The emergence of radical Islam in Ethiopia (1991-2012)

By Johannes Sebhatu: July 3, 2004


The Prophet Muhammed expressed his gratitude for the magnanimous act displayed by the Ethiopians. He therefore instructed his followers to refrain from waging a jihad against the Ethiopians. The instruction had been in force until the coming to the scene of the Ottoman Turks in the 15th and 16th century. They invaded northern Ethiopia, destroyed churches and forcefully converted many Christians to Islam. This was followed by the intermittent invasions and wars of aggression perpetrated by the Sudanese Mahdists and the Egyptians in the 19th century, in which many Ethiopians were killed and many were forcefully converted to Islam by both invaders. The concerted bi-proxy Arab League aggressions against Ethiopia in the 20th century, is a volume by itself. Although initially tolerant and accommodating to Islam, Ethiopian governments who came to understand the real intensions of Muslims, had nevertheless to exercise vigilance against the dangers and encroachments of this religion. The most devastating Islamic expansion came in the 16th century from Ahmed Ibin Al Ghazi (Gragn Mohammed), who was assisted by Ottoman firearms and Arab manpower. The aggression and destabilization that started from the South Eastern part of the country engulfed much of Ethiopia. Christians were massacred, and their churches were either looted, or burned down. This historical event forced the leaders of the time to gradually retreat from central Ethiopia to the northern part. This period, which also converged with the massive Oromo migration from the south, accentuated the weakening of the central government and the considerable alteration of the ethnographic, demographic and religious composition of Ethiopia. Despite the huge thrust from Islam, although very much weakened, Ethiopia had survived the onslaught. Islam as a religion continued to exist and co-exist as part of the social mainstream. Presently however, Ethiopia is being exposed to the danger of political and fundamentalist Islam. The security threat has been looming particularly in the last thirteen years. A potent danger of the expansion of militant and political Islam, like its counterparts in the Middle East and the Far East, is becoming more and more evident in Ethiopia.

The contemporary situation:

The year 1991 represents a watershed in Ethiopian history for two reasons. One, it is dovetailed with the ascendancy to political power of the so-called Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Two, 1991 was a year when militant and fundamentalist Islam started to proliferate across the world.

The TPLF is taken as a defining entity because, unlike previous governments, it emerged with a radical and destabilizing political agenda. It shook the very spiritual and political foundation of the historic Ethiopian State by making ethnic politics as a guide to its governance. This was a far cry from the age-old tradition that was primarily based on maintaining the unity, national integrity and independence of the state. Some analysts agree that since the TPLF does not score high marks on the subject, it began to play -off one ethnic or religious group against the other for its own political survival. The unrestrained political support it has provided for the expansion of Islam is an extension of the same policy. As the TPLF consisted of a minority group, the consequence of its political game was to marginalize and exclude the majority which it thought could be more of a threat than a reliable political ally. The TPLF therefore chose to flirt with minorities, and, which it considered less dangerous to its power.

To that end, the Christians, mainly the Orthodox Christians, which were supposed to be the flag bearers of Ethiopian nationalism and independence, are being systematically marginalized. The counter-weight for this was to attract Muslims into the TPLF’s political, economic and social fold, and to keep Ethiopia’s doors wide open to political Islam.

As a result, a number of Muslims, especially the militant ones, were put in positions of influence. Since the government’s action was based more on immediate political expediency than on sober, responsible and farsighted considerations of its effects, the radicals didn’t find it difficult to infiltrate the inner core of its structure, and to keep Ethiopia’s doors wide open to political Islam. This opportunity accentuated their ability to turn the financial, political, as well as the economic steering wheel of the state towards their advantage.

The fact that Al Qaeda and other Muslim fundamentalists were on the rise during the last thirteen years has precipitated the transfer of a huge amount of money from Islamic states in the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia to Muslim communities in Ethiopia. This has become an additional impetus to the latter towards their drive of realizing the established dream of setting up an Islamic Super State. Militant organizations like Al Itihad were so active that they even attempted to kill Hosni Mubarek, the Egyptian President, on one of the streets of Addis Ababa. In the same period, huge mosques were being built everywhere in Ethiopia with architectural wonders. Koranic schools and madrassas were opened every where including Kefa, Bale, Arsi, Wollo, Harar, Afar, the Somali Region, Kemissie, Addis Ababa, and so on. In the process, Islamic activists were quickly getting more militant, richer, arrogant and sectarian.

