Muslims have always enjoyed religious freedom like other believers - until
recently. Now they are fighting to reclaim their rights.
Islam has a long history in Ethiopia, after Christianity. Ethiopia was the
first country that sheltered the first Muslims who called it home, escaping
persecution from Arabia, their homeland. Their leader, the Prophet Muhammad,
advised them to leave Mecca, and escape to Ethiopia, then Axum kingdom.
The Christian king, who welcomed them despite local opposition, granted the
visitors refugee status and permitted them to practice their religion
peacefully without forcing anyone to convert. The Islamic version of this
history concludes that the king himself became a convert eventually, but the
facts surrounding that claim remain debatable. However, the mosque that was
built back then is still in existence in northern Ethiopia, in Tigray
region; perhaps reconstructed, but kept in good condition.
The event above, which took place in 615 C.E., is the first Hijira, or
Muslim migration. Nevertheless, the Prophet's migration from Mecca to Medina
in 622 C.E. is considered as the official first Hijira in the Islamic
calendar. Since that event Islam has had a solid presence in Ethiopia. For
the most part, both Muslim and Christian Ethiopians have enjoyed a peaceful
coexistence, though there have been clashes due to the invisible hands of
foreign powers such as the Ottomans that wanted to invade Ethiopia by proxy,
encouraging lowlanders, predominantly Muslims, to fight against highlanders,
largely Orthodox Christians and the decision makers in state affairs until
1974 when religion and state were formally divorced.
Though it was not perfect, Muslims did enjoy significant religious rights as
citizens during the imperial government of Emperor Haile Selassie. They were
free to do almost anything like every subject of the King as long as they
backed off from questioning political power. And most were actively involved
in business; thus, rarely posing a threat to the ruling class.
During the military dictatorship, Muslims enjoyed more or less the same
religious rights as their Christian brothers and sisters. Like everybody
else, they were also victims of the dictatorship.
Until very recently, Muslims had a positive relationship with the current
administration. To be fair, the current system did open up a lot of space
for religious freedom. The primary criticism directed at the system has
never been religious disenfranchisement, but ethnic and economic; including
the erosion of individual freedom. The religious freedom enshrined in the
current constitution has allowed all kinds of religions to mushroom in
Ethiopia. And religious groups such as the Muslims who felt marginalized in
the past have welcomed this.
So what happened lately? Why is the government in conflict with the Muslim
population? Why do Muslims, as a religious group, now vehemently oppose the
Well, the simplified answer is this: It took away their religious rights.
And they are fighting it to claim their rights back. Impressively, they have
been the most consistent in their non-violent struggle against the
government, even as they face violence.
With freedom, both good and bad choices, depending on who judges, are
available. What that means is that religious freedom, for example, can open
the door for religious fundamentalism, or new religious sects can be
introduced. In Ethiopia's case, since the ratification of the new
constitution, there has been a great number of religious sects, both Islamic
and Christian, that entered Ethiopia from outside. And one of them is
Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect of Islam, mainly practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Following Wahhabism's introduction, a lot has changed significantly,
especially in the rural part of Ethiopia, where this sect was spread fast,
through religious missionaries who were directly funded by Saudi Arabia.
Followers of Wahhabism strictly oppose the mainstream Muslims; even they
consider them as less pure. Their goal is to radicalize the moderate Muslims
and advocate less contact with Christians, or what they consider Infidels.
How do I know this? I was in the middle of it. I grew up in a small town
where Muslims were divided into Wahhabis and non-Wahhabis, both going to
How does the government fit into this picture? And what is the source of the
present conflict? There are so many rumors, politically motivated
commentaries, and theories out there regarding this issue. It is a tricky
subject. For groups who oppose the government: If there is any problem among
Muslims, it must be purposely created by the government to divide and rule
society; the government is using the Wahhabism issue as an excuse to silence
dissent. Well, there may be some truth in that argument, but it is not
entirely true, at least based on my personal experience.
The government surely continues to tackle the rise of Wahhabism into the
mainstream. What caused trouble is the way it handled the matter. According
to its critics, it went beyond its power to interfere in the national and
local Islamic affairs: Installing unelected leaders that it favors and
introducing an Islamic school of teaching from outside, not approved by the
faithful. These are two of the many reasons that have forced Ethiopian
Muslims to go out in the streets protesting. Their only demand is for the
government to respect their rights, leave them alone, and self-determine
their fate. And deal with the extremists in a sensible manner. They also
strongly resist the government's categorization of those that genuinely
criticize it as extremists or terrorists.
What could have been solved peacefully, unfortunately, thanks to the
arrogance of those in leadership, it has now the problem escalated to a
point of no return. Federal police have beaten and killed protestors in the
last few days. And more people are joining the protest.
Add the volatile national politics into this mix. No surprise, the
government is on fire.
However, I have huge respect for Ethiopian Muslims. So far, they have been
struggling for their rights peacefully as you can see it in this video. This
is a sign that indeed there is hope for non-violent struggle in Ethiopia. It
is up to the government now to end this conflict gracefully. Otherwise,
escalating the conflict will only cost it.