Reuters reports on a “protest” movement in Ethiopian mosques, with protests taking the form of sermons that accuse the government of playing favorites within the country’s Muslim community, and expressions of support for these sermons from Muslim congregations. Specifically, the sermons and other protest statements say that the country’s Islamic Affairs Supreme Council is attempting to impose the values and beliefs of a group called Al Ahbash (read the Wikipedia entry on them here) on the rest of the country’s Muslims. Reuters describes one such “protest”:
On the outskirts of Addis Ababa, a muezzin* leads a solemn sermon at a mosque before thousands of worshippers stamp their feet to protest against what they say is the Ethiopian government’s interference in religious affairs.
The protesters accuse [the] government of interfering by seeking to impose the beliefs of a little-known sect as doctrine. They say the government is promoting the Al Ahbash, an Islamic movement that opposes ultra-conservative ideology and rejects violence.
The protesters broadly say they adhere to moderate Sufi-inspired values and not the ultra-conservative Salafist interpretation of Islam.
“Call me a terrorist but I will defend my religion,” said the muezzin in his sermon, denouncing the Al Ahbash movement.
Since the beginning of the year, demonstrations have taken place on an almost weekly basis in mosques throughout the capital, and more are expected.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has reacted by framing the protests as “tell-tale signs of extremism” – hence the disavowal of “terrorism” from the imam quoted above. Ethiopia’s government has presented itself to the West and within the Horn of Africa as a strong force against Islamic extremism, and has charged other dissidents inside Ethiopia with committing terrorism. Labeling Muslim objections to state policies as extremism fits into larger narratives that the government promotes.
The State Department has Muslims as 34% of Ethiopia’s population, and Christians as 62%, but these numbers are rough estimates. My familiarity with different Muslim tendencies in Ethiopia is weak, and from Reuters’ article I cannot discern, amid the accusations and counter-accusations, precisely what tendencies the protesters represent. However, I recently began reading a book on the Salafi tendency in Ethiopia called Localising Salafism and on the basis of the first few chapters I would highly recommend it, both for information about Ethiopia and for its treatment of Salafism. There is a lot of glib talk on the internet about Salafism, especially in connection with discussions of elections and terrorism, but it is rare to find analyses that treat Salafi beliefs with any degree of sophistication, or that highlight the complex interactions between global religious movements on the one hand and local history and politics on the other. The book offers a perspective that would likely help to explain some of the issues at stake in the current mosque protests, as well as in Ethiopia’s religious and political struggles more broadly.
One final point is that in a country whose government suppresses dissent, religious institutions like mosques can become one of the few spaces where dissent can be expressed. Examples are legion; one is Algeria in the 1980s.
*Reuters keeps saying “muezzin,” which refers to the person who calls the prayer, but usually the imam leads the prayer and gives the sermon.