If we examine more closely the internal and external reasons that fuelled the expansion of political Islam in Ethiopia, we will understand the dynamics. Ethiopia is still demonized by the Arabs for historically resisting Islamic encroachments, and of surviving in tact in the face of the Islamic conquest of the rest of Northeast Africa. Hence, they are preparing to attack Ethiopia with vengeance. In this regard, we could begin with an eye-opening observation made by a sixty year old Sudanese. The scathing remark made by this Sudanese Moslem will help to explain what is going on in Ethiopia more vividly. The Sudanese citizen was visiting Ethiopia in October 2003. His name is Muktar. I met him while he was having breakfast at one of the hotels in Addis Ababa. I greeted him and asked him where he was from and whether it was his first time to visit Ethiopia, and so on. He smiled and let me know that Ethiopia had always been his second home and that he had been regularly visiting the country since 1958.

We then continued with our conversation on a variety of issues and established some rapport between us. As this hotel was also my regular hang out for coffee, I met this person regularly and continued to talk on political as well as on other issues. One day, I asked him about terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hammas, Al Qaeda, the problems of Southern Sudan, and so on.

Muktar then remarked, “My friend, you are asking me about the problems of political Islam in the Sudan. I am a Muslim myself. I know the secrets of the religion. To tell you the truth, the dangers of political and violent Islam is by far more apparent and ultimately lethal in your country, Ethiopia, than in mine. I know this country for quite a while. I also know how Moslems and Christians used to live side by side peacefully. I know the way of life of the Sunni Muslims here. It was benign and accommodative like their Christian folks.”

“Today it is different. One can see mosques built at every corner, even in the middle of dense sections of towns and business centers. Believers are visible praying in the middle of highways blocking traffic. Why would it have to be like this? I saw how they dress themselves and wear their beards. I observe the dress code of fundamentalists and the Wuhabi sect. I see a lot of Muslims with black spots on their foreheads. This is a distinctive mark of the Al Wuhabis witnessing their dedication in doing a 5-time a day prayer by bowing towards Mecca and hitting the ground with their foreheads. They all look like their co-religionists in the Middle East and the Far East who are out and about to establish an Islamic Super State. To that end, even an alliance of Muslim Oromos, Afars, Somalis and Eritreans has been formed. I am deeply concerned about the developments in Ethiopia. I am afraid it might suddenly sink into a destructive and macabre religious conflict unless averted and checked in time by the government in power that has permitted this to happen in the first place.”

Although I used to feel the heat before, this was quite a stunning revelation to me. It was an authentication of the dangers from among the believers and a confirmation of my doubts and anxiety. Yes, the person was absolutely right. Since 1991, hundreds of mosques have been built throughout Ethiopia. On the Borena and Bale routes alone, one can count some 70 mosques. Some are built on no man’s land. This is indicative of their strategic thinking in terms of occupying more space while the opportunity is abundant. Some of the agencies which were responsible for such constructions, are set up under the guise of local NGO’s and assume a legal mandate to use the funds that were funneled from the Middle East. Such undertakings get support from Islamic-oriented newspapers like Selefia, Hikma, Bilal, Al Islamia, Al Nejashi, Al Kuds, and others, all with Arabic names. Most of them glorify Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, Chechen rebels and all other Muslim related terrorist acts. They also glorify the invasion and destruction of Ethiopia by Gragne Mohammed.

As was pointed out earlier, the militants got ascendancy and influence in Ethiopian politics immediately after the TPLF came to power when it was desperately seeking for allies and associates amid denunciation and rejection by the majority of the people. The government, mindful of the fact that they could scarcely form political alliances with the nationalists and the educated middle class, were therefore looking for the weak, eager to serve and easy to manipulate sectors of society to counter balance to this formidable challenge. They were ready to grab any opportunity, and any political formula to legitimize and consolidate their rule.

This period coincided with Islam’s growing aspiration to redesign the world after its own aspirations and image. It was also a time when massive amount of money was pouring out of the Middle East to finance such undertakings as the establishment of terrorist cells, mosques, and madrassas throughout the world in order to fill the political void left by the USSR. Due to historical, geo-political and the unexpected political opportunity created by the TPLF, Islamic militants didn’t waste any time. They seized and skillfully exploited the opportunity adroitly.

The mistakes committed by the government created further a fertile ground for the expansion, proselytisation and proliferation of the Islamic religion. During the decade under consideration, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Addis Ababa were Muslims. The great majority of the citizens of Addis Ababa blame the former Mayor of the City, Ali Abdo and the former Deputy Mayor, Khalid for going out of their way and making the land lease/grants to the Muslims for building mosques in areas of the city where mosques should not be built. These two corrupt individuals stayed in power for five years. Is it possible that the leaders do not know what is going on in the country, and even if they do, they do not care?

Harar, which was known for being the melting pot for ethnic and religious groups, was awarded to the minority group of Hararis, formerly known as Aderes. This group represents less than one third of the population living in and around the town. In spite of the protests and warnings from all corners of the country against this brazen political arrangement, the government didn’t relent. As a result, one can see how this group has used its position to enrich itself and to promote militant Islam.

