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Muslim Protests in Ethiopia Reveal Religious Fault Lines

  • Gabe Joselow

​NAIROBI — An Ethiopian Muslim protest movement has quieted down since the arrests of key organizers two weeks ago in Addis Ababa. The government crackdown has aggravated tensions between Muslim and Ethiopian authorities.

A small group of Muslims began organizing demonstrations at mosques in the Ethiopian capital earlier this year to protest the perceived interference by the Ethiopian government into religious affairs.

Among their demands, the protesters called for new elections for the country's Islamic Affairs Supreme Council to be held in mosques, rather than in government offices.

Tensions reached their peak on July 13, when the government raided a gathering at the Awalia Mosque in Addis Ababa, where government officials said Muslim leaders were planning further protests.

Ethiopian authorities said more than 70 people were arrested in the operation, including the members of the mosque's central organizing committee.

A week later, thousands of Muslims gathered at the Anwar Mosque to protest the arrests. More activists were detained following clashes with police.

Federal Police Commissioner Workneh Gebeyehu, in a televised address, blamed the mosque's committee for instigating the unrest.

He said even before the arrests, the “members of the committee were urging others to follow in their footsteps, therefore those arrested at Anwar were organized by the committee.” He said the police investigation “shows the whole movement is associated with extremism.”

The protests have dwindled since the arrests, but have not disappeared entirely.

A VOA Amharic service reporter said demonstrators stood silently outside the Anwar mosque following prayers last Friday with their arms crossed, to mime the act of being arrested, or with their hands over their mouths.

And now, the movement has taken on a political element with the backing of the opposition All Ethiopian Unity Party.

Party Chairman Hailu Shawel was accused of instigating violent protests that followed the controversial 2005 general elections, and was put under house arrest. He sees similarities in the Muslim protest movement to his party’s struggle against the Ethiopian authorities.

“So far, we have not seen anything illegal. None," said Hailu. "They [the government] just want to control everything that moves, control everything that sticks, control everything that tries to move in a direction which they do not like.”

Ethiopia is a majority Christian nation; Muslims make up about one-third of the population.

The government has earned praise in the West for promoting religious diversity at home, while also battling Islamic extremism in the region. Ethiopian troops have ventured deep into neighboring Somalia to take on the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab.

It is that kind of foreign-fueled insurgency the Ethiopian government is concerned about taking hold on its own soil.

In his televised remarks, police commissioner Workneh said the influence of foreign elements in the Muslim protests is a national concern. “The issue is not about religion,” he said, “our people, particularly those peace-loving Muslims, should understand this."

Hailu said he too is concerned about the foreign influence, but said it is the government’s crackdown on Muslims that will invite extremists from abroad.

“The internationalists will walk in and create a situation that we see today in many countries. We don’t want that," said Hailu. "We have enough problems.”

Ethiopia is most concerned about the influence of Salafist, or Wahbist Muslims, who practice a more conservative form of Islam.

To combat this, the government has actively promoted the al-Abhash sect of Islam, which is based on the teachings of an Ethiopian scholar who had been living in exile in Lebanon.

In a recent interview with VOA, Amnesty International Ethiopia researcher Claire Beston said the government’s tendency to insert itself into people’s private lives has fostered dissent.

“The government’s taken a number of measures to control all aspects of life in the country, and that includes invasion into religious practices and that has been a catalyst in protests of excessive government interference in religious affairs and that’s been systematic of the government’s interference in all aspects of life in the country,” said Beston.

Amnesty International has expressed concern about reports of widespread rights violations in the government's crackdown on the protests, including beatings and unlawful detention.

In a statement last week, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said it was “monitoring the situation closely,” and is urging “all sides to remain calm, to respect the law and the right to freedom of religion.”
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