Ethiopian Muslims and the state: arrests, twists, and anger

A yearlong protest by Ethiopian Muslims against uncalled for interference by the government came to a disturbing twist on Monday Oct. 29th when a federal court in Addis Ababa decided to charge 29 Muslim protestors arrested in July with “plotting acts of terrorism” under the country’s infamous anti-terror law. 

Charges brought against the detainees including nine prominent members of the Muslim community in Addis Ababa and Habiba Mohammed, the wife of Civil Service minister Junadin Sado, also include “planning, preparing, conspiring and attempting terrorist acts and intending to advance a political cause under the guise of religion.” Some of the charges could carry the death penalty.

Earlier the Charities and Societies Agency, (CSoA), announced that it has shut down 10 Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) under Ethiopia’s new civil society and charity law. One of the ten was the Awoliya College and Secondary School, a highly regarded Islamic school based in Addis Ababa next to the Grand Anwar Mosque, and the epicenter of the current disagreement between the Muslims and the government.

CSoA claimed financial irregularities and operating outside of the licensed areas for the closure. However, the timing makes its decision suspicious.

During the Marxist Derge and Imperial Hailesselassie regimes Awolia had accorded its quiescent status and unconditional cooperation to do the state’s bid.  But in the past two decades the school has become assertive in its independence and began gaining momentum in becoming a centre of excellence for Islamic teachings. Confronted with a growing number of incidents linked to Islamic extremism mainly in Bale and Arsi regions, both located in south east of Addis Ababa and traditionally the strongholds of anti-government movements including movements by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the government began inspecting every move within the administration of the Awoliya College and Secondary School.

In Dec. 2011, the government had sacked the entire administration of Awolia claiming a spread of Islamic extremism, mainly the Wahabia, within the school’s administration. Before the heated discussions on the legality of the state’s action were settled it sacked senior members of the once inactive Islamic Supreme Council (Mejlis) and subsequently called for fresh elections. Millions of Muslims disapprove the elections, which, following the government’s insistence, were scheduled to take place in kebeles (local government administrative offices) and not, as was demanded by Muslims protestors, in their respective Mosques. They also bitterly contest the state’s sponsorship of a new Islamic teaching called Al-Habesh, considered by many as secular leaning.

The elections in mid October for the new members of the Supreme Council went largely nonviolent, but a scuffle in Derba, Amhara region, claimed the lives of three Muslim protestors and one police officer and resulted in the arrest of more than a dozen Muslim protestors who the state say were instigating the fights.

Throughout this, millions of Muslims have continued protesting against government’s meddling in their religious affairs. Other than a few incidents in June this year – which the government claimed was instigated by a few elements of Islamist extremists and the Muslims claimed was premeditated by the state to blackmail their movements – the protests so far have been conducted in spectacularly peaceful manner.

However, in July state police started rounding up individuals including members of a committee called “Solution Seekers of the Muslim Community’s Problems,” accusing them of having links with Saudi based Islamist extremists.

The trials have been eagerly followed by millions of Muslims. Speculations were rife that they may be released during the last Muslim’s holiday of Eid Al-Adha. Instead prosecutors have charged all with multiple counts of “plotting acts of terrorism,” fueling fears that the situation may have just picked another twist. AS


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