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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?

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"We are afraid that people will begin to fight back," if the indoctrination and smear campaigns continue, he says. "There is a concern that they may create more extremism than they fear."

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Leaked US diplomatic cables from 2008 corroborate the Ethiopian government's concerns about a "growing Wahhabi influence." In the cables, American officials discuss programs to combat its influence, such as translating "The Place of Tolerance in Islam" – a book by American Muslim scholar Khaled Abou el Fadl – into local languages.

Activists dismiss the dispatches as hyperbolic, countering that the Islamic council was just fear-mongering to embassy staff. "Money coming from Saudi Arabia or any other country doesn't mean adopting that school of thought," they argue. They claim that council leaders are using a phony battle against extremism to cement their positions.

Training sessions

According to Ahmedin, the problems began ten months ago when the Federal Affairs Ministry and the Islamic council brought in Lebanese preachers from the Al Ahbash sect – which was founded by an Ethiopian but became popular in Lebanon – to deliver training to around 1,300 employees of the council's branches at Haramaya University in eastern Ethiopia.

Following the training session, a senior Lebanese teacher, Samir Kadi, thanked Meles and Federal affairs minister Shiferaw Teklemariam at a recorded press conference for inviting them. That, Ahmedin says, proves that the government is behind the campaign.  

In response, Meles said to lawmakers the training program had nothing to do with al Ahbash, but was about the rights and duties of religions in Ethiopia under the constitution.

Since the Haramaya conference, the Islamic council – which opponents say has been co-opted by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front for almost two decades – has coerced 50,000 people to undergo the training, which aims to incorporate teachings from Al Ahbash into religious schools across the nation and attacks all other doctrines as anti-Islamic, they say.

Non-participation results in punishment: Imams have been sacked and many Muslim youths arrested for not participating in trainings, critics allege. The community is rife with rumors that the US bankrolled the campaign, which offers per diems of up to 500 birr ($28) to attendees.

"Even if we agree of the threat of Islamic extremism in Ethiopia, this is not the correct way to solve the problem," said Ahmedin.

The government rejects the allegations, also saying that protesters want them to unconstitutionally ban al Ahbash. The allegation of imposing the sect "ignores the fact that the government has no right to invite, allow or forbid any religion or sect, provided that the exercise is within the framework of the constitution," said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on April 27. In eight letters to the government, the committee never asked for the sect to be banned, Ahmedin responds.

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