The Fire No One is Watching.
Feb 2, 2020
Foreign Policy has listed Ethiopia as the third of ten conflicts to watch in 2020. And while most observers are focusing on the volatile ethnic tensions that have alarmingly escalated in the past several years, there is little attention being paid to the creeping embolism of radical Islam.
There is a popular mythos in Ethiopia that religious tolerance between Christians and Muslims has been a hallmark of its long history—beginning with the sanctuary provided to the relatives of the Prophet Mohammed when fleeing persecution. The first hijera took place when the Prophet advised his followers in Mecca to escape and find refuge in Ethiopia.
When the apostle saw the affliction of his companions, [...] he said to them: "If you were to go to Abyssinia (it would be better for you), for the king will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country, until such time as Allah shall relieve you from your distress." Thereupon his companions went to Abyssinia, being afraid of apostasy and fleeing to God with their religion. This was the first hijra in Islam.
There is certainly an element of truth in the mythos of religious tolerance. After all, Christians and Muslims have co-habituated in Ethiopia for centuries. And while there is no unbroken line of peace between the two religions, relatively speaking, there has been measured tolerance between the two communities for long periods of time.
This tolerance, however, may have been a pragmatic approach from both communities to prevent an intolerable descent into conflict. If we are to assume that the split between Christianity and Islam is approximately 70% to 30%, Christians (70%) could reasonably fear any massive discontent from Muslims (30%). At the same time, the Muslim community could reasonably fear any massive discontent from Christians. A social contract on the basis of mutually assured destruction, given the arithmetic of both Christian and Muslim numbers, kept both sides from crossing boundaries for too long.
Times have changed. Ethiopian Muslims are not in isolation anymore and are part of a global Islamic community, some of whom are committed to a jihadist ideology where national boundaries are meaningless lines on a map.
Radical Islam easily takes root where there is conflict. Undeniably on its way to becoming a failed state, Ethiopia has opened the door to Islamic extremism and invited it in for coffee. A recent report by Stratfor, a global security company, writes that al-Shabaab, in addition to controlling large swaths of rural areas in Somalia and terrorizing the urban population with violent attacks, is encroaching East Africa.
And what about the large, porous and ungovernable border with Ethiopia’s Region 5?
As early as 2014, the U.N. had reported on an alliance between the ONLF and al Shabaab—orchestrated by their mutual friend Isayas Afewerki. With the Somali Region’s increasing autonomy from the federal government under Pri Muslim community. me Minister Abiy—meaning that Region 5 is operating pretty much on its own—it seems that al Shabaab has infiltrated much of the region.
It is difficult not to mention here the collapse—by design—of Ethiopia’s internal security with the systematic removal of anyone unfortunate enough to have roots in Tigray. While the Prime Minister focused his attention on deconstructing the NISS, al- Shabaab inched its way across Region 5, exposing the country to extremism.
Concurrently, the government’s new friends in Saudi Arabia are happy to export its Wahabi school of Islam to Ethiopia’s Muslim community. It is no coincidence that the money being poured into Ethiopia by the Saudis and the hyperactive construction of new mosques have been accompanied by rising religious intolerance—as evidenced by the number of churches burned this year. Mosques are being burned as well as the rhetoric between Christians and Muslims is being ramped out by these acts of violence.
What does this all mean? For Ethiopia, heightened tensions between Christians and Muslims combined with al Shabaab’s encroachment into Region 5 and Saudi Arabia’s increased influence in the country could be the tipping point for a country on the brink of implosion.
For the region, Ethiopia’s collapse into more lawlessness will pull down each and every one of its neighbors--even Isayas. For decades, he has managed the potentially devastating impact of Islamic extremism in Eritrea by brute force. This may no longer work in a region that is in the hands of global actors.
For the U.S. and its allies, it would be an ironic turn of events given its outsized role in creating Ethiopia’s new reality. For decades, the U.S. has depended on Ethiopia to contain Islamic extremism.
What is the Ethiopian Prime Minister doing in response to this growing threat? Can IGAD’s “soft power” approach to countering extremism have an impact on the increasingly active and violent drivers of Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa? How will the U.S. respond to this growing threat given its new role in Ethiopia’s politics?
There is a quiet war being waged in Ethiopia that few people are taking notice of but will have irreparable consequences for not just Ethiopia but the entire region. It will take bloodshed on a grander scale than the random church and mosque burnings to make the international community notice that Ethiopia itself is burning.