Posted March 4, 2013 in News

Ethiopian Muslims protest: a rise of sociopolitical consciousness

by Mubarak Keder

The relationship between the Ethiopian Muslim community and the government has always been on a delicate balance reached by a compromise made by the Muslim community. For the most part, given the authoritarian rule the country is under, the Muslim community tolerated the government’s unconstitutional involvement in their religious affair and institutions. In particular, the Muslim community has, for long time, been unsettled by the government’s heavy-handed involvement in the supposedly independent Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council commonly known as Majlis. Consequently, the Majlis have been as ineffective in executing the tasks entrusted by the community. However, it was not this specific circumstance that gave way for the growing protest in the country that has been going on for more than a year.

Tension between the two start to grow when the government decided to import followers of Islamic sect from Lebanon, known as Ahbash, on a bold and ambitious move – that disrupted  the long wrestled  balance between the two – to implement a Nationwide plan to introduce and impose Al Ahbash ideologies, which is completely alien to Ethiopian Muslims. Al Ahbash, is an organization based in Lebanon, formally known as Association of Islamic charitable project, which describes itself as a charitable organization promoting Islamic culture. Despite the group’s claim, some have hard time understanding the true objective of the group, one of the reasons for this being the fact that the group was in the center of the UN probe into the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, following the UN inquiry naming two of its active members as key suspects.

In July 2011, the Ethiopian government has aggressively mobilized to change the country’s Muslim belief for that of ‘Ahbashism’. To this effect, it launched a nationwide training of imams and Islamic scholars in Ahbash ideologies side by side with ‘revolutionary democracy’, which is essentially an indoctrination of EPRDF’s political ideology as the only and perfect fit to govern the country. Those imams and Islamic scholars who have either refused to take part in the program or teach it in their respective mosques have been removed from their mosques otherwise arrested; mosques and Islamic institutions that turned down the government’s demand have been closed.

The Muslim community came to find out about the government’s plan before it hardly take full effect; they understood this to be a grave aggression against their constitutionally bestowed right to freedom of religion and action that farther endangered a secular form of governance, which the government have been  insisting on having. So, started the protest which spread from Awolia and Anwar mosques in Addis Ababa to different part of the country, and have been growing throughout it’s more than one year period. The disorganized Muslim community started to readjust; and the first important advance they made were to form an arbitration committee of 17 Islamic leaders to negotiate with the government regarding four issues: “1) respecting the Ethiopian constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom; 2) ending government imposition of al-Ahbash on Ethiopian Muslims, while allowing al-Ahbash to operate equally with other religious communities; 3) re-opening and returning schools and mosques to their original imams and administrators; and 4) holding new elections for the EIASC, and having these elections take place  in mosques, rather than in neighborhood government community centers, to ensure that the community’s selections would be honored.” as noted on the November 8, 2012 statement released by the United States commission on international religious freedom ( USCIRF).

However, the negotiation between the government and the arbitration committee failed to bring any result and the protest continued to grow in size and frequency. The same month the government arrested all 17 members of the committee along with other hundreds of protesters. Since July 13, Ethiopian police and security services have harassed, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Muslims at Addis Ababa’s Awalia and Anwar mosques who were protesting government interference in religious affairs, Human Rights Watch said.

While the protest continued to gain the overwhelming support of the Muslim population, instead of dealing with the grievance of the people, the government rather got invested in campaigning to characterize the movement as a question of the few propagated by ‘extremist elements’ in the country, belittling the legitimate constitutional demand of the people. The EPRDF government attempted to justify it’s unconstitutional action as a measure that needed to be taken to eliminate terrorist cells – allegedly are trying to establish Islamic state – threatening the secular form of government. The Muslim community rejected linking the protest with terrorism as a misrepresentation of the legitimate concerns raised in a desperate attempt to scare away the support the movement is gaining. Ironically enough, the protesters demand is, for the government to uphold the laws that are entrenched in the constitution to maintain a secular state, on the contrary to that asserted by the government. This position by the protesters transcended the movement from being a theological one to that of a struggle to protect constitutional rights which the government is defying.

