The Ethiopian state, political exorcism, possessed population

2 Jun

By Abadir M. Ibrahim*

As a group, Ethiopian Muslims had been formally marginalized from the Ethiopian mainstream and discriminated against until the demise of the Imperial regime. Although Islam as a religion and Muslims as a group are still at the margins of the political and cultural mainstream, the contents of Ethiopia’s inter-Muslim politics have from time to time spilled into the political mainstream.

Abadir M. Ibrahim

The recent “Al-Ahbash controversy” has in fact spilled the contents of this internal politics right into the center of the mainstream. The current issue that is at the center of the mainstream is obviously causing a lot of confusion to everyone.

It is important to begin with a cautionary note: your average Muslim is not really too different from your average Ethiopian in regards to most things including the recent controversy. He/She is worried about the price of goods and the quality of schools, loves Injera, sets enough time for coffee and gossiping, and finds Ethiopian TV obnoxious. Contrary to pejorative stereotype, he/she does not support the national soccer team of Egypt either. More important, your average Ethiopian Muslim is also as confused as everyone else about who is who (and who is doing what) regarding this topic.

The typical Ethiopian Muslim does not consciously belong to one or another sect or branch of Islam. In fact, it is very unlikely that the average Muslim is aware of the cleavages within the Muslim faith in any significant detail. Most Ethiopian Muslims are influenced by the teachings of different sects, groups and movements to the point that not only is the Muslim community a theological melting pot, but even the individual Muslim’s views are but a heterogeneous scoop from different beliefs. It is for this reason that the political and/or religious groupings that currently surfaced are as confusing to Ethiopian Muslims as much as they are to other Ethiopians.

At the risk of over-generalization, I will describe the different groups and movements that exist in Ethiopia. It will not be possible to clarify the ideological roots of the different groups as all of them have a very rich scholastic background that cannot be caught in such a brief comment. I will, therefore, discuss only those features that may be relevant to Ethiopian politics in the context of the Al-Ahbash controversy.

The Sufi

Sufism is one of the oldest Islamic movements and one that is responsible for the spread of Islam in the world and especially in Ethiopia and in Africa. Since its introduction, Sufism has inhabited and still inhabits the core of Muslim faith of the majority of Ethiopians. The brand of Sufism widely practiced, known as Qadiri Sufism (named after its founder Abdul Qader Gilani), was developed in the Middle Ages and is best suited to the life style that existed in Ethiopia when it was initially introduced. Practiced all over the world, one of the strengths that made this movement attractive to people from Tibet and China to Ethiopia and Somalia was that it adopted to different tastes of different cultures and languages.

Disenchanted by the role of religion in political repression in the early Muslim Kingdoms, the Sufi movement took religion out of the palace and into the heart of the believer. Ever since, Sufi scholarship was to a large extent concerned with love of the divine and it has been adopted by or was able to join hands with similar movements in other religions from East to West (Once such contemporary and famous example is Osho, who could be considered a non-Muslim Sufi).

Although an apolitical and a peaceful heritage are inherent in Sufism, one has to remember the fact that Sufism has been the belief system of the majority of Muslims for the most part of Muslim and Ethiopian history. This means that Sufism could not have been immune from the human phenomenon of conflict and war. Thus, although peaceful, it has not remained a pacifist movement especially in the face of violence and repression. Before Wahhabism, the Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami or other contemporary or modern strands of “political Islam” were created; Sufi Muslims were mobilized for war including those that were fought against colonialism. Examples close to home are Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi of Harar, the Mahdi of Sudan, and the followers of the ‘Mad Mullah’ (Mohammed Abdullah Hassan) in Ogaden and North Somalia.

Sufism, in Ethiopia and elsewhere, is facing serious demographic challenges. Not having undertaken its own modernist Islamic reformation in response to colonialism, modernization, and globalization, the Qadiriyya movement resonates more with Ethiopian Muslims in the countryside than with the educated, globalized, or urban. Urban Ethiopian Muslims are no doubt greatly influenced by their Sufi heritage as recipients of different beliefs passed on at the pulpit or at home. But Sufism, as practiced in Ethiopia for hundreds of years, is not too attractive to them because it does not grapple with the uniquely modern issues and challenges that created the modern Islamic movements.

