Addis Ababa: Muslims in Ethiopia have been protesting at mosques in different parts of the country for more than a year against their government’s interference in religious affairs even though the African country is constitutional secular.
The Ethiopian constitution provides for freedom of religion and requires the separation of state and religion. However, the Muslim community in Ethiopia has been raising voice against what is perceived as unjustified interference in religion by the government.
The protesters are demanding that the current members of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (Majlis) be replaced by elected representatives and that elections for Majlis representatives be held in mosques rather than in the Kebeles. Some members of the Muslim community accuse the Ethiopian government of controlling the Majlis and sponsoring the propagation of Al-Ahbash, a little known sect of Islam.
On the other hand, the Ethiopian government accuses the protesters of being led by extremists who want to establish an Islamic state in place of the current secular federation. The Ethiopian government responded against some protests in 2012 with deadly force, most recently in Assassa in April and Gerba in October, resulting in the death of at least seven protesters, a large number of injuries, and the imprisonment of a number of protesters on terrorism charges.
The protests were triggered by the suspension of the Awoliyah Muslim Mission School and the dismissal of 50 Arabic teachers via a letter issued by the Majlis. The Awoliyah Muslim Mission School has been a member since 1993 of the Islamic charitable agency known as International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and has been linked to the Saudi Arabia controlled World Muslim League.
The Ethiopian authorities consider Awoliyah to be a breeding ground for a new generation of radical Muslims, which they refer to as “Salafi-Jihadists” or “Wahabi-Salafists.” However, the Muslim protesters have consistently adhered to nonviolent demonstrations, leaving the Ethiopian government with little to no evidence of behavior or action that could be described as terrorism.
It seems clear that the Ethiopian government is manufacturing a security problem where none actually exists. Concerns about terrorism in Ethiopia (and the wider world) have degenerated into an irrational suspicion of Muslims, which will continue unabated until Ethiopia and its Western partners reflect more critically on their own perceptions.