Ethiopia began its transformation to a federal democratic system in 1995 with its new constitution containing provisions of general, fundamental and democratic rights, including the right of all Ethiopian communities to protect and promote their religion, culture, language and historical heritage. The constitution stipulates that state and religion are separate. There is no state religion; the state does not interfere in religious matters. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to follow their own religion. The role of the Government with regard to religious diversity is limited to teaching the relevant provisions of the constitution. The right to religious diversity is not merely tolerated it is constitutionally protected and accommodates both religious and linguistic diversity, enabling people to enjoy a state of unity with diversity.
Historically, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Sufi Islamism were virtually the major two religions practiced in the various polities of the Ethiopian state. With the introduction of the new democratic system two decades ago, a number of other religious sects have sprung up, taking advantage of the freedom of diversity of religion. This constitutionally protected religious diversity has allowed people to exercise their religious rights and duties freely. However, it isn’t uncommon to find a few people who claim their own version of religion is superior to others and regard religious chauvinism as a necessary part of commitment, a ‘virtue’ to be cultivated among the faithful. Official theologies largely deal with religious diversity in a cursory or inadequate fashion, often teaching that foreign religions are not only different, but also inferior, even demonic.
Answering questions from MPs in the House of Peoples Representatives about religious extremism last week, Prime Minister Meles noted there were a few extremists in Ethiopia who were violating the Constitution. He recalled an incident in which a few extremist Christians had been waving banners calling for “one country and one religion”. A few extremist Salafists were to be seen in the Al Qaeda cell captured in Arsi and Bale, and some had been trying to establish an Islamist Ethiopian state. These were the actions of a handful of extremists who certainly didn’t represent the majority of Salafists in Ethiopia. These acts were illegal and unacceptable, violations of the Constitution.
The Prime Minister also noted that some extremists wanted the Government to ban the “Ahbashist” sect and prevent its followers exercising their constitutional rights. This he said the Government could not do. The Constitution did not allow the Government to ban “Ahbashism” or any other sect providing they operated within the Constitution. The Prime Minister said the Government had discovered that the demand arose from deliberate confusion orchestrated by a handful of irresponsible and corrupt Salafi business people opposed to recent Government ‘pro-poor’ measures including the Land Lease Proclamation and the improved system of taxation aiming to end rent-seeking and illegal manipulation of public properties. He said the Government had learnt these people had been orchestrating confusion, and using religion as a means of pursuing their hidden agenda. The Prime Minister repeated that the Government had no intention of choosing between traditional Sufi views or Salafi doctrines or those of any other sect so long as they kept within the law and the Constitution. People should make up their own mind whether or not to follow any sect of religion. Equally, the responsibility to teach the constitutional provisions of diversity of religion and ensure law and order rested on the Government’s shoulders. The Prime Minister said the Government had in fact taken every opportunity to ensure respect for the Constitution and it would continue to teach the rights and duties of religions. Encouragingly, there were signs that some extremists were beginning to change their attitudes and stop illegal conduct.
Nevertheless, some still want the Government to go beyond its constitutional mandate and put a stop to “Ahbashist” activity. They have little support and have been reduced to trying to incite violence, claiming the Government has been interfering in religious affairs and trying to discriminate among Muslims. Last week, for example, an article claimed that the “Ahbashist” sect, founded by the Ethiopian-Lebanese scholar, Sheikh Abdullah al-Harari, and seen in the West as a”friendly alternative” to extremist, militant Islamic doctrines such as Wahabism, had been deliberately brought into Ethiopia by the Government. The aim was supposedly to fill the “Majlis”, the Islamic Council of Ethiopia, and teach Ethiopians that “Wahabis are non-Muslims”. This accusation, of course, ignores the fact that the Government has no right to invite, allow or forbid any religion or sect, provided that the exercise is within the framework of the constitution. The article then claimed that thousands had demonstrated in the streets of Addis Ababa against “Ahbashists”. In actual fact, as a cursory glance at the photo of the supposed demo could easily prove, the accompanying photo file was more than five years old, and most of those pictured were actually involved in prayer rather than demonstrating. Some even posted old videos on the Internet showing peaceful discussions taking place but then attaching separately recorded sounds of protest in an attempt to substantiate their fallacious claims.
It was all highly irresponsible propaganda, but ironically it may have helped people to know what was going on as it in fact emphasized that there hadn’t been any Muslim demonstrations at all. It underlined the point that such deliberate distortions and attempts to confuse are part of the efforts being made by a few extremist Salafists trying to topple the state forcefully. The Government, with public support, will continue to punish any illegal activity as part of its efforts to combat extremism. It will also persevere in its exertions to ensure that the constitutional freedom of religion and the rule of law and order continue to be respected in Ethiopia.
* This article was first published on A Week in the Horn – April 27, 2012 issue, titled “Constitutional rights for religion and the rule of law”.
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