America on ‘Abuses of Religious Freedom’ in Ethiopia: “A Hasty Hyena Bites the Horn!!”
I. Introduction I read the accusation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) against Ethiopia in great astonishment. The Commission named by President Barack Obama accused Ethiopia’s government of abusing religious freedom on different scores. The accusation identifies the ‘Ethiopia’s Muslim Community’ as victim of government suppressive interference in religious matters. Before we go to details, let us once recapitulate the general picture of events in Ethiopia with direct reference to the subject of the above accusation. It is true that there were Muslim arousals since last year specifically in Addis Ababa and some other urban parts of Ethiopia. It is also true that the arousal led to what the Ethiopian government officials said a ‘sudden attempt at disrupting peace and stability’ in various illegal ways, which reached its peak while the Annual Conference of the African Union was underway in Addis Ababa, May 2012. The government said the police measure against what it called the vanguard leaders of the disturbance was ‘extremely careful and wise’ that it held and put them under custody procedurally and very peacefully. It is also a recent development that Ethiopian Muslims as a community went to polling stations on 30s September 2012. They voted for their representatives for the Muslim affairs body, the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). The entire Ethiopia was at peace during and after the election except some violent encounters in officially named towns of Amahra Region, South Wollo Zone. In the incident, four people died, one Policeman among them. The Ethiopian state television showed the post-conflict situation while the deputy president of the Region was paying an official visit exchanging ideas with a large mass of Muslim communities. In the mean time, the state media transmitted consecutive documentary programs generally directed at criticizing all fanatic tendencies of every religion but emphasizing at Islamic Extremism.’ The program showed incidents of Muslims gatherings at which some speakers were openly urging what they said a ‘half share of political and military offices in Ethiopia’. On the opposite side of the counter, there were series of demonstrations in most parts of Ethiopia by Muslim communities against what they called ‘Elements of Islamic Fanaticism’. Prime Minister Hailemariam Deslaegn also warned that such arousals are never to be tolerated by the government as they are what he calls ‘unconstitutional.’ Occasional media news informed their audience that a list of attempted havoc leaders with Islamist extremist tendencies were charged with the said alleged crime and stood before court. Among the crimes reported done by differing groups of the suspects include attempts at inciting public disorder, conspiring to declare Jihad and institute an Islamic State by destroying the Constitutional Order and others. As a citizen believing in impartiality, this is my knowledge about the development despite too general and brief. The issue is my personal concern also as it could affect my life someway against the existing unprecedented internal peace and stability of my country. I have also Muslim friends and even relatives whose security and the right to freedom of religion equally concern me. Let us see how the said American commission approached this sectional irregularity in Ethiopia and produced an accusation against the government as follows. 2.. A Commission of Hasty and Narrow Insights I am not surprised that the above accusation shared identical wordings and tones with those of the variant version of full time generals of the value war against Ethiopia in the name of civil society. I actually suspect that one fed the report to the other as a matter of the standard practice among them regarding darkening the name of Ethiopia as a common
tradition. One can be sure of this argument at carefully studying this accusation, which sounds also equally hasty, generalist, arrogant and hypocritical. Let us see the issue by raising critical questions: A. Is it ‘the Ethiopian Muslim community, 1/3rd of the total population’ that accused the government, according to the Commission’s statement below? …arresting peaceful Muslim protesters, noting that 29 of them had been charged last month with what the authorities said was “planning to commit terrorist acts… USCIRF has found that repressing religious communities in the name of countering extremism leads to more extremism, greater instability, and possibly violence,” she said. Look how the commission made a calculated political move to apparently urge a civil war in Ethiopia by depicting the problem as a national structural crises by bringing Ethiopian Muslims as a whole versus the Ethiopian government as an exclusive Christian Rule.’ In other words, the commission hastily rushes to varnish the problem with the disfigured color of an ‘approaching intercommunity war’ between Christians and Muslims as culturally antagonized categories of people. One should not necessarily be a conflict scholar to learn about the grim need by a responsible public organ to support its accusations by strong evidences. Nonetheless, the evidence of the commission to label the problem as an inter-community conflict was that ’29 peaceful Muslim protestors’ were arrested by police and charged. This argument is fundamentally invalid at the proportion of a presidential Commission for three major limitations: Firstly, nobody, even us citizens in Ethiopia, could certainly say whether the 29 Muslim Ethiopians were on peaceful protest or not. It is officially announced by police that these citizens were arrested and taken to court, and never secretly. As a public official of a civilized state by the level of the United States, the chairwoman of the commission had to give chances for the court to make and communicate its final decisions; Secondly, the chairwoman and her commission made a gross intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state by equating a day to day police task and chore with a total security crisis that involved the national defense forces. This is by all standards an irresponsible act of hypocritical intervention by acting as a self-appointed guardian of Ethiopian citizens, as more concerned than the constitution and their own government; Thirdly, any of the members including the chairwoman of the commission had no any legal or moral right to try to highjack formal and regular intergovernmental chains of international relations and replace them with unwarranted commission communiqué that could have had serious political consequences. Politically speaking, it is nothing but an arrogant partisanship and sympathy to a group of Ethiopian citizens against the constitutional order amounting to physically arming them for staging war. B. Why did the Commission make contradictory statements on the correct cause of the conflict as the following statements show? Statement One: Thousands of Muslims have staged weekly mosque sit-ins and street protests in Addis Ababa over the past year. The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia. Statement Two: The Commission backed the protesters’ complaints that the government had been trying since last year to impose the apolitical Al Ahbash sect on Ethiopian Muslims.