This makes Muslims who are interested in religion more than the ‘average Muslim’ very likely to follow one or another modern reformulation of Islam than Qadiri Sufism. Surprisingly, the only exception to this trend is the existence of a small educated Muslim elite that follows the Rumi strand of Sufism, a movement that is not common in this part of the world. Outside of this small group of Rumi followers, the modernist Islamic movements prove to be more attractive and viable. On top of dealing with modern issues, they are presented in simplified form, and are highly accessible through abundant number of publications (and recently the internet). Additionally, almost all the non-Sufi movements offer religious scholars (Imams, Qadis, Ustads) access to funds, scholarships etc … things that traditional Sufism does not offer. These facts are bound to ensure that the average Muslim is going to be exposed more and more to non-Sufi strands as time passes.

The Wahhabi/Salafi

The Wahhabi movement (now self-identifying as Salafi) began by a collaboration between a reformist scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Amir Mohamed Bin-Saud, a member of the family that established the modern Empire of Saudi Arabia. The tone of the relationship the Wahhabi/Salafi movement with other groups/movements and especially the Sufis was set in stone at that time. The Wahhabi ideology defined Islam in a certain way that considered all other formulations of Islam, including Sufism and Shiism as one or another form of disbelief, blasphemy, or idolatry.

Coupled with the temporal interests of the Saud family that wanted to free itself from Ottoman rule, it waged an actual (rather than just theological war) against all other alternative political and belief systems. Although the Wahhabi/Salafi movement is now more complex with significant subgroups, the movement generally remains exclusionist and invariably intolerant towards other Muslim groups and non-Muslims alike.

A little over a year ago, one recalls the demolition of Sufi shrines in Kismayo-Somalia by the Salafi/Wahhabi funded Al-Shabab. Such activities that are inspired by a simple puritanical view of reality and an abiding dedication to impose it on others are reminiscent of Abdul-Wahhab’s crusade in the 18th century.

In the late 1990’s the Ethiopian state as a political construct was targeted by one Salafi/Wahhabi group (Al-Itihad) which was consummated by successful terrorist attacks that rocked major urban areas in Ethiopia. Since Ethiopia took the liberty of invading a Muslim populated country of Somalia and aborted the almost successful Wahhabi entrenchment there, Ethiopia as a social and political construct has taken centrality as an enemy of the movement. Entry of the Ethiopian state into the ideological fray against the Salafi/Wahhabi in Ethiopia will only consolidate the ideological enmity of the Ethiopian state (not just the government) and the movement.

Muslim Brotherhood

While the Wahhabi/Salafi movement claimed to reform the religion to protect it from what it considered to be apostasy or even idolatry, the Brotherhood came about in early 20th century Egypt as a religiously oriented movement against colonialism and imperialism. The brotherhood began as a violent insurgency type movement aimed at ending colonialism and is blamed for the assassination of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (or at least a faction of it is blamed for the assassination). Although there is nothing in the group’s ideology that can prevent it from turning to violence, it has generally been pursuing peaceful and democratic political means for over three decades.

If we take Yusuf al-Qaradawi (president of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, president of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and de facto spiritual leader of the Brotherhood) as a representative voice of the brotherhood, the organization should be tolerant not only to different Muslim sects including Shi’ism but also to Christianity. Although the Brotherhood’s positions have from time to time come under criticism for being too conservative the Brotherhood has developed a detailed political-theological ideology and it is a group that could potentially evolve into a liberal Islamic movement. As it stands today, it is very difficult to decide how the Brotherhood will evolve given the political upheaval in North Africa.

Compared to most other groups, the Brotherhood is a group with a brightest future. It certainly has many conscious followers in Ethiopia and is likely to have influenced many in indirect ways. The fact that it is nondenominational gives it the capacity to mobilize Muslims across theological lines (i.e. can have members from all the movements described here) and has proven its political, spiritual, and organizational clout following its success in North Africa. Currently, however, it does not have much grounding in Ethiopia. Unlike the Salafi/Wahabi, there is no oil money behind this movement, therefore, if or when it does find expression in Ethiopia it will be a grassroots movement funded by Ethiopian Muslims. Given its success in North Africa, it is a waiting game to see how it evolves as an organization in power in North Africa and how and when it will enter the Ethiopian melting pot in any significant way.

