(Dachaassaa Hundaa)

[Previous parts: Jawar Mohammed: A Bull in a China Shop; Jawar’s views on Oromo Politics]

Besides his amateurish engagement in the Oromo politics, Jawar has also been meddling with Ethiopian Muslim politics seeing the recent protest by some Muslim activists as an opportune moment to amplify his militant view and biased position. His understanding of the Muslim politics in Ethiopia isn’t different from the belligerents who accused the Ethiopian government of importing an alien sect to the Ethiopian Muslims. However, there are two important issues that must be taken into consideration when one wants to deal with Muslim politics in Ethiopia. These are, first, the characteristic feature of the advent as well as the expansion of Islam in the region and, second, the historical relation of the Ethiopian state with the Muslim Sultanates and the community (Umma).

Like Christianity, Islam is a Middle Eastern religion, and set its foot at the Horn of Africa at its very formative years. The Ethiopian state has a unique privilege in the history of Islam in the world in hosting the first delegates of Prophet Mohammed in the early 7th century. As far as the contemporary Muslim politics is concerned, what is much more important than the story of the first hijira is the manner in which Islam has expanded in sub-Saharan Africa in general and in Ethiopia in particular. Islam, like Christianity out of the Jew community, has been expanded by accommodating the cultures of the host communities. Why did the first sheiks and saints accept some elements of indigenous religious practices while these practices are not included in the Holy Quran or Holy Bible? This question is as important as its answer. It is because it was difficult to attract new believers. Why the monks and the Sufis did build pilgrimage centers while there are Mecca and Medina as well as Jerusalem and Bethlehem? To Africans and Ethiopians, these holy places were too remote to visit to new believers and even demanding in terms of economy and spiritual conviction. Thus, there has always been ritual syncretism and a religious accommodation, too. Several Muslim shrines in Wallo, Bali, and Harar did not emerge out of the blue. They have been functional and historical. Islam has expanded that way, and Christianity, either. It is important to observe the very fact that the Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia cherished and glorified their local saints and sacred places in their respective districts not less than (sometimes even more than) the foreign saints in the Middle East.Jawar Mohammed - Seattle

History tells us that the origin of Ethiopian state together with its nationalist narrative is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As a result, Islam as religion and Muslims as communities like many other believers of indigenous belief systems had never been treated by the state as equal citizens until very recently. Not to enumerate the political oppression, the cultural suppression was undeniable. By creating a symbiosis relationship, the state and the leaders of the church (as an institution, not the Christian community as individuals), attacked harshly the non-orthodox Christians communities ideologically and marginalized them politically as well as economically. This does not mean that the respective followers of Christianity, Islam and customary belief system in Ethiopia have experienced a history of hostility. Nothing of that kind! As the Ethiopian state and the church had been working together for centuries, the majority of the Muslim kingdoms and the Mosque(in Yifat, Hadya, Fatagar, Bali, Adal and Harar) in the present southern and southeastern Ethiopia had also been behaving in the same manner until they were crushed by the Christian state amid their sporadic confrontations. As a result, the Muslim communities had been marginalized in Ethiopian history as far as the political and economic rights of the Umma are concerned. However, before their defeat, we have to bear in mind that the Muslim Sultanates themselves were not janat (paradise) for people who did not embrace Islam. An overview of the very economic bases of the Muslim Sultanates indicates how slave raiding, slavery and slave trade were widespread in those over-glorified sultanates by some young Muslim activists. Being a Muslim Sultanate or a Christian kingdom does not guarantee social justice. The economic factor (in slave-owning and feudal system) had always been there and both polities were exporting human commodity to the Middle East extensively. This point should not been disregarded. Just because they were defeated by the more powerful forces, the conquered political powers could not be righteous.

