Ethiopian Muslim stick to nonviolence to overcome the regime’s divisive and repressive tactics
Jawar Mohammed|August 20, 2012
Ethiopian Muslims have been staging weekly protest, every Friday, to demand government respect their religious freedom. Specially they demand the government to stop the ongoing stop forced imposition is an alien religious doctrine imported from Lebanon, and allow them to freely elect leaders of Mejlis, their central institution. Instead of addressing this simple demands, the regime has attempting to repress, divide and mislabel the protesters. This article looks at how Muslim protesters have been utilizing methods of nonviolent resistance to overcome the regimes repressive and divisive campaigns.
Why is the regime messing with religion?
As an authoritarian system built on a slim power base and lacking popular legitimacy, the TPLF has been able to prolong its reign through two important tactics that complement its use of brutal force. First, by dividing the population across all imaginable segments, and second, by destroying, co-opting, or corrupting existing social institutions and obstructing development of new ones. Religious institutions have been one of the primary targets.
The first victim was the Orthodox Church, which saw the dethroning of its legal patriarch, Abune Merkorios, in violation of the church’s rules and traditions, and his replacement with a long time loyalist of the rising ruling party, Abune Paulos. Abune Merkorios along many bishops that protested the new regime’s actions were forced into exile while others, such as monk Fekade Selassie, were gunned down in cold blood. Aside from ensuring the powerful Orthodox church is run by one of its own, this outrageous action, was also meant to divide the faithful along the ethnic fault-lines as the regime quickly framed criticism on the illegitimacy of the new patriarch as an attack on Tigreans by the Amhara. Split into two Synods contesting legitimacy, marked with allegation of corruption and moral decay of the leadership, the Orthodox church has been neutralized to the level where it cannot defend its historic monasteries against threat of demolition by the government.
Once Meles paralyzed the Orthodox Church, the next target was the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Council, which was established in the 1970s to centrally coordinate and represent the affairs of the country’s Muslims. When the regime’s attempt to co-opt the existing leadership into its own surrogates failed, the regime instigated violence at the Grand Anwar Mosque in 1995 during a prayer. Using the riots as a pretext, the regime eliminated—through assassination, imprisonment and exile—those religious leaders who refused to let the regime use their institutions for its political objectives. Then the Mejlis was filled by political appointees. Later on Elias Redman, a ruling party loyalist who was converted from layman to a spiritual leader overnight, became ‘deputy chairman’ for life of the Mejlis, where he exerted more real power than the supposed chairmen that were used and thrown out whenever they fell out of favor with the regime. (Note that Elias Redman openly campaigned for the ruling party during the 2005 election and was also a member of the Investigative Commission, in which he allegedly leaked the committee’s verdict that blamed the government for the killing, forcing members of the commission flee the country to muggle the documents before it was confesticated. He later went on the the TV and radio and attempted to legitimize the killing of 200 peaceful protesters in broad daylight.)
The Long Fight for Independence of Religious Institutions
Having eliminated any watchful eye from their side, and protected by the palace, Redman and his selected cadres began embezzling funds donated by foreign charities and contributed from the domestic faithful through Zakah. For instance, as this document shows, although an organization in Saudi Arabia had facilitated accommodation for Ethiopian Hajj pilgrims for a fee of just 1000 Ryals, the Mejlis leadership continued to collect thousands more from the unsuspecting pilgrims and embezzled it for personal use while falsely claiming it was paid to the Saudis. Such corruption, coupled with the illegitimate ways in which they were appointed, led to a growing demand to replace them through the regular election. When the 2001 (1992 EC) election approached, realizing its favored candidates would lose, the regime intervened taking the drastic measure of indefinitely postponing the election. According to the rules, elections were supposed to take place every five years, yet no election has taken place for the last 12 years. Although community elders kept petitioning the Mejlis and pleading with the government to organize elections, their pleas were ignored since the regime did not see the need to address their concerns.
The regime ignored the plight of the elders because it did not anticipate a strong protest against its intervention in the internal affairs of the faith community. The reign of Meles Zenawi coincided with an ongoing Muslim spiritual revivalism that resulted in the development of a number of reform movements. This phenomenon allowed the regime to avoid unified pressure from the Muslim community by pitting one movement against the other. However, in the last few years, the youth who have been active in the reformist movements and close observers of the destructive consequences of the regime’s manipulation began to quietly work towards narrowing differences and defusing tension.
