Recent religious violence in Addis Ababa mosques: who is behind it?

(A Week in the Horn)

The Federal Police Commission announced two weeks ago that it had foiled a series of illegal activities which posed a threat to the peace and national security of the country.Over the last few weeks, a small group of extreme Muslim radicals, claiming to represent the entire Ethiopian Muslim community, have been trying to incite violence in some mosques in Addis Ababa, carrying out illegal demonstrations, holding people hostage, destroying public property and sparking clashes with police around the great Anwar mosque in Addis Ababa, turning peaceful Friday prayers into scenes of violence.

The Federal Police Commission said the police had arrested a number of individuals who had been intending to carry out acts of terrorism both in Addis Ababa and in some regional areas. They were operating under the guise of religion, and indeed preliminary questioning of those detained indicated their actions were political rather than religiously motivated. Some of those detained had links with externally funded organizations. In a press briefing, the Federal Police Commissioner-General, Workneh Gebeyehu, explained that the police operation had been designed to isolate the extremists from the Muslim community and “they had been detained after police secured arrest warrants from the courts." Those detained were masked assailants who had been trying to prevent people leave the mosque after the noon prayers. They were throwing stones, damaging property and trying to incite violence. They were arrested as they themselves left the compound of the mosque. The police did not enter the mosque nor did they fire tear gas. Specific care was taken to avoid casualties. The Commissioner-General noted that some of those involved had earlier been urging others to follow in their footsteps, adding that the ongoing police investigation already “shows the whole movement is associated with extremism.”

The Deputy Police Commissioner of Addis Ababa subsequently provided additional details: the group involved had been organizing “unpermitted meetings in mosques [and] engaged in inciting youth to violence. They had been agitating the youth saying they should not surrender to fear and that the youth should be ready to spill their blood till their demands are met”. The police and elders had pleaded with the group to listen, but the group refused and then called a demonstration, without permission, at the Anwar mosque with the intention of disrupting the AU Summit. At this time they had violently driven off the security guards and other members of the Mosque, and occupied the Mosque for two days, breaking into the Mosque’s audio equipment room and using the equipment to try and incite further violence.

Following these incidents some highly exaggerated reports were published, suggesting some of the reporting might have political motives. Irrespective of what actually happened or the reality of the arguments, opposition organizations abroad immediately laid claim to a long narrative of “Muslim persecution in Ethiopia”, interpreting these minor incidents in terms of an imaginary picture of Ethiopia engulfed in growing conflict with extremism on the one hand and a violent outbreak of Muslim activism against state-led persecution and a fight for freedom of religion on the other. Both interpretations are a complete misreading of what happened. The former is trying to raise the spectre of a mythical future of religious strife; the latter ignores the fact that the problem was caused by a small group of urban-centered radicals deliberately causing trouble as they proved by taking other Muslims hostage in Mosques, trying to force them to be complicit in their clashes with the police and so claim ‘persecution’. Both totally ignore the fact that freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and religious activity by anyone is freely allowed unless it breaks the law.

Indeed, it is quite clear from the actual facts that most of the media ‘reports’ are little more than clumsy attempts to make political propaganda. And what we are concerned with here is putting these issues in a proper and accurate context, starting with a brief overview of the current exercise of freedom of religion in Ethiopia as well as various excesses in the past by extreme elements, leading up to the recent outrages.

The current constitution of Ethiopia turned a new page in providing constitutional guarantees for equality of religion and the principle of secularism. In adopting the latter, the constitution closed off the legal avenues for those who looked for a state religion and any sympathizers of a theocratic state. At the same time, it encouraged enthusiastic worshipers to proselytize their faith, allowing for the expansion of churches, mosques, and the introduction of new foreign based sects and denominations. Ethiopian Muslims, long under legal and non-legal restrictions, were one of the groups which benefitted largely.

One major hallmark of the post-1991 era has been the complete absence of any form of regulation of religion, whether of religious policy or rules for religious activity. In other words the practice of secularism during the last two decades has been a watershed in Ethiopia’s history. This absolute liberty in the exercise of religion, however, hasn’t worked entirely properly in practice. Under a claim of freely exercising religion some extreme radicals have burnt shrines and denounced the practices of Islam in Ethiopia. With the help of foreign finance, they have even tried to destroy the significant levels of tolerance that have existed among Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia for millennia. These excesses have meant that the government has applied legal and administrative measures but in a sober and careful manner, in conformity with the principles of tolerance, non-interference in religious affairs and secularism.

The recent riots have been an extension of the attempts of some individuals to present themselves as the only representatives of the Muslim community and claim they, and their supporters, project the real understanding of Islam. The latest clashes were led by a self-appointed committee that claimed to be elected by the entire community of Muslims, to speak on behalf of the community about grievances against the Islamic Affairs Council, the Mejlis. In spite of questions about the representational nature of the committee, government officials accepted to mediate between the committee and the Mejlis to try to help resolve the problems between the two sides. The main issue that surfaced in the discussion was the election for new members of the Mejlis and allegations of the “forced imposition of a certain sect on the Muslim community” through the Mejlis.

It might be noted that the committee has shifted its position significantly. It originally welcomed the government’s position in support of peace and security, and indeed requested its assistance. However, when its own demands were not accepted, it quickly accused the government of breaching the constitution with its moderation. In the talks the government made it clear time and again that the election of the Mejlis was not its business and it was only present to moderate the standoff between the two parties. The government repeatedly made it very clear that the constitution will not allow it to favor any one sect over the other. Any allegation to the contrary is q
uite simply untrue and, indeed, complete rubbish. The irony, of course, is that the extremist group, which does not respect the right of others to follow their faith of choice, has made this mantra its battle cry, taking hostages to make them complicit in its own activities and destroy holy shrines, deliberately violating the rights of others. The result has been the necessity for government action, as part of its positive duty to ensure the freedom of religion for all. This is something that is deliberately, and conveniently, ignored by most critics.

Similarly, as soon as its call for elections was agreed, the committee immediately extended its demands, insisting that the elections should be organized in Mosques rather than through kebele offices. The aim, of course, was to try to increase their support and try to take over the Mejlis, as they would expect to be able to organize more support in Mosques. The committee’s entire campaign was intended to keep the majority of Muslims out of the process. As the elections had nothing to do with the government, the decision was made by the Ulema council, and this was a tipping point in exposing exactly what the committee and the extremist elements were up to. With their political ambition of derailing the constitution’s principles of religious freedom, they called for violent demonstrations and tried to turn peaceful Friday prayers into clashes with the police. Their aims were countered by the way the police dealt with the matter, managing to contain the violence without any fatalities or serious injuries.

It should be repeated that the government has made it very clear that it has no intention of interfering in the affairs of any religious group. It has, however, also underlined the fact that it has the duty to protect the peace and security of the country; and this includes the duty to ensure that all can enjoy their rights without encroachment or attack by others. Any violence in this case has come from those who have been trying to derail the constitutional freedom of religion and Ethiopia’s long established tolerance. Any claims to the contrary are simply untrue.


Source: A Week in the Horn – Aug. 10, 2012.

Check the Human Rights archive or the Ethiopian Muslims archive for related posts.

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