Since 2011 the Ethiopian government, concerned about regional developments and eager to prevent activist forms of Islam destabilizing the country, has been promoting the Islamic Supreme Council as sole representative of Ethiopian Muslims.
The government is now also cooperating with the Lebanese-based al-Ahbash organization for the purpose of imposing a government-sanctioned, “moderate” Islam, writes Terje Østebo (University of Florida) in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (December). Ethiopia is often presented as a Christian island in Africa, and Ethiopian Christians themselves associate “Ethiopianess” with Christianity, but Muslims have been present since the early times of Islam on Ethiopian territory. Peaceful coexistence was mixed with suspicions toward Muslims, seen as a potential fifth column, and based on an asymmetric relationship between Christians and Muslims, since the latter were not included in the Christian notion of nationhood.
After the end of communist rule in Ethiopia in 1991, restrictions upon Muslims were lifted, including the ban on imports of religious literature, which led to a number of reformist Muslim movements also entering Ethiopia, among them Salafi groups. This contributed to the fragmentation of the Muslim community, although initiatives of intra-Muslim dialogue were also launched. Following violent incidents from the mid-1990s, fears of Islamic radicalization started to appear. The rise of Islamist militant groups in neighboring Somalia and the 9/11 events reinforced those concerns among Ethiopian Christians: the mushrooming of mosques across the country seemed to confirm them.
This has led the regime to take a more proactive role in the field of religion, according to Østebo. It would like to promote traditional, local Islam (seen as pragmatic, flexible and apolitical) for counteracting Salafism (perceived as foreign and intolerant). Government officials have been increasingly monitoring (and pressuring) the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). The government also has given support to “moderate” Muslims in Somalia and to traditional Muslim shrines in Ethiopia.
More recently, the government has facilitated the introduction to Ethiopia of the al-Ahbash organization, officially known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (AICP). Its headquarters are in Beirut, Lebanon, but its longtime spiritual leader was an Ethiopian Muslim scholar, Shaikh Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Harari (1910-2008), who had fled to Lebanon in the 1950s. Al-Ahbash is today a transnational Islamic movement with a presence in a number of countries. It is very hostile to Salafism as well as to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Ahbash has maintained a small office in the Ethiopian capital, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the group was given an opportunity to present itself as a face of “moderate islam.” Subsequently, training sessions for Muslim ulama and students were organized all over the country with the participation of Lebanese al-Ahbash representatives. At such occasions, government officials made clear that Muslims not accepting the role of the EIASC as representative of Ethiopian Muslims would be considered as extremists.
According to Østebo, the current tense situation in Ethiopia, despite relative restraint on the Muslim side, along with a worsening of Christian-Muslim relations, runs the risk of further radicalizing parts of the Islamic community. Moreover, the active involvement of the Ethiopian government within the Muslim community is leading to a promotion of “governmental Islam,” with other forms of Islam defined as illegitimate.
(Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 825 Houston Mill Road, Suite 300, Atlanta, GA 30329 – http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/).