Having persuaded the main senior religious leaders to freeze their theological debates, they built an active network that reached across all organizational and social divisions in the country. Disgusted with the immorality of the Mejlis leaders and determined to reassert public ownership of the institution through legitimate leaders elected through free and fair elections, the youth intensified their campaign to exert the utmost public pressure on the regime. The youth were assisted by intellectuals who have also been concerned about the consequences of lack of legitimate and active leadership at the time when the faith was undergoing transformative spiritual revival and reforms.
The Plot to radicalize the youth
In response to the emerging unified demand for institutional independence, the regime began to plot a new tactic meant to justify its planned crackdown. It took the unprecedented and outrageous action of importing an alien sect from Lebanon and coercively imposing it on the Muslim population. Claiming that its puppets leading the Mejlis lacked sufficient religious knowledge and therefore needed to be upgraded, the regime brought some 200 foreigners belonging to al Habash—a notoriously controversial politico-religious group that has been engaged in a bitter dispute with various Islamic movements in the fractured politics of the Middle East.
Two factors appear to have motivated the regime to choose this group. First, importing such an already globally controversial group would immediately generate negative reactions from the established Muslim groups on the ground. This would help the regime to proclaim the ‘rise of extremism’ in order to consolidate its external support and further fragment the country’s population across religious lines and obstruct the development of a unified democratic movement. Second, one of the key concepts of this group, al Habash, is that it advocates complete submission to political authority, a belief that Meles tirelessly worked for two decades to install in the minds of his subjects through his ‘revolutionary democracy’. Remember when articulating his vision , Meles wrote that “when revolutionary democracy permeates the entire the entire society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by revolutionary democracy.” Therefore Habash is just the latest of many foreign ideologies Meles has been importing to help him implement such absurd and delusional project.
Refusing to be Violent
Although the regime anticipated that bringing such a controversial group would result in the fracturing of Muslims across ‘traditionalist’ and ‘reformist’ camps, it faced unified rejection during the very first re-indoctrination campaigns. The regime also calculated that the energetic, passionate and frustrated youth would respond violently to such outrageous provocations as the closing of the Awolia college. However, to its utter surprise, the community responded in an organized, orderly and disciplined way. Instead of a disjointed and protracted protest, they democratically elected a committee of 17 that carefully crafted their demands, formally presented them to the authorities, and effectively communicated to domestic and external audiences. Fully cognizant of the regime’s intent to cry foul at “Islamic militancy”, they chose nonviolent resistance and stuck to it as their only choice. Thanks to the efforts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who popularized the effectiveness of civic resistance, and Gene Sharp, who formulated it into a strategic manual, violence is no longer the only option for those fighting for their rights. In this way, by building unity of purpose and constructing organizational cooperation, Ethiopian Muslims refused to be divided, avoided being dragged down to violence, ensured solidarity with their Christian brothers, and were able to wage a sustained nine-months long struggle against state interference in their faith. They defied the regime’s expectations and defeated every tactical maneuver it attempted.
The outmaneuvered regime then resorted to violent suppression, arresting the committee members and hundreds of Muslims across the country. However, to the regime’s deep dismay, this tactic did not work; it actually backfired. Instead of being cowed into submission, Muslims are increasing their protests, even more committed to nonviolent tactics. After the heavy crackdown , the protest did no show any sign of fading away, instead it has been attracting larger crowd culminating in the nationwide demonstration on the Eid day, that saw streets filled from Wukro in Tigray to Goba in Bale, and Dawe in Afar to Gimbi in Welega . The government has been attempting to show off its support among Muslims by forcing people to come and march for it. The problem for the regime is that while the majority boycotted such rallies, many of those marched for the government on Monday joins the mass protest on Fridays, even in the ruling party’s home state of Tigray.
