ADDIS ABABA – As Ethiopian government continues to turn a deaf ear to increasing Muslim demands, experts have warned that the repeated crackdown on the religious minority might make peaceful young Muslim protests more vulnerable to extremism.
“If legitimate grievances are not met there is a risk that extremist violent elements will exploit those grievances to further their own aim,” Mehari Taddele Maru, head of the African Conflict Prevention Program at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told IPS on Thursday, October 10.
“The Horn of Africa has the third-largest Muslim population in the world and has become increasingly volatile due to the war being waged inside Somalia against Al-Qaeda linked terrorist organization Al-Shabaab, which has declared jihad on Ethiopia several times,” he added.
Protests have rocked Ethiopia over the past years over government interference in the religious affairs of the Muslim community.
Muslims say the government is spearheading a campaign in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs to indoctrinate their community with the ideology of a sect called "Ahbash".
Muslims say the government move is in violation of the constitution, which prevents the government interference in religious affairs.
To quell the Muslim protests, the Ethiopian government launched a major crackdown, arresting scores of Muslim protest leaders.
Scores of Muslims have been also killed in repeated crackdown of security forces on peaceful protests.
The latest attack occurred during `Eid al-Fitr holiday in August when police attacked thousands of Muslims who gathered to demand religious rights.
One of the protestors was beaten along with his wife and child for holding a placard that read 'Release our Leaders'.
“We are peaceful Muslims protesting against this government for arresting our leaders. We are not extremists. Our teachers are not extremists,” the protester, who asked for anonymity for fear of repercussions, told IPS.
“We do not want the government controlling our religious lives. We feel that we do not have any religious freedom. They beat us, shoot us and arrest us. We have no religious rights in this country,” he added.
Earlier on August 4, 14 Muslims were shot dead by government security forces during an attempt to arrest a local Imam in Central Ethiopia.
Defying radicalization theories, other experts stressed that Ethiopia Muslim protests were a result of political concerns about the recognition of the minority rights in their country.
“There is this dangerous presumption that when Muslims protest for their rights that they are under the influence of radicals,” Terje Østebø, an East African Islamist Reform movement expert at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, told IPS.
“Much of the debate within Islamic society in Ethiopia is about politics of recognition.
“Young Muslims are trying to find their identity as both Ethiopian and as a Muslim,” he added.
The government’s reluctance to engage with the Muslim rights movement is also consistent with the country’s autocratic leadership strategy, says Østebø.
“This regime has maintained its power by limiting any space for political opposition and civil society to move in,” Østebø said.
“The demands being made by Ethiopia’s Muslim community are secularist, non-violent and part of a Muslim rights movement that is far from being extremist.”
Amnesty condemned what the rights group described as the Ethiopian government’s use of repressive tactics against demonstrators.
“The government continues to respond to the grievances of the Muslim community with violence, arbitrary arrests and the use of the overly-broad Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to prosecute the movements’ leaders and other individuals," Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher, told IPS.
“This is a violation of people’s right to peacefully protest, as protected in Ethiopia’s constitution. The Ethiopian government must end its use of repressive tactics against demonstrators.”
Muslims make up about 34 percent of Ethiopia’s population, according to a government census in 2007.
Yet, other sources put Ethiopia Muslims at about 50% of the country’s population.
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