Muhammad al-Hashimi, a scholar of international political economy with special research focus on African and Muslim countries, looks at some key developments in Ethiopia.
He is associate fellow at the Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance, London, UK. He is founder and executive director of Harar Global Foundation, Washington, DC, a charitable and research organization concerned with economic justice and sustainable economic development, and member of the First Hijrah Foundation, an organization of Ethiopian Muslims in the Washington, DC area.
It appears the gloves are off! The six-month long peaceful protest in Ethiopia known as the Awoliya Movement, which is standing against the government’s forced imposition on the Muslims of what is considered a heretical religious doctrine — the al-Ahbash doctrine from Lebanon — has suffered its first known lethal casualties in the town of Asasa in the Arsi region of southern Ethiopia. Seven Muslims were shot dead in Asasa right after Jumu‘ah Salah on April 27 for their refusal to be indoctrinated with the heretical teachings of the sect known as al-Ahbash. According to eyewitness reports, a contingent of security personnel approached a gathering, attempting to arrest Shaykh Su‘ud Aman, a highly respected Muslim scholar of Asasa. He was accosted by the Ethiopian security forces for allegedly promoting “terrorist ideology.”
When others standing around Shaykh Su‘ud asked for an explanation, the security personnel, without any provocation, started beating and clubbing them. Then they opened fire on the group, killing three Muslims instantly. Seven others were seriously wounded and taken to a nearby health clinic for emergency treatment. Four of them died from injuries, including a six-year-old child. In addition to the six-year-old, an old man named Shaykh Kedir was also killed.
Subsequently, the federal government issued a statement accusing Shaykh Su‘ud of organizing a group made up of individuals from Oromia, Tigray, and Amhara regions who were determined to declare jihad, incite violence, and engage in illegal activities throughout Ethiopia. The government has some of these alleged jihadists in custody.
This allegation and the government’s response to it turned out to be a cover for the real reason for accosting Shaykh Su‘ud: his refusal to submit to the indoctrination program arranged by al-Ahbash in nearby Shashemene town the previous week. This wanton killing of innocent, peace-loving Muslims has heightened anger against the government throughout Ethiopia and among the Ethiopian Muslim diaspora.
Meles Zenawi’s April 17, 2012 speech
The foregoing massacre of law abiding Muslims was preceded just 10 days earlier by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s speech before the Ethiopian Parliament. He claimed that the security forces caught an al-Qaeda cell operating in Arsi and Bale provinces in the south of the country. He went on to claim that this cell had as part of its terrorist agenda the toppling of the Ethiopian state by force. He said that although this cell was “Salafist” in its ideological orientation, it did not mean that all Muslims in Ethiopia professing Salafi orientation were terrorists. He claimed that Salafi teachings had penetrated Ethiopia only in the last 20 or 30 years. He further alleged that the Salafi point of view is a threat to what he called the traditional “Sufi” orientation of the vast majority of Ethiopia’s Muslims. He made no reference to centuries of persecution and repression that Muslims have had to endure at the hands of the Christian monarchy and the Ethiopian Coptic Church, which supported it right until the downfall of Emperor Haile Sellassie in 1974.
It must be noted that the al-Ahbash debacle has been long in planning by the government. According to a report by the Ethiopian journalist Yuunus Hajji Mul’ataa, “the Ethopian government put the ‘Majlis’ (Higher Council of Islamic Affairs) under the leadership of [al-]Ahbash scholars three years ago.” It was only in July of 2011, according to Yuunus, that the government decided to launch a massive campaign promoting al-Ahbash ideology through the government-controlled media. Indeed, Ethiopian television almost daily runs a segment showing a large gathering of Muslims assembled in a conference hall type setting denouncing “the terrorists” — the government term for peaceful protestors of the Awoliya Movement — in the country and praising the government for its indoctrination program. A government official is shown holding up what appears to be some kind of document that all trainees will receive that successfully complete the indoctrination program. All of this is apparently the beginning of a quasi-apartheid structure being put in place where pro-government Muslims will have “al-Ahbash cards” of some kind. Thus there will be a privileged group of Muslims who will be able to move about freely, while those lacking such “identification” will be restricted in their movement around the capital and the rest of the country.
This may sound far-fetched, but it must be remembered that when the socialist dictator Haile Mengistu Mariam was in power from 1974 to 1991, one had to apply for and receive special documents to move around the country. There were checkpoints on roads throughout Ethiopia during that time to make sure that one had the proper documents to travel. If you were on the road you always knew when you were coming to a checkpoint because across the road perched several feet in the air was a banner displaying pictures of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and, of course, Haile Mengistu Mariam.
