Ethiopian Muslims and the Ahbash controversy
This article was contributed by Muhammad Ali Alula al-Hashimi, a scholar of international political economy specializing in African and Muslim countries. He is associate fellow at the Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance in London (UK), and fou
This article was contributed by Muhammad Ali Alula al-Hashimi, a scholar of international political economy specializing in African and Muslim countries. He is associate fellow at the Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance in London (UK), and founder and executive director of Harar Global Foundation in Washington, DC, a charitable and research organization. He is also a member of the First Hijrah Foundation, based also in Washington, DC.
There may be an “Ethiopian Spring” brewing in the Horn of Africa! It all began back in July 2011. The Ethiopian government, through the offices of the Islamic Supreme Council of Ethiopia, called a conference to be attended by the known Islamic scholars and leaders of Ethiopia. The scholars and leaders dutifully heeded the government summons. It was not long after the start of the conference that most of the attendees walked out in disgust at the proposals that were placed before them. The Ethiopian government was essentially delivering an edict — that had been prepared with the help of Haggai Erlich, the Israeli-Zionist author specializing in Ethiopian history — that henceforth all Ethiopian Muslims would be mandated to follow the particular controversial, indeed heretical, teachings of the Lebanese Ahbash Movement.The attendees could not believe what they were hearing. Here was a secular government that had huddled with an Israeli-Zionist writer to dictate to the 40 million-plus Muslims of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia how they should, indeed must, practice their religion from now into the foreseeable future. Clearly, the conference was an insult on three counts:1. The Ethiopian government, at the very least, is in violation of the Ethiopian Constitution. Article 11 of the Ethiopian Constitution under “Separation of State and Religion” says: (i) state and religion are separate; (ii) there shall be no state religion; and (iii) the state shall not interfere in religious matters and religion shall not interfere in state affairs (emphasis added).2. The government apparently is showing complete contempt for Ethiopian Muslims by inviting an Israeli Zionist to help in its nefarious project. As Muslims the world over know, the Zionists of Israel have been involved in the systematic ethnic cleansing, indeed the uninhibited genocide, of the predominately Muslim people of Palestine for more than half a century. Furthermore, the racist Zionist project has as part of its satanic agenda to destroy the Dome of the Rock and Masjid al-Aqsa, the third holiest religious site in the Islamic world.3. Most egregious of all is the government’s boldfaced audacity to think that Muslims anywhere, let alone in Ethiopia, can be dictated to about how to practice their religion. The first revelation, indeed command, to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was to, “Read in the name of Your Sustainer, The Master of all creation” (96:1). This fundamental command was meant for every Muslim to study and learn to the maximum extent of his or her intellectual capacity the religion in all of its intricacies with a free mind and free will in order to arrive at a level of unassailable certainty as to the veracity of the teachings of Islam. Furthermore, it has been recorded in the generous Qur’an, the exact revealed words of Allah (swt), the Creator, to His Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that there is no compulsion of any kind in religion. But the Ethiopian government seems hell-bent on compelling the Muslims of Ethiopia to believe in a way that has been chosen by the government. How ludicrous and indeed dangerous! The Ethiopian government apparently is courting disaster and preparing for its own demise. The Muslims of Ethiopia, particularly the youth, are not going to sit idly by in the face of this horrendous insult.
