Note: This conversation took place between Jenny Vaughan, the AFP correspondent based in Addis Ababa and Alemayehu Fentaw, a visiting scholar at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, via email between 8 and 24 October 2012 regarding the current Muslim protests in Ethiopia.
Jenny Vaughan: What does the government's response to the Muslim protests tell you about religious tolerance among the ruling regime in Ethiopia?
Alemayehu Fentaw: What's going on in Ethiopia is a reflection of what's happening in the West. Fears of terrorism in the West have deteriorated into an irrational suspicion of Muslims, which will continue until the West turns its critical eye inwards. Since Ethiopia is a critical partner in the US war on terror, its government thinks it helps to appear terrified by the prospect of the rise of Islamism and an improbable takeover of governmental power by political Islam. That way, Ethiopia hopes to keep Western aid flowing into the country.
Fear with no basis in evidence leads to dubious actions such as the one the Government of Ethiopia is engaged in. It'd be irrational to dismiss the fear of Islamic terrorism, given that a country has had a history of Islamic terrorism. When it comes to Ethiopia, nonetheless, that fear is irrational in the light of its recent past and current events. Rational fear ought to guide sensible public policy. It's simply absurd to believe that all Muslims are fiends in disguise. Look at the protests. The authorities make no distinction in disappointing the Muslim community based on sects. They are being intolerant generally of all Muslims without distinction, and all of this because of a bad public policy.
There's no doubt that the Ethiopian Muslim community has been radicalized, not in the sense that it has a political agenda, but in the sense that it has attained a higher degree of religious consciousness and hence become aware of it particularistic identity far more than it used to be in the past. And in light of events that took place in North Africa and the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring, it can be safely assumed that the authorities are being haunted by fear of an 'Ethiopian Spring'. As you can see, that fear of a possible 'Ethiopian Spring' has resulted not only in the current crackdown on the media and the opposition, but also on the Muslim community. Ethiopia has increasingly become intolerant of Islam.
Jenny Vaughan: Do Muslims in Ethiopia pose a legitimate (extremist) threat to the country and region?
Alemayehu Fentaw: There's very little evidence to support the claim that Ethiopian Muslims pose a legitimate threat to national and regional security. However, there's a universal consensus among analysts worth the name that Somalia and Sudan are exporters not only of political Islam, but also of Islamic terrorism. This again is not a universal claim about Muslims in Ethiopia. There could be individual Muslim proselytizers bent on using violence. There were a few incidents of violence, but it takes an independent commission to investigate into the claims. I don't personally buy the government's claims.
Jenny Vaughan: Some members of the Muslim community say there is no real government pressure to impose Al-Ahbash, while others say the imposition is indeed there and unconstitutional. In your assessment, do you think the government is legitimately trying to impose the sect?
Alemayehu Fentaw: The Muslim community is claiming in unison that there's uncalled-for governmental interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopian Muslims. To that extent and to the extent that secularism is a constitutionally enshrined principle of governance, the interference is unacceptable. Therefore, any sponsorship by the government of a religious sect over others or any attempt of privileging one religion over another is illegitimate, be it Al-Ahbash or Wahabi. But this is not to divest the government of its legitimate authority to neutralize security threats as they arise and recognizing the threshold requires not only good public policy and laws, but also responsible enforcement. If the government feels like Al-Ahbash, it has to leave the task of propagating it to the faith-based nongovernmental organizations, rather than tasking the Ministry of Federal Affairs with a non-governmental mandate. The problem is the government has already legislated the civil society out of existence. Evangelists or what have you could also do some work, but thanks to the charities legislation, their activities are constrained.
Jenny Vaughan: Will the government's relationship with Muslim community change now that Hailemariam Desalegn has taken over as PM?
Alemayehu Fentaw: It seems to me the replacement of a Marxist Prime Minister by a Protestant Prime Minister would not do much in realigning the Muslim community with the government. What is crucial is putting in place a sensible public policy, competent public service, and proper enforcement, which is badly wanting in Ethiopia today.
Jenny Vaughan: Do you think there is potential for protests to grow and threaten government? Or will they go away now that council elections are over?
