Ethiopia: Jihadawi Harekat: Context, Objectives, and Internal Contradictions
“Authoritarian leaders do repeat their tactics, once as tragedy, second as farce,” a modified version of Marx’s assertion in his article The Eighteenth Brumaire.
On February 5, the regime in Ethiopia released a documentary film entitled “Jihadawi Harakat”, which was wrongly put as “Jihadic Wars”(haraka is movement in Arabic). The documentary is not very different from the long list of multiple propaganda wars the ruling party has been running for several years. In fact, this film is a bit unlucky to have come after so many of its predecessors which were already dissected and eviscerated by many an observer. I think if at all some of its predecessors were a tragedy in some ways, I think this specific documentary will surely be regarded by too many people as a farce.
Before I move on to the analysis of some aspects of the documentary, I would like to mention some points about this paper. This paper is not a full-fledged work of academics but a collection of some personal reflections on the documentary film, Jihadawi Harekat (hereafter JH). It is not, further, a work of media critique, but a simple set of political analysis about the context of the film and some thematic insights thereof. Finally, although a plenty of sober evidences can be brought up to effectively falsify the many claims of JH, I chose not to in this paper. I will instead just confine myself to showing some of (not all) the internal problems of the documentary vis-à-vis its objectives, without mentioning any external evidence.
Jihadawi Harekat is a second-rate purportedly horror documentary about the growing threat of Islamism in some parts of Africa. It supposedly shows the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, militancy, and terrorism in the wider African continent, with particular emphasis on East Africa. Obviously, the major spotlight is Ethiopia, which is claimed to have become a hotbed of such threats since recent times. The “Islamist crucible”, it is tried to show, has particularly targeted the historic inter-religious co-existence, the intra-religious unity and the development strides of the country.
The “Islamist crucible” is the major message wanted to be sent out. There is nothing new about this fear-mongering. It has been around for more than a year now, at least ever since the current civil rights movement erupted at Awoliya. This special documentary simply forms part of, but a conspicuous part thereof, the long-running alarm sounds going off from the side of the ruling party. And just like the many previous films of its kind (think of Akeldama as an example), it has many long-term and immediate political reasons behind it. It should just be seen like any propaganda work, something any government might be in need of, especially if it is authoritarian.
In a way, any government in the world is bent on propaganda for political survival or promotion. Since a government is not only supposedly the sole collective representative body of a people, but also so in specific ways (i.e., in the philosophies, policies, programmes etc peculiar to it), it should do propaganda in order to sell those peculiarities. Here comes the importance of agency-oriented analysis. Governments, as opposed to the rather abstract concept of the “state” (which is understood to represent the general public in more “inclusive” ways), do (or not do) stuffs and try to convince people of the worth of doing (or the lack thereof) those stuffs.
But democratic governments are in many ways limited in what they can do to create and shape public opinions (at least in many matters that affect people’s lives). There is, for example, a limit to the lie they tell people in public media. There are many reasons for this: 1) While trying to hoodwink their people, politicians in democratic states do know that, depending on the degree and significance of the things they lie about, they are doing this at the risk of losing power (if incumbents) or coming to power (if oppositions) in the coming elections. 2) They also know that it may not be quite easy to get away with one’s misdemeanor due to the high risk of being caught up somewhere in the multiple institutional frameworks of checks and balances. 3) There is, too, a plethora of independent sources of information in the country that would make it quite difficult for politicians to lie and be taken seriously by the wider public 4) Many of these people are also educated and can easily detect the logical or factual (or both) worth of what politicians say. Although it is not correct to assert a necessary relationship between democracy and high rates of education, it is not implausible to argue that most democracies do have higher rates of education, on average, than most non-democracies. All these factors tell us that beguiling people in democracies maybe possible in many occasions, but it is always conducted at the risk of self-beguiling.
The case with the current-day authoritarian governments is starkly different, generally speaking. Authoritarian leaders do need to lie a lot, and usually do so without limits. The significance of telling lies lies in the usual facts that 1) such leaders don’t have much actual credit they can tell about themselves and still can convince a wide array of people in the country 2) stable power, regardless of the type of the regime, never relies only on violence. As many people as possible need to be tricked into supporting these leaders since a government solely hinging on naked violence or the threat of it can’t be quite confident about the durability of its power beyond the not-so-distant future. This assertion is clearly against the one that accords to state violence a conclusive and indefinite guarantee to sustain state rule. The latter assertion, although once argued for by many respected academics and still believed by self-deceiving dictators, has been proven false by both recent political events and political science research.
