Ethiopia has been swept by Islamic protests in opposition to what the Muslim community calls government-sponsored propagational activities of the little-known Islamic sect known as Al-Ahbash throughout the country and the suspension of the Addis Ababa-based Awaliya Islamic Institute on alleged grounds of promoting Salafism or Wahhabism. A large number of protesters have been detained and some have been met with deadly force by security forces. The Security forces have reportedly killed four and injured ten Muslims during a confrontation after Friday prayers in Assassa town.
The protesters also accuse the Government of Ethiopia of hijacking the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, or the Majlis. For the protesters, the Majlis has been a puppet of the government with striking parallels to the Holy Synod and Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which proved to be totally subservient. They are demanding to replace the current members of the Majlis by their true representatives through free and fair elections. They are also demanding that the elections should be held in the city's mosques rather than in the Kebeles, the lower level local government structure, as suggested by the Government.
Islam in Ethiopia
The historical trajectory of Islam in Ethiopia is interesting. For one thing, Islam has a remarkably long history and as such has co-existed with Christianity for much of the country’s history. For another, people converted and reconverted to Islam with much ease in much of Ethiopia for as long as Islam’s history. Islam came to Ethiopia in the year 615 in virtue of the first Hijra with the arrival of the Suhaba, who were at risk of persecution by the Quraysh, on Ethiopian soil following the advice of Prophet Muhammed who instructed them to seek asylum in the Kingdom of Aksum, where a “righteous king would give them protection.” The co-existence and intermingling has remarkably contributed to the culture of inter-faith tolerance among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, which is absent in other parts of the world.
As one of the oldest recipients of Islam, Ethiopia has a significant Muslim community. Although there is a general culture of inter-faith tolerance, the relation between State and Islam had been tenuous. Historically, the Muslim community was disfranchised, particularly in the Christian highlands, as it was excluded from the traditional land-holding system. The Solomonoid emperors considering themselves as lord-protectors of the monophysite faith, i.e., Orthodox Christianity, ignominiously marginalized the Muslim community, thereby relegating them to second-class citizenship.
Despite for a few instances of the rise of Islamic militancy in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries led by Ahmad Badlay, Sabradin, and Ahmed Gran, there has been a long tradition of Islam/Christian tolerance and mutual co-existence for much of the country’s history. In connection with the Yifat under Sabradin, Harold G. Marcus writes, “By the late 1320s, exploiting a decade of royal neglect, Sabradin of Yifat confidently organized a united Muslim front composed of peoples dissatisfied with Christian domination and tired of paying heavy taxes. In 1332, Sabradin declared a holy war against the Solomonic state, invaded its territory, destroyed churches, and forced conversions to Islam.”
The response organized by Amda Siyon to the jihad declared by Sabradin of Yifat was an all-out war. In the words of Marcus:
Calling up troops from all over his empire, Amda Siyon led a bloody campaign against Yifat and its allies. He even took the battle to the lowlands, where imperial armies rarely went, and he lost many soldiers to desertion, disease, and thirst. Still, the king went on, determined once and for all to end the Muslim threat and to replace local governments with imperial officials. He led his forces brilliantly, feinting here, probing there, attacking the weakest units in the Muslim federation, and never permitting his enemy to counter in a mass attack. Pushing his army to the limits of its strength, he even outmaneuvered an enemy that contained units of highly mobile, if fractious, nomads. It was a magisterial effort by a charismatic and resourceful man who also had mastered and united an empire around him. His great victory carried the frontier of Christian power into the Awash valley and beyond.
The next serious Islamic threat to the Christian Kingdom was posed by Ahmad Badlay of Adal. According to Harold Marcus, “The Adal became particularly worrisome in the late 1430s under Ahmad Badlay, an ambitious and ardent leader who exemplified the increasingly militant nature of Ethiopian Islam. Between 1443 and 1445, he directed harsh, if intermittent, campaigns in Ethiopia's largely Muslim-inhabited provinces before falling in battle in Dawaro.”
Yet the most serious Islamic threat was not to come until the rise of Ahmad Gran in respect of whom Marcus writes, “Adal's savior was to be Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (1506-1543), known to the Ethiopians as Ahmad “Gran” (the “left-handed”). He soldiered for Sultan Jared Abun of Adal (r. ca. 1522-1525), who during his few years of power sought to impose Islamic puritanism on his fractious people. The righteous road appealed to the pious Ahmad, who was raised by his devout kin in Jeldesa, one of the major oases along the trading route to Zeila. Although his Islam was the most rigorous and doctrinaire, deeply influenced by the discipline of the desert, it was tempered by an understanding of commerce.”
