Pebbles for Grains: A Story of Betrayal (Omer M. Shifaw)
By Omer M Shifaw
Our brave Muslim Brothers and Sisters back home are continuing their demand that their constitutional rights should be restored and respected by the very government that was instrumental in the preparation of the country’ s constitution in 1994.
The fact that some of their prominent leaders are still languishing at the notorious Kaliti Prison and elsewhere in the country, and that some have been killed by Federals is not deterring them a bit. Instead, it is giving them more courage not to look back until their legitimate demands are met. It is rather ironic to see that the role of safeguarding the Constitution has been reversed from the government to that of governed.
The government is not only disregarding its duty as the custodian of the Constitution, it is also stonewalling calls from all directions to meet the demands of the peaceful protesters. Does the Ethiopian Muslims really deserve such a treatment from the very government that benefited from their generous vote in the 2005 and 2010 national elections? Even Ethiopian Muslims in Diaspora are not known for being critical of EPRDF until recently or being actively involved with the Diaspora Opposition.
It is an open secret that the majority of the Muslim population was naively throwing its support behind EPRDF in the last two decades while the latter was apparently busy spying on them all along suspecting them of extremism and harboring intention to turn the country into an Islamic state governed by the Sharia Law. This is nothing short of betrayal and a classic case of paying in pebbles for borrowed grains (ihil labedere teter).
No doubt, EPRDF has made a strategic blunder by accusing the Muslim community as radical Islamic extremists and subsequently importing the Ahbashi ideology to preempt its own dangerous wishful thinking using the willing participation of the much hated and loathed Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (Majlis). It does not matter whose idea importing Ahabash is and who cosponsored it, the ultimate blame for inciting the very passive and law abiding Ethiopian Muslims is rests on the shoulder of EPRDF. What is baffling to neutral observers about the futile effort of indoctrinating Ethiopian Muslims with the Ahbashi ideology is the fact that it was prescribed and is being implemented by people whose own faith is still hanging in the balance as former non-believers (Marxists).
It is undeniable that more mosques have been built in the last 20 years. The same is true for Ethiopian Christians who have built more churches than ever before. This manifestation should not come as a surprise to no-one, and should not be used as an excuse for any purpose. Once out of the fetters of the brutal 17 years of Durg rule, in a traditional society like that of Ethiopia, and after being unfairly treated by Mother Nature time and again, Muslims and Christians have become more active in their respective faiths in overwhelming numbers than ever before. Followers of both faiths have been intensively engaged in evangelical and proselytization efforts across the country.
There is nothing wrong and unpatriotic about such endeavors as long as they don’t negate the fundamentals of the country’s Constitution; and fervor in ones’ faith should never be a security issue in and of itself. Therefore, when assessing security concerns, EPRDF should have been extremely careful in differentiating between those who show pure devotion to their faith and those infected with malice and harbor sinister motives in the name of religion. However, all indications are, EPRDF did not do its homework before starting to suggest that Ethiopian Muslims are not worthy of trust as citizens. Apparently it was enough for EPRDF to make its case against them simply because Al-Qaeda affiliated groups were active in neighboring Somalia.
This is profoundly wrong, immoral, and unbecoming of a government not only for attempting to alienate the Muslim community, but also for sending a very ominous message to the other half of the population – Christians – to be worried about their safety and security and be vigilant of the former. However, whatever the motive and scheme behind this unholy effort, it is evidently backfiring. A large majority of the Ethiopian Christians have stood beside the Muslim Community. Specially, Ethiopian Christians in diaspora have expressed their support by mingling in protests with their Muslim Brothers and Sisters carrying placards and shouting the same slogans. They have wholeheartedly embraced the legitimate demands of their Muslim Brothers and Sisters that EPRDF should stop tinkering in the affairs of religion. They also do realize that they will be immeasurably impacted by any response from the government – be it negative or positive.
In fact, their unreserved support in this matter is so critical it could never be overestimated. Without it, the government will never have a change of heart to peacefully settle the issue. Therefore, it is important that as much as the Friday Protests are carried out with great consistency and within the confines of mosques, with no less intensity should we seek and appreciate the support of our Christian Brothers and Sisters.
What is very sad for Ethiopians of all faiths and ethnicity is that after effectively and unnecessarily intensifying ethnic division among the people with misguided policies exploiting past resentments, the government has now embarked on destroying the only fabric that is holding them together across ethnic lines – their religion. This dangerous experiment is obviously well thought out to create division not only between Christians and Muslims, but also among the Muslim population itself. Despite ten months of peaceful protest by the Muslims, the government, on October 7, 2012, went ahead with its plan and carried out the election of the Muslim community leaders in kebeles across the country. What is important is not whether those who cast their vote in the election were willing participants or not as much as the rigidness of the government not to explore other avenues to reach a compromise thereby squandering a great opportunity to usher in a new era in the country – an era in which the governed are part of the decision making process and their concerns are heeded.