But it not only the case that authoritarian leaders do need subliminal public deception more than their democratic counterparts. It is also my argument that they have fewer limitations to the amount and degree of the deceptive moves they get involved in. This is mainly because they don’t fear as many negative political consequences for their acts as democratic leaders do. They do not have to lose in elections (even if there is one), nor are they circumscribed by institutional constraints. Add to this the fact that such leaders usually reign over a higher percentage (on average) of illiterate people whom they (the leaders) think are easily manipulable and deceivable.
We can now come back to the EPRDF’s deceptive propaganda machine and insert it into general framework mentioned above. Faced with one of the most formidable—in terms of size, persistence, and public visibility—opposition to its policies, it has to engage itself in massive counter-propaganda. It has to try to shape public opinion in a context where it is standing on its last legs of public legitimacy. The last documentary is one among many others produced to this end. The Muslim rights movement has fearlessly targeted the government’s anti-secularist policies and some of its propaganda institutions, and hence it needs to show, however unconvincingly, that what it claims about the movement is right. No doubt this message is directed to multiple stakeholders in the country’s politics: Christians, Muslims, and Western governments (the last one won’t be dealt with here in this paper). The general idea behind all these messages to all these stakeholders is to divide opinion about the current Muslim activism and solicit further support–moral, political, and financial–for its anti-freedom projects.
Denigrating and soliciting support may be the goal of Jihadawi Harekat, but those factors do not explain the timing. Why would this government choose this time to send across strong messages of the sorts I mentioned above. One reason might have to do with the recently failed attempts at reconciling the two Ethiopian Orthodox Synods and then jointly choosing the new Patriarch. This failure—which is attributed by many people to the interference of the ruling party–has certainly increased the already simmering frustration among many Orthodox Christians whose political consequences might be a source of concern for the EPRDF. The latter might fear that some disgruntled Christians would join the ranks of Muslims in their demand for freedom from government intervention in religious matters. This can be thwarted, the government might think, by diverting the attention of the Christian population towards something that they should be more fearful of. Another reason might have to do with the sharp rise in the size and distribution of demonstrations by Muslims especially since recent times. Especially after the Al Jazeera interview of Prime Minister Hailemariam in which he claimed that the demonstrators are relatively few in number, more numerous people have taken to the streets and compounds of Mosques every Friday. These demonstrations have also spread more widely and forcefully in the regions despite severe crackdown by security forces. So, the government might want to prevent the inclusion of more and more Muslims in the folds of the movement.
The third factor has something to do with the coming elections. It goes without saying that the EPRDF’s record in electoral politics is utterly tragic. But I believe that it has all chances of being more so in the elections to come soon. This is because, I frankly assume, the EPRDF is, more than ever before, ruling over a population whose sympathy for their government has nearly come to a literal end. This will surely force the party to stage an even more unfair electoral process that could ensure its political longevity. But at the same time, it has to try its best to gain the votes of as many people as possible by diverting the attention of the people from their daily sorrows especially in economicl terms. The release of the documentary at this time, therefore, has some apparent electoral benefits, too. These factors, I believe, can help us explain the timing of the documentary.
Let me say more on the specific objectives of the government in broadcasting this documentary now. As the explanations for the timing indicate, the major objectives are forestalling inter-religious and intra-religious alliance/unity, and ensuring “favorable” (to the party in power) electoral climate. The first deals with minimizing the possibility of the forging of a Muslim-Christian (and in a way, Christian-Christian) alliance on the question of religious freedom. With the release of JH, the ruling party might think that the minimization of such a possibility has been achieved in two ways: by demonizing the Muslims’ movement as a “terrorist” or “terrorist-led” one, it is supposed to create abject fear, nevermind a spirit of cooperation, among ordinary Christians. Further, it is also a strong message to any Christians in the country that the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism is currently working in tandem with other secular “terrorist” organizations like the G7. Hence, the government warns, it is important to distance oneself not only from the Muslim activists, but also from all those secular groups that support the activism. This message is especially important when seen in line with two timely facts: the major vocal detractors of what is seen as the government sabotage of Christian-Christian unity are to be found in the diaspora and have been not only oppositional in their general political outlook towards the government but also largely supportive of the Muslim cause. So, the government is in a dire necessity to divorce the Christians inside the country not only from their fellow Muslim citizens but also from their co-religionists in the diaspora at least for some time to come.
