Muslims hold a silent protest in Ethiopia, 23 July 2012. Image via @DimtsachinYisem

By Alex Thurston

Part One of this two-part series contextualized ongoing Muslim protests in Ethiopia with reference to the “Global War on Terror.” I argued that Ethiopia has at times appropriated the language of the “War on Terror” in the service of neutralizing domestic dissent. I also suggested that the relationship between the governments of Ethiopia and the U.S. may be subtly shifting. While Washington will likely continue to rely on Addis Ababa as a partner in the Horn of Africa, Washington appears somewhat more willing to criticize Addis Ababa’s treatment of dissidents now than in the past. This post turns to the protests themselves, first tracing their origins in a conflict over the government’s alleged promotion of a sect called “Al Ahbash” and next turning to the dynamics of the protests.

Who are al Ahbash?

Many commentators argue that the government’s alleged promotion of the Ahbash sect represents an effort to counter the spread of Salafism inside Ethiopia. There are different accounts of the history of al Ahbash (Arabic: “The Ethiopians”), formally known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects. The Ethiopian author Yuunus Hajji Mul’ataa has written the most comprehensive published account (.pdf, pp. 102-105) of the organization that I have been able to find. Mul’ataa says that the sect was founded in 1930 in Lebanon as a charitable society. It was headed, after 1983, by Sheikh Abdullah al Harari (1920-2008), a Sufi leader of Ethiopian origin. According to Mul’ataa, Harari turned the organization toward anti-Salafism and emphasized the necessity for Muslims to obey political rulers.

Harari’s very presence in the Middle East, Mustafa Kabha and Haggai Erlich write (.pdf, p. 522), owed to disputes between him and Salafis in his hometown of Harar, Ethiopia in the 1940s. These disputes centered on who would control Islamic education in the town and whether the Muslim community would remain part of Ethiopia. Possibly due to his bad relations with Salafis and possibly due to pressure from the government, Harari left Ethiopia in 1948. He went to Medina, Jerusalem, and Damascus, before settling in Lebanon in 1950. Kabha and Erlich say that Harari became prominent in the 1980s through his writings and his leadership of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects. Under his leadership, the Association became deeply involved in Lebanese and Syrian politics, continued to clash with Salafis, and spread throughout the world due to the Lebanese diaspora. Kabha and Erlich add (p. 524), “The number of Ethiopian members in al-Ahbash is not known, but there are not many. With the exception of the shaykh from Harar, almost the entire movement is composed of Muslims from various other ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. They call themselves the Ahbash partly because of their admiration for their leader.”

In terms of its religious and political orientations, the movement describes itself as Sunni in the sectarian realm (i.e., not Shi’ite). It follows the Shafi’i Islamic legal school, one of the four mainstream schools for Sunnis. Politically, the movement opposes Salafis as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. A number of sources describe the movement as inspired by Sufism, and Harari was initiated into Sufi orders such as the Qadiriyya. If one believes that the Ethiopian government is attempting to install al Ahbash in positions of institutional power in order to counteract Salafism, this would mark one of the many instances in contemporary Africa where domestic and international policymakers are trying to position Sufi-aligned groups as antidotes to Salafism’s spread.

There are some who do not believe there is a government campaign to promote the Ahbash. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn wrote in May that while “the government has been concerned for more than 15 years about the activities of Wahhabi proselytizers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States,” he also “doubt[s] that it would push a particular Muslim ideology such as that of the Al-Ahbash group.” An Ethiopian commentator, meanwhile, states, “It is counter intuitive to assume that the government will take a unnecessary move of imposing a new religion. Indeed, wouldn’t it be sufficient to strengthen the existing Sufi Islam teaching – which is what is actually being done.”

Many Ethiopian Muslims, however, do believe that the government is foisting al Ahbash on them. That perception has created a broad protest movement that includes Salafis, Sufis, and other Muslims; in other words, the protest movement should not be reduced to or equated with Ethiopian Salafism.