Jamaat Tablighi

The Tablighi movement is probably more prominent and widespread in Ethiopia than both the Salafi/Wahhabi and the Muslim Brotherhood combined. However, the Tabligh movement could also overlap with all three Islamic movements, therefore, making it difficult to judge what its relation to the other movements is. The Tablighi movement was a reformist movement that began in the early twentieth century India. Unlike the Brotherhood and the Salafi/Wahhabi groups, however, the movement did not come with any distinct political or theological thought.

What distinguishes this group is its style of proselytizing (Da‘wah) rather than the content of its teachings. This has led the naming of this group in Ethiopia as Da‘wah (or sometimes ‘Khuruj’ – the name given to proselytizing tour) by those not familiar with the name of the group. It focuses on teaching and proselytizing Islam by all according to their knowledge. The movement in Ethiopia provides scores of youth the opportunity to travel all over the country and outside and interact with Muslims, teaching and preaching in very peaceful ways. Because of its peacefulness, avoidance of politics, and a general attitude of not proselytizing outside its prescribed methods (that do not involve mass media) the movement remains mainly invisible except for those who take part in it. Additionally, since its preaching style is applicable to all the movements it allows its followers to belong to another group while still active in the Tabligh movement.

The Ahbash

The Grand Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa,

The Ahbash have been wrongly described as a Sufi order whose existence in Ethiopia predates that of the Wahhabi/Salafi. The movement neither falls into any specific traditional Sufi mold, nor does it have any significant following in Ethiopia. Additionally, the introduction of the Salafi/Wahhabi movement in Ethiopia predates that of the Ahbash at least by a couple of decades.

The Ahbash movement was started by Lebanese scholars in the early twentieth century. Its theological roots are based in the works of classic schools and borrows not only from Sufi mysticism but from other Islamic movements including Shia Islam. Its theological framework is a rich mix of classical Islamic works and applied to the modern context of a multi-lingual and multi-religious Lebanon. Theological issues aside, there are distinct traits that make this movement unique. One such unique characteristic is that it defined or consumed by its reactionary attacks against Salafism/Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, other conservative reformist movements, and at times against Sufi orders.

Despite their mutual enmity with the Salafi and the Brotherhood, the Ahbash stand in contrast to the other ‘modern’ groups with regards to their views on the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims. Their ideology of tolerance and coexistence is also reflected in its participation in Lebanese politics where its politicians do not support the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon even if there was a possibility to do so. In short, they can be said to support the separation of state and religion. However, as seen in Ethiopia and elsewhere, their support of state-religion separation also ends where their ideological enemies are involved.

Despite the fact that ‘moderation of attitudes’ and ‘communication in soft words’ are key concepts in their ideology, the Ahbash’s relation with the Salafi/Wahhabi and the Brotherhood is nothing but. In response to groups that denounce other Muslims as apostate, the Ahbash respond with more vigor and proactivity. Their response is also no better or softer as they too re-accuse, especially the Salafi, of being apostates. Unlike its adversaries, the Ahbash movement is not as widespread although it has established numerous branches on all four corners of the world.

The only historical connection that this movement has with Ethiopia is the fact that an Ethiopian scholar, Shaykh Abdullah al-Harari, who traveled to Lebanon to join the group later succeeded in becoming its spiritual leader. His role and influence was significant enough, however, that the group has since came to be known as “Al Ahbash” or “the Ethiopians” despite the group’s Middle Eastern following. Before the current debacle subsequent to the attempted introduction of Ahbash doctrine and organization into Ethiopia, there were no more than a fifty to a hundred followers of this movement in Ethiopia. That number has probably risen since the introduction of the Ahbash movement on a massive scale with the support of the government.

The role of the state in the Muslim melting pot

The role of the Ethiopian government in relation of the Muslim population has always been odd. On the one hand, the beginning of transition to democracy was extraordinarily emancipating to Muslim self-expression and was also the beginning of a process that brought Muslims closer to the mainstream. On the other hand, the state had always tried to control the organized expression of Muslim belief especially through its control over the top leadership of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (popularly the “Majlis”). Lately however, it looks as though the state has come to be involved in the business of blasphemy, proselytism, and political-exorcism.

