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Don’t Bell the Cat

Don’t Bell the Cat

Amen Teferi


In anticipation to the August 3, 2015, final decision of the Federal High Court that investigated, for the last three years, the case of the so-called “arbitration committee,” I have taken time to ponder on issues that are pertinent to the convicted.

The Federal High Court has found all the defendants guilty and passed a verdict on July 6, 2015. The case has temptingly motivated me to reflect on the genesis and trajectory of the ‘Islamic movement’ in Ethiopia, giving particular emphasis to Ethiopian history and newly emerging trends of globalizations. This begged a question, “how the movement that wind-up in criminal activity took shape in the first place?” Hence, I have tried to see how the movement crystallizes itself into a group(s) that poses threat to our constitutional order and tied to draw a picture that renders the genesis and trajectory of the movement as I look to it through the eyeholes of seminal research works conducted on the recent ‘Islamic movement’ in Ethiopia.           

It is to be recalled that the Federal High Court that has been investigating the criminal charges filed by the Federal Prosecution Office against 28 individuals that are identified with the July 2012 protests and another convict accused of illegally accepting funds from a foreign embassy. However, on December 12, the Federal High Court had dismissed the charges against 10 defendants and reduced their number to 18. After meticulous investigation of the case, on July 6, 2015, the Federal High Court had decided that defendants are guilty of the charges filed by the Federal Prosecutor.

Members of the self-styled “arbitration committee” who claim to represent the general Muslim Community were held in custody being suspected of criminal offenses related to terrorism. They had presented witnesses and evidence in their defense, cross-examine prosecution witnesses, but failed to invalidate the charges of the Federal Prosecution that accused them of being organized in clandestine to advance religious and political agendas that would subvert the constitutional order looking forward to constitute Islamic state.

The court’s trials and its proceedings were, with exception of few sessions at the beginning, were public and carried out according to the Ethiopian constitution -fully respecting the international and regional human rights standards.

Look Back

It was after the era of Emperor Haile Sellassie -which is characterized by a policy of repressive tolerance and only a partial granting of rights to Muslims- that the socialist-oriented military regime known as Derg put an end to this longstanding religious inequality. Under the Derg (1974- 1991), I should say, there was an active discouragement of religion in all its forms, and both Christianity and Islam were the target of state propaganda and subversion. Derg considered all religion as 'false ideology,' 'backward,' and 'anti-development' and thus strove to systematically weaken it.

Therefore, in this regard, the first measure taken by the Derg was to annul the privileged position the Orthodox Church had been enjoying through the confiscation of its vast land and immovable properties.

Apart from banning religious education in schools, the Derg had devised policies that aimed at changing the religious dispositions and culture of the population. Before long, however, it realizes the insurmountable challenges posed by the deep-rooted religious tendency of most Ethiopians -Christians and Muslims. As the Derg regime could not ignore this strong social factor, it has soon settled for a policy of co-existence and co-optation.

In this regard, Jon Abbink has said, “Rhetorically, Derg has granted religion, especially Islam, a new public status and equal rights by recognizing the most important Christian and Islamic religious festivals as public holidays, and tried to give ceremonial recognition to the two communities, e.g. by making their leaders appear at state occasions. However, the practical exercise of religion and the social basis of religion among the population at large was discouraged and sidetracked in many ways.”

In terms of political influence and cultural dominance, Islam had occupied an inferior position vis-à-vis Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia during the pre-1974 imperial regimes. Being burdened, for so long a time, with such difficulties (that have historical and political dimensions), the 'quest for identity' among Ethiopian Muslims had remained unfulfilled up until 1991 when Ethiopia had established a new regime that has given due emphasis to ethnic and religious identities and promote equality among the various social groups.

Hence, it is in the wake of the political and socio-economic reforms that the federal Ethiopia had gone through over the last two decades that new issues related with religious and political identity had developed among the Ethiopian Muslims. This transformation, accompanied by the forceful impact of 'globalization' (i.e. in the cultural sense), has stimulated unprecedented revivalism among the Muslim communities in Ethiopia.

