* Govt sparks accusations of religious meddling
* Thousands have protested in capital
* Ethiopian PM denies accusations
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, May 10 (Reuters) – On the outskirts of Addis
Ababa, a muezzin leads a solemn sermon at a mosque before
thousands of worshippers stamp their feet to protest against
what they say is the Ethiopian government’s interference in
Protests are uncommon in tightly-controlled Ethiopia, and
the unrest has caused concern in the predominantly Christian
nation that takes pride in centuries of coexistence.
The government fears hardline Islam is taking root in the
Horn of Africa country, which has long been seen by the West as
a bulwark against militant Islam in neighbouring Somalia.
“We are observing tell-tale signs of extremism. We should
nip this scourge in the bud,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told
parliament last month.
The protesters accuse Meles’ government of interfering by
seeking to impose the beliefs of a little-known sect as
doctrine. They say the government is promoting the Al Ahbash, an
Islamic movement that opposes ultra-conservative ideology and
The protesters broadly say they adhere to moderate
Sufi-inspired values and not the ultra-conservative Salafist
interpretation of Islam.
“Call me a terrorist but I will defend my religion,” said
the muezzin in his sermon, denouncing the Al Ahbash movement.
Since the beginning of the year, demonstrations have taken
place on an almost weekly basis in mosques throughout the
capital, and more are expected. The London-based Control Risks
group said this week Ethiopia’s security forces might come down
hard on any further protests, based on the government’s past
responses to unrest.
Meles has dismissed claims his government is imposing the
sect as an official doctrine. He said Islamic hardliners are
“peddling ideologies of intolerance” throughout the country, but
that it was difficult to prosecute them as they are preaching
within their rights inside mosques.
Any attempt to exploit sectarian divides has the potential
to destabilize Africa’s second most populous country, which is
60 percent Christian and 30 percent Muslim.
Also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable
Projects, Al Ahbash was founded in the early 1980s by Sheikh
Abdullah al Harrari, an Ethiopian cleric who was forced to leave
his country for Lebanon in 1950.
According to Abubeker Ahmed, an Ethiopian Muslim activist
and head of an independent Islamic arbitration committee, the
protesters are lamenting what they see as efforts to impose the
sect, rather than the sect itself.
He says the appointed leadership of Ethiopia’s Islamic
Affairs Supreme Council was not representative of the country’s
“It (Al Ahbash) has the right to exist in Ethiopia, but it
is unacceptable that the Council tries to impose it on all
members of the Muslim community,” Ahmed told Reuters. He said
the government wanted to prevent a vote to elect a new council
and replace the decade-old one.
“They (the government) want to keep them because they agree
to whatever orders,” he said.
What sparked the protests in the Ethiopian capital,
activists said, was the Islamic Council’s dismissal of several
teachers at the Awoliya institute – a move they said signalled
the government’s determination to crack down on groups it
believes poses a threat to stability. The institute’s college
and an Arabic language learning centre have also been shut down.
Some demonstrators told Reuters an imam seized by police in
the Oromiya region last month was arrested for attempting to
whip up support for protests in the southern province. Officials
say he was detained on suspicion of preaching hardline Islamic
Some protesters say the government’s strategy might
backfire, sowing the seeds of the hardline Islam it seeks to
keep at bay.
“We are against any sort of extremism ourselves, we want to
stop such thinking,” said Ahmed Mustafa, secretary of the
independent arbitration panel.
David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, applauded
Meles’ track record on religious affairs.
“The government has done a pretty good job over the years in
ameliorating religious differences where there are potentially
serious conflicts among Orthodox, Protestant … and Muslims,”