The statement issued by the USCIRF backed the protesters’ claim that, “Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to force a change in the sect of Islam practiced nationwide and has punished clergy and laity who have resisted.” And, when the negotiation between the committee and the government had failed in July 2011, and as the protest start to grow, “the Ethiopian government started to crack down on and intimidate the demonstrators, surrounding them with armed guards and conducting house-to-house searches.” The report further stated, “The government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC).  Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution.  The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia.”
Regarding those people arrested during the protest the statement issued by the Amnesty international, on November 2, 2012 rebuked the government’s allegation, stating “These individuals appear to have been arrested and charged solely because they exercised their human rights to freedom of expression and to participate in a peaceful protest movement.”  The report also expressed concern regarding the country’s vague anti-terrorism law and its application saying, “Since its introduction in 2009 the excessively broad Anti-Terrorism Proclamation has predominantly been used to prosecute dissenters and critics of the government, including journalists and members of political opposition parties.”

Given the level of very little, if any, freedom of expression in the country, the protest is being met with great difficulty. The people have been well aware of the risk in assembling or staging a protest. The last time the people held a demonstration, in 2005 opposing the ruling party; more than 200 people got killed. Taking this experience into account, the Muslim community was forced to come up with a way to avoid any violent incidents from happening. To this effect, instead of holding a big mass demonstration in the cities’ squares, the Muslim community have been holding the protests in separate mosques after the Friday (Jumah) prayer, where large congregation gather; and to avoid any circumstance that might give a chance for the police to turn the peaceful protest into chaos, the protesters come up with an innovative means to circumvent the challenges that are set and to get their messages across. The protesters used white and yellow placard and papers, and hold silent demonstration as a sign of peaceful intention, and as way of refuting the government’s assertion of the protest as provocative. Even though holding a mass protest in a single location might have been effective in putting the spotlight on the issues the people raised and pressuring the government for a quick measure to deal with the grievance of the community, however, with  the current political environment in the country it were deemed impractical. Besides, having the protest in separate smaller group has its own perks: one of which is the fact the protest have been able to continue for more than a year, which would have been unattainable as the cost of continuing the protests would have been impossible to bear and the movement  would have been long suppressed or weakened shortly. The most important thing for the community have been to keep the movement alive until their questions are being answered, fortunately enough for the community, the weekly Friday prayer offered convenient enough platform to attain this objective. The people were also able to overcome the challenge of weak communication infrastructure and managed to unify their voices. Most importantly of all, the protesters have been able to keep an impeccable record of staying peaceful, despite the provocation, depriving the government any opportunity to misconstrued the movement as a violent one and easily squash it.

Throughout the protest, the other main challenge the movement faced has been the apparent absence of free press, which left protesters to be a victim of smear campaign by the state media and no independent media outlet to have an independent investigation and coverage of events.  While the EPRDF government used the state media as a propaganda tool to portray the protest as violent, terrorist-related and orchestrated by the few, it has been as much invested in cracking down the few independent newspapers for covering the protest. Journalists who published article regarding the protest were imprisoned on charges of treason and incitement to violence; police, even, raided the printing company which published the newspapers. “Ethiopia has reached a high level of harassment of the press by attempting to censor coverage of the protests,” said CPJ(committee to protect journalists) East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes.

International human rights and other related organization have been fast to condemn the government’s action and call for a rapid judicial process. While the idea of bringing those arrested swiftly to judicial authorities and have a due process is sound and reasonable, one important fact that is being overlooked is the apparent absence of the rule of law and independent judiciary in the country. In spite of what is stated in the constitution there is no practical distinction between the executive and judicial branch of government on the ground, making it impossible for the people to see the obscure line that differentiate being charged of a crime to that of being convicted of one. One manifestation of this is the ‘documentary’ that aired  on February 6, 2013 on the state controlled Ethiopian Television, which basically,’ investigated ‘ the allegation , ‘charged’ those suspected and ‘convicted’ them of a crime, all these while court hearing is far from being half way, and throwing the basic principle of ‘innocent till proven guilty’ to the side.

while the mark the movement will have on the history of the country is something to be seen, the course the protest will take and the roll it will play in the sociopolitical sphere will largely depend on the level of sociopolitical consciousness the society possess, by which the people in general, stand to defend the common principles regardless of the groups being involved. This level of consciousness by which the general public  is well informed about their country’s affair and, as much importantly, are actively involved in dictating and further safeguarding the principles and values they want their country to be governed a complex development to bring given the current sociopolitical structure in the  country. However, the unprecedented persistency and solidarity the people that have been exhibited by this movement for more than one year just might be an indication to the changing course.