Who are the Ahbash?Al-Ahbash (“the Ethiopians”) Movement, also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, is a movement based in Lebanon, yet ironically founded by an Ethiopian shaykh, now deceased, by the name of ‘Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Hirari al-Shi‘bi al-Abdari, also known as al-Habashi (the Arabic word ahbash is the plural of the word habashi). It is a movement that devoutly follows the teachings of the late shaykh. By the late 1980s, al-Ahbash had become one of Lebanon’s largest Islamic movements. Al-Ahbash became a key player in Lebanese politics attracting a wide following among the Sunni urban middle class by advocating pluralism and tolerance. Al-Ahbash established branches in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the Ukraine, and the United States. However, this organization, on which the Ethiopian government is basing its assault on the Ethiopian Muslims, has a reputation for being an organization that espouses teachings that are clearly outside the fundamental teachings of Islam, the most egregious of which is the policy of referring to those who call themselves “Salafi” or “Wahhabi” — often referred to as “Salafi-Wahhabi” because of the similarity between the two doctrines — as kafirs, or non-believers, in Islam. This is clearly an un-Islamic teaching on the part of al-Ahbash. Indeed, every Muslim knows that it is prohibited to call any Muslim a kafir if he or she bears witness that there is no diety/authority but Allah (swt) and that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the Messenger of Allah, prays the five daily prayers, pays the zakah, fasts during the month of Ramadan, and makes pilgrimage to Makkah if financially able. The Salafi-Wahhabi are no different from other Muslims in this respect.
Why the Government has called in al-AhbashIt is clear that it is this particular anti-Salafi, anti-Wahhabi teaching of al-Ahbash that the Ethiopian government is most desirous of forcing down the throats of Ethiopian Muslims. And they apparently feel that the Ahbash have the expertise to do just that. Here is the crux of the issue: the Ethiopian government has determined that the followers of the Salafi-Wahhabi doctrine in Ethiopia are a threat to the stability of the government and the country. The Ethiopian government apparently fears the Salafi-Wahhabi activities, perhaps due to the high profile international exposure of al-Qaeda, an allegedly Salafi-Wahhabi group. However, the international context of al-Qaeda is much different from the national context of Ethiopian Muslims.The national context in Ethiopia of the Salafi-Wahhabi doctrine is the same as it is in other nations — predominately Muslim or otherwise — one among other distinguishable doctrines of Islamic law and practice. These other doctrines — or schools — of Islamic law include the Hanafi, Hanbali, Ibadi, Jafari, Maliki, Shafi‘i, Zahiri, and Zaydi schools of Islamic law. The Salafi-Wahhabi are among members of the global Muslim community who have among them known, respected scholars. And they are, in any nation — predominately Muslim or otherwise — a part of law abiding citizenry. So, it is in Ethiopia: the Salafi-Wahhabi practitioners are a law abiding, hard working minority in a Muslim population that mostly follows the teachings of Imam Shafi‘i and who, therefore, belong to that particular school of Islamic jurisprudence. So, this national context, this national reality of the Muslim community in Ethiopia, has to be understood for what it actually is. But it is the international context of al-Qaeda and their reported unIslamic implementation of Salafi-Wahhabi teachings that the Ethiopian government is using as a pretext to justify imposing — by force of government decree and threat of imprisonment — the Ahbash doctrine, a doctrine which articulates an anti-Salafi-Wahhabi position.
The 21 November Protest against the Ahbash MandateAs pointed out earlier, the foregoing developments began to manifest in Ethiopia as early as July 2011. In the meantime, Ethiopian Muslims in the diaspora have not been sitting still. For example, The First Hijrah Foundation (FHF), an organization of Ethiopian Muslims in the Washington, DC area, called for a protest on Capitol Hill in support of the suffering Ethiopian Muslims back home. On November 21, FHF organized 1,000 Ethiopian Muslims and supporters and staged a protest in front of the US State Department demanding that the US government cut support through foreign aid to the Ethiopian Government, given that it is clearly in violation of the civil rights of half of its 80 million people. One of the members of the First Hijrah Board of Directors, Zenith Muhammad, who was present at the protest, said that al-Ahbash intruders are forcibly taking Ethiopian Muslims to their indoctrination camps to brainwash them into accepting their practices of Islam. She says that this indoctrination includes teaching the abductees that being a Salafi or Wahhabi means being a disbeliever in Islam. These Ahbash intruders are even going to the devilish extent, she says, of forcing Muslims to take the shahadah again, implying that they were not Muslims until al-Ahbash were invited to Ethiopia to brainwash them! The FHF protest started around 9am and ended at 1pm after the protesters made Zuhr Salah (early afternoon prayer).
