Last month, in a courtroom in Addis Ababa, 29 defendants listened intently as the prosecution summarised charges. The accused were Muslim men in their thirties, elderly sheikhs in religious attire, and Habiba Mohammed, the wife of Junedin Sado, Ethiopia’s Minister for the Civil Service and Chairman of the Board of Addis Ababa University. The crime? Organising protests against the government and participating in a far-reaching conspiracy to dismantle the constitution and establish an Islamic state in Ethiopia.
The trial has: exacerbated existing tensions between Ethiopia’s Muslim community who make up about 34 per cent of the population and the national government; has claimed high-profile victims like Mr. Junedin, a once-powerful regional politician who has disappeared from the public eye; and revealed the tangled nexus between religion, politics and public life in Ethiopia.
Temam Ababulga, the lawyer for the accused, said his clients were being persecuted for opposing the government and had been tortured in prison. Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have criticised the government’s heavy-handed treatment of its Muslim minority; charges that the government denies. Government spokespersons did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Ethiopia has served as the incubator for both Christianity and Islam; the Christian majority traces its lineage back to the fourth century reign of Emperor Ezana, while Muslims speak of the “First Hijra” when Prophet Mohammed’s followers fled persecution in Arabia and sought refuge here in the seventh century. A Christian monarchy ruled the country up to 1974 when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a secular communist military regime that gave way to the current dispensation in 1991.
The 1994 constitution established the secular nature of the state, but many Muslims feel that the government has consistently marginalised their community and restricted their freedom of worship in the guise of enforcing secularism. Ethiopia has no history of sectarian violence, and Muslim leaders have emphasised that their ire is directed at the government, not the Christian community.
Influence of radical groups
In background interviews, government officials who did not want to be named said they were concerned by the influence of global radical Islamist groups like the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabab in neighbouring Somalia, and that wealthy Islamic charities in the Middle East were funnelling money into Ethiopia in a bid to radicalise Muslim youth. “There is a very real concern amongst the people that radical Wahhabi groups are establishing themselves in Ethiopia, and that the government is not doing enough to stop them,” said an official. In this particular case, for instance, the government accuses two non-governmental organisations — the Albir Development Cooperation and Association and Nema — of providing material support to the defendants.
Albir was established in 2005 by Sheikh Sultan Haji Ahman, who lived in Saudi Arabia for several years before returning to Ethiopia. He is one of the 29 defendants currently in jail.
“Albir is not a religious organization. It is a registered NGO that works on water and sanitation, provides cash assistance and educational support for 1,401 destitute families in 21 sites across Ethiopia. About 50 percent of the families are Muslim,” said an Albir representative. While Albir used to get money from Saudi Arabia, the representative said that, for the past three years, the NGO received all its money from Turkey and was working on a health project funded by the Islamic Development Bank. Activists, academics and Muslim elders interviewed by The Hindu said that government was wrongly conflating legitimate protests against the ruling party with terrorist acts directed at the state. Most requested anonymity as they feared harassment, and pointed to the arrest of Habiba Mohammed as proof that the entire community was under siege.
Conflict began in 2011
The current conflict began in September 2011 when the government withdrew the licence of the International Islamic Relief Organisation, a Saudi NGO funding the religious school at the Awolia Mosque in Addis Ababa. “We wanted confirmation that they would not engage in religious affairs, which they could not provide,” said a government spokesperson. Under Ethiopian law, the official said humanitarian organisations cannot run religious institutions.
While the withdrawal of the Saudi NGO was not contested in December 2011, the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC), a body that claims to represent the country’s 30 million Muslims, removed the Arabic language teachers at Awolia and dismissed several administrators. “They dismissed 50 teachers [in total] without any reason, and closed the college. The council is not authorised to do that,” said a Muslim activist, “The students began protesting against the council.”
The protestors questioned the legitimacy of the EIASC, accused the body of acting on the behest of the government, and noted that the council had not held elections in over 10 years. They also accused the council of promoting a particular sect of Islam, known as Al-Ahbash, by dismissing imams who refused to preach Ahbashi doctrines at their mosques.
Al-Ahbash was established by Shaykh Abdallah Muhammad al-Hariri, an Ethiopian imam who left Harar for Lebanon in the 1940s after he fell foul of Emperor Haile Selassie. In Lebanon, the Shaykh preached a non-political reading of Islam, opposed the Wahabi school promoted by the Saudis, and urged his followers not to oppose lawfully established governments. Prominent Wahabis and Al-Ahbashis have each accused the other of heresy.
“The Ethiopian government brought 15 Lebanese Al Ahbash ulama during the summer of 2011 to help spread the ‘moderate’ version of Islam in Ethiopia,” writes anthropologist Dereje Feyissa, in his paper Muslims Struggling for Recognition in Contemporary Ethiopia, “The coming of Lebanese ulema and a series of subsequent training…conducted during the fall of 2011 for religious authorities and students angered many Muslims …who have condemned what they consider an imposition of an ‘alien’ religion.”
The protests against Al-Ahbash reached a head in July this year when the police opened fire to disperse a crowd gathered at Awolia mosque. The mosque suffered significant damage and is yet to be reopened. Several people were injured and many were arrested in connection with the summer demonstrations, including the 28 men currently on trial for allegedly trying to set up an Islamic state in Ethiopia.
Habiba Mohammed was arrested when the police found a large amount of money and several copies of the Quran in her car as she drove out the Saudi Embassy. The police have accused her of using the money to fund the protests. The Saudi Embassy did not respond to requests for an interview.
In an open letter to the press, Mr. Junedin explained that the money was in fact intended to build a mosque in his village in accordance with his mother’s dying wish. He has retained his ministerial post thus far, but has been expelled from the Executive Committee of his political party. “You can’t build mosques with undeclared money from the Saudis if you are a senior minister in the government,” said a senior official, suggesting that Mr. Junedin had acted irresponsibly. Mr. Junedin has been forbidden from travelling abroad until the case is resolved; he was unavailable for comment.
In an interview this September to The Hindu, Ethiopia’s Minister of State for Communications Shimeles Kemal said there was no move to promote Al Ahbash. “This is wide propaganda, there is no such sect [in Ethiopia],” he said, “The Islamic council has started to educate with the view to issue certificates for imams and other religious preachers to prevent any extremist creeds from being circulated in the mosques.”
This month, the EIASC finally succumbed to pressure and held elections for a new group of leaders. However, the voting was held in local government offices, rather than in mosques. Muslims activists across the country responded by calling for a boycott of the elections. “The government has already decided who will win the election,” said a protestor at one such demonstration, “Those living in government houses are threatened that they will be forced out if they don’t participate in the election.”
In the September interview, Minister Shimeles denied these allegations, and said that the community was coming out in full force to vote.
“Ninety three per cent of the 7.5 million registered voters participated in the elections,” said Rachid Mohammed, “According to the by-laws, elections should be held every five years. Due to certain mismanagement and incompetence, the previous Majlis missed one cycle. Apart from that, there were financial problems as well.” Mr. Rachid, who described himself as a professional management consultant providing technical assistance to the EIASC, said the new executive would do a much better job in serving the Muslim community. He dismissed the divisions over Al-Ahbash, claiming that Ethiopian Muslims didn’t see themselves as belonging to any particular sect, “We are all Muslims,” he said, “everyone has their own individual ideas and thoughts.”