The protests have had several major focal points. One is elections for the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC), an independent body for Muslim affairs that protesters now charge is being manipulated by the government. Another focal point of the protests has been Awoliya College, a religious school in Addis Ababa that is one of the centers of Salafism in Ethiopia. The government reportedly replaced Ethiopian Muslim teachers with al Ahbash members in 2011. The government may have targeted the staff at Awoliya because of the College’s reported links with the Saudi Arabia-based International Islamic Relief Organization and the Muslim World League, and a perception that such linkages make the school a gateway for Saudi influence. Videos of protests at Awoliya, for example this one from January 20, show massive but peaceful crowds. Al Anwar mosque in the capital has been another key protest site.

The government has responded to the demonstrations by beating and teargasing protesters, and by arresting protest leaders. Crackdowns have prompted clashes between demonstrators and the police: four protesters died after an imam was arrested in April, and on October 21 three protesters and one police officer died when protesters attacked a police station in an attempt to free imprisoned demonstrators. One central incident in the crackdown was the government’s arrest, in July 2012, of some seventeen protest organizers from the independent “Arbitration Committee,” a group formed in early 2012 to represent the protesters to the state. On October 29, nine of these leaders, along with twenty other Muslims who had been arrested, were charged with plotting to commit terrorism, under the expansive anti-terror law in Ethiopia that has drawn international criticism, including over this case itself. The crackdown has been not just physical, but informational: it has extended to harassment of the press in the form of detentions of Muslim journalists, raids on the offices of Muslim newspapers, and the confiscation of newspaper issues covering the protests. Activists have responded with extensive online activities promoting and defending the protests.

Amid such tumult, the elections for the EIASC took place. Many Muslims reportedly boycotted the round of voting that took place on October 7. According to the government, “The members of the Council were elected by those recently elected as representatives of the Muslim communities in the country’s nine regional states and two city administrations.” The process concluded on November 5, when the new leadership was announced (the full list of Council members is here).

Jawar Mohammed at the Gulele Post provides an in-depth, but critical, look at the new leaders of the Council, which he says is firmly under the regime’s control. Mohammed writes that the new president, Sheikh Kiyar Mohammed Aman, “is a long time member of the ruling party” who most recently served as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed devotes even greater attention to Khedir Mahmud Aman, of whom he writes:

He played a key role in enabling the regime [to] maintain its grip over the federal [Council] over the last decade. He was also said to have traveled to Lebanon with Shiferaw Teklemariam, Minister of Federal Affairs, to negotiate terms with al [Ahbash] before they were invited to start the controversial re-indoctrination campaign. His role was seen so crucial that, when the current protest broke out, Khedir was formally brought to Addis Ababa to reinforce the troubled [Council] as senior adviser. Now he is appointed vice-president of the new [Council] where he will be the defacto leader.

For its part, the government has stressed that “the newly elected leaders of the Council are well versed in religious education and the election took the education, religious maturity and work experience of candidates into consideration.” The government makes no reference to al Ahbash in its statement. Whatever al Ahbash’s standing within the new Council leadership, the elections and their outcome have not placated the protesters. Protests, which occur primarily on Fridays, have continued in November and December.

The core issue at stake in the protests, and one that goes beyond the leadership of the EIASC, is the relationship between Muslims and the state. The growth and changing composition of Ethiopia’s Muslim community seems to be provoking a re-negotiation of this community’s role in public life in Ethiopia, a re-negotiation of which the protests are only one part. The protests, meanwhile, seem to be shaping new forms of group identity among Ethiopian Muslims. Alemayehu Fentaw writes, “There is…some evidence that the Ethiopian Muslim community has been radicalized, although not in the sense that it has a political agenda, but in the sense that it has attained a higher degree of religious consciousness and has become more aware of its particularistic identity.” The word “radicalized” carries negative connotations that are inappropriate in this context – “mobilized” seems more neutral – but the process Fentaw describes definitely seems to be at work in the protests.

The ongoing Muslim protests in Ethiopia represent the efforts of a broad Muslim coalition to combat what they see as the government’s promotion of outsiders. The struggle has grown from a battle for control of specific institutions, such as Awoliya College and the EIASC, into a phenomenon with profound ramifications for Muslim-state relations in Ethiopia and for Ethiopia’s relations with the international community. The elections for the EIASC are over, but the protests are not, and new kinds of political, social, and religious consciousness and solidarity are taking root among Ethiopian Muslims.