While Ethiopians Muslims have gone through a phase of revivalism and self-assertion in recent years, many scholars argued, they have nevertheless remained unreceptive to the prowling thrust of the 'fundamentalist' ideologies -both in social and political senses. The Ethiopians Muslims have hitherto shown an unswerving resolve in resisting the “voracious beast” that is roaring and creeping all around them to eat-up the most enviable social fabric that has so far bound the multi-cultural and multi-religious people of Ethiopia together.

Here, we must underscore the fact that the world we use to know has gone for good. The new global developments that had emerged in recent decades do entail that we stand vigilant in safeguarding the world-famous peaceful co-existence in multi-religious Ethiopia, which until now has continued undamaged.

We must also underscore the existence of a 'quest for identity' among Ethiopian Muslims, which is expressed as an effort to be recognized, to organize, as well as to lift up their status to the level that would put them on par with the religious group that had been enjoying especial privileges or dominance in both political and cultural terms.

The radical political transformation of Ethiopia was accompanied by some crucial global developments, which set Islam as an expanding world-religion and identity. These factors have consequently opened-up a chance for Ethiopian Muslims -who had hitherto been marked by strong inward orientation- to connect to the outside world.

The opening-up and the new global Islamic movements have caught the attention of some scholars, who began to contemplate whether Islam in Ethiopia will serve as a vehicle for political or social mobilization and exclusivist identity as has happened in several other African countries (notably Malawi, Sudan and Nigeria), where earlier patterns of co-existence between Christians and Muslims are redefined in the context of emerging 'fundamentalisms.'

The Scholars

According to some scholars, after the regime change in 1991 the unique patterns of tolerance among the followers of Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia have become the target of a movement of itinerant teachers/preachers of 'true Islam.' Such incidents were seen in many parts of the country, even in Wollo that is best known for instances of extreme tolerance.

The anthropologist Jon Abbink had conducted one study taking issues of identity and politics among the Muslim communities in Ethiopia. Therefore, in 1994 Abbink had gone to Aliyu Amba, where Muslim and Christian people are living together in the same villages. Noting what he saw in those villages he said: “some people who had visited the villages had asked some Muslims to reduce their contacts and co-operation with the Christians, and to reinforce the 'Muslim character' of their village and their way of life.”

Another scholar, Schlee (1994), who had studied the changing relationships between the Boran, Gabbra, Garri and Somali ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia and in a similar vein he has noted “the problems of a new Islamic identity intersecting with ethnicity is disturbing the local co-existence.”

In this regard, it is worth mentioning to what Prof. Hagai Urlich who pointed out in his book: Saudi and Ethiopia, “if Ethiopia were an island, it would absolutely be insulated from problems that arise in relation with fundamentalism.” Nevertheless, living in a globalized world, many Ethiopian youth are exposed to an obtrusive outside influence and consequently Ethiopia has become prone to forceful pressures that foreign Islamic ‘fundamentalist’ groups are exerting.

Larva and Pupa  

As various scholars had indicated, radicalization of Islam in Ethiopia had emerged in the early 1990s. Amongst these, we have Terje Østebø and Wallelign Shemsedin (2015) who had studied the evolution of Islamic movement in Ethiopia mainly focusing on recent developments. According to Østebø and Wallelign, the movement had begun as a fluid network of likeminded individuals who met regularly in small reading groups, which its “members” referred to as the jama’a – a generic Arabic term for “community” or “group.” They deemed this group as having an informal character and elitist tendency for it mainly consists as its member students, academics and intellectuals, and thus I hope they opted to refer the movement as an “Intellectualist movement.”