Forestalling intra-religious unity is no doubt of foremost importance for the government at this point in time. As the opposition to the government spreads in the regions, there is a possibility that more and more Muslims might be joining the movement or at least sympathizing with it. Thus, the government has to make very clear distinctions between the “Jihadist minority” and the “peaceful majority” in the wider Muslim population. Muslims are, in this way, made to receive the message that it is neither religiously correct, nor politically wise to support the Muslim opposition. It is not the former since the “good” Muslims don’t support Jihadism. It is not the latter because “wise” Muslims care for their lives.
Moreover, the ruling party is also campaigning for elections, so to speak, by releasing this documentary. “I’m protecting”, the EPRDF seems to be telling the dissatisfied electorate (especially the Christians this time around), “the unity, development, and peace of the country from being taken hostage by a bunch of bearded, dangerous Islamic terrorists”. A final goal that has to do with elections is to preclude the potential capitalization, on the part of the Ethiopian opposition parties operating inside the country, on the volatile religious situation in Ethiopia. The opposition parties, it is expected, will be afraid of vocally endorsing the Muslim demands and sympathizing with their sufferings in their (the parties’) attempt at buying votes since the whole Muslim right movement has now been demonized as “Islamist” in goal and terrorist in methodology. As a result, in the eyes of the government, the Muslim activism will be left with no one to insert it into mainstream politics as a legitimate struggle for freedom or make of it a good opportunity for canvassing Muslim votes.
The strategies the documentary employed to achieve these objectives are simple: relate the tale of two apparently separate movements in Ethiopia and make them appear to be closely related. And, by so doing, insert them into global jihad. The first tale is about a person and then a group that both have strong connections with al Shabab, and hence with al Qa’eeda. It is this group that is portrayed as militant and is accused of attempting to commit terrorism in the country. The second tale pertains to the committee members and the rights movement they led/represented. This movement is said to have been orchestrated by two people who have had intellectual connections with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. These people, it is stated, later on participated in a clandestine group that finally grabbed the Awoliya occasion as an opportunity to realize its dream of establishing an Islamic state.
There are obviously many problems with the way these strategies were put in practice in the documentary. The first and the most obvious one is the question of credibility of the information obtained from the interviews. This question is of utmost importance not just by itself but also for the sake of appreciating the successive points I will make in this paper. But it can be well-illustrated only by using a source outside the documentary. I will, therefore, use, just for this case, few of such sources just to clarify my points.
Both prior and after the broadcast of the JH, proofs of immense torture committed on the detained Muslim rights leaders were leaked. The leaked sources stressed that the torture was used to obtain “evidence”. A file released by Dimsachin Yisema, a facebook group apparently playing a phenomenal leadership role and wide credibility among the Muslim population, two days ago narrated a gruesome and utterly inhumane interrogation processes the committee members underwent in the Maekelawi prison. The file has been duly confirmed as being true and accurate by some other sources, some of them independent. The prominent lawyer of the committee members, Temam Ababulgu, also told different media outlets that the interrogation files were obtained by force. I don’t think, in addition, that we can run short of other evidences to illustrate the atrocious treatment political prisoners and journalist in Ethiopian jails pass through just so they would confess their alleged crimes. We don’t have any good reason to think that a different course of action would be taken with regards to the Muslim prisoners. Hence, I don’t believe any of the “evidences” the government pulled in JH to prove its accusations would be taken seriously by any self-respecting and well-informed observer.
Secondly, and more interestingly, despite the awful prison tortures, the people who led/represented the Muslim right movement apparently don’t appear in the film confessing any of the “evil” deeds or intentions ascribed to them. Not a single one of the three committee members who were interviewed speaks, in a conclusive way, about any alleged intentions on their part of establishing an Islamic state or inciting acts of terrorism. In the trailer released few days before the broadcast of the documentary, the ex-chairman of the committee did appear to have admitted that he/the committee had an intention to establish an Islamic state. But his speech in the actual film made it clear that he is actually referring to the aims of Muslim Brothers, which he never claims to be a member or a supporter of. Another member, Kamil Shemsu, talks of establishing an Islamic state after a couple of decades but his speech is prematurely interrupted. It is not hence clear if he is talking about his intentions or anybody else’s or as to what country he is referring to. The same applies to Yasin Nuru’s incomplete speech.
