Imam Shaker's advise for Ethiopian Muslims | It is the context, stupid

Last month, on Feb. 12, 2013, I shared a YouTube video on my Facebook Timeline and Twitter with an optimist note, saying:

“I just watched a video in which Egyptian Imam preaching in [Washington DC] Ethiopian Muslims meeting. The good part is that we know the Ethiopia diaspora takes radical positions that doesn’t represent the people at home.”

The video was uploaded only three days earlier and brought to my attention by one of my readers who make sure I am updated.

It was a 6 minutes footage of a meeting organized by First Hijrah Foundation, an associationImam Sheik Shaker Elsayed advocating violence in a meeting of Ethiopian Muslims and activists of disapora Ethiopian Muslims, at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria (near Washington D.C.), on January 26, 2013. It went spiral on went spiral on Facebook – coupled by uploads on several YouTube accounts in the subsequent days – and triggered heated denunciations from both Muslims and non-Muslim Ethiopians. (Click here to see a screen shot of a comment by a Facebook user, with profile photo indicating allegiance to Friday protests.)

The footage consisted quotes from the speech by Imam Sheik Shaker Elsayed, main speaker at the conference, and the introductory remarks made by the host of the meeting. It was obviously not the full version, unlikely that anyone took that impression.

About 24 hours later, the host uploaded, on “FirstHijrah2010” YouTube account, a video of the full speech of Imam Shaker’s, with a lengthy caption note that blames, whom he called, “our foes” – apparently, supporters of the ruling party EPRDF. The host said in the note:

“It is unfortunate, the detractors use sound bites of the Imam’s speech and take it out of context to fit their distorted mentality and gain support as well as plant a seed of hatred among Muslims and Christians.”

He also made an interesting claim that Sheik Shaker Elsayed “is not radical by any standard is one of the most respected religious leaders”.

However, he conceded:

“The Sheikh did unfortunately advocate that Ethiopian Muslims wage an armed struggle to assert their civil liberties and I as the facilitator did mention a disclaimer saying that the Sheikh didn’t mean to condone an armed uprising and he did node in agreement as he was leaving the podium. Of course, those who posted the video clip deliberately left out my disclaimer to serve their malicious purpose. It should be noted that supporters of the EPRDF only understand the language of violence since they always brag about decimating one of the most organized military forces in Africa — through an armed struggle to come to power.”

About a week later, on Feb. 21, 2012, the state-owned broadcaster, Ethiopian Television (a.k.a. ETV), aired a news story with clips from  Imam Shaker’s speech.

By that time, it became easier to divert the debate on the appropriateness of the meeting to a vote of confidence on ETV.

Citing instances of misreporting by ETV in the past and relying on the opposition’s consensus to dispute anything on the state media, it was argued if ETV said so it must be false. If you don’t have the time or access to watch the Imam’s almost 30 minutes long speech, you will be put in doubt.

Publishing the text of the speech would have been a more genuine move. Yeah, at least two activist did so, but deleted it latter. Fortunately, one blogger published the transcription and saved me from the trouble. (Read the full speech of Imam Shaker on Kebede Kassa’s blog)

Interestingly, the Ethiopian Television, which is no saint, was very conservative this time.

ETV’s 5 minutes news story mainly presented three things: Quotes from the introductory remarks by the host, Quotes from the speech by Imam Shakir and a very brief remark on the background of Imam Shakir. Let’s see each in turn:

Remarks by the host of the meting:

The host of the meeting was shown on ETV saying:

“When we started against….our repressive government in Ethiopia, we didn’t go anywhere but to Sheik Shaker to get his wisdom and advise. A committee, a number of people went to his office. We said here is the problem, we brought down the problem to him and we said how do we approach this? Wallahi, he gave us “A to Z” how to tackle this issue and we have been following his advise and I am sure the rest is history.”

However, the host had also said (though not shown on ETV) that:

“I invite our Imam Sheikh Shaker. I am sure he is not stranger to most of us especially to those of us who go to Dar al-Hijrah to listen to his khutbah on Fridays.”

This remark would be interesting if you know that Dar al-Hijrah and Imam Shaker’s sermons (khutbah) are controversial.

Imam Shaker’s speech at the meeting

Here again ETV was conservative, it showed clips containing the following quotes from the Imam’s speech:

“…as we sit here, there are brothers of ours in Ethiopia today who are imprisoned just for the mere fact that they are resisting the 21st century religious prosecution and manipulation of Muslims in Ethiopia. The current government in Ethiopia does not represent the history of Ethiopia and they need us to tell them,”.

“It takes more than 17 community leaders and scholars to be in prison it seems to move the masses. I don’t know why did we became [loaded with world things].”

“The third power is the power of armament. You cannot defend yourself by wishful thinking,…[Muslim men] are last if anything is being distributed; except it is arms for Jihad.”

“how could then a Christian government introduces Ahbash as Muslim Imams in a community of Sunni? How?”

“The enemies of Allah are lining up. The question is for us. Are we lining or are we afraid because they may call us terrorist? Let me give you the good news. They are already calling us terrorist any way. Whether you are sitting at home, watching TV, drinking coffee, sleeping or playing with your kids, you are a terrorist because you are a Muslim.”

