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Will Ethiopian crackdown stir Islamist backlash?

Peaceful protests continue in Addis Ababa this week among Muslims angry over what they see as Ethiopian government interference. The government sees foreign extremist threat.

By William DavisonCorrespondent / July 27, 2012



Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

With arms raised and wrists crossed, silent Muslim worshippers surrounding the largest mosque in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, again today peacefully protested what they call a violent government response to legitimate demands.

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The act of civil disobedience from Muslims, who constitute at least one-third of the population, is a rare sign of instability in a country seen by US policymakers as a bulwark against radical Islam in the volatile Horn of Africa region.

Last month, members of a committee mediating the dispute over perceived unconstitutional state interference in Islamic affairs were taken into custody, while unrest broke out on two occasions around separate mosques in the city of around 5 million people.

"We are showing solidarity with leaders who have been arrested but who are strong," says a demonstrator named Mohammed, referring to the vigil latched onto the end of midday prayers at Anwar Mosque. "They should be released; they were arrested for nothing." Moments later, nervous friends ushered him away.

Through military interventions in neighboring Somalia, crackdowns against a separatist movement in its Muslim-majority Ogaden region, and now the detention of Muslim activists in its capital, Ethiopia has taken on a role as front-line defense against the spread of political Islam in East Africa. It's a stance that broadly enjoys support from the West and neighboring countries, but some observers argue that Ethiopia's hard line may be creating a backlash, strengthening the appeal of insurgents whom it is battling to suppress.

Human rights group Amnesty International called on the Ethiopian government this week to either formally charge or to release those currently in detention. Amnesty also called on the Ethiopian government to investigate allegations of torture of detainees, to allow peaceful protest, and to use "proportionality in the use of force" against demonstrators who turn violent. 

For its part, the Ethiopian government justifies its actions by saying that the real troublemakers are a tiny minority of foreign-influence Salafi extremists. 

"This group actually deals day and night to create an Islamic state," says Shiferaw Teklemariam, the minister responsible for religious affairs. "This in the Ethiopian context is totally forbidden and against the constitution."

Activists scoff at the accusations. Ethiopia is a secular, multi-ethnic state, where Orthodox Christians predominate, they say. How could any Islamist group hope to create an Islamic state in such a country? The dismissal is seconded by Terje Østebø, an academic at the Center for African Studies and Department of Religion, University of Florida, who studies Islam in the Horn of Africa. He says that Ethiopia's historically oppressed Muslims are enthusiastic backers of the current secular system.

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