In addition, it is important to note that forced conversion was brought to bear upon the Muslim community. The post Zemene-Mesafint (Era of Princes) period saw the same tendency, as the empire -building process started off by Emperor Tewodros. Boru Meda Council is a case in point for which Emperor Yohannes IV had been hailed as a 'saint-hero'. According to Donald Levine, “The spread of Christianity and Islam established other kinds of ties. Although conversions were sometimes secured by force, notably in the reigns of Zera Ya’iqob in the 1450s and Yohannes IV in the 1870s and during the jihad of the 1530s, more typically they came about peacefully, through channels opened up by traders and by the need for diplomatic alliances.” Commenting on the Christian/Islam relations, Levine writes, “Relations between the two groups of religionists have often been antagonistic, particularly since the sixteenth century, but there have been numerous kinds of accommodation between them. Since both Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia have been highly syncretistic, moreover their followers have not found it impossible to join in common religious observances.” The empire-building process called not just for the reconciliation of the prevalent doctrinal differences within the established Orthodox Christian church, but also for the unification of faith by stamping Islam out of the face of the Christian empire. Nevertheless, while Emperor Menelik II, following his campaign to Harar, called upon both Muslims and Christians to coexist peacefully, Emperor Haile Selassie recognized Sharia courts.
The Ethiopian Muslim community belongs to Sunni Islam mixed with Sufi tradition, following one of the three Islamic Schools of Jurisprudence (Madh’habs). To wit: (1) the Shafi, (2) Hanafi; and (3) Maliki. Little is known about the 4th Sunni Islamic School of Jurisprudence, namely the Hanbali, in Ethiopia to date. The long de facto existence of Shaira courts in Ethiopia has been accorded legal recognition in 1942 with promulgation of the Proclamation for the Establishment of Kadis’ Courts. This proclamation legitimized the competence of Islamic courts in matters relating to marriage, divorce, gifts, succession and will. It provides that "any question regarding marriage, divorce, maintenance, guardianship of minors and family relationship provided that the marriage to which the question relates was concluded in accordance with Mohammedan law or when the parties are all Mohammedans shall fall under the jurisdiction of the Shari’a courts." It further stipulates that the government will appoint the judges including the chief Kadi who was invested with a number of prerogatives ranging from working-out procedures and rendering final decisions in his appellate jurisdiction to attachment and execution. In 1944, the Kadis and Naiba Councils Proclamation No. 62/1944 was promulgated, repealing the earlier proclamation. Under the new proclamation, Shari'a courts were re-established and a new set of courts were introduced. Pursuant to this proclamation, there are three sets of Islamic courts: (1) the Naiba Council; (2) Courts of the Kadis’ Council, and (3) the Courts of Shariat.
However, in 1960 a Western-based Civil code was enacted which purports to repeal Islamic law. Despite the sweeping thrust of the repeal provision, Shari'a courts remain intact and kept on functioning and applying their law independent of the regular state court structure. "The Code" Abdulmalik writes, "remained a purely theoretical work devoid of real value in respect to those matters governed by the Sharia rules despite the fact that those matters were supposed to be ruled by the civil code which automatically would have brought the abrogation of the Sharia'a rules by virute of Art. 3347 (1)"
Nevertheless, since 1995, the new Ethiopian Constitution has extended recognition to the independent validity of Islamic law and the competence of Islamic courts to adjudicate cases concerning personal and family law. In order to execute this constitutional provision the House of Peoples' Representatives has enacted proclamation No. 188/1999.
Are the Islamists Coming?
So what are the root-causes of the current Islamic upheavals in Ethiopia? What accounts for this phenomenon? Are the Islamists coming? If we are going to fully account for this phenomenon, I believe we need to have a full grasp of both the internal and international factors at play, but that cannot be done within the scope of such a brief paper as this. Given the limitations, what I can do is offer an all-too-sketchy outline of the possible explanations from the viewpoint of domestic as well as international politics.
