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USCIRF’s incoherent statement on ‘Muslim protests’ in Ethiopia

By Sani Awol
Tigrai Online Nov. 13, 2012

It is common to see a Western organization making hastily conclusions based on one-sided information input and without thorough review of the concerned affair.

The last week statement by USCIRF claiming it is “deeply concerned by emerging religious freedom violations in Ethiopia” is the latest one. The statement, albeit brief, couldn’t hide the poor data collection and the imprudent haste of the authors.

The statement went as far as prescribing that the Ethiopian government should “immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully imprisoned’ protestors.

The paternalism evident in the statement is common among similar Western rights-groups’ statements. Like others, this statement also wishes an intervention by a western government. It asks “the U.S. government should raise with the new leadership in Addis Ababa the importance of abiding by Ethiopia’s own constitution and international standards on freedom of religion of belief”. 

Despite these lofty lectures, the USCIRF doesn’t appear to have an accurate info on ‘the wrongly imprisoned’ whose “immediately and unconditionally release” it seeks. The statement claims, “on October 29, the Ethiopia government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state”.

However, not all charged individuals are protestors or their representatives. Not all charged are physical persons as two organizations are among the accused. Some are brought to court for their involvement at different stages and in different manners. Some were included in the criminal prosecution as they allegedly shared similar overarching objectives of spreading extremism and suspected of serving as conduits for communication and financial flows by breaching even more specific legislations, in addition to the common offence of “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of terrorist acts”.

If the USCIRF missed on this recent and easily available information, it should not be surprise it has a poor and flawed grasp of the underlying issues and preceding events.

USCIRF, however, presents a bold diagnosis of the matter which appears to have been taken from some opposition site. It claimed: “Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on the country’s Muslim community, a community that traditionally has practiced the Sufi form of Islam.”

USCIRF should have answered a host of questions before making this kind of broad and serious accusations. Why would the government want to change the long-established Sufi Islam in the country?

Somehow, contradicting itself, the USCIRF stated on its ‘background’ note (on its website) that the Ethiopian government has ‘a concern about the rise of Wahhabism’. Why this point was omitted from the statement is not clear. It seems if USCIRF acknowledges the concern of Wahabia as the cause of the alleged “imposition of Al-Ahbash”, it should not have presented as if Sufi Islam is targeted.

A “deeply concerned” organization, as USCIRF claims itself to be, shall not evade to cast light on whether the Wahabism spread concern is a real one or not and, if real, the proper way to address it.

The impact of some extreme members of the Wahabia is already documented by telegrams sent from US Embassy in Addis Ababa to Washington as far back as 2007, which were published by Wikileaks last year. Admitting the concerns related to Wahabia, which is shared by diplomats, researchers and other observers would have watered down the tone of USCIRF’s statement. Therefore, USCIRF apparently chose to omit the matter in its statement.

Similarly, the “deeply concerned” USCIRF appears to have no time to make practical recommendations other than high-sounding general remarks which could be found in Civic texts books in Ethiopian schools. One of those remarks, however, grabs attention.

USCIRF shared its ‘finding’, in the statement, as follows: “USCIRF has found that repressing religious communities in the name of countering extremism leads to more extremism, greater instability, and possibly violence”.

Is USCIRF indicating the Ethiopian government is trying to counter real threats of extremism the wrong way? That appears implied in the phrases “more extremism, greater instability”. Despite this implicit admission, USCIRF doesn’t say what sort of action, or no action at all, would lead to “less extremism, less instability”.

If the USCIRF officials were really concerned, they would have read the Cable sent by the then US Ambassador in Addis, Donald Yamamoto, in 2008, which indicates, among others:

* In Oromiya Region, Wahabi influence is clearly growing rapidly…

* Wahabis have been trying for years to close Sheikh Hussein Shrine, saying it was ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘impure’

* More than thirty smaller, local shrines (mainly to Sufi saints) in the area had also been destroyed by Wahabis who often replaced the shrines with Saudi-style mosques; e.g., mosques that reflect Wahabi architectural and interior styling.

Instead of dealing with concrete issues and share its expertise if any, the USCIRF made a superficial recommendation that further exposes the shallowness of its concern. The best suggestion that USCIRDF came up with is: recommending a lecture session by US officials to Ethiopian leaders on the “importance of abiding by Ethiopia’s own constitution and international standards on freedom of religion of belief”.

USIRF might have read our Constitution, but it surely doesn’t know the track record of the ruling party. The Constitutional provisions of religious liberty are not unfamiliar imported concepts rather codification of what EPRDF has been doing in areas it administered years earlier. One of the first and historic moves of EPRDF, immediately after seizing power in 1991, was halting centuries old state persecution of religious minorities. Even in the past decade, when the threat of religious intolerances and extremism loomed bigger and bigger, as highlighted in the above cited and other US Embassy Cables, the government didn’t take a knee-jerk action. It established a specific desk at the Ministry of Federal Affairs and engaged in an elaborate exercise of analyses, discussion and charting of the way forward.

Given all these, it is counter intuitive to assume that the government will take a unnecessary move of imposing a new religion. Indeed, wouldn’t it be sufficient to strengthen the existing Sufi Islam teaching - which is what is actually being done, according to the Ulema Council, the highest body mandated on matters of Islamic teachings in Ethiopia.   

While USCIRF claims that “since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to force a change in the sect of Islam practiced nationwide and has punished clergy and laity who have resisted.”