The situation was such that Al Wuhabis had even had the temerity of building mosques right in front of Orthodox Churches. They want to show their defiance and contempt of Christians whose prime target they have become. At one time, there was even direct confrontation with Christians in the Shola/Yeka area of Addis Ababa where, as a result, many people died. It was with police intervention that the situation was brought under control. Similar incidents have happened in the provinces. Some Muslims, who have suddenly become rich, want to show to Christians their affluence by driving shinning cars and therefore cajole them into their folds. They capitalize on the gradual pauperization of the Christian folks to succumb to their religion. There is no work in the country every Friday from 11.30A.M to 1.00PM- something inconceivable in the days of Haile Selassie or the Dergue. Addis Ababa has a population that is nearing six million, in which the Muslims are a mere 300,000. It is a city where Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus live. It is also supposed to be the headquarters of the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and where numerous international organizations as well as some 90 embassies function. Why should the road to Merkato be blocked every Friday from 5.30 to 1: 00PM? Why should huge bells ring every day from 5.00 to 5.30 and disturb the peace of non-Muslims? Why should women be allowed to cover their faces as they do in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan? Since Ethiopia is 60%Christian, why should it be treated as if it is an extension of Saudi Arabia? Why should the Muslim way of doing things be imposed on the country? Should not Ethiopia be ruled by its own secular laws? Recently there was big news on the Reporter, the Amharic Weekly, about how the militant Muslims tried to unseat the traditional Sunni Muslims from their Mejlis or leadership positions of the Islamic Council and take over power. For this, it was reported that they received about four million Riyals from Saudi Arabia to bribe their way through the corridors of power.

There is a clear and visible external support for the expansion of the Islamic religion. This is unmistakably demonstrated, as was explained earlier, in the increase of wealth of the believers and the construction of hundreds of mosques across the country within a space of a decade. Large and dominating mosques are ubiquitous at every turn of big roads and at the gateways of big towns like Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Harrar, Dessie, Nazareth, Gondar, Jimma, Arsi, Jijiga, and many others. In the Somali Region, the Muslim leaders have even gone to the extent of objecting to the building of churches and as far as harassing Christians to contribute for the construction of mosques.

The same is true in other towns. Huge and inordinately complex mosques are being built in the middle of nowhere like the ones in such tiny, impoverished and relief dependent villages like Tulu Awulia, Senbete, Kemissie, Kombolcha, all in Wollo Province. The elaborately built mosque near the Abattoir/ kea/ in Addis, the one just set up near the Sheraton Hotel and another in the middle of Kazanchiz and in almost all neighborhoods are but eloquent testimonies to their aggressive expansion. In Nazareth, there is a mosque right in the middle of a super market, Nur super market, named after the owner. In this same town, Muslims bought off the whole neighborhood in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral. They were able to grab it all by offering double the market price to the owners. This was mainly because they wanted to demonstrate their growing financial as well as political might to the nearby diocese and Christian congregations and proceed with their conversions and proliferation.

The morning calls from the long minarets of these mosques are heard at every corner of towns. Sometimes one feels that h/she is in the middle of Mecca or Riyadh. Such big structures couldn’t have been funded from internal sources. For instance, In Jijiga fifteen additional mosques were built during the last ten years alone while there is only one church in town. The request to get a piece of land to build a church has been denied. The scale of growth and the efficient way money is paid out to laborers, and the speed with which the buildings are completed, are indicative of the coordinated manner in which outside money is made available for the purpose of increasing Muslim influence in Ethiopia. This is just the beginning, the top of the ice berg. Next they will want power, as they have done in other countries. Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam traveled throughout Ethiopia and freely mixed with the people. As a result, they knew what was going on in the country. The present leaders, however, do not travel. They do not freely mix with the people. As a result, it is difficult to say whether they know or not what is going on in the country.

Concentration of Wealth:

One other interesting development in Ethiopia is the fast growing rich people within this religious category. It is a well-known fact that Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. But the speed with which some Muslim elements get wealthy is phenomenal. The individuals who build three or four story buildings and who drive stylish cars are so young that it is difficult to believe that they have earned this through hard work.

In addition, financing of their businesses from banks is facilitated and most of them are engaged in lucrative and illicit business. In fact, recent investigations showed that some of them evaded taxes and sale goods with highly reduced prices thereby pushing the other sectors of the society out of the market. The tightly knit and small communities like the Selti Harare and Worjis, all of whom hundred percent Muslims, are said to be the powerhouse for creating big businesses and a safe haven for the Wuhabis. Muslim Oromos in Harar, Arsi and Bale also show such extremism. Others suspect that, judging from their covert and overt actions, these communities seem to have external sources of finance that have enabled them to buy and sell at highly competitive prices, commission the multi-faced expansion of the militant religion.