Statement Three: Ethiopian Muslims, who make up about a third of the population in the majority Christian country, accuse the government of interfering in the highest Muslim affairs body, the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). I am really confused with what the commission wanted to say. In the first statement, the conflict started as a mere group-police dispute over divergent moves in pronouncing a sectarian opposition to what they call ‘governments attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community’. If this is the case, what the commission argues is that Ethiopia should not have a police or citizens should not respect legal procedures in expressing their grievances or whatever they want. Otherwise, the commission is arguing that it will be considered as government intervention in matters of religion if Ethiopia’s police try to insure peaceful intra-religious dialogues as both groups are equally citizens. An Ethiopian Muslims may disagree with another Muslim over their own religious matters. At reaching emotional stages, let us say, one of them attempts to physically attack the other. When this occurs, according to the commission, should Ethiopia’s police stand simply as onlooker? Soon, the commission sneaks into searching the cause of the conflict from what it calls ‘government’s trials to impose the apolitical Al Alhabsh sect on Ethiopian Muslims’. By this, chairwoman and members of the Obama commission made the gravest mistake by thinking for granted that the Ethiopian government is in conflict with Muslim Ethiopians for doctrinaire divergences. The contemptuous belief at the background of the commission is without doubt that Ethiopian government leaders do not know the difference between religion and politics. I, as a citizen, perfectly know that some Muslim Ethiopians, confidently speaking, who are confined to Addis Ababa and outside, with elitist role and occasionally expressed interests of changing the constitution for the benefit of Islam delve into doctrinaire conflicts with their Muslims compatriots. At this point again, the commission makes a U-turn back to locate the spot of the origins of the conflict at government’s interference with the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). This is a disparate and naïve attempt to confuse doctrinaire issues with a constitutional task of providing an institutional protection by a modern government so far as a legal personality is dubbed by law no matter what ever purpose it has. This applies not only to religious institutions but also even deadly opposite political parties as it is a civic concern than doctrinaire or sectarian interest. On this point, I suspect that the chairman of the commission and her colleagues serious lack insights into how to deal with sectarian conflicts by a secular government in Ethiopia’s context. When a Muslim from the Al Alhabsh sect is elected for chairing the national Council, other sects, more often than not, complain over that. the common accusation is that this was so because the elected Muslim got government support. And, when the opposite happens, the rumor gets changed. This is, according to conflict scholars, a sectarian dispute. It comes to government attentions only when established secular rules of the game are threatened by either side, only as citizens. This is not again a new experience in politics among heterogeneous societies. The same was being said among fanatic orthodox Christians at the first years of the 1990s when Protestant Ethiopians got government protection against violent treatments by the former. This is absolutely different from what, for example, the Derg regime did against a Muslim sect in the 1970s. Ethiopian Muslims very well remember that more than 4,000 Muslims lost their lives and properties by Derg officials due to alleged membership to what they called a ‘Whabis’ sect based in Saudi Arabia. This was done covertly and wholly by the secret police in the worst brutal way. Derg was equally merciless to Protestant Ethiopians who were killed and tortured like any suspect of opposition politics. In similar vein, a certain Islamic sect reactively grows to assume extremist positions by advancing the idea of plotting for constitutional change. Conflict scholars argue that extremist reactions are, as a rule, sectarian, vibrant, value-based and elitist. Ethiopian Muslims within this category are no exception. Their first cause to come into conflict has always been, as any extremist, horizontal and doctrinaire. Their direction changes when the conflict leads to physical threat.
