Is the specter of the Arab Spring haunting Ethiopia?

Although Ethiopia has never been a breeding ground for Islamism, the government has started to interfere in religious affairs in order to preempt radicalization. This strategy will most likely backfire, sowing the very seeds of political Islam that it seeks to keep at bay.

Ethiopia has been swept by Islamic protests in opposition to what the Muslim community calls the 'government-sponsored propaganda activities' of the little-known Islamic sect, Al-Ahbash, throughout the country, and the suspension of the Addis Ababa-based Awolya Institute on the alleged grounds of promoting Wahhabism. The security forces reportedly killed four and injured ten Muslims during a confrontation after Friday prayers in Assassa in April and detained a large number of protesters in Addis Ababa in May. Eleven are being tried over charges concerning a terrorist bomb-plot. According to Shimeles Kemal, the government spokesman, “The aim of the terror network was to establish an Islamic state by toppling the government.” 

The protesters also accuse the Government of Ethiopia of hijacking the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, or the Majlis. They demand that the current members of the Majlis are replaced by elected representatives. They also call for elections to be held in the city's mosques rather than in the Kebeles, local government institutions.

What are the roots of the current Islamic protests in Ethiopia? Without claiming to offer a complete account of the reasons and motivations behind these developments, this article outlines some possible explanations and important aspects.

In domestic politics, the introduction of ethnic federalism has resulted in, to borrow Milan Kundera’s expression, 'the unbearable lightness of being' Ethiopian. One undesired consequence of the constitutional enshrinement of identity politics, which extended recognition to ethnic and religious groups, rooted in historical interpretations of the marginalisation of non-Amharas and non-Christians, is the empowerment of particular religious identities such as Oromo or Muslim over a universalist national identity, that of 'being Ethiopian'. If the Islamic revival of the past two decades is the logical outcome of the rise of identity politics, radicalization is an unwanted side effect.

In international affairs, the US war on terror and Ethiopia's position as a key partner, coupled with its legitimate regional security concerns, have placed Ethiopia not only in the unenviable position of having to keep extremist elements such as Al-Shabab at bay, but also of countering the growing influence of Wahhabism at home. Most recently, fears over rising Islamism have spread widely in the wake of the Arab Spring. The problem with this is that tyrants such as Meles Zenawi won’t hesitate to use the pretext provided by national security to capitalize on his regional role in fighting terrorism, with the aim of garnering American support that he does not deserve, given his regime's disregard of human rights and free and fair elections as documented meticulously by the US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, year after year. In the same way as Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia was used to annihilate regional rebels such as the ONLF and OLF, it is hard to rule out the possibility that this will also be used as another opportunity to clamp down on political dissidents.

Having said that, it has to be noted that different governmental actors have been engaged in misguided efforts to counter the growing Wahhabi influence in Ethiopia. The first actor is the Government of Ethiopia (GoE). The GoE through its Ministry of Federal Affairs, in joint cooperation with the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (Majlis), has launched, since July 2011, nation-wide workshops on religious tolerance targeting the Muslim community. The Ministry of Federal Affairs is said to have allocated more than 11,000,000 Ethiopian Birr, or 800,000 USD, to the programme, bringing in trainers from the Al-Ahbash headquarters in Beirut. The continued public engagement of the Ministry of Federal Affairs in promoting Al-Ahbash, at the expense of the prevailing schools of jurisprudence of Sunni Islam such as Hannafi and Maliki is not only a clear contravention of the constitutional principle of secularism, but has also turned out to be unacceptable to the Muslim community.

It seem that the other source of interference is the United States. Recent wikileaked cables of the US embassy in Addis Ababa discuss the Wahhabist threat there at great length.

According to the first cable, “The newly appointed Council [Majlis] is decidedly anti-Wahhabi and speaks openly of their concern about Wahhabi missionaries and their destabilizing influence in Ethiopia.” The same cable also elucidates 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 Wahhabis have in Ethiopia.”