Of course, the above quotes are not the full speech of Imam Shaker. If you bother to watch the full speech, you will find more eye-catching claims that ETV skipped. For example:

“The current government in Ethiopia does not represent the history of Ethiopia and they need us to tell them. They need to know that they do not give us the best hope in an Ethiopian future under similar leadership: we have to change [it].”

“The world today only acknowledges the powerful. We have three sources of power: we Muslims in particular cannot live, survive or gain victory unless and until we master the three sources of power. The first one is the power of our faith…The second source of power is the unity as Muslim. There is no such a thing as Egyptian Muslim, Ethiopian Muslim, Saudi Muslim, Yemeni Muslim, Syrian Muslim, Libyan Muslim.”

“ Could you get colonial powers out of our nations by telling them, ‘would you please leave tomorrow morning’? Could you? “

“Brothers and sisters, in the post 9/11 atmosphere, many Muslims including a lot of Muslim leaders, including world leaders and national leaders and presidents and kings and Emirs have bowed down to the western pressure. We the Muslim masses could never, should never bow down except to Allah. Bow to no one but Allah. And this will give us our dignity back. Our dignity is not a gift that we seek from a human being; it is our right that we push back for, we fight for, we live by and die for.”

“We want Ethiopia where no one is wrong. We want Ethiopia back to where it was 1400 ago. We want Ethiopia the authentic African Christian nation that used to open its arms for the oppressed, for the weak. This is the Ethiopia we want.”

“Brothers and sisters, I am honored to be with you tonight. And I will repeat this again. Zare lemen enddemetan tawekalachehu?(Amharic: You know why we came here today?) so show me the money, if that is true show me the money, show the commitment, show me that you love Allah, that you love your brothers , show me that you care for the families who have been imprisoned on your behalf; in our name, in the name of our faith, in defending our right and their community.”

ETV could have used these and more lines from the speech and have it interpreted by scholars, in the context of relevant politico-religious ideologies and the back-story of Imam Shaker.

I dare not try to expound Imam Shaker’s speech. Though, I ponder what he really meant when he said “We want Ethiopia back to where it was 1400 ago”. I ask, why that specific period of time?

In deed, the host of the meeting made the following disclaimer, after Imam Shaker speech:

“Imam Shaker is not advocating for armed struggle in Ethiopia. He is just simply giving us a lesson. So we will continue our non violent struggle.”

It is not clear why the disclaimer was needed. Was it a correction or a clarification? Does Imam Shaker need help explaining his idea or the audience lacked sufficient English listening skill?

3/ Background info on the Imam

ETV briefly claimed that Imam Shaker is an American-Egyptian dual citizen, known for defending Al-Qaeda linked terrorists and also with a history of acting as an unofficial spokesperson for detained terror-suspects. As an example for the latter, ETV cited a terror suspect detained in connection to a plot to assassinate former US President G. W. Bush.

Some commenters, on Facebook, mockingly asked if ETV was telling United States about a “terrorist” on her land.

However, a brief Goggling does not only show how controversial the Imam is, but also makes you worry about the host’s remark on in the meeting indicating that many of them “go to Dar al-Hijrah to listen to his khutbah on Fridays”.

Here are a couple of quotes and links concerning the Imam’s current and previous organizational affiliations as well as his own remarks:

In 1990, when Imam Shaker was principal of Al-Ghazly Islamic School in Jersey City, a man named El Sayyid A. Nosair killed Rabbi Meir Kahane. The New York Times reported the following:

The rabbi founded the Jewish Defense League in New York and led the far-right political Kach Party in Israel until it was banned for racism. He often sanctioned violent attacks against Arabs, and his followers were accused of carrying out several violent attacks in the West Bank and Gaza strip.

Discussing how some Muslims view the killing of the rabbi, Imam Shaker said: “It was not a violation [of Islamic law], in the sense that Kahane adopted a position against all Arab and Muslims. He put himself in that category. [Read more at: NewYork Times, Nov. 13, 1990 – “F.B.I. Investigates Groups of Zealots Who Praise Kahane Slaying”]

In 2002, at a joint conference co-sponsored by the Muslim American Society (MAS), Imam Shaker Elsayed was quoted as saying:

“about the subject unfairly named suicide bombers, homicide bombers, or murderers, or killers. Our answer to this issue is simple: To decide that this man is a martyr or not a martyr, it is a pure religious matter. Nobody who is not Muslim has any right to decide for us, we the Muslims, whose is a martyr or another. We as Muslims will decide that. It is in-house business.” [Read more at: The Investigative Project, Dec. 26, 2002 – “Elsayed: Suicide bombers are in-house business”]

Speaking of the the Muslim American Society (MAS), Imam Shaker Elsayed was its Secretary General from 2000-2005. An interesting report published on the Chicago Tribune in 2004 states the following linking MAS to Muslim Brotherhood:

Shaker Elsayed, a top MAS official, says the organization was founded by Brotherhood members but has evolved to include Muslims from various backgrounds and ideologies.