Inefficiency of the old divide -and-rule tactics
The regime also started an intensive constituency focused tactics that aims to scare away various segments of the society from supporting the Muslim movement. On the government media it is common to hear the allegation that protesters are using religion as a cover for a ‘hidden’ political objective. It accuses them of being a front for political organizations, but refrains from mentioning that alleged political entity by name. Naming of the supposedly hidden agendas and malicious political forces is left for cadres who spread rumors among targeted constituencies. For instance, the Oromo are told that Amhara elites aligned with Gurages are using the religious uprising to capture state power and also eventually divide and weaken the multi-faith Oromo. In contrast, Amharas are bombarded with tale of conspiracy theory that shows how Oromos, assisted by Arabs, are coming through the backdoor of religion to capture power and of course devastate the country. Tigreans as usual are warned that the Muslim movement is a manifestation of the hidden agenda, cooked by alliance of Oromo and Amhara political elites, to commit genocide against them. When we come to the faith community, Orthodox Christians are warned that they are witnessing the return of the Gragn Ahmed era. On the other hand protestants are told that they are primary targets of the ‘jihadists’. By pointing to the solidarity shown by the Orthodox clergy for the movement, the situation is explained as a conspiracy between the two old religious groups, Islam and Orthodox, to contain their young rival, protestant. But this divisive tactic has not worked because, at one time or another, all of these social segments have been victims the regime’s repression.
Extending Olive Branch Soaked in Deceit
Frustrated by failure of its strategy and extremely worried that such a protest gaining momentum at the time when the ruling clique is embroiled in a succession struggle, the regime pulled one of its classic tactics, offering pardon in exchange for submission. This past week the regime has been harassing Muslim elders telling them to convince members of the committee to secure their release in exchange for abandoning the struggle for religious freedom. However, each committee member unilaterally and collectively rejected the offer, asserting that negotiations ought to be over the three demands of the Muslim community. They dismissed the issue of their release as an attempt to distract the public from the main issue of contention.
TPLF Turns into the T-party
Aside from their own strategic efficiency in organizing, one thing that is working for the protesters in mobilizing the community is the virulently Islamophobic campaign being waged on state media, that would shame even the most far-right parties of the West. In a brazen effort to characterize protesters as extremists, ruling party cadres, pretending to be religious leaders are spewing allegations that insult common sense. One of their widely repeated allegation is that the leaders of the protest burned down 175 mosques in Jimma. It is debatable if that many mosques are to be found in the zone, but one thing is certain; had that number of mosques and/or churches been burned down, Ethiopia would have been engulfed in a bloody communal war.
In another bizarre allegation, Minster of Federal Affairs, Shiferaw Teklemariam, shamelessly claims ”they bring people to the mosque, they put them to the point of the gun and they request them if you’re not converting yourself to the Wahabi, Salafi sect, you’re gone, you’re subject to be killed.” He also adds that the Sadaqa program, a well-known common ritual of the Sufi order was organized for “plotting Islamic takeover” of the government. The regime further accuses the movement of being backed by the Saudis, forgetting the fact the TPLF has a closer tie to the Saudi government than any socio-political group in Ethiopia. In addition to being the recipient of petrodollar during their armed struggle, the current ruling clique continues to have a cozy relationship with fellow dictators and embezzlers across the Red Sea. Ethiopians know quite well that it is not the Muslim activists who gave away huge tracts of Gambella land to the Saudi Star, neither are they responsible for giving monopolistic control over the country’s gold to a businessman with a close connection to the House of Saud.
The tasteless attacks on Islam and presentation of Ethiopian Muslims as enemies of the state and surrogates of foreign forces have enraged Muslims of every walk of life, catalyzing those standing on the sideline to join the movement. Moreover, instead of scaring away Christians, the propaganda has helped them identify with the plight of Muslims by exposing the regime’s real objective in attacking protesters. In contrast to the religious war anticipated by the regime, at present Christians are not only sympathizing with the Muslim brothers/sisters but also joining them in solidarity forming a unified resistance.
By refusing to be dragged on the path of violence and destruction and instead sticking to absolutely nonviolent methods, by refuting the regimes allegation with concrete evidences, the Muslim movement has rendered the state’s repressive tactics fruitless. The regime now has two options; address their demands and defuse the confrontation or step up crackdown and face the bitter consequences of full scale upraising.
Jawar Mohammed is a graduate student at Columbia University. He can be reached at @firstname.lastname@example.org