Former US Ambassador in Addis, David Shinn explains, in his comment last May to Reuters and also published on his official blog, why the allegation is unseemly. He said:

For the most part, Islam in Ethiopia has been based on Sufi values. As a result, it has never been seen as a threat to the government. In fact, if you look at voting patterns in the controversial 2005 election, I believe the EPRDF did well in predominantly Muslim constituencies. The government has done a pretty good job over the years in ameliorating religious differences where there are potentially serious conflicts among Ethiopian Orthodox, Protestant (including fundamentalists and Pentecostals) and Muslims. Catholics, animists and others are too few to constitute a political bloc.

The government has been concerned for more than 15 years about the activities of Wahhabi proselytizers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. They have funded numerous mosques in Ethiopia. In the 1990s and up until about 2005, before the Saudi Arabian government cracked down, several of the Wahhabi charities such as al-Haramain operating in the Horn of Africa had connections to terrorist groups. This activity seems to have ended in recent years. Although I am not aware that groups like al-Haramain were active in Ethiopia, they were very active in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. Wahhabi influence in Ethiopia did result in some localized conflict between it and followers of Sufi beliefs. Many Muslims in the Oromo community have, for example, grave stones above ground that are sometimes painted in bright colors. The Wahhabi do not accept this practice and are believed to have been responsible for destroying some of them. This caused some serious tension between Sufis and Wahhabis, but to the best of my knowledge the government stayed out of it.

You can be sure that if the government believes any mosque is spreading extremism, it will take measures to end the extremism. I believe it would work through the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs rather than interact directly with the mosque. I doubt that it would push a particular Muslim ideology such as that of the Al-Ahbash group.

The USCIRF statement, which came about 5 months after the above cited insightful remark, doesn’t provide a new evidence or explanation on motives. Nor does it show a systematic analysis of the religious affairs policy the government implemented for the last couple of years.

To the contrary, it simply confuses the government and the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). 

The USCIRF statement claims that: “the government in July 2011 brought al-Ahbash imams from Lebanon to train Ethiopian imams and Islamic school educators on that sect’s beliefs to teach their students and worshippers.  The government dismissed from their positions those who refused to be trained in or teach al-Ahbash and closed mosques and schools.” 

At first, it may seem USCIRF is considering the EIASC as affiliated to the government, thus attributing the acts of the former to the later. However, the statement elsewhere states that the EIASC leadership, which resigned last June, was an independent body. The statement claims “the government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC).  Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution.”

If the EIASC was “viewed as an independent body” until the “manipulated election”, which is concluded this month. How is the government responsible for the invitation of “Lebanese teachers” and “dismissing Imams”? Is this contradiction an oversight and a deliberate inflation of claims or both? 

 The margin of error gets bigger when we note the statement misstated the last April incident in Assasa, Arsi, as “five people were killed protesting the dismissal of an imam who refused to propagate al-Ahbash”. However, according to reports by several known western news agencies, the incident was a result of a mob attack on the local jail to free a detained imam and it left four residents dead and 10 police officers injured.

Clearly, USCIRF relied on information from opposition sources without cross-checking them.

The statement’s quality and objective becomes even fishier and suspicious when one reads its summary of the protesters’ demands. According to the USCIRF, the protesters questions are/were:

1) respecting the Ethiopian constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom; 2) ending government imposition of al-Ahbash on Ethiopian Muslims, while allowing al-Ahbash to operate equally with other religious communities; 3) re-opening and returning schools and mosques to their original imams and administrators; and 4) holding new elections for the EIASC, and having these elections take place  in mosques, rather than in neighborhood government community centers, to ensure that the community’s selections would be honored.

Sympathisers of the protesters have always insisted the demands are only three. Where did USCIRF got the fourth one, which is put as question number 1? By inference? In that case, a number of – perhaps, as Minister Dr. Shiferaw suspects, ‘endless’ issues – can be derived from the letters, statements and demands posed by the protesters officially and unofficially at different occasions.

On the other hand, Question 3 was originally a demand solely about the Awolia School regarding its Saudi teachers and curriculum suspended by EIASC decision last year. Similarly, question 4 was originally solely a demand for re-electing EIASC leaders - location for conducting election became an issue only after the EIASC conceded for the original demand. However, the USCIRF statement presents late-comer demands as original ones, either due to its one-sided data collection or to portray a biased version of the reality.

There are more contradictions, flaws, omissions and errors in USCIRF’s statement, but the above listed points are sufficient to show its poor quality and shallowness.

As any reader of Ethiopian politics knows, the scale of factual inaccuracy, flawed conclusions and superficial recommendations is common among such reports by western organizations. But there are a couple of points that helps explain this particular case.

Though, the USCIRF is established by Congress as an independent body to make assessments and recommendations on matters of religious freedom, its establishing legislation needs extension every few years. This naturally gives rise to the need to make inflated statements, so that to get media coverage and show its relevance.

For example, a couple of years ago, USCIRF made a direct accusation against an Indian politician, Sangh Parivar, for inciting violence against adherents’ of Sikh religion. However, embarrassingly to USCIRF, Sangh Parivar was praised ‘for saving hundreds of Sikh lives, and for playing a crucial role in restoring peace’ during the violence, both by former Indian President, who is Sikh, and a Judicial Inquiry report. There is no report of USCIRF apologizing for the scandal.

The problem with USCIRF goes beyond misreporting. First-ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple, snubbed USCIRF for "only cursing the darkness" without providing forward looking recommendations. Similarly, a 2009 study criticised USCIRF’s working framework as "focused more on rhetorical denunciations of persecutors and releasing religious prisoners than on facilitating the political and cultural institutions necessary to religious freedom".

Some observers suspect, USCIRF’s statement on Ethiopia could be an attempt to improve its public image as biased, especially given the recent bad publicity it received when a Muslim employee filed complaint alleging her dismissal from the organization was based on religious discrimination.

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