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Opinion – The unfair trial of Muslim Leaders: Why it undermines counterterrorism in Ethiopia

Abadir M. Ibrahim

Something was awry at a hearing of the High Court of Ethiopia on July 6, 2015. As the much anticipated conviction of Muslim civil society leaders (Abubaker Ahmed and 17 others) was underway, it was clear that this was no ordinary trial. Security was beefed up, the public gallery was crowded and the atmosphere was tense. A significant amount of time was spent with the court presenting a detailed defense of the government’s policies on counterterrorism and Muslim-state relations. The court also defended the state’s imposition of the Ahbash sect and, in an odd twist, compared the Ahbash sect to Zoroastrianism in Iran. Given how much time was spent on defending the government’s positions, the morning session made it feel as if the Ethiopian state was on trial and not the other way around.

The defendants, who spanned the ideological-denominational spectrum within Islam, were six members of the Ethiopian Muslims Arbitration Committee, 8 prominent Muslim scholars, two journalists, an artist and a student who were exemplary members of society.

In December of 2011, this group started as a pressure group, and later a protest movement, to convince the government to terminate its “Ahbashization” project in which the government tried to force the Ahbash sect of Lebanon as the official religion of Ethiopian Muslims. In the weeks and months that followed talks between the Arbitration Committee and the government broke down and the latter took control over Islamic schools and Mosques and started appointing its agents as Imams and teachers. As a reaction, the defendants started the Dimtsachin Yisema (“Let our Voice be Heard”) movement, a religiously based pro-secularism movement which skillfully and effectively deployed methods of nonviolent action.

The government’s response to the movement, however, was inhumane and disproportionate to say the least. It rounded up the most prominent protest leaders, tortured them, attempted to shame and defame them on national television, and now convicted them of terrorism.

Despite the recent conviction, the peaceful nature of the movement and its leaders and the impropriety of the government’s response have been widely reported including by academics, international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists and International Humanist and Ethical Union; and government bodies such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State. In a provisional measure issued on behalf of the Committee, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights recently asked Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to investigate human rights violations connected with this case and ordered his government to cease ongoing violations.

From the beginning, therefore, there was no doubt that the defendants’ conviction constituted a miscarriage of justice. What is even more disappointing, however, is that these civil society leaders will not serve as sacrificial lambs to save us from future acts of terrorism. In fact, because of their persecution and conviction, terrorist threats and the likelihood of sectarian conflict will increase. Five major reasons support this conclusion.

What is in a name, that which we call Counterterrorism?

Two years ago I interviewed an Ethiopian human rights activist and was surprised to find out that a terrorism conviction was celebrated in the activist community. The day of his conviction the activist received hundreds of phone calls and emails congratulating him. When asked how he could take such a serious matter so lightly, his response was epic: “I should celebrate my convictions for now I have something in common with Gandhi, Mandela, and King … Call it a depressing rite of passage if you like, but being accused of terrorism is in the resume of every successful Ethiopian activist, politician or journalist.”

It was not too surprising then that the Muslim civil society leaders were jovial when they were convicted. Every time the judge announced a guilty verdict, the defendants embraced and congratulated each other and made speeches in response to which attendees cheered. One of the clear fallouts of the conviction is therefore adding to the increasing confusion between what constitutes legitimate and legal protest and what is understood to be terrorism proper.

The conviction thus undermines the values behind counterterrorism narratives and labels; it drains the moral potency of past, present and future counterterrorism measures. After so many civil society leaders, political activists, journalists and opposition politicians are convicted under this law, and the more people are congratulated for convictions, Ethiopians will begin to associate the law exclusively with state persecution. At some point terrorism will lose any stigma or moral disapproval – if it has not already done so.