As they analyze the movement in relation to the broader dynamics of the post-1991 period, they have reflected on how local actors had appropriated Muslim Brotherhood ideas. These researchers also made assessment on the role of religion in the public sphere and made impressive effort to describe the way in which this movement took shape in the post 1991 period when Ethiopia was undergoing a rapidly changing and fluid political and religious landscape was emerging.

According to Østebø and Wallelign, the informal character of the Intellectualist movement has enabled “it to escape the authorities’ increasingly controlling gaze and to continue to conduct its activities relatively undisturbed and it had attracted new students and expanded throughout the 1990s.”

As the state minister to the Office the Government Communication Affairs, Shimels Kemal, had said last month, on a forum organized at Adma, “There is seamless the transition from extremism to terrorism” poetically likening it with the biological transition of a larva into a pupa.

Initially, the core activity of the group was studying publication by famous authors associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its members were usually recruited in mosques and through regular public lectures.

Each group consisted of between eight and ten members that met on Sunday afternoons to spend time in reading and discussion. Public lectures could attract up to 600 people, but the number of groups was relatively low during the initial years. The core membership did not exceed more than 50, and even as the movement spread, there were probably not more than ten to twelve groups at its peak.

Being mindful about the inherent complexity of the trend that we commonly labeled as Islamism, the study will help us to understand the increasingly radicalized trend that was entailed and supported by various local and global factors.

Østebø and Wallelign have asserted that the “Intellectualist Movement” was inspired by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and have noted that the leaders of the movement did not try to contextualize their movement to Ethiopian situation by somehow avoiding the more political aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and merely emphasize the positive role of Islamic virtues in the formation of individual and societal piety. Rather they had uncritically tried to apply ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood in an ‘unfriendly’ context of Ethiopia.

The movement did not give due attention, the scholars claimed, to  the question of secularism, democracy and constitutional rule, and that consequently has played significant role in deepening the general confusion of the leadership on what constitutes societal and individual piety. Thus, the movement went along a path that would obstruct the negotiating position of Islam vis-à-vis other religious groups. They failed to understand that such kind of movement would require a more nuanced understanding of the playing field to accommodate the various interests being advanced by different actors on board.

Gradually, the movement has taken a structure similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hence, each group – Usra – consisted of seven members and had its own organizer. Three groups (Usra) made up one Shuba; and Shuba meetings are organized when major issues were to be discussed. Participation in groups was shrouded in a form of secrecy. Meetings were held in private houses and members did not arrive and leave at the same time.

Secrecy was one of the disciplinary rules of these groups. There was also a tough “self-evaluation” mechanism to appraise members’ intellectual development, commitment and, in particular, personal piety using scorecard, where praying in the mosque would be rewarded with four points, while praying at home would score less, and arriving in mosque on time would make up for extra points.

According to Terje Østebø and Wallelign Shemsedin, the intellectualist movement that sought to effect major Islamic reform movements in contemporary Ethiopia is nothing but an offshoot of Islamic reformism. Though their study does not produce a picture that could support the claim made by the Ethiopian government and some outside observers who strongly believe in the existence of an increasingly radicalized Islam in Ethiopia, it nevertheless did not fail to establish the ideological kinship the “Intellectualists movement” has with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. 


The Muslim Brotherhood movement has an ideology that we commonly known as Islamism - an ideology that aims to Islamize both society and the state through violent means. According to this ideology, democracy and secular legal and political system are defined as illegitimate innovations (bid’a) that should be replaced with Islamic political order based solely on the sharia, i.e. Islamic law.

Accordingly, the “Intellectualists movement,” as major Islamic reform movements in cotemporary Ethiopia has been engaged in increasingly radicalizing Islam in Ethiopia. Moreover, the analysis recognizes the multiplicity inherent in the concept of Islamism, while noting that Islamism seeks state power to establish an Islamic order by advocating Muslim politics that have different overture.

As Terje Østebø and Wallelign Shemsedin have asserted that there has never been an organized Muslim Brotherhood presence in Ethiopia, but they claim “Intellectualists movement” has no logistical links to any outside Muslim Brotherhood groups, nor have there been any attempts by such groups to create a Muslim Brotherhood movement in Ethiopia.