Some Recent DevelopmentsThis past December, 2011, some information about recent developments with regard to al-Ahbash was obtained from a reliable source in Ethiopia. According to this source, al-Ahbash have already started printing books and other materials to spread their doctrine. There is even discussion going on that al-Ahbash will be getting land to build schools and even a university to facilitate the entrenchment of their indoctrination program. Furthermore, it is being reported that part of the Ahbash strategy is to approach the more vulnerable segments of Ethiopian Muslim society such as the orphans and the homeless, promising them jobs and education if they join the movement. The source also pointed out that al-Ahbash are meeting stiff resistance to their indoctrination program from the Oromo — the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia — in the towns and countryside of the Oromo region. The Oromo, who have historically been victimized by earlier Ethiopian regimes, instinctively stand strong against any government decree they perceive as threatening their culture and religion as they wish to practice them. Furthermore, it has been reported that in the capital city Addis Ababa, there are at least three masjids — Shaho Jeli Masjid, Kera Masjid, and Ayartena Masjid — where al-Ahbash are being resisted from spreading their distorted views. However, several other masjids in the capital are allowing al-Ahbash to speak, apparently unwilling to invite possible repercussions from the government. It has also been reported that some Muslim NGOs are being closed down by the government under the pretext that they are involved in religious activities counter to the Ahbash mandate rather than being purely humanitarian or developmental in their activities. At the other end of the spectrum, it is reported that at least one very wealthy Harari Muslim is supporting the government sponsored Ahbash. This may be partly due to the fact that the founder of the Lebanon-based Ahbash movement was himself a Harari Muslim, the late Shaykh Abdullah al-Harari. The nisbah “al-Harari” means one who is from the Muslim city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The city of Harar is generally regarded as the stronghold of ethnic Harari — also known as the Adere — although it is inhabited by other ethnic groups, including the Oromo and Somali.
Arba MinchIn addition to the problems with the Ahbash movement, the Ethiopian government announced in October of 2011 — just four months after the Ahbash movement had been invited to Ethiopia to disrupt the lives of the peace loving Muslims — the opening of an airbase in Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia to facilitate the launching of drones in the Horn of Africa, as if the drone air base in Djibouti is not enough! Although the Ethiopian government announced that the drones of Arba Minch would only be used for surveillance, any intelligent person who follows global geopolitical events on a regular basis knows, in a word, that this announcement is misleading. It will not be long, if not already taking place, before the drones coming out of Arba Minch will be used to kill hundreds of innocent Muslims in the Horn — in the Ethiopian Ogaden, Somalia and Kenya — in the name of fighting “Islamic terrorists” and “Islamic fundamentalists.” And there is no doubt that the American and Israeli governments are financing all of this mayhem — both in its Ahbash and Arba Minch dimensions — against the Muslims!
