The rise of Islamophobia in Ethiopia

Recent demands have been the most vocal and the most sustained in the history of Ethiopian Muslims. But if they have gone the least bit beyond the scope of religion, then, ironically, they have been overtly secularist.

Many observers have documented the rise in Islamophobic sentiments in many western lands, especially since 9/11. While any collective castigation of a community is as stupid as it is immoral, sometimes it is not surprising. When innocent people get confronted successively with the shocking facts of sudden loss of life and property through the actions of certain members of a group of people, the suspicion towards the whole group gets amplified.

There are of course agents playing the ‘Islamophobic’ card for political purposes, but they do so on the bases of an already charged psycho-social environment, which they also help escalate in turn. At least in a society already filled with prejudice towards Islam, such an untoward marriage between terrorist destruction and political exploitation are bound to render people even more defensive in their attitudes towards Muslims who are construed as the ‘dangerous others’.

Ethiopia’s experience of this is both different and similar to the western one. Like many political actors in the west, the government in Ethiopia has been actively engaged, since the end of 2011, in colossal fear-mongering about the threat of terrorists and extremists in the country: it has released horror-inducing films, and broadcast bombastic news reports, on “Islamic terrorism”. It has also arrested, tortured and killed numerous people, accusing them of the said crimes. But very much unlike places in the west, no independent source during this period has ever identified an organized Ethiopian Islamist group that aspired to either fight the “unIslamic” order, or the “enemies of Islam” by waging jihad and conducting terrorist acts.

We must then ask: is Islamophobia on the rise in Ethiopia as a result of state-fabricated propaganda with no clear social and psychological bases for it among the Muslims themselves?

The rise of a persistent campaign against “Islamic terrorism” coincided with a rather bizarre anti-secularist move by the Ethiopian government. It reportedly brought in some Lebanese preachers into Ethiopia, who immediately seized the moment to spread the teachings of the Al-ahbash sect. It is by now well-confirmed that the government proactively supported the forceful spread of this sect through organizing conferences and workshops on its behalf, making it mandatory for imams to attend them, and punishing any absentees or detractors of the sect.

Ethiopian Muslims for their part reacted vocally and massively. The government-controlled, but the independent-on-paper Muslim organization, the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, had already become notorious for its corrupt, inefficient and, obviously, undemocratic actions and this now exacerbated the already bitter reactions. Protests started to flare up in the capital city, reaching the regions only gradually.

In the course of the last year-and-a-half-long series of uprisings, government forces have reacted violently. But the most glaring and persistent discourse of the government has harped on about “Islamic terrorism” and “extremism”. The protests have been declared to be such, and the leaders have been made to face “terrorist” charges. The ruling party has alleged that the protesters were simply aiming at establishing an Islamic state and waging jihad. The propaganda work has been made to reach every corner of the country, embracing indiscriminately thousands of people in the category of the enemy “Other”.

Do the politicians have a social or political basis for introducing such inflammatory rhetoric into Ethiopia? The vast majority of Ethiopian Muslims have always been known for their politically docile religious self-expression. The age-long domination by a Christian state, among other factos, has made their religious outlook decidedly quietist. Even the infiltration of Muslim corners by some so-called fundamentalist schools of thought from other lands has not disturbed the nature of this quietism. Religious change has so far proved incapable of significantly encroaching on the arena of social life.

The recent demands have been the most vocal and the most sustained in the history of Ethiopian Muslims. But again, they have been strictly religious demands couched in constitutional terms. If they have gone the least bit beyond the scope of religion, then, ironically, they have been overtly secularist. The call has been to end government interference in the religious affairs of Muslims and their institutions. Such a call and the way in which it has been framed have amazed many observers not least for their role in “redefining protest” in authoritarian-led Ethiopia. While their implications for the political development of the country would no doubt be immense, the demands have at the same time been confined - strictly speaking - to the religious arena.

The government has denied the “innocence” of these demands, and questioned the intentions behind them. It has tried to associate the leaders of the protests and those who have taken part in them with regional and continental terrorist groups like Bokko Haram, Ansar As-sunna, and al shabab. But all the evidence it has provided so far is considered as flimsy to say the least by many people. It has consistently failed, local and international observers would argue, to unequivocally establish any link between these organizations and the current and ongoing protests. Nor has the Government proved beyond any doubt that the leaders or the demonstrators have engaged in any supra-religious activity - either in the long or the short terms.

The Government might have in mind securing some political and economic gains in fuelling such a discourse.  Political analysts have cited the local, regional and international political and economic benefits of blowing the “terrorist flute” in this age of ours. This makes more sense in Ethiopia—the super-power in the Horn of Africa, a strong ally of the US and a regime with a fast-dwindling internal legitimacy.

But this also indicates that there is an underlying psychological basis to it. A global narrative with lots of negative connotations attached to it, “Islamism” and “Islamist radicalism” can frighten masses of people in the world today, especially in those regions and countries with some history of entanglement with such ideologies. Such is the Horn region. Ethiopia is located in what has been an Islamist-charged regional environment for some years now. It wouldn’t be difficult to instigate with some success a sense of Islamophobia in the country, even when the country itself is not meaningfully endangered by any internal Islamist ideology or action.

The secularist, non-violent Muslim rights movement has now been taken over by the government as a spring-board for promoting this Islamophobic environment in the whole country. The major effect of this turn of events will be the deteriorating condition of religious rights in the country in the name of fighting terrorism. But more significantly, such an environment may create a tense inter-religious relationship between the otherwise exemplary, long-standing, peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia.