Muslim Activism and the Ethiopian State: Accommodation or Repression?

By Jawar Mohammed* | March 24, 2012

Various narratives are being presented to explain the growing standoff between Muslim activists and the current Ethiopian regime. The activists accuse the state of discrimination and meddling in the internal activities of their faith by imposing an imported religious doctrine.

The state blames the conflicts on ‘radicalization’ and a covert agitation by foreign-based elements. The regime is also accusing the opposition parties of exploiting religion for their political gains. The opposition attributes the rising tension to the regime’s use of religion as part of its divide and rule tactics.

Setting aside the question of which narrative is more plausible, I think there is an even more important question that explains the growing political consciousness and activism of Muslim society today—a development that internal and external political entrepreneurs are competing to frame for its use within their own strategic objectives.

There are four possible factors that can help us understand this phenomenon. First, the Ethiopian Muslims has been experiencing socioeconomic changes that necessitated increased participation and greater political representation. Second, Islamic revivalism has been intensified in the last two decades. Third, the state has made little or no adjustment to its institutional composition and modus operandi to accommodate these changes. Fourth, the policies and tactics of the current regime have resulted in the weakening of the autonomy of Islamic institutions, and consequently generating negative reactions from Muslim society towards the state.

The consequence of the interaction between these factors is a widespread religious awakening and heightening of political consciousness. I will briefly discuss each of these four factors.

I. Low participation and under-representation of Muslims in Ethiopian politics

Historically, despite religious persecution and state-sanctioned discrimination Islam was rarely used as an ideology or identity for political mobilization. In other words, Muslims had minimal participation in the politics of the Ethiopian state. Today despite making up half of the country’s population, Muslims are acutely underrepresented within the Ethiopian political elite. There are three possible explanations for this:

a) Starting in the 16th century, ethnicity replaced religious identity as a dogma center of mobilization and confrontation. First, after the rise of the Oromo as one of the three major players at the center of the Christian Kingdom— at the end of the epic wars between the Christian Kingdom and the Muslim Sultanates—conflicts were waged mostly across ethnic lines. Second, having peacefully and slowly expanded into most areas of the country, Islam was incorporated into the existing norms and institutions in the process becoming a subset of the pre-existing culture rather than displacing it as a dominant identity. Third, the abandonment of forced conversion during the later stages of the Southern conquest also meant that ethnic culture rather than religious identity was a target of assimilation during Imperial consolidation. In response, resistance against the state and the dominant society was conducted through ethnic rather than religious mobilization. While the emperors utilized the church to unify their forces and legitimize their objectives, Islam cut across the conquered ethnic and/or regional groups meant that they had to de-emphasize religious differences in order to keep intra-ethnic solidarity and cohesion. Therefore, even grievances born out of religion-specific discrimination were channeled through ethnic mobilization reducing the possibility of faith-based activism.

b) The types of economic activities, particularly trade and pastoralism that the majority of Muslims were engaged in did not cause them to be in conflict with the state. In urban areas and in the North, Muslims were generally engaged in trade. As trade was not a preferred occupation for the politically privileged groups, Muslims did fairly well with less competition. In other words, for Muslims, trade served as a less costly alternative for upward mobility and removed the need to seek political affiliation from a state traditionally identified with another religion.

Similarly, pastoralists led a mobile life far away from the center of political power the emerging state lacked the ability to directly control and extract their resources, and thus chose to rely on ‘voluntary’ tribute by local leaders in exchange for maintaining the leaders’ autonomy. This arrangement reduced the possibility of friction and conflict with the dominant society that normally extracted the resources directly for the state by settling among the conquered people. Generally, in imperial Ethiopia, Muslim elites neither demanded nor were they welcomed for participation in the political class. A lasting consequence of this predicament for the Muslim societies is that the traders did not see the importance of education while pastoralists lacked the opportunity for it.

c) In the second half of the 20th century, despite rising grievances and potentially favorable external conditions, religious-based mobilization did not take hold due to the progressive and nationalist politics that engulfed the country. The Leftist’s endorsement of the demand and eventual success of separating religion and the state removed what at the time was the main source of grievance for Muslims. That is, by legitimizing their demand and standing with them in solidarity, progressives minimized the need for a totally separate Muslim resistance. In a similar fashion, nationalist movements (Oromo, Eritrea, Tigray) fighting on behalf of constituencies, all of which contained adherents of multiple faiths, actively worked to prevent the politicization of religion by promoting interfaith tolerance and emphasizing ethno-cultural similarities. In other words, by choosing to accommodate rather than suppress religious identities, grievances and sentiments, the leftist and nationalist movements allowed Muslims to frame their objectives within secular political movements.

Generally, the displacement of Islam by ethnicity and the containment of Muslim grievances by progressivism and nationalism resulted in less mobilization of the Muslim society in terms of religious identity. However, while ‘containment’ allowed for their grievances to be incrementally, indirectly and less contentiously addressed, it also resulted in lower participation and exclusion from political life.

II. Transformation of the Muslim society

The social, political, and economic changes that have taken place in the last few decades have been gradually transforming the Muslim society. Some of these changes include:

a) Today, trade is no longer a Muslim domain. Following land redistribution in 1975, previous landlords and aristocrats moved to trade increasing competition. After the downfall of the military junta, tens of thousands of Tigrean soldiers were demobilized, given start-up funding and sent to do business, further crowding the market.

b) With the establishment of party-owned oligarchies that have monopolized the most lucrative sectors, small and mid-level businessmen, particularly in traditionally Muslim controlled commodities such as coffee, are being squeezed out. Thus, trade is no longer a promising career path for the new generation of Muslims. Furthermore, climate change is making pastoralism an increasingly difficult lifestyle. As chronic drought continues to wipe out their cattle, pastoralists are forced to abandon their old [...] Therefore, as the economic activities that sustained their parents are fast depleting, the emerging Muslim generation has been forced to look for alternative career paths towards upward mobility. In a country where some 80% of the wage-earning jobs are provided by the state, the best available option is to seek government employment. Since modernization has made education a requirement for such jobs, Muslim parents are sending their children to school as never before. As thousands of these youth graduate from training programs and higher academic institutions, they expect and demand the government to provide them with employment opportunities. The inability and/or unwillingness of the government to fulfill these expectations and address the demands are one of the key factors behind the increased Muslim activism we are observing.

c) In the last few decades Islam in Ethiopia, like elsewhere, has been undergoing revivalism—growth of spiritual interest and renewal of religious teachings. This revivalism has been intensified particularly in the last two [...] After 17 years of anti-religious propaganda and centralized control of society by the military junta, the partial democratization and decentralization that took place since 1991 has increased both the demand for and supply of religion. The relative relaxation of press freedom allowed for the translation, publication and distribution of religious texts in various vernaculars. The rapid improvement in literacy rate has catalyzed people to look for and absorb these literatures. Development of transportation infrastructure, improvement in telecommunications, the ever-growing rural-urban migration, availability of cheaper and compact stereos, and most recently, social media, have all allowed for greater availability and dissemination of information. The result has been a widespread religious awakening.

As religious revivalism often involves struggle between traditionalists and modernists, there has been extensive debate among Muslim religious leaders that at times split the faithful into competing groups. It is quite impressive that, while incidents of isolated confrontations were observed during earlier stages, with time, both sides have matured and developed a more sophisticated campaign strategy and ensured the peaceful progress of this revivalism.

This simultaneous evolution of the socioeconomic transformation of the Muslim society and revivalism of their religion has increased their social dynamism, leading some to misconceive or misrepresent the two parallel evolutions as a single phenomenon and call it ‘radicalization’.

III.The Stagnant State

While the Muslim society has undergone these transformational changes, the state has made little institutional adjustment to accommodate them:

a) Decentralization and federalism have enabled the emerging ruling party affiliated elites of the previously marginalized groups to benefit from state resources while administering to their population. However, the absence of real power sharing at the center has restricted their upward mobility and has ‘frozen’ them to their regional, zonal and district positions. Beyond a few individuals holding a symbolic ministerial portfolio, there is insignificant Muslim presence in the central administrative apparatus and political structure. Thus, while the lower level state structure has been directly affected and relatively responsive to the ongoing changes of the Muslim society, the central government has been largely insulated and made little adjustment to accommodate it.

b) Furthermore, the unchanging state identity is one of the remaining obstacles that keeps Muslims feeling as if they are strangers in their own home. Despite symbolic equality and greater government tolerance towards religious communities, the identity of the Ethiopian state, both its symbols and composition, remains closely attached to Christianity. To see this one only needs to visit the embassies and ministries. Such ‘exclusive’ state identity hinders the incorporation of the emerging Muslim youth. These fruits of an educated, ambitious and identity-conscious generation perceive such conditions uninviting and unwelcoming; consequently, they often turn away. Having no alternative means of survival like their parents, they are forced to come back and are knocking on the door in order to change the circumstances.

IV. Aggravating State Policies

a) When the current regime took over the state, the most serious threat to its power was from Oromo nationalism. From its inception the Oromo movement has accommodated, courted and secured support from religious leaders, particularly Muslims and Evangelical Christians. Therefore in order to weaken this grass-root support among Muslims, the regime exploited the pre-existing but salient difference between traditionalist and revivalist religious leaders. The rivalry that was exacerbated by the state’s intervention is one of the causes for the alleged ‘tension’, which it is supposedly now trying to contain.

b) Just like it did with the Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian regime took control of and used the Islamic institutions for its own political purposes. The consequence is that some religious leaders came to act as state agents and institutions began working as if they were extensions of the state. By so doing, they lost legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the faithful, allowing for alternative leadership and informal institutions to emerge.

c) In the last decade the discourse of the Ethiopian state has swung to the right. In response to international changes that brought potential strategic gains and domestic developments that posed threats to its power, the originally Marxist regime adopted a right wing narrative. Always quick to make short-term political gain regardless of its long-term consequences, Meles jumped on the band wagon of the “Global War on Terror”. To achieve this objective the regime resuscitated the strategic narrative of its predecessors that presented Ethiopia as a country surrounded by Islamic threat—a therefore easily recognizable to and a naturally ally of the West. This was followed by attempts to impose some unnecessary restrictions (such as banning of hijab and prayer in schools), harassment of men with long beards, and utterance of offensive terms by senior government officials. These actions and narratives that targeted Muslims revived the suppressed painful memories of religious persecution, creating greater consciousness among Muslims. The invasion of Somalia under the false pretext of ‘neutralizing the Islamic threat’, and the accompanying rhetoric was deeply offensive to many. The regime’s harassment of Muslim activists, based on unfounded allegations of being part of some faceless militant group, and also attributing the widespread resistance against the imported sect to manipulation by “international terrorists and foreign money”, stand to empower hardliners while weakening moderates.

Similarly, following the resurrection of the Ethiopian right during the 2005 election, the regime has been shifting further in an attempt to be the loudest to proclaim the mantra of Ethiopian nationalism. The propaganda of ‘renaissance’ that was launched during the ‘millennium’ extravaganza has been stepped up with recent hysteria over Abbay Dam. Therefore, the old slogan of transforming and building a new Ethiopia is replaced with reviving and reclaiming the glorious past. Since the historically marginalized segments of the population, including Muslims, have a less rosy interpretation of that past, the narratives being pushed by the state are hopelessly familiar in their message to them. At a time when recognition of past injustice is needed, this reactionary move of ‘othering’ Muslims and securitizing their demands has exacerbated the sense of exclusion felt by Muslims, and consequently catalyzed Muslim activism.

Void in political leadership and intellectual guidance

The increased activism of religious communities—both Islamic and Christian—is taking place while there is complete a lack of serious discourse among political leaders and academics. As part of their strategy of containing religious politicization, political leaders developed an attitude of negligence or excessive sensitivity towards religious discourse. The consequence is that politicians and scholars consider commentary and research on religion, and particularly Islam, to be a politically risky business. The global events that followed 9/11 have exacerbated this fear. As a result, we have Muslim political elites with little connection with their community and few Muslim scholars who follow up, research and write on the socioeconomic and political developments of their community. Today, some people point to certain high ranking government officials and ruling party leaders who are Muslims. But few Muslim youth recognize them as Muslim leaders because, having little connection with the community, they neither understand nor show visible concern for the aspirations and views of their community. This is not to suggest that these national leaders should advocate sectarian interest. The point is that had they been rooted in their community, they would be able to provide more accurate feedback to the state and also have the legitimacy needed to more efficiently communicate government policies to the public.

The situation is no better in the opposition camp. Perhaps with the exception of the nationalist movements spearheading a multi-religious constituency, Muslim participation and representation in opposition politics is almost nonexistent. In the past to keep internal cohesion, and in the post 9/11 world to avoid their organizations being labeled ‘terrorist’, nationalists desperately try to avoid any mention of Islam. The almost complete absence of Muslims within the leadership and opinion makers of the ‘centrist’ forces have made these political parties vulnerable to ignorance and negligence of the grievances, interest, perspectives and feelings of the Muslim community. Consequently they are prone to using narratives that alienate and push away, rather than attract, Muslim support and participation.

When political elites and organizations neglect to follow and fail to understand the concerns, aspirations and grievances of a particular religious communities, the political class would not able to develop proper policy responses to crisis. Then the leadership void will inevitably be filled by religious activists who would double both as spiritual and political leaders—that is a serious threat to secular politic, situation that a multi-faith society cannot afford.

The same applies to the intellectual class. In Ethiopian studies, Islam and Muslim society has been so poorly studied. It is astonishing that in the 20th century only two books were published. After J.S Trimingham’s “Islam in Ethiopia”, it took another half-a-century for another major work to be produced. This second book was Hussein Ahmed’s “Islam in Nineteenth-century Wello” . Apart from these, there are only few other books, plus some articles and chapters that directly deal with the subject. This is in part due to historical factors mentioned above; the country produced very few Muslim scholars. Even among those small numbers, with the exception of Hussein Ahmed (who sadly passed away in 2009), few Muslim scholars have produced thorough, academic literature on the affairs of Muslim society. Despite expanding educational opportunities, the trend seems to be similar among the emerging academics that continue either the path of avoidance or the focus only on theological aspects. In the absence of serious scholarship, knowledge is being produced and disseminated by highly passionate activists who publish uncritical and reactionary pamphlets that agitate rather than educate the society. There is an urgent need for Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals to undertake rigorous research and engage the public. Continued negligence could have grave consequences.

Misguided interference

Having failed to introduce structural changes to accommodate the changing Muslim society, having used short-sighted tactics that weakened the age-old Islamic institutions that facilitated coexistence, having attempted to impose unnecessary restrictions that offended the Muslim community, the regime is now trying to use another dangerous strategy that is supposed to ‘moderate’ Islam. Granted religious moderation is a vital state interest, such moderation ought to be engineered from within rather than being imposed externally. The regime, however, has apparently imported a foreign religious sect to provide ‘training’ for Ethiopian imams on “moderation”.

There are several fundamental problems with this. First, the state has no business choosing and imposing a particular doctrine onto a given religious community. It is the most flagrant form of violating the principle of separation of state and religion. Second, such attempt at a top-down re-indoctrination of a religious community is a poorly conceived strategic blunder. Any society by nature is suspicious of external interference, and even more so are religious communities that viciously guard themselves against influence by outside doctrines. Thus, it should not be a surprise that the Muslim community perceived state sponsorship of an alien sect to undertake such coercive and blunt re-indoctrination, as an attempt at forced conversion. Third, the government also relied on a wrong assumption that led it to adopt this misguided strategy. Having successfully taken control of the Orthodox Church by replacing or co-opting the top leadership, the regime seems to think it could do the same through Islamic Affairs Supreme Council.

Unlike Christianity, particularly Orthodox and Catholicism, which have centralized institutions and hierarchical leadership that exercises strong control over followers, Islam is a decentralized religion in which every mosque and religious leader functions as an autonomous entity and agency. Mosques are usually constructed by each community; imams are members of the local population who volunteer their service and rarely draw salary. Muslim clerics are rarely centrally ordained or appointed. The religious teachers (who might not necessarily be the same person as the imams) attract students based on their intellectual fame, and their centers are sustained through local support. Therefore, there is minimal networking among mosques, little outside and top-down control over the content of what a religious scholar teaches, what an imam preaches or how a specific mosque functions. There has not been much change to this nature of Ethiopian Islam even after the institutionalization of the Supreme Council with the aim of providing centralized representation and service. While the revivalist movement has introduced some formalized training institutions that have allowed improved standardization of teaching content and methodology, it has not been able to bring about centralized and coordinated structure because localities vehemently defend their autonomy.

Therefore Ethiopian Muslims are organized through highly decentralized and autonomous structures that prevent changes to be effectively introduced from the top. That is why the struggle between traditionalists and revivalists has been fought over control of mosques rather than the central institutions. The government seems to have missed this important fact in devising its strategy; consequently the ploy has blown up in its face.