Alemayehu Fentaw: The protests will surely grow so much so that the government becomes too frustrated to handle the situation. But, I don't expect them to resort to violent means in the course of their protests. My fear is that the government will eventually resort to more force than is warranted under the circumstances. And you never know what will happen after that.
The protests won't go away easily. They will stick there as far as the protesters demands are not met. It's too stupid to think that they'll go away once the Majlis elections are over. And I guess that's what the authorities are thinking.
Jenny Vaughan: What should the government response to protesters' demands be?
Alemayehu Fentaw: Cessation of interference and making a gesture towards meeting their demands is the solution. And the first step would be to release the imprisoned elected leaders of the Muslim community and conduct the election of the members of the Majlis in the mosques rather than the kebeles. Finally, it has to stop sponsoring the propagation of Ahbashism at the expense of other sects of Islam as long as the Wahabis or whatever you call them respects the constitution and other laws of the land.
The government has also to stop using the current Islamic protests to crackdown on political dissent emanating from whether within the ruling coalition or the opposition from the largely Muslim constituency found in much of south Ethiopia.
The government's interference has been totally unacceptable and served as a recipe for conflict. And to continue to interfere in the internal affairs of the Muslim community will do more harm than good.
Jenny Vaughan: Anything you'd like to add?
Alemayehu Fentaw: If there's anything I'd like to add, Islamic militancy posed a threat to Ethiopia's national security at different times in the remote past. … But, the gravest of all the threats came with the advent of Ahmad Gran. In all instances, it was a reaction to oppression by the Christian State. But Islamic revivalism, which is positive in itself, and radicalism, which is undesired and a spillover effect, came as a result of the sacralization of identity politics, which is not such a bad idea in and of itself. So radicalism is one thing, but militancy is different. The threat, which as yet is not clear and present, does not emanate from radicalization (which is purely religious, not political), but from the embrace of political Islam and its concomitant militancy. The threat emanating from radicalization in my view does not call for direct government intervention. It would have been adequately addressed by civil society organizations. (Wait a minute; let me ask you just for once: do you believe that the current interference by the government is justified?) So what's lacking? As you might already have suspected, what absent is a vibrant civil society organizations, including religion-based and inter-faith NGOs working in the area of peace and reconciliation. Alas, they were legislated out of existence by the government.
Aiga published this provocative article following the peaceful conclusion of the Majlis elections and the passing of a Jum'a without protests in Addis, albeit the protests took place in mosques in some rural areas. A conversation I had with inside sources, however, indicate that Eid is only a week from today and hence it's a little too soon for any triumphalist celebration by the government. A cable news reporter, whose identity I can't disclose for security reasons, surmised the Muslim protesters seem to be suffering from "strategic indecision", which was also confirmed to me by inside sources. I for one wish to warn the authorities against uncalled-for provocations.
Jenny Vaughan: As you know, many Muslim protestors accuse the government of appointing teachers and preachers to promote al Ahbash in schools and mosques. The government denies this. What I am wondering is who is normally responsible for the appointment of clerics and/or teachers in mosques and schools--does that task fall to the Islamic Council or simple the local Muslim community?
The Awoliyah Muslim Mission School, belonged since 1993 to the Islamic charitable agency known as International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and has been linked to the Saudi-controlled World Muslim League. Therefore, it's the responsibility of the management of the school, and not the government, to hire and fire teachers and Islamic scholars. However, this is not to deny the government's responsibility to supervise charitable organizations. It seems that Ethiopian authorities consider it to be a breeding ground for radical Muslims, whom they refer to as "salafi-jihadists," "Wahabi-Salafists," and what not. I think there's too much securitization of the matter on part of the government.
In Ethiopia Islam has been institutionally speaking decentralized, albeit the Islamic Affairs' Supreme Council (Majlis), formally established in 1976, enjoys a degree of officialdom and its chairman is considered by the government as "representative of the entire Muslim community" and accorded the same courtesies as the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bishop of the Catholic Church, and Head of the Protestant Churches in public ceremonials. Therefore, it has always been the responsibility of local mosques to appoint clerics. Put differently, you can't control what each and every mosque in the country does by controlling the Majlis. It doesn't work that way.