Personal reflections on the traits of a new generation of Ethiopians

By Tesfa Mekuria

Alemu Tafesse recently published a highly profound article – The Ethiopian Muslim Civil Rights Movement: Implications for Democracy in Ethiopia. In it, he argued that the 14-month old Muslim civil rights movement has had remarkable implications for the democratic transformation of that country. He specifically argued that by forcing the government to completely throw away its democratic garb; by introducing into modern Ethiopia an alternative path to democracy, and by actually becoming an alternative location of democracy, the Muslims’ activism has so far left great impacts on the contours of the current and future democratic possibilities of Ethiopia. While I generally agree with the points he raised, I also believe that they need to be discussed and debated by all Ethiopians at large.

My concern in this particular piece is much more limited than that of Alemu. I want to ask a specific question: what are some of the most prominent characters of this new Ethiopian Muslim generation that Alemu considered to have played a remarkable role in the democratic record of the country in its persistent fourteen-months old loud and non-violent activism? In trying to answer this question, my aim is not to assess the historical, political, economic, and religious background of this generation. I don’t intend explaining anything along those lines, but just outlining my personal reflections on a few of the qualities that the young Muslims have betrayed in their quest for freedom and justice. I believe doing this is a step towards understanding the kind of generation we are witnessing in Ethiopian at present—and take relevant lessons for future wider-scale activism.

Fearless: According to many scholarly sources, the political past has not been that good for Ethiopian Muslims in general. There have been numerous structural shackles that undermined the political, educational, economic and intellectual development of Muslims. These shackles have also had phenomenal impact on their consciousness in that a large section of the population has for long been considered to be subservient and docile. As a person who grew up surrounded with such stereotypes, one of the things that has unforgettably stunned me is the vibrancy of the Ethiopian Muslims civil rights movement. The vibrancy of the new Muslim generation has stunned me for three reasons: One has to do with its break with the obedience-imposing “Ethiopian” culture. The second has to do with its specific incongruity with our (many of us who have followed Ethiopian politics for long) understanding of the new Ethiopian Muslim generation. The third is about its break out in the context of a very gruesome dictatorial regime. When the three came together, I woke up to the amazement that there are a large section of Ethiopians in Ethiopia who seem to have transcended the constraints of culture- and structure-imposed regime of fear and docility, or, more accurately, have managed to overcome the self-imposed sense of fear that usually tends to interlock with some structural and cultural templates in the society. I think how and why this happened now needs to be studied well by concerned researchers.

Non-Radical: But not every “fearlessness” is a blessing, nor is every break with tradition commendable. The other admirable—though perhaps more easily explicable– element of this rather unexpectedly loud activism of Ethiopian Muslims is its moderate tone. As many observers have noted, the Muslims have been purely calling for the protection of religious rights and freedom in the country. Despite the government’s clear intent to push them towards violence, the protesters have constantly refused to drag themselves into that pit. It is my belief that in outsmarting the government by contradicting its wish to induce the escalation of the demands and the resort to violence, the movement has made itself more durable than anybody’s expectation. So, my admiration for the movement comes not just because it has been unexpectedly fearless, but also because it has been consistently non-violent. That it has so far been constitutional and legal in all its narratives is also part of this non-radicalism (although some oppositional forces might genuinely question the promise of such conservatism in the long-term. But this is a point of debate that I won’t delve into here).

“Apolitically” Religious: the intensity of religiosity among Ethiopian Muslim generation is not baffling. In fact, any close observer of the post-1991 Ethiopian public would not but hasten to point out the increasing significance of religion among Ethiopians in general. This has not been different with Muslims. One striking thing that this movement taught me, though, is that the Ethiopian Muslim youth have been religious in an “Ethiopian” way despite the call for radicalization in the whole region and beyond. While I don’t intend to give in to prejudice, many active Muslim movements in both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries have had overly political tones. In fact, in many occasions, the activists in such contexts have been very vocal about their intentions to establish an Islamic polity,But there is nothing in religion per se—not even in religious activism as such that necessarily drives one to a politically aggressive positioning. And there is no more evidence to prove this than the young Ethiopian Muslim activists. Here, religiosity hasn’t meant the craving for political totality. Interestingly, even when it crept into state politics, it just called for its absence: the demand was “no state in our religion!”

I know the so-called arguments reiterated by the government and its supporters to discredit the movement. To me, they are all neither sound, nor valid. They are, first, based on either no proof, or doubtful proofs or false “proofs”. The accusations, secondly, do not flow from the premises. For instance, the major TPLF propaganda that was released in the form of a documentary film absolutely failed to establish any proof that the accused Muslim leaders were intending to establish an Islamic state or wage a jihad. All it did was “accusation by association”. It urged us to associate the movement to some two (rather unknown and unrelated) personalities (allegedly Shabab-trained), or the Arab Spring (through the pictorial juxtaposition of again unrelated demonstrations, Ethiopian and Arab, and through the establishment of a rather weak connection with a Qatar-based intellectual whose image was unfairly distorted). In none of these cases was there presented a proof that the movement was actually about what the government has said it was. Even the badly beaten Committee members didn’t appear incriminating themselves. When they mentioned of an Islamic state, it was clear that they were responding to a specific question in another context.

