Ethiopia, a US ally in the battle against Al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Somalia, added to mounting worries about religious discord in the diverse east African state by screening a provocative documentary on Islamic extremism.
Ethiopian Muslims are furious about the film, which they say dishonestly blurs the distinction between legitimate political protest and violence by using lurid images of foreign terrorists that have nothing to do with them.
The program, Jihadawi Harekat (Holy War Movement), ran on state-TV at peak watching hours last week, and it associates local Muslim protesters now on trial with militant groups such as Nigeria's brutal Boko Haram movement and Somalia's Al Shabab, as well as unrelated Ethiopian militants.
Currently, 29 leaders of a Muslim protest movement, and representatives of two Islamic charities are on trial in Addis Ababa, facing charges of plotting violence to create an Islamic state. The trial is being held behind closed doors in order to protect some 200 witnesses, according to the government.
The Muslim defendants were arrested in August after nearly a year of nonviolent protests over what they allege is unconstitutional Ethiopian state meddling in Islamic affairs.
"The risks posed by violent religious radicalism in Ethiopia are not imaginary," says Jon Abbink, senior researcher from the African studies center at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "But the documentary is probably over-doing it; the susceptibility of Muslims in Ethiopia to Al Qaeda-like radicalization is slim," he says, adding that the film would appear to "delegitimize" peaceful political disagreements by Muslims and set up the possibility of a "backlash."
Ethiopia is considered a stronghold of Sufism, an approach to the practice of Islam sharply at odds with that of Al Qaeda and aligned groups. The area has been heralded for centuries for the largely peaceful co-existence of its varied religious communities – though concerns are rising over extremism. Twice in recent years the Army has invaded Somalia to pursue and combat Islamist militants and salafis whose influence is said to be increasing on the Ethiopian side of the border.
Ethiopia's key position in the Horn of Africa – adjacent to volatile Somalia and Sudan and in close proximity to the Middle East and North Africa – gives it an importance in the eyes of Western nations. It receives some $3 billion in strategic aid from various donors and Washington has looked on approvingly as Ethiopian troops take on militants in Somalia and as its peacekeepers patrol the flash-point Sudanese region of Abyei.
In return, Ethiopia allows the US to fly surveillance drones over Somalia from the southern Ethiopian city of Arba Minch.
The Muslims who protested (largely peacefully) for nearly a year are led by a 17-man committee from the Awalia Muslim Mission school.
Those on trial say the state is leading a coercive campaign, pushing the nation’s 31 million Muslims towards identifying with a more moderate strain of Islam called Al Ahbash. They allege the government is fearful of a perceived new radical Islamic impulse and is attempting to strengthen its control of Ethiopia’s main Islamic national council.
The group is demanding that Muslims be allowed to run their own affairs, and for their leaders to be released.
Government officials claim the campaign is a stalking-horse for extremists planning an Islamic takeover.
Last week, in the midst of hot debate over the trial of the 29, Ethiopian Television [ETV] ran the hour long documentary, and then repeated it on consecutive days at peak-time after the news.
While authorities may have intended their documentary to be informative, it has in fact stoked fears among Christians about Muslim intentions, and reignited mass protests by Muslims at mosques.
The film starts with shots of Al Shabab fighters in Somalia and scenes of carnage following Boko Haram bomb attacks in Nigeria. Then it segued to interviews with alleged militants, some from a cell of 15 Ethiopians recently arrested.
In the film, one man, Aman Assefa, told the cameras they were planning attacks in Ethiopia after being trained and armed by Al Shabab.
Then, inexplicably, clips of interviews with some of the 29 on trial and of speeches from Awalia leaders followed. Then interviews with ordinary Ethiopian citizens appeared, saying that the Muslim group’s demands for more religious autonomy were bogus because there is ample religious freedom in Ethiopia.
In a phone interview after the film was aired, government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said the documentary revealed "loosely connected terror networks" in Ethiopia, with shared objectives.
“The whole thing was coordinated by the government," says Kedir Mohammed, a taxi driver, expressing skepticism.
In recent days, some 90,000 Muslims, the biggest grouping since Ramadan in August, gathered around Grand Anwar, the largest mosque in Ethiopia, located in the Muslim-majority market area of Addis Ababa, after Friday prayers last week to respond. Signs proclaimed “ETV is a liar" and "ETV. Made in False."
"This is going to increase more and more until those people are released," says Mr. Kedir the taxi driver.
"There's no fear but people became more angry with the government," says 17-year-old trader Abdulkarim Mohammed.
Propaganda or public information?
Opposition politicians were similarly outraged when ETV, the only Ethiopian broadcaster, screened a comparably skewed program, Akeldama [Field of Blood], just as charismatic critics of the government Eskinder Nega and Andualem Arage were being prosecuted last year.
Dissidents view the latest broadcast as the natural act of a police state that is intolerant of dissent and dependent on divisive propaganda to focus public attention away from its misrule.
“Keep on recording at least half of your crimes, that is part of our collective memory," exiled Addis Neger newspaper editor Mesfin Negash wrote in a statement addressed to "Dear Oppressors” on Facebook.
"The only thing I like about your court drama is this aspect of recording your history of injustice and the crime you are committing in the name of justice."
Many ordinary citizens were divided over the film. Even some who are sympathetic to the government have questioned its timing in the midst of a high profile trial. Others have praised it.
”After watching the documentary my mother said something like 'I didn't know terrorist were that organized in Ethiopia and a threat to our country,' " says one viewer who said she considered the program "ridiculous" propaganda. "She said the government has done the right thing to crackdown before it gets worse."
A middle-aged rental agent from a Christian family alleged that a quarter of Muslims support extremists and that many newly wealthy Muslims are building mosques with cash from Gulf states, in a comment expressing typical frustration and suspicions among Christians.
"The government is trying to reduce the power of Muslims," he says, after asking for the interview to be moved away from a Muslim-owned property.