Conclusion: From Mispresentation to Accommodation

Islam and Muslim society in Ethiopia are experiencing critical socioeconomic and spiritual transformations. Such transformation would undoubtedly cause societal stress. Given the global climate today, such stress would obviously cause nervousness and concern among internal and external stakeholders –and rightly so. However, instead of nervously rushing towards finding a short-term fix, long-range , constructive and accommodative response is needed. The starting point in such an approach is to produce more accurate, detailed and deeper knowledge about the socioeconomic and spiritual nature of the Ethiopian Muslim society.

One thing that the Ethiopian state and political elites must stop is deliberate mispresentation of this Muslim activism. As I have attempted to show in this article, while the ongoing Islamic revivalism is part of and affected by global events, the actors, motives and causes are domestic. As a recent, in depth research on “Religious Change among Oromo Muslims in Bale” by Terje Østebø has demonstrated, an unbiased and careful observer can easily understand that the nature, content and direction of this decades- old revivalism has been largely caused, shaped and constrained by existing domestic conditions. Similarly, while Ethiopian Muslims do show solidarity with their global fellows on spiritual matters, their socioeconomic grievances and political demands are directed towards the Ethiopian state.   Therefore, mispresenting these facts, for short term tactical gains, will not only hinder the search for accommodative mechanisms, but also exacerbate existing tension.

In the past, Muslim aspirations were for religious equality and freedom. The present generation demands inclusion, representation and full participation, and the ongoing nationwide resistance is against state interference. In general Ethiopian Muslims want to see and struggle to achieve incorporation of their interest, perspectives and aspiration in the   policy formulations, narratives and symbols of the state. And these are hardly typical demands of a religious movement; but rather that of a secular and democratic social movement that exclusively relies on nonviolent resistance. This Muslims activism is conducted within the country’s boarders, directed at and expects response from the existing state.

Hysterical cries of alarm by acolytes of the regime and high-pitched rhetoric by fringe elements in the Muslim community notwithstanding, neither in the past nor now has there been a demand for the establishment of an exclusive Islamic political entity, nor has there been advocacy for the imposition of Islam on the rest. Previously, political organizations that attempted such approach faced outright rejection by the Muslims community, some forced to change their ideology   while others disappeared. Despite repeated calls by regional and national militant organizations and provocative state actions, the present Muslim activism has shown no temptation for militancy.

This leads me to conclude that what we are witnessing is demand for a more genuinely democratic order where freedom, the rule of law, and equality are not just declared ideals but a reality for all Ethiopians regardless of their religious affiliation. As such the growing Muslim activism is a resistance against discriminatory, unresponsive and intrusive political system. Therefore, it is an integral part of the ongoing, albeit fragmented, struggle for democratization. Contrary to the alarms raised by some, a move towards addressing these demands will be tantamount to moving Ethiopia towards greater stability and more equitable development.

Consulted Works

Abbink, Jon. “An Historical‐anthropological Approach to Islam in Ethiopia: issues of identity and politics.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 11.2 (1998).

Ahmed, Hussein. “Coexistence and/or Confrontation?: Towards a Reappraisal of Christian-Muslim Encounter in Contemporary Ethiopia.” Journal of Religion in Africa 36 (2006).

—. Islam in nineteenth-century Wallo, Ethiopia: Revival, Reform, and Reaction. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

Braukämper, Ulrich. Islamic History and Culture in Southern Ethiopia: Collected Essays. Munster: Lit Verlag, 2004.

ERLICH, HAGGAI. Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia: Islam, Christianity and Politics Entwined. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007.

GNAMO, Abbas HAJI. “Islam, the Orthodox Church and Oromo Nationalism (Ethiopia).” Cahiers d’Études Africaines 42 (2002).

Hassen, Mohammed. The Oromo of Ethiopia: A History, 1570-1860. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Markakis, John. Ethiopia:The Last Two Frontiers. Rochester, New York: James Currey, 2011.

Østebø, Terje. Localising Salafism: Religious Change Among Oromo Muslims in Bale,Ethiopia. Leiden, The Nethelands: Brill, 2012.

Trimingham, J. S. Islam ub Ethiopia. New York: Routlege, 1952.

*The writer is a graduate student at Columbia University. He can be reached at jawarmd@gmail.com.