Sporadic outbursts of violence across Ethiopia show how state intervention in religion has alienated sections of Muslim youth and generated the kind of anti-regime sentiments the government had hoped to defuse

A knock on the door well after midnight. Mohammed Hassan Abdalla opens the door to find that a posse of policemen have come for his elder brother, Sheikh Abdulsalam Abdalla, a preacher in the local mosque in this rural settlement of Wabe, 300 km southwest of the Ethiopian capital, of Addis Ababa.

The sheikh is away, so the police arrest Mohammed and Abdul Qadir Turah, a disciple staying in the house, and take them to Sheikh Abdalla’s paternal home where they arrest his wife. As dawn breaks over the low hills surrounding Wabe, residents returning from the first morning prayer spot the police and their captives.

An agitated crowd gathered, an eyewitness recalled: “We chanted, ‘release our children, what was their crime’?” The crowd threw stones, the police opened fire, and two young men in the crowd, Habib Wabe and Jamal Adam, fell to the asphalt highway and bled to death from their bullet wounds.

By four in the afternoon, the confrontation between the crowd and the police had moved to the neighbouring town of Kofele; four more civilians died and 62 were arrested before order was restored.

Radicalism & alienation

Sheikh Abdalla is in hiding, as are three other senior clerics from Kofele: Mohammed Gamadi, Haji Qasim Mereso, and Tabesso Gamachu. Residents say little of their absence, except that their sheikhs have been persecuted for resisting the government’s attempt to alter the beliefs of Ethiopia’s approximately 30 million Muslims.

Government officials maintain that the men are wanted for calling for a violent jihad against the Ethiopian state.

The violence in Wabe and Kofele “was ignited by Sunni Muslim jihadist groups probably linked with al-Qaeda and world number one terrorist groups,” says Desta Bukulu, Kofele’s most senior administrator. “These conservative groups have been working for a long time in this area.”

The recent attack on a mall in Kenya by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants has East African governments worried that the battle between African Union forces and the hardline Islamist Somali militia, Al Shabab, could radicalise Muslim youth in neighbouring countries.

Yet, sporadic outbursts of violence across Ethiopia illustrate how state intervention in the realm of religion has alienated sections of the Muslim youth and, analysts say, produced the kind of anti-regime sentiments the government had hoped to defuse.

In the summer of 2011, a delegation of Lebanese clerics headed by Samir Qadi, vice-president of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (AICP), addressed a conference of nearly 1,300 participants in Harar, a historic centre of Islamic learning in eastern Ethiopia, on “religious extremism.” The AICP, commonly known as Al Ahbash or “The Ethiopians,” was established by Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al-Hariri, an Ethiopian imam who left Harar for Lebanon in the 1940s after he fell foul of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Al Ahbash promotes a controversial form of Islam that draws from both Shia and Sunni theology, urges its followers to steer clear of politics, and emphasises Sufi practices such as shrine worship. The sect is also devoted to combating what it claims are “extremist” sects like the Wahhabis, the Salafis, prominent across Ethiopia, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

After the meeting, Muslim clerics said, the government began to actively promote Al Ahbash ideology in mosques across the country by organising “training sessions” for imams and sheikhs. “The police, government officials, zone administrators, were all present at the training,” said an imam in attendance. The teacher, he said, was an Al Ahbash instructor who described the teachings of his sect.

In earlier meetings, officials told imams they were free to leave if they didn’t agree with the teachings. In subsequent sessions, policemen stopped the attendees from leaving, fearing poor attendance. Soon, Al Ahbash became a major talking point at mosques across the region. The government and officials have denied all knowledge of Al Ahbash. They agree that training sessions for clerics were organised, but insist that the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, not Al Ahbash, addressed the imams.

By most accounts, Sheikh Soudi Ahmed was not a violent man. He learnt the Koran in his teens and became an itinerant preacher in his twenties before a mysterious illness laid him low for seven years. When he recovered, his brother Qadir Ahmed said, Sheikh Soudi turned irritable and sometimes spoke to himself. “We thought he might have been possessed.” At the close of prayers one Friday last year, Sheikh Soudi stood up at his local mosque in Asasa, not far from Kofele, and addressed the gathering. “He said, ‘Al Habash is here, so we must organise a demonstration to ask the government’,” Mr. Ahmed said.

“He said: ‘why are the Muslims silent?’ and the people rose up with him,” said an eyewitness. “‘You have to start jihad because the government has brought a new religion called Al Ahbash’,” said Adam Hussein, head of Administration and Security at Asasa, “[Earlier] he said, the time for jihad has begun, you have to prepare for jihad.”

If what Sheikh Soudi said is open to debate, what followed wasn’t. The police arrested him outside the mosque, a crowd gathered and destroyed part of the police station and a post office. The police opened fire, killing at least one person, though Asasa residents say the toll was much higher. “One militia man was killed and 16 police officers were injured,” said Mr. Hussein.

Sheikh Soudi was charged under the controversial anti-terrorism proclamation of 2007, and sentenced to 11 years and three months in prison. Forty-three protesters were handed down sentences ranging from one to 11 years, Mr. Hussein said. Government officials said they had no evidence to prove that Sheikh Soudi and the four clerics of Kofele were terrorists.

“We do not have such information,” said Mr. Desta, the Kofele administrator, “But what they did was mobilisation to make a religious government in this country. Mobilisation against the Constitution is a crime.”

Policy backfires

Yet, arresting prominent and respected figures in the Muslim community is proving counterproductive. Government support for the allegedly “non-political” and “moderate” Al Ahbash sect had actually resulted in the politicisation of large sections of the Muslim youth, explained Dr. Terje Østebø, a Professor of religion at Florida University.

The move to promote Al Ahbash, according to Dr. Østebø, reveals a shift from a policy of “containment” in the 1990s, when the government restricted Muslim political expression, to “governmentalism”, where the regime tinkered with Islamic practices and beliefs in Ethiopia. The policy seems to have backfired.

His research reveals a complex history of resistance in Asasa that spans questions of religion, ethnicity, land, and a collective memory of battles ranging back to expansion of the Imperial Christian kingdom in the mid-19th century. “When you have Al Ahbash coming in and the government is heavy-handed and arrests people, all these underlying grievances and memories become activated,” he said.

Of late, Al Ahbash training sessions have stopped, suggesting that the government has acknowledged its missteps. The community is now focussed on the plight of sheikhs like Sheikh Soudi and Sheikh Abdallah and the many imprisoned young Muslims. Activists are also demanding that the madrasa at the Awoliya mosque in Addis Ababa, closed by the government in 2012, be reopened.

“When people raise the cases of those arrested, the officials don’t listen,” said an imam from nearby Shashamane, “They say, it is the law that imprisons them and the law that shall frees them.”

The government denies it is targeting Muslim leaders. “These are not Muslim leaders, they are leaders of their own extremist groups,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, “I think you should appreciate the government’s stand of fighting extremism and terrorism.”

Back in Asasa, local officials claim to have resolved all outstanding problems with their constituents. Mr. Hussein said the government had organised a public meeting on the violence around the arrest of Sheikh Soudi. “Now people know that the problem is not with the government,” he said.

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