Muslims gathered at Anwar mosque in Addis Ababa on July 15. Photo by @DimtsachinYisem published on Facebook.
Long known for its religious tolerance, Ethiopia’s reputation now looks to be hanging in the balance as some members of its Muslim community have accused the government of treating them as if they were terrorists, resulting in a wave of protests in the capital Addis Ababa.
Mass demonstrations against religious discrimination erupted anew on Saturday, after scores of people gathered at Addis Ababa’s Anawar mosque. Clashes reportedly broke out after police attempted to break up the crowd, leading to the arrest of hundreds of protesters.
Last Saturday's protest at the Anawar mosque in Addis Ababa.
Over recent months, members of Ethiopia’s Muslim community have gathered at the capital’s Awoliya mosque every Friday to demand a new “majlis”, or Muslim Council. Many feel as though the current “majlis” is mostly comprised of government-appointed figures who do not represent them.
The demonstrations first turned violent on July 13, when thousands gathered at the Anawar mosque to call for a new “majilis”. Security forces were immediately dispatched to break up the demonstration, which authorities perceived as an act aimed at disrupting an upcoming African Union summit to be held in the capital. Police forced the mosque’s entrance open, before shooting canisters of teargas at the crowd and arresting 72 people.
Protesters at Anwar mosque on July 14.
While the majority of people in Ethiopia are Orthodox Christian, nearly 34 percent of the population is Muslim. Although the country has no official religion and its constitution guarantees religious freedom, there are some Muslims who feel as though their rights have been encroached upon and accuse the government of pushing the ideology of al-Ahbash – a Sunni movement founded in Lebanon during the 20th century that largely condemns Salafism and encourages religious pluralism.
These allegations arise from the belief that Ethiopian authorities have worked over the last several years to make sure that the country’s “majlis” is made up of an al-Ahbash majority. Protesters are calling for a vote to elect new members to the religious body.
Frustration over the issue first emerged in the beginning of the year after a number of teachers at the Awoliya mosque’s school were dismissed
, only to be replaced by educators who introduced an al-Ahbash based curriculum. Shortly afterwards the government also shut down the mosque’s university and its Arabic language centre. The government’s actions outraged many in the community, who viewed it as evidence of the state’s interference with religious institutions.
Faced with mounting criticism, Ethiopia’s government has denied allegations that it has supported or backed al-Ahbash figures. It has, however, said that the fight against religious extremism is a priority, and has justified any measures it has taken as necessary to ensure the country’s stability.
Surrounded by predominantly Muslim countries, Ethiopia has always stood as something of bastion against Islamic extremism. However, in the past few years, the Horn of Africa has been no stranger to terrorism. Radical groups such as al-Shabab, which has close ties to al-Qaeda, have taken root in Somalia and Kenya – two nations that share borders with Ethiopia.