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.
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'They want to label us'
"They want to put our questions aside and label us, saying we have a political agenda, saying we are extremists," says Ahmedin.Skip to next paragraph
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Shiferaw is confident that the incidents have, in his view, unmasked Ahmedin's group in the eyes of Ethiopian Muslims, draining any support they had. "Heavy education" campaigns are also being conducted on state television to show a strategic alliance between the movement and forces including Somalia's al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab militia and secular Ethiopian insurgents, he says. "We would like to clear any confusion and grey areas for people who joined them without knowing who they are," he says. "We will educate them a little bit and they will go home."
Mr. Østebø says he believes the government has misconstrued the rise in Salafism, which he says is largely a religious movement seeking to purify Islam. "This is not to downplay the potential of such movement becoming a threat to political security and stability, but one should not overlook the fact that representations of Salafism mostly take nonviolent forms," he says.
Salafists are welcome in Ethiopia as long as they don't coerce others to join their sect, says Shiferaw. But, at "hotspots" around the country, extremists "bring people to the mosque, they put them to the point of the gun and they request them if you're not converting yourself to the Wahabi, Salafi sect, you're gone, you're subject to be killed," he argues. Activists say such "wild allegations are the government's ploy to scare Ethiopians about a rise in extremism, and also score points with international backers."
While Salafism's rise has raised tensions there have been "hardly any reports of violent confrontations between so-called Sufis and Salafis," says Østebø.
"We are Muslims, nobody can divide us," says Ahmedin.
Bad response to real threat
Medhane Tadesse, an analyst of conflicts in the region, believes the government is making a belated and heavy-handed response to a genuine threat. Ethiopia has historically been a crucible for Islam's battle with Christianity, and foreign Wahabbist forces have been - and currently are - at work trying to control mosques and now the Islamic council to ensure ascendance, he believes.
"Ethiopia is important because of historical significance, and because of demography, it has more Muslims than Saudi Arabia, it's a big stake," he says.
The government needs to make a measured response by empowering Muslims while distinguishing foreign-influenced radicals from those with "genuine concerns," Medhane says.
"I think it's a significant event and unless it's managed in sober and legitimate way through democratic means then it may aggravate," he says. "The problem of the Ethiopian state historically is rather than playing the role of an arbiter between different interests and social classes it tries to decide, which is counter-productive."