Local grievances as fodder for Jihadi narratives

The overwhelming majority of Ethiopians and Somalis would not have been impressed by the propaganda of the radical elements within the Islamic Courts Union before Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. However, thanks to Ethiopia’s invasion and subsequent atrocities against civilians, as was reported by HRW, Al-Shabaab was able to construct an apt narrative of victimhood and resistance that allowed it to become the first Al-Qaeda franchise to administer territory much larger than what Daesh (also known as “ISIS”) controls in Iraq and Syria today. Al-Shabaab was later able to use the same technique, tapping into local grievances and turning them into rallying points, in Kenya and Tanzania where it now has a strong presence.

While the invasion of Somalia created deeply felt local grievances to which most Somalis (who constitute 6.2 percent of the Ethiopian population) can relate to personally, the current move increased the potential audiences of extremist narratives by expanding and deepening local grievances. The government has now gifted Jihadi propagandists and extremist polemicists with locally flavored stories of “oppression and humiliation” which an Ethiopian audience can relate to.

Why destroy the enemies of your enemies when you can befriend them?

Though the Muslim leaders are one set among the many politicians, journalists, and activists who are facing terrorism charges; this group is particularly relevant to countering terrorism. These individuals are among the most influential Ethiopian Muslim civil society leaders who have tens if not hundreds of thousands of followers and admirers. What is more, these individuals are also what in counterterrorism lexicon are called “moderate” Muslims who, one would assume, would have been at the forefront of challenging extremist narratives. Rather than turning them into partners, however, it is in fact these individuals’ commitment to values such as human rights, democracy and secularism that landed them in trouble.

The government’s prosecution of these Muslim leaders as terrorists basically removes the worst enemies of violent Jihadi organizations – Muslims who oppose violence and are seeking to resolve grievances through peaceful means. It is not uncommon for Jihadi organizations to purge nonviolent Muslims as these create the most potent threat to their in-group legitimacy and provide equally Islamic alternatives to their intolerant narratives. However, in this case the government has given the extremists an advantage by doing the purging on the extremists’ behalf.
Where nonviolence does not work …

Probably the worst effect of the government’s action is that it is going to adversely affect future discussions within Ethiopian Muslim circles. With its persecution, torture, and imprisonment of Muslims who prescribe to ideals contained in the FDRE Constitution, the government is creating a momentum for locally produced narratives that see peaceful social action as a false idol. Even if nonviolent narratives will continue to be available, the government is creating a situation in which these narratives will become less and less appealing.

One is reminded that classical textbooks of contemporary Jihadism were produced and popularized in torture chambers and prisons in countries such as Egypt. Interpretations of religious texts take place in certain contexts and the context the Ethiopian government is creating is not conducive to nonviolence. Thus, the government’s persecution of nonviolent Muslims can create a turning point wherein the efficacy of leaders who insist on nonviolence is doubted while those supporting alternatives gather steam.
Divide and rule vs. divided and unruly

In its attempt to push back against opposition to its prosecution of the Muslim leaders the government has intentionally sought to evoke Christian fears of the “dangerous other” as can be seen in the Jihadawi Harekat documentary or the invitation of Christian leaders to the Ghion Hotel meeting that launched the Ahbashization project. However, its intended audiences (especially the conservative variety) do not come in contact with the regime’s “Good Muslim v. Bad Muslim” narrative with a blank slate. The government’s narrative, and the conviction of the most prominent Muslim civil society leaders, will reinforce and popularize preexisting essentialist views about Islam and Muslims thereby creating interpersonal and social rifts.

As this narrative creates a rift between Muslims and Christians and erodes their shared social capital, the rift will serve as a space in which stereotypes and mistrust can grow and become the dominant understanding of the other. Thus, while the government’s divide and rule strategy may shore it up in the short run, it will create increasingly divided and mutually mistrusting religious communities in the long run. This is also, of course, exactly the type of atmosphere where extremist and Jihadi/Crusader narratives can grow leading to sectarian tension and conflict.


Ed’s Note: Dr. Abadir M. Ibrahim (J.S.D., LL.M, LL.M., LL.B.) is an international law consultant and a human rights lawyer who lectures at St. Thomas University School of Law. He can be reached at

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