What does it mean when the commission accuses a constitutionally and practically secular government of multi-religious and multiethnic Ethiopia of picking one sect and imposing it over another but immediately saying Christian government leaders go into conflict with the Muslim community as a whole? The Obama commission and the charwoman, if they were truly concerned and civilized public officials, they should have worried rather about the fairness and relevance of a demand for constitutional change by a tiny religious sect do have for a religiously mosaic society of Ethiopia. C. What did the commission and its chairwoman mean by the following statement? Given Ethiopia’s strategic importance in the Horn of Africa … it is vital that the Ethiopian government end its religious freedom abuses and allow Muslims to practice peacefully their faith as they see fit. Otherwise the government’s current policies and practices will lead to greater destabilization of an already volatile region. Over the past six years Ethiopia has twice sent troops into Somalia to battle Islamist rebels, including al Shaabab militants and officials say some of the protesters are bankrolled by Islamist groups in the Middle East. I am not foolish to admit that these commission members do know the meaning of what they said was all out of ethical boundaries of modern diplomacy. I could also reasonably imagine that these Americans know that Ethiopia is never America on the issue of Muslim-Christian relations. We Ethiopians say Islam was introduced into Ethiopia in the 7th century as much as we say Christianity was introduced in the 4th century. We, the present generation of Ethiopia, never say like America’s white elites: Muslims are guests on our soil. Look at the religious composition of our government structures. Religious composition has been constructed not as a constitutional duty but as a reflection of our advanced values about modern citizenship! There are prominent and famous Muslim generals and commanders; we have a good number of Muslim Ethiopians within the Council of Ministers; we have a lot of Muslim representatives in the Parliament; look at the list of our Muslim judges, regional presidents and deputy presidents, the police and the defense forces and so on. You can also look at the religious profile of our universities and schools. They have separate restaurants and enjoy all constitutionally protected facilities. I strongly believe that the Ethiopian government and Ethiopians boldly elevated the agenda of ethno-national differences up to be the table of public agenda. At the first years, many of us were extremely confused about how to live up to these changed conditions. At present, we have realized that our country is, proudly speaking, as peaceful and stable as America because our former ethno-linguistic contradictions were adequately met. We have now appreciated that our current double digit growth has never been an American blessing; it is the result of our exercising the inner partialities, which were kept mute formerly. It is also my conviction that we never wait for the advice of a group of foreign bureaucrats from afar to courageously face our internal problems of any nature. I have the confidence when I tell the commission that our soldiers are in Somalia first and foremost for the security benefits of their country. This has never been done, unlike many innocent observers think, to please the United States or any foreign power. Before the commission spoke out its concern, I believe, at least, the chairwoman should have studied current psycho-cultural and economic changes among Ethiopians including the vast majority of our Muslim brothers and sisters living not only in Addis Ababa but throughout the entire rural Ethiopia. Having said this, let me ask the commission now some questions: out of among the 2.1 million American Muslims, how many Muslim Heads of State Departments, generals, regional governors, diplomats, etc, you have ever had in you history? In a country of religiously heterogeneous Ethiopia with a 39.9 % of Muslim population, only less than 10% of the total prisoners are Muslim.
Turn your eyes to your own statistics. By 2011 only, did not you hear that you have had 186 Muslim defendants out of the total 224 for charges of terrorism? Why did American courts penalize Shafal Mosed, Yahya Goba, Sahim Alwan, Mukhtar Al-Bakri, Yasein Taher, Elbaneh Jaber, Iyman Faris, amhed Omar Abu ali, Ali al-Tamimi and many thousands of others since 2003 for involvements in supporting terrorists? Is that me who should tell you that your country kept more than 8% of the total American Muslims in prison? While your governments did this, it was a usual legal undertaking or it is a legitimate war against terrorism; What about when Ethiopia’s police do so? It is a proven evidence for a break out of an intercommunity civil war. Here lies your arrogance and hypocrisy. I respectfully ask the Chairwoman and the members of her commission again to realize with sober mind that we Ethiopians have our own divergent interests as any society including those of America may have. However, we equally know that any solution for any conflict among us is subject to be addressed only and only by ourselves. We are not, unlike you usually think, people with a past or present history and tradition of worshiping a powerful state as the repository of any of our destinies as a society. We duly appreciate and gratefully view all American support for our development efforts. I am, as an ordinary citizen, optimistic that President Barack Obama does not let such bureaucrats speak ill of Ethiopia and its peoples on his country’s behalf. Conclusions It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge for us if the American commission on religious freedom abuses in Ethiopia did first everything possible before it considered us as moron, barbarian and too weak to solicit the guidance of other states. The commission rushed to make this blunder because of its failure to compare and contrast its hidden values at the background and what we Ethiopians think about our internal conflicts. The commission proves also a failure to teach us because its accusations have been based on a false dichotomy of interests and demands. Its investigative work is shallow and hasty to have inclined as part of the western illness to understand Muslims in power as enemies of Christians and vice versa. Finally, the commission catches no flesh out of its work but a horn like a hasty hyena that arrogantly believes the prey is always weak and choice less.