Further more, a number of schools are being open that cater to Muslims alone. This is the case in Afar, Harar, Jimma, Bale, Addis Ababa and many other places. Even in schools established by foreigners like the Gibbsons’ Academy in Addis, more than 70% of the students are Muslims.

The free remittance of capital is so obvious that most of them become extremely rich in a twinkle of an eye. They have now even become arrogant and developed a condescending attitude towards the impoverished Christian folks. In Harar, they have even gone to the extent of throwing stones during Epiphany on the ‘Tabot’, The Holy Tablet of Mosses that carries the Ten Commandments, which instruct individuals not to kill, not to steal, not to tell lies, and so on. This has happened in the year 2001. As a result there was a shoot out and a number of people died. This is a complete reversal of the time-tested tradition of Christians and Muslims living side by side. Muslims were so benign that they used to regard the ceremony with respect and were even happy to enjoin and enjoy the annual Christian festivities.

More over, some informants claim that the external financial sources offer directly or indirectly as high as hundred thousand birr, for individuals who make a difference, to convert to Islam. Inside story has it that they are also trying to change the demographic composition of the country by bearing more children, to out number the Christians and claim access and legitimacy to political power. Unlike the previous years, they are now sending more children, even girls, to schools. Besides their domination of commercial business, they seek also to create a synergy of influence by developing an elite middle class which will run the state when they take power. It is this class that is also poised to defend and expand the religion further.

The Christians are deeply divided between them and have become vulnerable and easy preys for such onslaught. The global support for them from outside is equally slim. For instance, the Egyptian Copts are friendlier to their Muslim counter parts than to the Ethiopian Orthodox clergy. A case in point is what they do at the Monasteries of Jerusalem. In the same way, the Ethiopian Protestant communities here are at loggerheads with their fellow Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia than with the ones outside of the country, thus contributing to the weakening of the Christian camp.

The majority of Ethiopian Muslims is peaceful and is willing to co-exist with their fellow Ethiopians adhering to a variety of beliefs. They still inter marry and exercise tolerance. The writer himself is a witness to their dedication and trustworthiness. He still enjoys the closest relationship with many life long Muslim friends. However, even those benign ones have been affected by the recent resurgence of radicalism across the globe. They have now become more observant of Ramadan fasting days, very conservative on dressing codes like the Hijab and headscarves and more conscious of their religious identity.

The real issue here is the danger this radicalism poses. It is going to be uglier, as we are now witnessing, when mixed up with inter-ethnic tensions that the government has deliberately planned, promoted, and abetted as a means of keeping itself in power. The recent ethnic clashes between the Agnuakes and what they call the ‘highlanders’ in Gambella that caused the death of more than 350 people is a harbinger of what is in store in this country. It is so hot an issue that some kind of intervention is in order. Responsible Governments across the world and civic societies and political parties need to take up this extremely poisonous element and get together to tackle it. The spill over effect to the region and to other parts of Africa is going to be massive and hard to contain. The government should be forced to reverse this extremely dangerous trend. Since the shameful and deplorable situation in the country is of its own creation, the regime should be forced to take appropriate action to reverse the situation. The claim that it is cooperating with the USA in the fight against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is joke. On the contrary, by opening the country to these elements and tolerating their activities, the regime is busy collaborating with these destructive forces.

The problem with the government is that it views its role of governance in terms of drawing big amounts of financial and political advantages to its party members or Regional States. It sees its political power more as a source of income and privilege and not as an enormous responsibility.

The regime plays down the fact that Ethiopia is greater than the sum of its parts. On the contrary, it seems to think that the parts (regions/ethnic groups) are greater than the whole. For them, Ethiopia as a political or national entity is less important than the ethnic or religious identity. They do not accept the fact that the driving force for development, continuity and social peace is forging a strong national and collective identity and a feeling of solidarity among citizens. As a result, the educational system, which is now at work, is so weak that it is producing young people who have a perverted understanding of their country. Their dream is at best to migrate and go to other countries to live and at worst to go back to their ethnic and religious circles and start all over again!

The argument here is not that the Ethiopian society and its political set up shouldn’t be democratized and the idea of religious equality based on the principles of fairness, and inclusion shouldn’t be sanctioned. But such an inordinate and flash expansion, the way we have witnessed it, and the dangerous attempt to marginalize the Christian people and culture of the country would only end up sparking a wild fire that could hardly put off without causing staggering damages to the nation. It is therefore high time to sit back and reflect before things go out of hand.

Finally, the revelation of the facts should serve as a wake up call to all liberal and democratic societies to remember that the danger is not going to be confined to Ethiopia. The strategy of the militants is to remove the Christian presence/’block’ that exists between Islamic Middle East, Djibouti, Somalia, The Sudan, Egypt, and Libya… and have complete control of the Red Sea Sub Region. If this is achieved, it is easy to imagine the wider ramifications of the change to the rest of the civilized and peace-loving world.

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