The other sets of arguments are very weak–and also betray another problem: Islamophobia on the side of the TPLF members and supporters. Some have tried to warn us of the looming danger of Islamism and Salafi radicalism in the Horn, the wider North East African region, the whole of Africa, and the entire world—and their connections to Ethiopia. These are based on either faulty reasoning or Islamophobic assumptions or both. They assume that since some Islamic schools of thought have such and such features internationally, they also should have the same features internally. This is faulty on two accounts 1) These schools, upon their arrival in Ethiopia, according to many recent studies (for example, see Terje’s works on Salafism, 2011, 2007 etc), have been quick to take an Ethiopian and non-political shape. 2) The Muslim movement has been neither led nor maintained by Muslims belonging to merely one school of thought. A vast number of diverse Muslims are now opposing government policies. To say, as some TPLF-ites claim, that the non-Salafis are just being deluded into joining the movement, is very patronizing and offensive to the tons of Muslims marching out every Friday for over a year. It is, finally, Islamophoc in a way because the arguments betray a degree of concern that Muslim activism is by its very nature violent and state-seeking. I have no interest in dwelling on this question. It is simply a manifestation of nefarious prejudice.

Unity: The question of Salafis—non-Salafis takes me to another point. It seems to me that the perhaps millions of Muslims who are now demonstrating against government actions are, as already said, by no means coming from a specific religious outlook. We all know that there were some stark differences in purely theological and ritual matters among some Muslims in Ethiopia. And these differences were almost always reflecting themselves in generational terms. But according to many local sources, the protests, although hugely dominated by the youth (like any other modern social movement), haven’t, however, been confined to them. Nor have they been limited to one school of thought. Nor has gender difference been notable. The government’s bizarre policy of religious imposition and abuse of Muslim institutions seem to have garnered strong support for the causes promoted by the committee members across sectarian and social divisions. [It is true that the Ahbash (considered “alien” by the vast majority of Muslims) wouldn’t be expected to side with the protesting Muslims as the movement itself was initiated by the anti-secularist polices of the government-Ahbash coalition]. And the movement is now rapidly spreading to each and every major mosque in every district in Ethiopia. Hence, all in all, it seems that Ethiopian Muslims are increasingly getting united in the face of the government infringement on their religious rights.

Discipline: The Ethiopian Muslim youth have been fearless in their confrontation with the government forces but they have also been remarkably disciplined. Discipline may refer to many things, but I have in mind their loyalty and obedience to their leaders and their words. They have come out for each demonstration only when they have been commanded to and have done things according to the injunctions they have received. This has been the case both during the committee’s leadership and after the latter’s arrest, when the leadership role was taken over by afacebook group Dimtsachin Yisema. There has almost never been a meaningful sign of confusion, disarray, dilemma or rebellion. When so many people in diverse places carry out injunctions with unmatched perfection (despite some disagreements sometimes with those injunctions, by the way), it turns out to be surely worth-noting, but probably astounding, too.

Remarkable leadership: The note on obedience can never be complete without a note on the leadership. Well, all the above-mentioned wonderful qualities of the movement were to a large extent the fruits of the committee members. They have instilled in their followers sense of courage and moderateness, persistence and non-violence, religiosity and sense of responsibility. These commendable traits have been demonstrated in the leaders’ behaviors and speeches before those of the other protestors.

Innovation: But one thing I really found most unique has been the protesting styles of the activists. Apart from the loud calls for the upholding of the constitution, symbolic protests have also been carried out throughout the country. These include boycotting some mosques, silent collective physical demonstrations of defiance, and symbolic waving of papers. The first has meant to demonstrate the size of the movement and to send a message of fury to the pro-regime Imams. The second has symbolized defiance and unity. The third has stood for warning or peace or referred to the defiled articles of the constitution. In addition to their deep meanings, some of these measures have also been used to avoid government repression by depriving it of any pretext to logically stop the movement. In the final analysis, these actions have not only exhibited the level of maturity of the protestors and their leaders, but also the magnitude, determination and peacefulness of them.

The Ethiopian Muslim civil rights activists are indeed deserving of being called the “bastions of democracy in the country” for:

[t]heir unsubduable behavior has created an immensely empowering political climate in the country. Theirunshattarable unity has given many a good reason to imagine a post-divided Ethiopia. Their freedom-induced fury and chaos-phobic discipline are the very marrows of democracy. The Ethiopian Muslims are coming out of this year-long journey as a new brand of strong, assertive, post-violent, and unified locations of anti-authoritarian force (Alemu, 2013).

I think those of us who have had high stakes in Ethiopian politics—activists or observers—need to alert ourselves to the fact that the time has come to humble ourselves before these fast-transformed new generation of Ethiopian activists.