The same cable also addresses the question of why the US should care about Wahhabism in Ethiopia. It takes note of the prevalence of a culture of inter-faith tolerance among the three Abrahamic religions of the country as a result of mutual co-existence and the tradition of tolerance in Sufism. The cable claims, however, that “With the advent of Wahhabism in Ethiopia, … this delicate balance is in danger of being upset.” It goes on to assert that “Conflicts have begun first within the Muslim community, but have also begun to spread out to include Christian groups as Wahhabis 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 adds that “In a shift from past practice, the IASC is now completely purged of Wahhabi 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 Wahhabi influence and is supporting moderate Muslim leaders in trying to counter that influence.”

US security interests in the Horn of Africa region are detailed in the second cable, in which the Addis Ababa Embassy alleges that “Ethiopia’s delicate Muslim/Christian balance and historic attitudes between the faith communities regarding tolerance and mutual respect are being challenged, thereby undermining US interests in the region.”

The first cable concludes that “there are ways to counter this growing influence through aggressive cultural programming”, which the third cable describes in more detail. The strategy centres on conserving Islamic places and objects, and restoring Ethiopia’s unique Islamic traditions by preserving its shrines, literature, and rituals as well as making moderate Islamic literature available in local languages. This strategy has for example been supported by grants and programmes such as the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation 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; and also by translating Khaled Abou el-Fadl’s books, The Place of Tolerance in Islam and The Great Theft, into Amharic, Oromifa, and Somali.

With respect to the translation of Khalid Abou el-Fadl’s books, two earlier wikileaked cables confirm that the Embassy’s efforts at having them translated into Amharic and Oromiffa by Ethiopian Islamic scholars initially fell through, “because no Muslim translator in Ethiopia is willing to do it, fearing Wahhabi pressure.”

Even if conflicts have arisen between Wahhabis and Sufis, these have been very much localized hitherto. What is worrying 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 ‘Wahhabi’ and ‘Salafi’. It seems all the more perplexing that in a country such as Ethiopia where the Muslim population is roughly equal to the Christian 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 violence on the part of the Muslim community, and positive adherence to non-violent means in its protests so far demonstrate that the threat of Islamic militancy in Ethiopia is only a figment of Meles Zenawi’s imagination.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of the international and domestic security concerns of the US and Ethiopia, but to question the legitimacy and efficacy of the means used to achieve a legitimate end.

Washington should view Addis Ababa’s problems in the proper context of the wider issue of the rise of authoritarianism in domestic politics. The Arab Spring has already produced an Ethiopian winter as in many other sub-Sahara countries, for fear that comparable uprisings may emerge. Controls have been tightened. It has already become clear from the continued mounting crackdown on political dissidents and journalists following the Arab Street protests that the specter of the Arab Spring is haunting Meles Zenawi. Despite this, we should not lose sight of the fact that Ethiopian Muslims have, for much of their country’s history, been peaceful. Needless engagement could disturb the equilibrium of co-existence and tolerance maintained among the various Islamic sects as well as between Muslims and Christians in the country.

The right strategy would be to leave Islamic affairs to the Muslim community and faith-based non-governmental organizations. This again is not to gainsay the right of Al Ahbash or any other 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 its de-securitization, not the privileging of one Islamic sect over another. Except for a few historical instances from the country’s remote past, Ethiopia has never been a breeding-ground for Sayyed Qutb- or Al Zawahiri-styled Islamism and there is little indication that it ever will be given that the Muslim community continues to enjoy and exercise its freedom of worship without interference.

Whatever else has been done by Addis Ababa will prove nothing but a recipe for future conflicts. The strategy deployed could easily 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. Current interference by the secular tyrant in the internal affairs of the Muslim community will do nothing but exacerbate the situation.

About the author

Alemayehu Fentaw is an Ethiopian-born academic lawyer and Horn of Africa Analyst based in the US. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute for International Education and an At-Risk-Scholar with SAR, New York University.