Muslims attend prayers to mark Eid al-Fitr, at Addis Ababa`s main square, September 20, 2009. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims around the world abstain from eating, drinking and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. REUTERS
Article by Argaw Ashine: “Are Islamists on the Rise in Ethiopia?”
Is Ethiopia slowly drifting towards religious upheaval? Already a key US ally in the war on terror, Africa`s second most populous nation has to keep an eye on another battlefront opened by increasingly restive Muslims.
With the rise of Islamist movements hot on the trail of the momentous Arab Spring movement, the Horn of Africa state is wary despite being home to a predominantly Christian population.
About a third of the 85 million-strong population are Muslims, and while the current constitution spells out the separation of religion and state, Christianity, particularly of the Orthodox variety, has served as state religion for many years of Ethiopia`s history, with Muslims and minority ethnic tribes marginalised for centuries.
The last three months have however seen rising tension between the government and the conservative Muslim community, both in the capital Addis Ababa and in various regional towns.
The government accuses “jihadists” linked to the fundamentalist Al-Qaeda of trying to infiltrate traditionally moderate Islam with an intent to create an Islamic regime in the country.
Turned violent The rancour recently turned violent in Oromya region at a mosque in Assassa town when security forces killed four and injured ten Muslims during a confrontation after Friday prayers at the beginning of this month.
This incident has inflamed the inherent tensions and forced the government to take half-hearted measures to placate the Muslims increasingly agitating for religious freedom.
They have been demanding a fresh election to the highest Muslim governing council, the Mejlis, which is seen as pro-regime.
The current Mejlis has been in power for 14 years, overstaying its mandate by nine years. Its members are expected to be elected every five years.
Prime minister Meles Zenawi during a recent parliamentary session said that the government would take all necessary measures to prevent fundamentalists from gaining a foothold in Ethiopia.
“We are seeing tell-tale signs of extremism,” he said. “We should nip this scourge in the bud,” adding that he would never allow fundamentalists to try to form an Islamic government in Ethiopia.
Analysts say the Ethiopian government`s alarm has its roots in the 1990s rapid expansion of the fundamentalist Islamic Wuhabism sect. Lost ground In that decade Wuhabism bloomed, building hundreds of mosques and religious schools in East Africa under a Muslim charity group, with a concentration in Ethiopia.
The sect however lost ground in the region after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states withdrew their funding for the group around 2005.
To counter the fundamentalists, the Ethiopian government has recently supported moderate Islamic sect Ahbashism, an extension of Sunni Islam, riling Muslims who are said to be gravely unhappy with the government`s open support for Ahbashism.
Two senior government officials, Federal Affairs minister Shiferaw Teklemariam and Mr Meles` security advisor Tsegaye Berhe, are directly supervising the preparation of the upcoming Mejlis election, causing further angst among those aggrieved Muslims.
Social media Muslim activist Doud Ahmed told this publication that a new council would only be accepted if it was perceived to be free and fair and said that the government must withdraw from the process.
“I don`t think the planned election will be an answer for our demands. They are organizing their own Ahbash people who have accepted to serve the government`s interest on behalf of Ethiopian Muslims,” he said.
The United States has been eager to avoid the scenario of a stronger Islamic movement in Ethiopia and five years ago launched an educational programme to promote what it termed cultural learning and religious coexistence. Largely failed The initiative largely flopped and was seen as provocation by both Muslim and Christian conservatives.
At about the same time , a deadly conflict flared up between Christian and Muslim communities in Jimma (Roomy region) and Wollo (Amhara region) towns with an unknown number of people dying and churches and mosques being burned down.
The Ethiopian government withdrew the short-lived US sponsored initiative without any further explanation.
A secret cable report from the US Embassy in Addis Ababa released by Wikileaks and dated in 2008 said that the superpower`s security interest was in preventing the expansion of conservative Islam in Ethiopia.
Former US ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn in a written response said that the current Ethiopian government had done a great job by providing free space for religious groups over the last 20 years.
He also noted that the ruling EPRDF party`s acceptance among the Muslim community was as a result of the government`s successful management of religious issues.
“The government has done a pretty good job over the years in ameliorating religious differences where there are potentially serious conflicts among Ethiopian Orthodox, Protestant and Muslims. Catholics, animists and others are too few to constitute a political bloc,” Mr Shinn said.
Mr Shinn also said there is no clear reason for the government to impose or sponsor Ahbashism against any other Islamic ideology. Crackdown Horn of Africa analyst and fellow at New York City University Alemayehu Fantaw says that the rise of Islamist groups in other countries in the wake of the Arab Spring is creating further opportunity for Mr Meles to crack down on Islamic fundamentalism.
Mr Fantaw and other analysts argue that the real interest of the government, whose human record has been criticised, is in clamping down on any form of opposition under the cover of fighting fundamentalism (terrorism).
“The current interference… in the internal affairs of the Muslim community won`t help and could instead exacerbate the situation,” he said.
“Whatever else has been done by the government 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,” he said.
The Meles administration seems to have a two pronged approach towards fighting fundamentalism: First to contain the expansion of conservative Islam and maintain under government control the Muslim council, and secondly, to avoid assenting any political movement formed under the umbrella of Islam.
With his government facing almost a dozen armed rebel groups and the discontent of the poor communities growing, Mr Meles can least afford an organized mass protest, which has not happened for nearly seven years now since a 2005 election.
(Description of Source: Africa Review in English — Digital news platform established by leading Kenyan media company, Nation Media Group, and aims to provide “smart insights” on African news and to examine important social and political trends in the continent; URL: http://www.africareview.com)
© Compiled and distributed by NTIS, US Dept. of Commerce. All rights reserved.