In domestic politics, the introduction of ethnic federalism has resulted in what I might call, to borrow an expression from Milan Kundera, 'the unbearable lightness of being' Ethiopian. Therefore, the inevitable undesired consequence of the constitutional enshrinement of Identity Politics, which extended recognition to ethnic and religious identities in that country rooted in historical interpretations about the marginalisation of non-Amharas and non-Christians (esp. Muslims) by the state, gave rise to the radicalization of particularistic identities such as being Oromo and Muslim to the detriment of universalistic identities like being Ethiopian. In Economics there’s an apt term for this, i.e., spillover effect. The Islamic revivalism of the past two decades is nothing but the logical outcome of the rise of identity politics in the political landscape, but the radicalization is the spillover effect. According to Jon Abbink, “The 'quest for identity' is an expression that can be applied to the efforts of Ethiopian Muslims to be recognized, to organize, and to raise their position in the country towards parity with the Christians”
In international affairs, the US war on terror, and esp. Ethiopia's position as a key partner in the war on terror, coupled with its legitimate national security concerns vis-a-vis Al-Shabab in Somalia, has placed Ethiopia not only in the unenviable position of desiring to keep extremist elements at bay abroad (across its international frontiers), but also of countering the growing influence of Wahabism at home. Most recently, fear that the Islamists are coming has spread widely due to the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring, thereby creating a further opportunity for regional leaders such as Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia to play their role in keeping Islamic fundamentalism in check. However, what complicates such efforts at analyses is that given Meles Zenawi's squalid human rights track record, it is hard to rule out the possibility that he might be capitalizing on his international role and thereby engaging in diversionary tactics from domestic politics, and hence garner American support that he could not otherwise achieve.
Having said that, it has to be noted that different governmental actors have been engaged in misguided efforts to counter the growing Wahabi influence in Ethiopia. The first actor is the Government of Ethiopia (GoE). GoE through, more particularly, its Ministry of Federal Affairs, in joint cooperation with the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council or Majlis, has launched, since July 2011, nation-wide trainings and workshops on peace and religious tolerance targeting the Muslim community. The first training was delivered on the campus of Haramaya University. The Ministry of the Federal Affairs is said to have allocated more than 11,000,000 Ethiopian Birr or 800, 000 USD) for the program. The trainers came from the HQs of the Al-Ahbash in Beirut. Worst of all, the Ministry of Federal Affairs' continued public engagement in promoting Al-Ahbash at the expense of the traditional sects of the Sunni Islam prevalent in Ethiopia such as Hannafi and Maliki, in clear contravention of the constitutional principle of secularism, which turned out to be unacceptable to the Muslim community, will be seen as an encroachment.
The involvement of the Ministry of Federal Affairs as well as the Regional State Governments has done harm. Both USG and GoE have failed to comply with the ‘Do No Harm’ principle of conflict prevention and resolution. As a result, the harm has already been done. The principle of ‘Do No Harm’ imposes minimum obligations on all actors, including donors, not to do harm during intervention in situations of fragility and conflicts. Donors must ensure that they “do no harm” and consider both the intended and unintended consequences of their interventions. Therefore, it would be the responsibility of the governments of both the US and Ethiopia to undo the harm already done.
Another source of interference is the Government of the United States (USG) if the diplomatic cables that came out of the US embassy in Addis Ababa ending up in wikileaks are credible enough to deserve our attention. Recent wikileaked cables have made the security concerns crystal-clear and confirmed ongoing public diplomacy as well as cultural programming efforts sponsored by Embassy Addis Ababa. Three wikileaked diplomatic cables, created on 2009-07-15, and released, on 2011-08-30, originating from Embassy Addis Ababa, entitled, Growing Wahabi Influence in Ethiopia – Amhara Region and the "Jama Negus Mosque", Wahabism in Ethiopia as "Cultural Imperialism" and Countering Wahabi Influence in Ethiopia Through Cultural Programming discuss Wahabism at length.
