists penning in worshippers, according to the government. On a Saturday afternoon at one of Africa’s largest markets, all shops were shuttered and riot police patrolled normally heaving streets.

‘They want to label us’

“They want to put our questions aside and label us, saying we have a political agenda, saying we are extremists,” says Ahmedin.

Shiferaw is confident that the incidents have, in his view, unmasked Ahmedin’s group in the eyes of Ethiopian Muslims, draining any support they had. “Heavy education” campaigns are also being conducted on state television to show a strategic alliance between the movement and forces including Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab militia and secular Ethiopian insurgents, he says. “We would like to clear any confusion and grey areas for people who joined them without knowing who they are,” he says. “We will educate them a little bit and they will go home.”

Mr. Østebø says he believes the government has misconstrued the rise in Salafism, which he says is largely a religious movement seeking to purify Islam. “This is not to downplay the potential of such movement becoming a threat to political security and stability, but one should not overlook the fact that representations of Salafism mostly take nonviolent forms,” he says.

Salafists are welcome in Ethiopia as long as they don’t coerce others to join their sect, says Shiferaw. But, at “hotspots” around the country, extremists “bring people to the mosque, they put them to the point of the gun and they request them if you’re not converting yourself to the Wahabi, Salafi sect, you’re gone, you’re subject to be killed,” he argues. Activists say such “wild allegations are the government’s ploy to scare Ethiopians about a rise in extremism, and also score points with international backers.”

While Salafism’s rise has raised tensions there have been “hardly any reports of violent confrontations between so-called Sufis and Salafis,” says Østebø.

“We are Muslims, nobody can divide us,” says Ahmedin.

Bad response to real threat

Medhane Tadesse, an analyst of conflicts in the region, believes the government is making a belated and heavy-handed response to a genuine threat. Ethiopia has historically been a crucible for Islam’s battle with Christianity, and foreign Wahabbist forces have been – and currently are – at work trying to control mosques and now the Islamic council to ensure ascendance, he believes.

“Ethiopia is important because of historical significance, and because of demography, it has more Muslims than Saudi Arabia, it’s a big stake,” he says.

The government needs to make a measured response by empowering Muslims while distinguishing foreign-influenced radicals from those with “genuine concerns,” Medhane says.

“I think it’s a significant event and unless it’s managed in sober and legitimate way through democratic means then it may aggravate,” he says. “The problem of the Ethiopian state historically is rather than playing the role of an arbiter between different interests and social classes it tries to decide, which is counter-productive.”

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