“Ikhwan [Brotherhood] members founded MAS, but MAS went way beyond that point of conception,” he says. Now, he says, his group has no connection with the Brotherhood and disagrees with the international organization on many issues.

But he says that MAS, like the Brotherhood, believes in the teachings of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, which are “the closest reflection of how Islam should be in this life.”

“I understand that some of our members may say, `Yes, we are Ikhwan’,” Elsayed says. But, he says, MAS is not administered from Egypt. He adds, “We are not your typical Ikhwan.”

MAS’ precise connection to the Brotherhood is a sensitive issue, says Mohamed Habib, a high-ranking Brotherhood official in Cairo. “I don’t want to say MAS is an Ikhwan entity,” he says. “This causes some security inconveniences for them in a post-Sept. 11 world.” [Read more at: The Chicago Tribune, Sept. 19, 2004 – “A rare look at secretive Brotherhood in America”.]

As of 2005, Shaker became Imam of Dar al-Hijrah Mosque. The Investigative Project website claims, in a detailed article regarding Dar al-Hijrah:

The Department of Treasury’s Enforcement Communications System (TECS) records note that Dar al-Hijrah “is a mosque operating as a front for Hamas operatives in U.S.,” “is associated with Islamic extremists,” “has been under numerous investigations for financing and proving aid and comfort to bad orgs and members,” has “been linked to numerous individuals linked to terrorism financing,” and “has also been associated with encouraging fraudulent marriages. [Read more at: The Investigative Project – “Dar al-Hijrah Mosque“]

Imam Shaker’s khutbah (sermon) at the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque is also controversial, as a story published by the Associated Press in 2005 indicates:

On a recent Friday, preaching to more than 500 men and women – with the genders worshipping separately as is customary – he said without mentioning specific nations that: “Islam forbids you to give allegiance to those who kick you off your homeland, and to those who support those who kick you off your homeland. We do have license to respond with all force necessary to answer our attackers.”

Muqtedar Khan, an expert on Islam and a political scientist at Adrian College in Michigan, said Dar al-Hijrah is not a typical American mosque and Elsayed is not a typical American imam.

“Shaker Elsayed is more like a political figure than a religious figure,” said Khan, who worshipped at Dar al-Hijrah for several years while attending Georgetown University as a graduate student. “Dar al-Hijrah is a very Arab-centric mosque, very much centered on Arab politics.” [Read more at: The Associated Press, July 29, 2005]

This is not all. In fact, the articles quoted above contain more claims about the Imam and his activities. But, I got better things to do than compiled his biography, which is not impressive.

Plus, this suffices to show the incorrectness of the claim made by the note of the host of the meeting that Imam Shaker Elsayed “is not radical by any standard”.

SPEAKING OF “CONTEXT”, indeed ETV forgot some relevant elements. It should have quoted other speakers, who took the podium following after Imam Shaker’s speech.

There was Tamagne Beyene, an artist turned politician, was boasting that he doesn’t believe Ethiopian Muslims could be radicals, even if that was the case he would prefer to be slain by an Ethiopian Muslim radicals’ saber (a.k.a., gorade) than by Woyane’s (EPRDF) bullet. An honest disclosure of intent that his position is not based on principle rather on hatred to Woyane.

I will leave it for you to ponder why Tamagne thought an Ethiopian radical Muslim would use a saber (gorade) rather than a bullet. But, at any rate, I bet most of the Muslims protesting at every other Friday would not be impressed that they are considered as a means. Especially by a man who vehemently opposes the multi-national federation that empowered them, whatever the limitations.

Jawar Mohammed was also there. An opposition activist, known as ethno-nationalist, with alleged links to OLF youth league. Though Jawar’s religious status is “jawarism” (according to his Facebook profile), he got a plan for the Ethiopian Muslim protestors.

So far, the movement was trying to “persuade”, de-legitimatize and disrepute the regime and that is soft, Jawar claims. The next move should be “coercing the government” by targeting the government’s means of revenue. If the government continues with its stubbornness, the next move will be “disintegrating” that is dismantling the regime, he declares. The audience applauses and chant Allahu Akbar.


Does this prove the Muslims protests on Fridays are extremists?

Who said so? In deed, the host of the meeting claimed as if he and his colleagues as well as Imam Shaker had a role swearing “Wallahi”. Though many Muslims take swearing seriously, I suspect the host could be a politician exaggerating his role and also promoting his favorite Imam.

I shall also add that it is preposterous to claim talks about extremists “plant a seed of hatred among Muslims and Christians”, as the host wrote. Anyone who cared to make some reading on relevant stories knows that it is the Muslims who are more wary of extremists – a systemic pressure and loss of liberty that seldom gets reported in the media.

What would be more concerning is turning a blind eye to such tendencies.

Rejecting the insincere claim of “context” and denouncing Imam Shaker’s lecture on the “power of armaments” (like this facebook commenter) do not undermine the original legitimate demands and the responsible protests held by Muslim youth on Fridays, in Awollia school then in Mosques.

To the contrary, taking a clear stand on such radical tendencies would shows the integrity of the Muslim activists and the sincerely of those who claim to support them.


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Daniel Berhane