However, they have acknowledged the “ideas stemming from the Brotherhood have been clearly present in Ethiopia, and the “Intellectualists movement” has been a crucial source of inspiration for the Intellectualists who have been formative in shaping the Muslim religious discourse in post-1991 Ethiopia.”

The above-cited co-researchers claimed they have been following the movement closely for nearly a decade. In fact, they have managed to obtain significant information about the organizational development and the ideological trajectory of the movement. The movement, they said, has decentralized character and fluid leadership that lack any coherent or agreed on program.

They admit that lack of coherent program had posed methodological challenge in the study. They have also acknowledged the interpretations of past events made by broad spectrum of informants has produced “a complex and sometimes contradictory picture.” In my view, the grave drawback that could easily be noticed in the conduct of this research is the lopsided reliance of the researchers on data gathered from informants that are members of the movement. They could have got a concise picture, if they had had the views of some veteran scholars who can provide them seasoned opinion. However, the dangerous nature of the movement and the hazardous deportment of its members cannot be veiled by the charlatan academic fig leaf.

Evaluating the issue critically in light of the concrete facts on the ground and the substantive evidence in the hands of the Ethiopian government one could easily draw a clear picture of the transformation of the larva into pupa.

The facts on the ground convincingly demonstrate that Islamism was taking shape in Ethiopia. In some cases, it exists without promoting violent means to achieve its goal, while in other it follow violent paths. Nevertheless, this is an instance of difference in strategy and not of ideology. Difference in strategy does not imply difference in ideology, i.e. Islamism. 

We have range of views the Muslim Brotherhood are promoting regarding the means employed in achieving the political order the various groups commonly sought establish and what this goal actually entails.

One may argue what strategy the Islamic movement in Ethiopia has adopted. Similarly, we can argue whether there are two or three variants Islamism. But it would sheer naivety to argue claiming absence of any form of Islamism in Ethiopia altogether. I would be ready to take any suggestion as valid, but I would utterly dispute suggestions the absence of a group that attempt to advocate Islamism.

The fact on the ground does not support the suggestion of scholars about the absence of Islamist politics in Ethiopia. In fact, it would be absurd to deduce “the contradictory interpretations of past events made by informants,” as Terje Østebø and Wallelign Shemsedin did, to the absence of Islamism in contemporary Ethiopia. In my view, that rather may signify the existence of two or more brands of Islamism.

However, I fully concur with their claim that “the Islamist trend represented by the Intellectualist movement was seeking to marry Islam with democratic rights, accepting and operating within a secularist framework,” but that was a failed attempt wind up to utter confusion.   

After assuming power in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) introduced unprecedented changes for the historically marginalized Muslim population of Ethiopia. It reversed many of former regimes’ repressive policies toward Islam and introduced a religious climate that recognized Muslims as integral to Ethiopia’s religious landscape. These changes were welcomed by the Muslim population, boosted religious activities, opened the doors for engagement with the broader Muslim world and paved the way for the surfacing of various Islamic reform movements.

The three main movements – the Salafi movement, the Jamat al-Tabligh and the Intellectualist movement – became vehicles for this new Muslim activism and produced an increasingly diversified Muslim community.

Appealing to a young generation coming out of a period marked by a coercive state-enforced modernization that perceived religious adherence as reactionary and backward, the new reform movements provided this “generation of the Derg” with ways to create new religious identities and articulate allegiance to Islamic virtues.

“Intellectualist Movement”

The Intellectualist movement initially emerged at Addis Ababa University immediately after the political transition in 1991. It particularly appealed to a segment of the young generation that was urban, educated, proficient in English and intellectually mature. The movement organized places for prayer inside the university dormitories, reading and discussion groups, and larger meetings.