Since the second half of the 20th century, nonetheless, like many other democratic questions in the Ethiopian Empire, the issue of religious equality has become a rallying point. The gradual response of the Ethiopian state to the just cause of the subjugated belief systems including Islam has culminated radically in favor of them since 1991. Given the context, any sane observer doesn’t dare to compare the current status of the spiritual life of the Ethiopian people with their previous experiences. However, it does not mean that all the social and democratic questions are addressed perfectly. Indeed, the policy-practice lacuna is one arena of setback.

The recent urban based protest by some young Muslim activists overlooked the above mentioned characteristic features of Islam in Ethiopia. The fact that the odious antagonism to the tested Islamic practices in the prominent pilgrimage centers in Bali, Harar, Wallo and other places endangered the same Muslim believers is considered as a minor issue even by ‘political analysts’. Jawar’s scholarly shortcomings on major Muslim issues range from his ignorance of historical knowledge to shallow political understanding. For instance, in his remark on Muslims in the course of the imperial conquest in the late 19th century, he noted that

Resistance against the state and the dominant society was conducted through ethnic rather than religious mobilization. While the emperors utilized the church to unify their forces and legitimize their objectives, Islam cut across the conquered ethnic and/or regional groups meant that they had to de-emphasize religious differences in order to keep intra-ethnic solidarity and cohesion. Therefore, even grievances born out of religion-specific discrimination were channeled through ethnic mobilization reducing the possibility of faith-based activism.[1]

The weakness of this commentary emanates chiefly from Jawar’s anachronistic understanding of historical developments. Because Jawar is more political than intellectual, he did not worry about the error of anachronism. Anachronism is a well-known conceptual mistake in which past events are interpreted according to circumstances that did not exist at the time. Comparatively, the magnitude of ethnic resistance has increased remarkably in the last 40 years to the extent that the various forms of resistances since the period of imperial conquest even seemed to be ethnic ones.

As far as the history of imperial state conquest is concerned, the resistance of the subjugated people was both ethnic and religious ones. Where communities develop kingdoms along with ethnic lines such as Wallayta, Kaffa, and others they resisted through ethnic lines. Where communities established their political powers on the very basis of religion like in the case of Qebena lead by Hassen Enjamo and the Emirate of Harar lead by Amir Abdullahi, the resistance was religious. At Callanqo, for example, the resistance against Menilek II conquest was not conducted ethnically, rather religiously. Otherwise, we could not find the Harari, the Oromo and others against the Menilek forces at the battle front. The same is true for the resistance of the Hadiya, the Gurage and other Muslim communities lead by Hassen Enjamo. Even after conquest, the cultural resistance continued in Hararge and Arsi and Islam has begun serving as a weapon of defiance against the domineering ideology of Christian settlers. Undeniably, the Arsi armed resistance in 1880s was ethnical. After their defeat, however ( Jawar was supposed to know this), Arsi resistance continued religiously, not ethnically. Jawar’s anachronistic interpretation on the nature of resistance by the subjugated societies mistook the relatively recent ethnic oriented insurgency with all religious based resistance of the conquest period.

When we scrutinize how Jawar Mohammed perceived the recent erratic protest in some Mosques and in the social media, the following excerpt from one of his piece of writing in 2012 can show his recurrent political position in his other commentaries in various forms.

Having failed to introduce structural changes to accommodate the changing Muslim society, having used shortsighted tactics that weakened the age-old Islamic institutions that facilitated coexistence, having attempted to impose unnecessary restrictions that offended the Muslim community, the regime is now trying to use another dangerous strategy that is supposed to ‘moderate’ Islam. Granted religious moderation is a vital state interest; such moderation ought to be engineered from within rather than being imposed externally. The regime, however, has apparently imported a foreign religious sect to provide ‘training’ for Ethiopian imams on “moderation”.