Friday protests continue
Friday protests against the government’s al-Ahbash indoctrination program, meanwhile continue in Addis Ababa and around the country, beyond the confines of Awoliya Islamic College where they began back in January of this year. For example, in Harar, the ancient walled Islamic city that has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the protest has taken the form of a directive from the ‘ulama that Friday sermons given in every masjid should concentrate on the instruction of the correct Islamic ‘aqidah — that is, correct belief and practice — to counteract the dubious teachings of al-Abash proselytizers.
First Hijrah Foundation statement
On April 29, 2012, The First Hijrah Foundation of Washington, DC, issued the following statement of protest: “As we condemn these senseless criminal acts, we urge all peace loving Ethiopian and Human Rights organizations to condemn and closely monitor the dire situation Ethiopian Muslims are going through. We demand a stop to the blatant violation of the constitutional rights of Ethiopian Muslims by the authorities in Ethiopia. We support and encourage Ethiopian Muslims to stay in the course of the peaceful struggle and resistance that they have chosen as a means to achieve their constitutional rights.”
Protests by Ethiopian Muslim Diaspora
May 31, 2012 was a day of protest throughout the Ethiopian diaspora. In South Africa, some 5,000 Ethiopian Muslims and their supporters chose the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria as the focal point of protest against government oppression of Ethiopian Muslims. In Geneva, Switzerland, hundreds gathered to protest against the Ethiopian government. In Toronto, Canada, similar protests took place. In Washington, DC, hundreds gathered in front of the US State Department to call for a halt to American aid to the Ethiopian government due to the ongoing violations of human rights throughout the country.
The Empire strikes back!
As the anti-Ahbash protests have grown in Ethiopia and around the world, the Ethiopian government has decided to strike back by interfering with international communications between Ethiopians at home and abroad. A new Ethiopian law enacted on May 24 criminalizes the use of the internet-based audio transmission system called Skype, as well as other forms of internet phone transmission. Ethiopian authorities have also installed a new filtering system that monitors the use of the internet. This is clearly a move to monitor the growing dissidence of Ethiopian Muslims with a view to tightening the belt of repression. Anyone caught involved in “illegal” phone calling will be prosecuted and could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.
Further, in a June 13 communique, the First Hijrah Foundation (FHF) reported: “the [Ethiopian] government… defends such legislation as a timely and appropriate response to the ever-increasing security threats globally and in Ethiopia. But observers say the law is aimed at further limiting freedom of expression and the flow of information in the nation of 85 million people.” It is no coincidence that this law has been drafted in the midst of the growing Ethiopian Awoliya Protest Movement that has morphed into a global outcry against the forced imposition by the Ethiopian regime of al-Ahbash doctrine upon the Muslims of Ethiopia.
FHF goes on to point out that this new draconian law “prohibits VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), which includes audio and video related social media communication, and the transfer of information packages through the fast growing global cyber networks. It also authorizes the government to inspect any imports of voice communication equipment and accessories, while also banning inbound shipments without prior permission.” This will clearly have a negative economic impact on local Ethiopian merchants who specialize in the import, sale and distribution of such equipment.
Two Arabs deported
The government has dug itself into a hole with the implementation of the Ahbash program and as a result has become extremely paranoid. According to an Associated Press report, two Arab visitors were expelled from Ethiopia for allegedly disseminating subversive materials and making inflammatory statements in Addis Ababa’s Grand Anwar Masjid after Jumu‘ah Salah on May 4, according to Shimeles Kemal, the State Minister of Communications. What is more likely is that the visitors were probably appalled at some unorthodox Ahbash-influenced activity they may have witnessed in and around the Masjid and reacted accordingly. Their justified reaction is what, no doubt, got them into trouble.
The important Ethiopian Muslim website, Nejashi OJ, recently posted a startling report. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Exile has endorsed the Ethiopian Muslims’ movement and called upon the Christian faithful to join the movement. At its 33rd regular conference held on May 9–11 in Washington, DC, several issues were discussed related to the current political, social, and religious situation in Ethiopia. At the end of the third day of gathering, the Holy Synod issued a press release in which it condemned the killing of its Muslim brothers and sisters in Ethiopia and called upon all Orthodox believers to join Ethiopian Muslims in their protest against the unlawful intervention by the Ethiopian government in their religious affairs and practices.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Exile is headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios who says that he was forced to abdicate his position in Ethiopia under pressure of the Zenawi government when it came to power in 1991. As a result, he fled Ethiopia and several bishops joined him. They established a breakaway alternate synod to the one in Ethiopia that is headed by Patriarch Abune Paulos. In spite of his exile, Patriarch Abune Merkorios maintains that he remains the legitimate leader of the Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This pro-Ethiopian Muslim position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Exile may be regarded by many as a progressive position of this particular branch of the church, especially in light of the historically conservative, anti-Muslim position for which the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is well known.