Similar groups were soon set up at other university campuses. There was no defined or institutionalized leadership, but rather individuals who acted as de facto leaders, i.e. charismatic individuals with organizational skills who were respected for their intellectual capacity and knowledge of Islam.

Religious literature was foundational for the Intellectualists, and the movement was all about reading and discussing. Foreign and local Islamic non-governmental organizations (NGO) made books available; the Ethiopian Muslim Youth Association (EMYA), which was established in 1992, was one of the most influential in this regard. The organization’s library was particularly important, providing the youth with free access to Islamic literature.

The EMYA tilted ideologically in a Salafi direction, because it was linked with the World Association of Muslim Youth in Riyadh, which in turn opened connection to Muslim Brotherhood. Islamic magazines, like Bilal and Dawa were also important factors that contribute to the development of Islamism.

There was an unprecedented organized Muslim activity in Ethiopia during the period 1991-95. The hitherto peaceful trend ended and got a skewed movement when violence sparked at the al-Anwar mosque in Addis Ababa in February 1995. On top of that, we have the failed assassination attempt on then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak when he visited Addis Ababa in June 1995. These events have served as a weak up call for Ethiopia to heed the increasing radicalization of Islam in the country.

The Ethiopian government began to be concerned about the influence its neighbor Sudan -the first Islamist Republic under Shaikh Hasan al-Turabi- is exerting. This led to the arrest of hundreds of Muslims and to the closure of many Muslim institutions, including the EMYA. Because an Egyptian Islamist group supported by the regime in Khartoum carried out the attack on Mubarak, the Ethiopian government reacted by expelling a large number of Sudanese nationals and banning all Sudanese NGOs operating in Ethiopia.

The closure of EMYA and the ban on the Sudanese NGOs somehow closed the space that has served for the diffusion of the extremist ideology of Salafis. Then the only recognized organization that represents Muslim interests was the EIASC.

But it becomes the target of the assault from the extremist elements for it was perceived as hindrance to the propagation of Salafi ideology. The extremist elements sought to get dominance in mosques. Mosques become an important closed space where they freely rein the religious activities. Soon the mosque has become a market place where various groups with different ideological orientations are found. This in turn furthered the situation of ideological fragmentation.

Among these group was what Terje Østebø and Wallelign Shemsedin opt to refer as “Intellectualist movement.” The movement continued to conduct its activities relatively undisturbed. It managed to attract new students and kept on expanding throughout the 1990s. Its core activity was the study group and members were usually recruited in mosques and through regular public lectures. Each group consisted of between eight and ten members that met on Sunday afternoons to spend time in reading and discussion.

The structure that evolved was similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Each group – usra – consisted of seven members and had its own organizer. Three usra groups made up one shuba, and shuba meetings were organized when major issues were to be discussed. Participation in groups was shrouded in a form of secrecy. Meetings were held in private houses and members did not arrive and leave at the same time.

The groups implement strict self-evaluation of members’ intellectual development, commitment and, in particular, personal piety using a form of scorecard: For example, praying in the mosque has four points, while praying at home has less, and arriving in mosque on time would be rewarded with extra points.

The process of self-evaluation was unevenly practiced among the groups. It is important to mention that some members oppose the self-evaluation and the structural arrangements that were inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The question about the movement’s association with the Muslim Brotherhood gradually became more pronounced as internal divisions emerged. The issue was highly complex and there are a number of different interpretations of what actually happened. It is clear, the disagreements date back to the late 1990s and revolved largely around questions of leadership.

Attempts to create a leadership structure were undertaken around 1992 with the establishment of a shura (council), but it existed only until 1995, and a second attempt to establish a new one was made in 1997. Unhappy with this new shura, some senior Intellectualists distanced themselves from the movement while the remaining leadership continued with the movement’s regular activities. In 2003, there were attempts at reconciliation, but it soon became clear that any solution was unlikely. In addition to the question about leadership, debates about structure emerged, revealing significant ideological differences.