For sober political analyst, these sentences mean many things. First, Jawar unconsciously (like in the case of the number of Oromo students in school) admits that the Muslim society in Ethiopia is in a state of change. Recognizing this transformation of Muslim society without the critical framework of political change and market liberalization in the country since 1991 is erroneous. Jawar is a confused commentator in this regard. Second, forgetting what he stated that the Muslim society is in a state of perceptible change, he accused the Ethiopian government of weakening the age-old Islamic institutions. Is that not contradictory? Are Islamic institutions weakening in pre or post 1991 Ethiopia? Were these institutions protected by the Military Regime or Imperial government? Jawar’s political analysis lacks factual accuracy and conceptual suitability severely.

Jawar has mentioned the weakening of Islamic institutions by the Ethiopian government. Here, the very government that guaranteed the religious equality within the exigent political sphere is criticized for being the enemy of Muslims! Who did endanger the age-old Islamic practices and rituals in Hararge, Bali, Wallo? Why didn’t the Muslim activists, for example as the Orthodox Christians have done (if we must make this comparison), accommodated the local Islamic practices and rituals? Who did introduce intolerant religious behavior to the Ethiopian type of Islamic observances? Why did the protesters stood against the local Islamic experiences? It is here that the foreign element of the protest is rooted with whatever nomenclature.

Third, Jawar stated that the regime has imported a foreign sect to Ethiopia. Here, the very government that guarantied freedom of thought and religion in its constitution and institutions is blamed for importing a sect. What an irony! It is needless to remind political analysts that any one has the right to worship and perform his/her religious practices in accordance of the law of the land. Who is a foreigner? Is sheik Abdalla Muhammed a foreigner? The sheik was a Harari spiritual leader! His historical rival, sheikh Yusuf Abd al-Rahman was not also a foreigner. A political analyst who has no empirical mastery over the subject of discussion is not a political analyst. Besides, an analyst with methodological and conceptual limitation is no more an Ethiopian/Oromo affairs specialist.

When Jawar argued for the notion that Muslim society is expelled from the political sphere, he attempted to explain the whole matter in the following words:

The displacement of Islam by ethnicity and the containment of Muslim grievances by progressivism and nationalism resulted in less mobilization of the Muslim society in terms of religious identity. However, while ‘containment’ allowed for their grievances to be incrementally, indirectly and less contentiously addressed, it also resulted in lower participation and exclusion from political life.[2]

Not to list down the contradictory statements even in a single piece of writing, Jawar is fond of prejudiced rhetoric that would draw the attention of unfounded opposition activists. From the above quotation, one may think that the Muslim cause in Ethiopia is given a cold shoulder by the state. But one can raise one fundamental question to Jawar : is the Ethiopian state secular or theocratic? Is that workable to a secular government to distribute offices in terms of religious representation? If not, how should a secular government entertain the rights of religious communities? What is wrong with the current system of government as far as the rights of religious interests? Is there any Muslim in Ethiopia since 1991 as a citizen who is marginalized from any public sphere just because he/she is a Muslim? Or, should a secular state submit to the political ambition of religious institutions?

In the above quotation, Jawar is arguing for the agenda that the cause of political Islam (which is roofed because of ethnic and nationalist questions, according to him) must be considered as a political constituency. It is really shameful to remind Jawar and his proponents the rationale behind the separation of Religion and State in Ethiopia. Historically until 1974 fully, and until 1991 to some extent, the Ethiopian State and the Orthodox Christian Church used to meddle with one another’s businesses. Is the Ethiopian State supposed to run the government under the auspices of Islamic principles once the divorce with the Orthodox Church is achieved? If truth be told, the ‘political analyst’ Jawar severely lacks (being a student at Columbia University) the knowledge of the modern world state system. This system, in the countries like Ethiopia (unlike some Middle East countries) is a secular one. The reason is comprehensible.

[Read the fourth part: Is Jawar a Political Commentator or Megalomaniac?]

[1] Jawar Mohammed, “Growing Muslim Activism and the Ethiopian State: Accommodation or Repression?” April. 04, 2012.p.2
[2] Ibid, p.3


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