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Muslims accuse Ethiopian government of meddling in mosques

Ethiopia's Muslims have been protesting 'state interference' in their affairs for the past six months. Could government accusations of Muslim extremism risk greater tension?

By William DavisonCorrespondent / May 31, 2012



Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Protests at mosques in religiously-diverse Ethiopia have stretched into their sixth month as Muslims object to what they see as unconstitutional government interference in their affairs.

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Since December, worshipers at Friday prayers nationwide have been criticizing the state's alleged attempts to impose the al Ahbash, a moderate sect of Islam, on the community via an unrepresentative, politicized Islamic Supreme Affairs Council. Officials deny any interference.

The protest movement in most major cities among the nation's 30 to 40 million Muslims – about one-third of Ethiopia's population – has been largely peaceful and contained to mosque compounds.  

The government is trying to dominate influential mosques to gain wider political control of the country, says Ethiopian political analyst Jawar Mohammed.  To solidify Western support, it’s playing up an Islamist threat – Ethiopia is widely perceived by strategists as a bulwark against Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic terrorists across the border in Somalia and in the Middle East and North Africa.  

"It is an unnecessary, unwise, and untimely intervention that will have severe repercussions both for the current regime as well as for the country in the long run, unless the government reverses its current approach," says Mr. Jawar.

The most serious incident occurred on April 27 in the southeast town of Asasa in the Oromia region, when four people died in clashes after police arrested a Muslim preacher. The government said the preacher had been trying to instigate jihad. Earlier in April, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament that an Al Qaeda cell containing "a few Salafist extremists" operated in the area, while at the beginning of May the government announced it deported two Arabs of unspecified nationalities for trying to incite violence outside Addis Ababa's largest mosque.

A focal point for the dispute has been at the community centered around the Awalia Mission School on the edge of the capital, where 50 Arabic teachers were removed via a letter from the Islamic council leaders, leading to the escalation of protests against the leaders' legitimacy and state interference.   

The government has tightened security at mosques – it is difficult for Western journalist to report from those in the capital without police interference. The Ministry of Federal Affairs recently accused the protesters of being extremists engaged in violence and collaborating with foreign forces to instigate jihad.

Growing radicalism?

The Ethiopian government has recently claimed that radicalism is growing in Ethiopia, citing austere Wahhabism promulgated by foreign preachers in mosques built by well-heeled Saudi organizations. Ahmedin Jebel, spokesman for a committee that says it's elected by Muslims to represent the movement, says these claims are way off the mark. Although there may be individual extremists, there are no communities sworn to conflict, he says. Conversely, according to Mr. Ahmedin, the government risks creating extremism where it doesn't exist with heavy-handed actions that many Muslims perceive as an attack on Islam. 

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