Much of these disagreements revolved around the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the debate was never about establishing a local branch of the Brotherhood in Ethiopia or creating links to the movement internationally, one faction (the existing shura) favored closer affinity to the Brotherhood and an organizational structure modeled on it. The argument was that Muslims in Ethiopia should consider themselves as part of a global Islamic movement and be connected to currents in the broader Muslim world. The opposing faction, led by Idris Muhammad and Hassan Taju, fiercely objected to any form of linkage with the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a connection, they argued, would be detrimental to the movement: “We knew that if we created an organization, the government would be curious. If we had been organized, the government would have cracked down on us.”

The Protest

The remaining leadership of the Intellectualist movement continued with its activities based on discussion groups. However, the internal conflict severely weakened the movement. Recruitment seems to have stagnated during the 2000s and there were no indication of the emergence of more elaborate structures. The movement remained confined to urban areas, mostly Addis Ababa, and its base was restricted to students, university graduates and a small Muslim intellectual class. However, the leadership managed to create separate organizations. The most vibrant of these was the Islamic Culture and Research Centre, established in 2003 and closed by the government in 2011.

In contrast to the movement’s secretive character, Idris Muhammad and Hassan Taju, who had walked out and continued their activities on an individual basis, gradually emerged as widely known public figures, the former as a popular public speaker and the latter as a prolific writer and publisher. These individuals and the Intellectualist movement more broadly – in spite of its elitist character – strongly influenced the younger Muslim generation, becoming a major player in the ideological discourse that in recent years has become increasingly complex and sensitive.

As the Muslim Brotherhood was an inspiration and ideological father to the Intellectualist movement, it is bound to be nothing but Islamist. When ideological differences could no more be compromised those who prefer the so-called Modernist Muslim thinkers, have distanced themselves from the movement.

According to Terje Østebø and Wallelign Shemsedin, initially movement assumed a reformist posture based on the ideas of Tabligh and then it moves on to become Salafis before honing their separate identity as Intellectualists. “A few leading figures were more conscious of the Muslim Brotherhood influence, and those exposed to religious education earlier were able to integrate these ideas into their own thinking. But for many others the movement was about “enjoying the social forums … and hanging out with one another.”

In fact, the increasingly radicalized tendency of Islam in Ethiopia was accelerated by regional developments, especially in Somalia, and the global situation after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. As the rise of Islamic extremism become more evident, the government took some measure to avert the danger. Controversies around Awolia College in Addis Ababa followed in December 2011, when all the school’s Arabic teachers were dismissed and the Arabic curriculum was suspended.

The extremist elements and their sympathizers, and collaborators used this as good pretext to mobilize and organize weekly Muslim demonstrations that lasted for almost one year, beginning from 2012 to August 2013. The overriding theme of the demonstrations was that the government had illegally interfered in Muslim internal religious affairs and thus crossed the secular “red line.”

These protests were led and coordinated by the self-styled “arbitration committee,” which consisted of 17 members that has formulated three demands that were forwarded to the authorities: stop the state-enforced al-Ahbash campaign, permit free and fair elections to the EIASC, and return the Awolia College to the “people”.

The protests become another substantive indication for the growing radical Islamism that has starkly expressed the political agenda of the movement. After repeatedly failed attempts to find peaceful solution to the problem, on July 2012, the police finally arrested members of the arbitration committee.

After months in prison as part of a group of 29, on October 2012, the committee members were charged under the anti-terrorism act. However, the protests coordinated by a Face-book page, “Dimtsachen yesema” (let our voice be heard), continued unabated until the government has taken action to contain the violence sparked on the event of Eid al-Fitr in August 2013, which effectively put an end to the protests.

The government main concern was the rapid expansion of Salafism, which is criticized for its uncompromising attitudes, not only towards non-Muslims but also toward Sufism and indigenous representations of Islam that would create unnecessary rifts among Muslims. This trend should be checked and our precious culture of tolerance must vigorously be defended.  

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