According to the first cable, “The newly appointed Council [Majlis] is decidedly anti-Wahabi and speaks openly of their concern about Wahabi missionaries and their destabilizing influence in Ethiopia.” The same cable also elucidates on the causes of intra-Muslim conflicts in the following terms, “Conflicts within the Muslim community have also arisen over control of mosques, which imams should be allowed to preach, and over control of Islamic education. The IASC [Majlis] wants to build an Ethiopian Muslim theological school so that young Ethiopian men will not have to go to the Middle East to study in preparation for becoming Imams, as they must now. These young men are increasingly studying in Saudi Arabia due to the generous scholarships and subsidies available there, and when they return to Ethiopia to take up their posts in new Saudi-funded mosques, they continue to receive subsidies from Saudi Arabia or Islamic NGOs. Unfortunately, the Sufi-dominated Muslim community in Ethiopia does not have sufficient funds to start their own theological school, nor can they counter the financial advantage Wahabis have in Ethiopia.” It is also interesting to note that the same cable attempts to answer the question of why the US should care about Wahabism in Ethiopia. Elaborating on this question, it takes cognizance of the prevalence of a culture of inter-faith tolerance among the three Abrahamic religions of the country, namely Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as a result of mutual co-existence and the tradition of tolerance in Sufism. The cable claims, however, that “With the advent of Wahabism in Ethiopia, however, this delicate balance is in danger of being upset.” It goes on to claim that “Conflicts have begun first within the Muslim community, but have also begun to spread out to include Christian groups as Wahabis seek to assert themselves on college campuses and in smaller towns outside the capital. The threat of inter-communal conflict in Ethiopia between Muslims and Christians, as well as between Muslims themselves, can only give a foothold and operating space to Salafist and extremist groups that might seek to exploit the situation.” The cable asserts that “In a shift from past practice, the IASC is now completely purged of Wahabi members. …the Council members acknowledged that the Council is now all Sufi and in their public statements they repeatedly make reference to Ethiopia’s tradition of religious tolerance and co-existence with the Christian communities. As the Ethiopian government appoints the members of the Islamic Council, it is clear that the GoE shares this concern about growing Wahabi influence and is supporting moderate Muslim leaders in trying to counter that influence.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, it has to be emphasized that it is the Ethiopian Government that has the power to appoint members of the Islamic Council or Majlis that expelled those members whom it thinks were Wahabis. And nowhere is US security interests in the Horn of Africa made clearer than in the second cable, in which Embassy Addis Ababa admits, “Ethiopia’s delicate Muslim/Christian balance and historic attitudes between the faith communities regarding tolerance and mutual respect are being challenged, thereby undermining U.S. interests in the region.” Besides, what can be gathered from the forgoing is the concurrence between USG and GFDRE on the growing Wahabi influence in Ethiopia as not only a national and regional security threat, but also with repercussions to Pax Americana and the need to counter it. And the first cable concludes “Post believes there are ways to counter this growing influence through aggressive cultural programming, as will be outlined in the second and third parts of this series.” But, what does this “aggressive cultural programming” consist in?
The third cable describes the said cultural programming as three-pronged, namely: places, objects, and traditions as they relate to indigenous Muslim communities. The strategy centering on conserving Islamic places, objects, and restoring Ethiopia’s unique Islamic traditions is manifested through preserving its shrines, literature, and rituals as well as providing materials written by Muslim authors that support a more orthodox interpretation of Islam in local languages. This strategy of countering Wahabi influence through cultural programming has been done through such grants and programs as the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) grant to restore the Sheikh Hussein Shrine in Bale, the Jama Negus Mosque in Wello, the Teferi Mekonnen Palace in Harar, and the Muhammad Ali House in Addis Ababa; Public Affairs Section (PAS) grant to establish an ‘Islamic Manuscript Preservation Center’ at the Teferi Mekonnen Palace in Harar, to the Institute of Ethiopian studies (IES) to purchase several Ethiopian Orthodox icons and Islamic manuscripts that were in danger of leaving the country, to the American Friends of the IES to pay for materials that will be used for the storage and preservation of Islamic manuscripts in Addis Ababa and for teaching Ethiopian experts how to process them, to a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to do an assessment of over 1,000 Islamic manuscripts in Harar and develop a work plan for establishing the Center there; and a PAS grant to send a group of three Harari experts to the Foxfire Fund in Mountain View, Georgia, to learn about developing an oral history program for high school students, and finally providing two books written by a Muslim-American scholar (‘The Place of Tolerance in Islam’ and ‘The Great Theft,’ both by Khaled Abou el-Fadl) in the local languages of Amharic, Oromifa, and Somali.
Two earlier wikileaked cables, created on 2008-11-26, and released on 2011-08-26, confirm that the Embassy’s efforts at having Khalid Abou el-Fadl’s books entitled, ‘The Place of Tolerance in Islam’ and ‘The Great Theft’, translated into Amharic and Oromiffa by Ethiopian Islamic scholars fell through, “because no Muslim translator in Ethiopia is willing to do it fearing Wahabi pressure.” Strange enough, however, the Oromiya Bureau of Culture offered the services of his office to translate and distribute both these books.