The Issue of Islamic Banking in EthiopiaThere is another troubling issue that has not gotten much media attention but in fact may be a window to what is really going on behind the scenes in Ethiopia at the highest levels. This is the issue of bringing Islamic banking to Ethiopia. This writer has been fairly close to this issue and actively involved for the past six years with individuals in Ethiopia trying to bring some form of Islamic financial intermediation. Based on my involvement in this issue, on a visit to Ethiopia in the summer of 2010 I was invited to a luncheon meeting by some of the individuals who were trying to form the first Islamic bank in Ethiopia, the Zamzam Bank. At the luncheon, the individuals mentioned an earlier meeting between officials of the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) and representatives of the proposed Zamzam Bank. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was also in attendance at the meeting. The Zamzam representatives put forth their proposal and rationale for Islamic banking. The NBE officials argued against allowing Islamic banking in Ethiopia. Meles, who had been listening attentively and patiently to the two sides, finally got up from his seat and directed the NBE officials to draft a new proclamation allowing for Islamic Banking. He then left the room.Of course, the Zamzam representatives were quite happy with the outcome. The government proclamation, Proclamation 592/2008, declared for the implementation of “interest free banking.” Apparently, those who drafted the proclamation could not bring themselves to use the term “Islamic banking” in the wording of the proclamation.That Prime Minister Meles took the action he did should not be surprising. This is because Meles is a very astute political economist. Even the Columbia University Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, has attested to the acumen of Meles in the field of economics. As such, Meles is fully aware of the track record Islamic banking has had around the world. He understands that it would bring over time a significant boost to the Ethiopian economy. That is why he personally backed the call for Islamic banking.Now, here is the rub. A really strange thing occurred right in the midst of the Ahbash controversy and the implementation of the drones at Arba Minch: the National Bank of Ethiopia rescinded the Proclamation calling for interest free banking by issuing a directive that took effect on October 1, 2011. The directive nullified full-fledged non-interest banking by stating that only “Islamic banking windows” would be allowed in the existing conventional banks of Ethiopia. This is a crushing blow for Zamzam Bank which had been busy raising start-up capital through investment shares. Apparently, they will have to refund these shares as they will not be able to open as a free standing Islamic bank. Where was Meles in all of this? Why was he not able to stop this new directive from being implemented? Is there some kind of power struggle going on between the mostly Tigrean government of Prime Minister Meles and the National Bank of Ethiopia, dominated at the level of control and power by the mostly Amhara monarchists who are, for the most part, Christian fundamentalists of the Orthodox Coptic sect?
Positive Economic Development under Meles ZenawiThese questions are raised because under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia has grown and prospered. More to the point, the economic growth in Ethiopia has been quite impressive. This fact alone has fostered a positive psychological attitude among Ethiopians, both Christian and Muslim, that there is hope for the future. The Muslims have seen a steady growth in the number of masjids all over the country. There has been an increase in the availability and distribution of Islamic literature. In 1980, under the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, it was hard to find any Islamic literature anywhere in Addis Ababa. However, in recent times, the availability of Islamic literature has increased quite significantly. Muslims have thus felt more a part of Ethiopian society under the current regime than at any time in the past. The Ahbash debacle threatens to bring this feeling of inclusiveness to a crashing end. Even now, when much of the western world is experiencing a severe economic downturn due to the global debt crisis, Ethiopia is enjoying substantial growth in its gross domestic product. There still remains much work to be done with regard to the distribution of national income through social welfare programs and entitlements; far too many Ethiopians are suffering in abject poverty. Nevertheless, when one stands back and takes a panoramic perspective of Ethiopian political history over the past 200 years, one will not find any political administration under which more has been accomplished than under the regime of Ato Meles Zenawi. So, why would Meles risk the positive attributes of his tenure — particularly with regard to improvement of the national economy and the increased inclusion of the Muslim populace in national activity — to enter into this current phase of horrendous negativity?