The Majlis is an ideal candidate for state control. Although legally a mere member based association, the Majlis is in fact intended to assume the role of a Muslim Synodos-equivalent if not an administrative body. The Majlis controls the bigger mosques or religious establishments in the country and assigns their employees. And from the look of things, it may be destined to control all religious institutions in the country. Probably the biggest role that the Majlis plays, and its most lucrative business, is its management of pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

Given the current (and esp. future) role of the Majlis, it is understandable that the state aspires for a tighter noose over it. However, this time the state went even farther and involved itself in what should be the appropriate doctrine of the Majlis, the institutions the Majlis controls, and by implication, the Muslim population. While doing so, the state managed its involvement so clumsily that evidence of high ranking officials bragging about how they brought in and supported the Ahbash is abound in social media. Sure enough, the justification of state involvement might be “exorcism” of the political type. But the danger of exorcism of any type is that it is based on a mistaken analysis of the symptoms and certainly a wrong if not harmful kind of treatment.

The desired effect of the government’s involvement is clear and will probably be achieved. The Majlis will, in due time, be able to establish control over most if not all Mosques and Islamic schools. Since the Majlis is also portrayed as the representative of Ethiopian Muslims, it will play its role in making desired public statements. What the government’s actions entail for the constitutional guarantee of the separation of mosque and state is a serious question, though; it is mostly irrelevant in practice. What is interesting is that when the government intervened, it did so in a way that is not only clumsy but also counter intuitive. This is clearly reflected in what the other effects that the government did not count on are.

Probably the clearest effect of the government’s action is that it has destroyed the credibility of the Ahbash as a new and upcoming movement in Ethiopia. Although the movement would have had positive contributions to the Melting pot of Ethiopian Islam, the mere fact that it is being imposed by the state will create a good amount of suspicion and resentment against it in Muslim public opinion. In other words, the potential benefits of the spread of Ahbash teaching have now been forgone.

The whole drama between the government, the Majlis, and its opponents will create a consciousness in the average Muslim about the issue of sectarianism. Let alone inter-Sunni divisions, most Ethiopians were not aware of their Sunni identity (in contrast with Shia) until the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent violent confrontation between Sunni and Shia militias filled international media outlets. Whereas most Muslims today are not being affected by the drama in any direct way, many will now be forced to think about which group he/she belongs to or even takes sides with. Other than the general decline in social capital, one cannot predict with certainty what the long term effect of this fiasco on the Muslim community is going to be.

Another effect of the Ahbash debacle is that it will hurt the government’s likability in the Muslim population. Not only is the fiasco certain to cause great insult to Ethiopian Muslims, but it will now be increasingly difficult for the government to count on Muslims (as Muslims) as its political constituency. It will be interesting to see how the government’s Ahbash-ization will unfold. Fights in Mosques over who should take over; many a Shek, Qadi, Imam fired from their positions and/or arrested; induced proselytization into the Ahbash faith; accusation of terrorism or the lesser crime of Salafism/Wahabism against not only members the such groups but against all who do not fall in line. The sky is the limit when it comes to imagining what it will transpire under the Ahbash-ization project.

Most of these things will, in the end, give the Majlis and the state control over what is said in Mosques and who says them. Nevertheless, to the delight of the Salafis/Wahhabis, now more than ever, the attitude of Muslims towards the state/government and the Ahbash will be one of suspicion and anger. From this point on, anything the government does in respect to the Muslim population will only fuel this attitude. The prohibition of Islamic banking is just another example of unnecessary fuel to the fire. Thus, unless ‘likability’ is now considered unimportant, it is difficult to conceive of the rationale behind how the government has handled the situation. The camel should consider if the barking dogs are just making noise, or whether they are warning of the dangers lying ahead, pleading with it to change course.

*The writer is a JSD candidate at St. Thomas University School of Law LLM/JSD program in Intercultural Human Rights, LLM in Intercultural Human Rights summa cum laude (St. Thomas University), LLM in International Law (Addis Ababa University); LLB (Addis Ababa University). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at

(Source: The Reporter, 19 May 2012 State, political exorcism, possessed population)

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