Another attempt at proving the accusations was connecting the movement with the Muslim Botherhood and specifically with the teachings of Dr Jassim who is claimed to have been a member of the latter organization and whose teachings allegedly aim at bringing about revolutions in the Arab world. But even here, the author of the film failed to demonstrate the charge that the committee members’ actual intention was to bring about the Islamist dreams of some (they differ a lot, by the way) Brotherhood organizations in Ethiopia. While one of the committee members, Kamil, appears claiming that what he learned from Dr Jassim has been used as an input for “what came afterwards”, he also importantly affirms a little latter that he and his friends just sought to enhance Muslim participation in various sectors of life—something quite legal and benign if held as a goal by any citizen. According to the same person, this is also the stated goal of the Monday group, a group whose intentions were presented with suspicious tones in JH. It is really ironic to see that a documentary with a clear objective to denigrate and worked in a safely authoritarian environment ends up severely defeating in its content its very raison d’être.
True, the film later on alleges that the movement took dangerous turns. (Well, this is very much against the widely acclaimed fact about the peacefulness of the demonstrations so far, but I won’t dwell on outside counter-evidences, as I promised). But it is not made clear if those incidents were directed /orchestrated by the committee. To the contrary, some of the speech anecdotes taken from the Muslim representatives before their detention and transmitted in the film clearly indicate that they were unequivocally advocating legal and peaceful means of demanding their rights.
The third, and the most ridiculous, problem was the lack of serious connection between the so-called Shabab-trained group and the Muslim civil right movement. In my view, a sort of connection should have been established between the two in order to easily and justifiably accuse the committee members of terrorism. This is because, as the film indicates, the ruling party apparently couldn’t get all the satisfactory “proof” it wanted from the members—however severe the torture on them to say contrary to their intentions and actions— to establish the existence of an intention or act of terrorism. It got it only from the other group with alleged links to al Shabab. Although it is thus of crucial importance to establish close connection between the two groups, the film failed miserably in doing so. The only time it tried to make connections was when it is claimed that a sadaqa programme in one of the regions was (helped) organized by four members of the “militant” group. But no evidence whatsoever was presented to support this claim (not a single person was interviewed, for instance). The other occasion the Muslim rights movement was mentioned in connection to the “Shabab-informed” group was when the alleged leader of the latter claimed to have considered the Muslim demonstrations as a ripe opportunity for waging jihad. But again it is not at all clear why the committee members or the rights movement should be implicated in this. So, the only method employed by the film-makers in order to help people associate the two otherwise disparate stories is the frequent juxtaposition of their narration and of the pictures of their alleged members. The producers of the film thought that establishing associations in this case can better be dealt with by the art of film direction rather than the science of research findings.
Fourth, that the narrative was terribly biased goes without saying. Just one example suffices: In order to debunk the claim by the Muslim civil right activists that Muslims have currently been severely oppressed, the film showed some three people arguing to the contrary. But the immediate question that comes to mind is: why is the view of three persons more accurate than that of the hundreds of thousands of people who have demonstrated every Friday for the last 12 months (some of the biggest demonstrations were actually transmitted in the film itself)?
Fifth, the cause of the Muslim rights movement has also been largely vindicated. This is mainly represented by the admission of the Mejlis problem. Apart from the acknowledgment of the Mejlis issue as a truly popular one, JH also presented some of the Muslim right leaders speaking in very clear terms about their justifications behind the aspiration for the Mejlis reform. All these justifications and the intended outcomes mentioned were framed in purely religious and social, not political, terms They also explained that many people were upset by the multi-faceted problems of the same institution. The ex-chair of the institution himself appeared in the documentary admitting the incapacity of the organization he formerly headed.
At this juncture, one would certainly wonder what benefits could a government get from a documentary that not only absolved the “suspected terrorists” of any meaningful crime, but also inadvertently vindicated their cause? Doesn’t cheating need a higher form of sophistication that this?
Dictatorial regimes try hard to cheat their people, and there is nothing new about this assertion. But what many people might not have observed is that these regimes actually survive by cheating that they are not cheating. This layered cheating is at the core of the “soft” power of authoritarianism. The problem is when this gets cleared up to the large section of the population. When people start to master the nature and patterns of regime deception, the soft power ceases to be power at all. If the government continues with its propaganda after this—and it surely does—,then the latter will have the only function of self-gratification. If a dictatorial government can’t cheat its people, it will keep cheating itself.