Recall also that recently wikileaked diplomatic cables expose how Ethiopian security forces planted 3 bombs that went off in Addis Ababa on September 16, 2006 and then blamed Eritrea and the Oromo Liberation Front for the blasts in a case that raises serious questions about the claims made about the abortive terrorist plot targeting the African Union summit to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. By extension, it is not as yet clear about the Khawarij killings that took place in Jimma a few years back. Even if conflicts have arisen between the Wahabis and the Sufis, it has only been very much localized. What I find to be worrisome is the government’s tendency to blow the threat out of proportions. Just a few years back, the ‘T’ word was ‘Khawarij’, now it is replaced by ‘Wahabi’ and ‘Salafi’. It is all the more perplexing to me that in a country such as Ethiopia where the Muslim population is roughly equal with Christians and there isn’t any advocacy for forming an Islamic political party, let alone an existing organized Islamic party vying for public office, how demands for autonomy in religious affairs and governmental non-interference can be construed as a political movement. The declared disavowal of the Muslim community of violence and adherence to non-violent means in its protests so far demonstrate that fear of Islamic threats to Ethiopia is only a figment of Meles Zenawi’s imagination.
In view of the foregoing and its past practice, it seems to me that most of the allegations made by the Government of Ethiopia don't hold up to scrutiny. For instance, cable news came out of Addis Ababa regarding the expulsion of two Arabs by the AP correspondent and has appeared in many media outlets including Washington Post. But nobody seemed to question its accuracy and truthfulness. The news goes on like this "Ethiopia's government has expelled two Arabs who flew in from the Middle East after the pair went to a mosque and tried to incite violence." Neither the names nor the nationalities of these two Arabs were disclosed in the statement made by the Government. How can a government that has incarcerated two Swedish journalists on trumped up charges of terrorism let two Arabs go free while accusing them of inciting violence or has the criminal law changed in an overnight? Would there be any reason why they would not be arrested and tried in a court of law if the charges were true? No reason has been offered so far. So how do we know whether the said Arabs have not just been ordinary tourists?
This is not to deny the legitimacy of the international and domestic security concerns of the two nations, namely the US and Ethiopia, but to question the legitimacy and efficacy of the means used to achieve a legitimate end. If Washington is implicated in Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia, it is not without good reason. As Terrence Lyons has rightly observed:
Washington’s support for Ethiopia in the recent past has been justified in part by Addis Ababa’s contributions in the global war on terrorism. While Ethiopia has played a supportive role, its policies and actions toward Islamist movements such as al-Itihaad are driven by its own national interests and are not undertaken on behalf of the United States. If Ethiopia sends its forces into Somalia, it may drag Washington into a conflict that will be framed in many parts of the Muslim world as another U.S.-sponsored attack on Islam. Furthermore, the close association of the United States and Ethiopia complicates relationships between Washington and other regional actors, notably Eritrea and a range of Somali groups.
The same holds true of the current Islamic upheavals in Ethiopia. Washington has to put Addis Ababa’s problems in the proper context of the wider problem of the rise of authoritarianism in domestic politics. Ethiopian Muslims have, for much of their country’s history, been peaceful and hence it’d be only be irresponsible to needlessly engage in activities that disturb the equilibrium of co-existence and tolerance maintained among the various Islamic sects as well as between Muslims and Christians in that country.
The only way to go about the ongoing problem is for Addis Ababa to take its hands off Islamic affairs and leave it to the Muslim community and faith-based non-governmental organizations to reach out to the Muslim community. This again is not to gainsay the right of The Association of Islamic Philanthropic Projects (Jam'iyyat al-Mashari' al-Khayriyya al-Islamiyya) or Al Ahbash or whatever Islamic sect to operate in Ethiopia provided that it respects the laws of the land. The solution to the problem created by the securitization of Islam and intra-Islamic relations should be nothing but de-securitization of Islam and intra-Islamic relations, not the privileging of one Islamic sect over another and should start out with de-securitization. Except for the few historical instances from the country’s remote past mentioned above, Ethiopia has never been a breeding-ground for Sayyed Qutb- or Al Zawahiri-styled Islamism and there’s little indication that it will ever be, given that the Muslim community continues to enjoy and exercise its freedom of worship without any interference.
Whatever else has been done by Addis Ababa will provide nothing but a recipe for future conflicts. The strategy deployed will most likely backfire, thereby sowing the seeds of political Islam that it seeks to keep at bay. It is imperative to bear in mind that it is the marginalization and suppression of Muslims by the Ethiopian Christian State in the past that bred extremism. The current interference by the secular tyrant in the internal affairs of the Muslim community won’t help if not to exacerbate the situation. As Mustafa Akyol says, even “Islamists will become only more moderate when they are not oppressed, and only more pragmatic as they face the responsibility of governing.”