Federalists versus Monarchists Every Ethiopian Muslim — and many honest Ethiopian Christians for that matter — know that all of the important institutions in Ethiopia — finance, business, industry — are controlled by certain fanatical fundamentalists of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Christian Church. This same group is also known as the monarchists; they look back with nostalgia to “the good old days” of the rule of Emperor Haile Sellasie. This writer is familiar with the hurdles this group created on numerous occasions while trying to take care of my own business in Ethiopia. If truth be known, these fanatical Christian fundamentalists, the ones who are often behind the scenes and in control, do not want to see Ethiopian Muslims even with the crumbs from the loaf of bread, let alone equitably sharing in the wealth. The monarchists have opposed Meles Zenawi and his government mainly because he has reorganized the country into a federal system. In Ethiopia’s case, this means the status of the major ethnic groups — the Oromo, Afar, and Somali, etc. — has been raised to a state level where these groups control and run their states according to the limits of the federal constitution. This means that, for example, the Oromo language becomes the official language in the Oromo federal state. It means, as another example, that Islamic culture can take a more prominent place in the official order of things in those federal states where the majority are adherents of Islam, such as the Harari federal state. This enfranchisement of non-Amhara ethnic groups is what the monarchists hate so vehemently. It diminishes the hegemony the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Christians had enjoyed under the monarchy.This poison of Christian fundamentalists in Ethiopia broke out into the open for the world to see in the summer of 2005 during the campaigns — both inside and outside of Ethiopia — in the so-called Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). During their protests and campaigns, they flaunted the Lion of Judah flag of the old Ethiopian monarchy, chanting incessantly “one nation, one language, one flag, and one religion”. That one religion of course was the religion of the former Ethiopian monarchy, the religion of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Christian Church. In other words, unity and democracy for the CUD meant a desire to take the nation backward to the days when Muslims officially did not even exist in the eyes of the Coptic Orthodox Christian monarchy. It must be understood that not too long ago, less than 40 years as a matter of fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Rite was the official religion of Ethiopia. The late Emperor Haile Selassie, protector of the Orthodox Church in his capacity as absolute monarch, was known to have said when asked about the condition of the Ethiopian Muslims that there were, in reality, no such thing as “Ethiopian” Muslims because all Muslims in Ethiopia were, in fact, foreigners! This response was in line with the emperor’s propaganda that Ethiopia was a Christian country surrounded by a sea of Muslims. The great pity is that there are still Christians in Ethiopia who will repeat this fiction publicly even today.
A Possible Hypothesis to Explain it AllTo hypothesize, in light of the foregoing, Meles was unable to stop the NBE directive because the Ahbash debacle and the Arba Minch move may very well imply the resurgence of the monarchist faction that has always been opposed to the Meles Zenawi government. There appears American support behind Arba Minch and American-Israeli support behind al-Ahbash. The Ethiopian monarchist faction saw and seized an opportunity to reassert itself politically. They may have readily collaborated with the Americans and the Israelis, forcing Meles into a corner to go along with their anti-Muslim agenda. In short, that fundamentalist Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Christian element in the circles of power in Ethiopia — that fanatical holdover from the days of Emperor Haile Selassie — has finally found a convenient tool — the Ahbash doctrine — and a convenient scapegoat — the activities of al-Qaeda — to do what it has wanted to do for a long time: stifle the wholesome growth and development of the Muslim community in Ethiopia. Thus, it very well may be that the fanatical Ethiopian Christian power structure has been more than willing to act as accomplices and facilitators in the American-Israeli agenda against Ethiopian Muslims. The screws are tightening around the Muslims of Ethiopia in particular and the Muslims of the Horn of African in general. Of course, the foregoing hypothesis may be wrong. It may well be that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is himself at the center of this three-pronged pincer movement — that is, the Ahbash, Arba Minch, and anti-Islamic banking attack — against the Muslim community of Ethiopia. It may be that he is an incredible opportunist who decided to take the substantial monetary largesse that surely the Americans and the Israelis offered him to realize their own geopolitical interests in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. If so, it will mean his fall from grace in the eyes of the Muslim community, at least 40 million people of Ethiopia’s population. Indeed, Allah (swt) knows best.
The Way AheadThe Muslims of Ethiopia — whether Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali, Salafi, Shafi‘i, Zahiri, Zaydi, or Wahhabi — will have to close ranks and stand together as Muslims. There are dark days ahead, but if the Muslims stand together purely and solely on the basis of Islam, there is little doubt they will be successful, for such has been Allah’s (swt) promise in His generous Qur’an. Further, the Muslim youth — those under 35 years of age — will be the leaders. There are many learned Muslim youth in Ethiopia. They have the knowledge and the youthful stamina to lead an “Ethiopian Spring” against the tyranny that stands in front of them.