Harar, Ethiopia, 2005. Mosque in the sun. Photo by Charles Fred via Flickr.

Mosque in the sun, Harar, Ethiopia, 2005. Photo by Charles Fred via Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/48001913/

By Alex Thurston

For the past year, Ethiopian Muslims have been staging weekly demonstrations against their government. The demonstrators charge the regime of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn with giving the “Ahbash” sect control of key Muslim institutions in the country, especially the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). Mass protests are relatively rare in Ethiopia, where the current regime has dominated the political arena since Meles assumed power in 1991. Government crackdowns on protesters have drawn international criticism, including from Ethiopia’s ally the United States. The protests not only mark a significant moment in the relationship between Ethiopia’s government and one of the most important minorities in the country; they also potentially mark a significant moment in Ethiopia’s relations with the outside world. This post looks at how the policies and rhetoric of the “War on Terror” have played a part in the Ethiopian government’s response to the protests, and also at how U.S.-Ethiopian relations may subtly shift as a result of the Ethiopian government’s reactions to the protests and other forms of domestic dissent. A second part will examine the dynamics of the protests themselves.

Ethiopia’s Religious Landscape and the War on Terror

The Ethiopian constitution guarantees the separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion, but Christianity has long been the dominant religion in the country. Ethiopia’s Christian community is well known for its long history (which dates back to the first century C.E.), its distinctive art, its striking churches, and its central role as the state religion in pre-modern times. Ethiopia’s Muslim community is less well known, but sizeable. Of Ethiopia’s estimated 91 million people, 62.8% are Christians (43.5% of Ethiopians are Orthodox, 18.6% of them Protestant, and 0.7% Catholic), but nearly 34% are Muslims. Islam has been present in Ethiopia, in fact, since the Prophet Muhammad sent some members of his community to ancient Aksum when the first Muslims faced persecution in Mecca.

Islam has grown in Ethiopia in recent decades – one source (.pdf, p. 8) estimates that only 25% of the population was Muslim around 1950, and another (.pdf, p. 140) records a slight increase from 1994 to 2007. One anthropologist writes that “tolerance and exchange” have often characterized Muslim-Christian relations in Ethiopia, although he adds that such relations have “come under stress” with the rise of “revivalist” Muslim movements. As Terje Østebø details in his recent book Localising Salafism, the Muslim community in Ethiopia is changing, as Salafis criticize practices like other Muslims’ veneration of Sufi saints.

Especially since the “Arab Spring” and the emergence of Salafi-oriented political parties in Egypt and Tunisia, the international media and American policymakers have worried about the implications of what some perceive as Salafism’s rise. Some see an organic link between Salafism and extremism. Observers in this school of thought read the protests as a sign of such extremism. As the Washington Times puts it, “Muslims are becoming increasingly radical in a predominantly Christian country that has been a key U.S. ally in combating terrorism in the Horn of Africa.” But another, more accurate way to read the dynamic between the government and the protesters is that Meles and his successors have proven particularly skillful at positioning themselves as a “U.S. ally in combating terrorism” and positioning domestic dissidents as extremists. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have charged the Ethiopian government with using its Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009, which “includes an overbroad and vague definition of terrorist acts,” to “stifle peaceful dissent.” In May, Meles said, “We are observing tell-tale signs of extremism. We should nip this scourge in the bud.” The language of the “Global War on Terror” has become useful for the country’s rulers as a domestic political weapon.

Shifting International Reactions to Ethiopian Government Policies

The protests are having an impact not only on Muslim-state relations in Ethiopia, but also on Ethiopia’s relations with the international community, especially with the U.S. Ethiopia’s position as a favored U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa is unlikely to substantially weaken, but the protests have evoked abnormally blunt criticisms from Washington.

In the past decade, the U.S. government has leaned on Ethiopia, as well as other countries in the region, to counter perceived radicalism in Ethiopia’s neighbor Somalia. After the Islamist movement the Union of Islamic Courts gained control of parts of southern Somalia in 2006, Ethiopian forces occupied Somalia from 2006 to 2009, and have subsequently made numerous forays into Somalia. Observers have charged that “the United States and the European Union have often played down the gravity of the abuses [in countries like Ethiopia] in the name of development” – or in the service of securing Ethiopia’s cooperation in counterterrorism efforts.

The U.S. government has not remained completely silent on religious and political conflicts in Ethiopia. As of 2010, the U.S. State Department wrote that “the government generally respected religious freedom in practice; however, occasionally some authorities infringed on this right.” The State Department did express concern about the integrity of the 2010 elections, which saw a smashing victory for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Yet the U.S. may be moving now toward somewhat stronger criticism of Ethiopia. 2012 has seen considerable international outcry over alleged domestic abuses by the Ethiopian government, including the arrests of foreign journalists and the detention of the prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega – a case that drew open concern from the State Department in June of this year. Such outcry has now extended to the government’s treatment of Muslim protesters. In November of this year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a statement expressing concern “about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.” The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan commission created in 1998. It does not speak for the White House, but its members are influential scholars, human rights activists, and former politicians appointed by the president and congressional leaders. The USCIRF’s call for the government in Washington to “raise with the new leadership in Addis Ababa the importance of abiding by Ethiopia’s own constitution and international standards on freedom of religion of belief” will likely make some impact at the White House and in Congress.