ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – On the outskirts of Addis Ababa, a muezzin leads a solemn sermon at a mosque before thousands of worshippers stamp their feet to protest against what they say is the Ethiopian government’s interference in religious affairs.
Protests are uncommon in tightly-controlled Ethiopia, and the unrest has caused concern in the predominantly Christian nation that takes pride in centuries of coexistence.
The government fears hard-line Islam is taking root in the Horn of Africa country, which has long been seen by the West as a bulwark against militant Islam in neighbouring Somalia.
“We are observing tell-tale signs of extremism. We should nip this scourge in the bud,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament last month.
The protesters accuse Meles’ government of interfering by seeking to impose the beliefs of a little-known sect as doctrine. They say the government is promoting the Al Ahbash, an Islamic movement that opposes ultra-conservative ideology and rejects violence.
The protesters broadly say they adhere to moderate Sufi-inspired values and not the ultra-conservative Salafist interpretation of Islam.
“Call me a terrorist but I will defend my religion,” said the muezzin in his sermon, denouncing the Al Ahbash movement.
Since the beginning of the year, demonstrations have taken place on an almost weekly basis in mosques throughout the capital, and more are expected. The London-based Control Risks group said this week Ethiopia’s security forces might come down hard on any further protests, based on the government’s past responses to unrest.
Meles has dismissed claims his government is imposing the sect as an official doctrine. He said Islamic hardliners are “peddling ideologies of intolerance” throughout the country, but that it was difficult to prosecute them as they are preaching within their rights inside mosques.
Any attempt to exploit sectarian divides has the potential to destabilize Africa’s second most populous country, which is 60 percent Christian and 30 percent Muslim.
Also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, Al Ahbash was founded in the early 1980s by Sheikh Abdullah al Harrari, an Ethiopian cleric who was forced to leave his country for Lebanon in 1950.
According to Abubeker Ahmed, an Ethiopian Muslim activist and head of an independent Islamic arbitration committee, the protesters are lamenting what they see as efforts to impose the sect, rather than the sect itself.
He says the appointed leadership of Ethiopia’s Islamic Affairs Supreme Council was not representative of the country’s Muslim community.
“It (Al Ahbash) has the right to exist in Ethiopia, but it is unacceptable that the Council. Tries to impose it on all members of the Muslim community,” Ahmed told Reuters. He said the government wanted to prevent a vote to elect a new council and replace the decade-old one.
“They (the government) want to keep them because they agree to whatever orders,” he said.
What sparked the protests in the Ethiopian capital, activists said, was the Islamic Council’s dismissal of several teachers at the Awoliya institute – a move they said signalled the government’s determination to crack down on groups it believes poses a threat to stability. The institute’s college and an Arabic language learning centre have also been shut down.
Some demonstrators told Reuters an imam seized by police in the Oromiya region last month was arrested for attempting to whip up support for protests in the southern province. Officials say he was detained on suspicion of preaching hard-line Islamic thinking.
Some protesters say the government’s strategy might backfire, sowing the seeds of the hard-line Islam it seeks to keep at bay.
“We are against any sort of extremism ourselves, we want to stop such thinking,” said Ahmed Mustafa, secretary of the independent arbitration panel.
David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, applauded Meles’ track record on religious affairs.
“The government has done a pretty good job over the years in ameliorating religious differences where there are potentially serious conflicts among Orthodox, Protestant … and Muslims,” said Shinn.