Ahbash campaign resurrection of the Edict of Boru Meda?
It is interesting to note that the former Emperor Yohannes IV, who ruled Ethiopia from 1872 to 1889, and the present Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1991, are both from the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray. Another trait they have in common is their oppression of the Muslims of Ethiopia.
With regard to Emperor Yohannes IV, he was the organizer and convener of the infamous Council of Boru Meda, held in May and June of 1878. The main purpose of the Council was to settle a long-standing dispute with regard to theological doctrine within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Once the dispute was settled in favor of the position held by Emperor Yohannes, attention was turned to what would become the dark side of the Council. This had to do with a part of the edict that called for the forced conversion to the particular brand of Christianity favored by Emperor Yohannes. So-called Christian heretics — those who refused to follow the doctrine espoused by Emperor Yohannes — were given two years to convert to the newly triumphant doctrine. So-called pagans were given five years to convert. The Muslims of the Ethiopian empire were given three years. All those who did not willingly convert within their specified time frames had to go into exile. Otherwise, they would be fought against until they were killed or accepted conversion at the point of the sword or gun.
However, it appears that Yohannes could not wait as he began his military campaign against the Muslims toward the end of 1878, launching an attack in the northern provinces of Yejju and Rayya. According to the Ethiopian Muslim historian Hussein Ahmad in his monumental book, Islam in Nineteenth-Century Wallo, Ethiopia, “many ‘ulama and jurists who refused to convert were either killed or had to flee to save their lives.” However, many Muslims in Ethiopia rose up militarily against Yohannes rather than renounce their beloved Islam or flee from their homeland. Bold, brave freedom fighters such as Shaykh Ali Adam of Showa and Shaykh Talha ibn Ja‘far of Wollo declared jihad and led a guerrilla struggle against the superior firepower and numbers of the tyrant Emperor Yohannes. Eventually, in the midst of his naked aggression against the Muslims, Yohannes was killed in battle in 1889.
In the present debacle, could it be that Meles Zenawi considers himself to be following in the footsteps of his royal ancestor? Perhaps he should think twice and review the history of his royal forefather more closely. As the great al-Hajj Malik al-Shabaz (Malcolm X) was fond of saying, “History is the best teacher to reward all research.” Perhaps a careful historical reexamination by Meles Zenawi of Emperor Yohannes will show him that Muslims will stand up and fight and become a determined revolutionary force when their backs are against the wall. And it seems he is currently determined to push the Ethiopian Muslims against the proverbial wall as they stand in unflinching steadfastness to maintain their freedom and protect their Islamic faith. One hopes and prays that Meles Zenawi will pull back from this suicidal path he has created for himself before it is too late for him and his regime!
Current unrest threat to economy
According to most reports, Ethiopia is experiencing double digit economic growth in its gross domestic product (GDP), somewhere in the neighborhood of 10–11%. That makes Ethiopia a country experiencing one of the fastest growth rates in the world. In fact, by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates, Ethiopia will be the world’s third fastest-growing economy for 2011–2015, lagging behind only China and India. According to the January 2011 forecast of the Economist Intelligence Unit of the Economist Magazine, Ethiopia’s economy was Africa’s fifth largest in 2010. This rapid economic growth rate has occurred for several years now. However, Ethiopia still suffers from severe weakness in the distribution of national income through appropriate entitlements. Thus, many see a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots throughout the country.
And now, the current social upheaval based on government violation of the Muslims’ religious rights may, in the longer run, put breaks on that very economic growth itself that has been so highly touted by the IMF and others. This is because much of the capital for growth in the country comes from direct foreign investment by other governments and multinational corporations. But these investors may pull back due to the growing instability in the country. Social instability and unrest may reach a point where foreign investor property is threatened; their projects may quite literally go up in smoke. Social unrest can become so intense that it brings about a leadership change that might initiate the nationalization of much or all of foreign business and manufacturing enterprises in a developing country like Ethiopia, thus effectively causing investors to suffer tremendous losses and flee the country as the new political regime takes power.
Clearly, if the Ethiopian government continues to follow its current trajectory of arrogance and intransigence in the face of the determination of Ethiopian Muslims to remain steadfast in their righteous protest, the government may be courting disaster as political and economic instability rises. The internal turmoil thus generated, coupled with outside forces and interests that may very well step in to take advantage of the chaotic situation, forebodes a dark future for Ethiopia that may be closer than most observers think.