To top this, the government charged 29 Muslim community leaders under the Anti-Terrorism Law among them nine of the 17 democratically elected Committee Members that spearheaded the mosque based peaceful protests. The government further closed down a Muslim research center and the Awoliya School which it has been accusing as the bastion of radicalism and subversion. If this doesn’t extinguish the flicker of hope about a new era in Ethiopia that most of us were entertaining after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was installed, what would?
Defending the legitimate demands of our Brothers and Sisters should never be mistaken for ignoring any legitimate security concerns that the country might have as a nation at the center of a turbulent region. It would be unpatriotic and reckless for any Ethiopian to deny the existence of security threats to Ethiopia from Al-Qaeda affiliated extremist groups such as Al-Shebab and others. However, EPRDF seems to forget that when it sent troops to Somalia in 2006 and 2011 to crush the Islamic Courts and Alshabab, Ethiopian Muslims never questioned its actions because they are keenly aware of the difference between the need for national security and those who stand for chaos, anarchy, intolerance, and destruction in the name of religion.
Ethiopian Muslims alongside Ethiopian Christians will always defend the territorial integrity of the country when the need arises as they have been doing for the last 14 centuries. That is what happened in Adowa in 1896 after Emperor Menelik II summoned both Christians and Muslims to die for their beloved country declaring that ‘faith is personal and motherland is for all’, and die they did. That is what is unique about Ethiopia – Christians and Muslims peacefully coexisting and dying together defending their motherland through the centuries despite patches of difficulties here and there.
Today, taking a look at the proximity of the Anwar Mosque and the Raguel Church in Addis Ababa, one could not help noticing the very powerful l symbolism of peaceful coexistence that has been a hallmark of the country for centuries. Interfaith marriages between followers of the two faiths are not uncommon. Christian and Muslim blood relatives are as common as one cannot imagine. The famous song “Shemendefer” by the popular young artist Teddy Afro says it all. Nothing will come between the two communities, and one does not have to fear anything from the other because Ethiopia is unique.
While the facts on the ground are such, what prompted EPRDF to find itself in such a predicament of historical proportion? We have heard many possible explanations, some convincing and some not so. One thing many scholars have agreed on is that the security explanation is far-fetched and baseless except as a means to secure access to a considerable amount of money from outside slated for the War on Terror.
Regardless, isn’t creating a climate of fear a foolhardy approach on the part of EPRDF that goes against its efforts to attract outside investment? You cannot tell investors that the country is potentially unstable and expect them to feel comfortable about their investment. There is also the comical explanation that the government is stretching the ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Vision – RaEye’ ideas a little bit too far and trying to apply the same principles to religion as well. ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Vision’ are great tools as slogans regardless of the motives behind them. But, interfering in religion and trying to mold it to ones’ liking through forced indoctrination would definitely ignite the ire of its followers regardless of how historically passive and peaceful they have been. Another plausible explanation one might think of is EPRDF’s modus operandi of creating organizations parallel to existing ones as a tool of divide and rule, for example: the creation of OPDO to rival OLF. This might have worked for EPRDF in the realm of politics for the past 21 years, but trying to apply the same experiment to religion could be nothing but an exercise in self-mutilation.
Is it too late for the government to accommodate the mosque based protesters? The answer is an emphatic “No”, it will never be too late for EPRDF because, from what we have seen so far, the protesters are not entertaining any other options besides their relentless peaceful Friday protests. Therefore, the government must take the first step and release the arbitrarily arrested Muslim community leaders without any pre-condition and earnestly engage in dialogue with them. It should also scrape the October 7, 2012 election of the Muslim community leaders across the country unless accepted by the protesters and their leaders as an ice breaker for further dialogue, because it is nothing but another imposition.
With the exception of the Ahabash issue, compromises can be worked out in all other areas of disagreement s within the framework of the Constitution. It should not be forgotten that time and again the protesters have made it clear that they have nothing against the Ahbashi followers conducting their business in a level playing field without the support of the government. Sitting down and negotiating with its subjects has never been a bad idea for any government. Rather, it is a sign of good governance. That is what responsible governments do all the time. EPRDF should be aware by now that the current situation in Ethiopia is being closely watched by outside players some of whom are genuinely concerned and others just waiting to take advantage. Therefore, the government’s option should be nothing but prudent. Most importantly, the government should always set an example to its subjects by upholding the Constitution of the land, and its first and foremost duty should always be to play the role of a catalyst for unity not division among its people deliberate or not.