Introduction

The Horn of Africa is one of the most volatile and unstable regions in Africa. Religious extremism coupled with weak state administration have created opportunities for various terrorist groups to destabilize the region. Somalia, which has been labeled as a failed state,1As argued by Aatif Rashid, Somalia is regarded as a failed state because it lost governmental control over its sovereign territories. The spread of terrorist organizations such as al-Shabab intensified the failed state conditions of Somalia. and its neighbor, Ethiopia, are believed to be safe havens for terrorist organizations and violent extremist groups.

The governments of Horn of Africa countries have adopted different measures to counter religious extremism and terrorism through the implementation of “religious moderation strategies” by working with moderate religious groups. The governments of Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia have initiated policies and strategies to support the activities of Sufis in their fight against religious extremism and in their bid to secure US aid “invested for rehabilitating Sufi shrines and teachings across the world.”

One of the policies of the US government in this region has been to support state-led counterterrorism and deradicalization strategies to “identify mainstream and Sufi Muslim sectors and help them propagate moderate interpretations of Islam and delegitimize terrorism.”2Rand Corporation, “Radical Islam in East Africa,” 2009, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG782.pdf. The US government encourages many Horn countries to support and sponsor Sufi practices.3Timothy R. Furnish, “Sufi v. Salafis: Winning Friends and Interdicting Enemies in Islamic Africa,” RIMA Policy Papers vol. 1 no. 1 (April 2013), https://muslimsinafrica.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/sufis-v-salafis-winning-friends-and-interdicting-enemies-in-islamic-africa-dr-timothy-r-furnish/. Hence, sponsoring Sufism became government policy for countering violent extremism in Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.4Ibid. This article examines the nature and dynamics of government interventions in religious affairs in Ethiopia (with US support) and the implications of such policies for the peaceful co-existence of various religious groups in the region.

Is Countering Extremism in Ethiopia influenced by the US Policy of Supporting Sufism?

The Ethiopian government and the leadership of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (popularly called Mejilis) publicly allege that Salafis are fundamentalist and extremist.5Meles Zenawi, Speech to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Parliament on 17 April 2012. To make matters worse, the arrival on the scene of Ahbash (al-Ahbash)6Ahbash or al-Ahbash is a religious group founded in Lebanon by an Ethiopian Sheikh Abdullah al-Harari and named as al-Ahbash in Arabic to indicate the country of origin of the leader (Ethiopia). Although the group declares itself as part of the Sufi religious group, many Ethiopian opposed it considering as ‘deviant’ from Islamic teachings. – a self-proclaimed Sufi group –intensified the competition within religious groups in Ethiopia, as it quickly became controversial and caused public discontent. Ahbash is often portrayed as part of the broader Sufi order and praised as tolerant and moderate. Its arrival in Ethiopia – mainly from Lebanon – and the promotion of its teachings are part of the broader agenda of sponsoring Sufism in the world as part of a counter-terrorism strategy. Sufis in Ethiopia, through the Mejilis leadership have so far received substantial financial and moral support from the US Embassy in Addis Ababa.7Refer, for example, Yunus (2013) who argues that although the US government supported the Ethiopian government and the Mejilis leadership with cash, many come in the form of indirect aid through financing the rehabilitation projects of Muslim shrines whose existence became at risk due to the expansion of the so-called Wahhabi sect. The US Embassy in Ethiopia provided $25,600 in 2005 for the restoration of the Bale Dire Sheikh Hussein Shrine through the Oromia Bureau of Culture (Ostebo, 2012).

Different offices of the Ethiopian government (federal and regional) are involved in the process through which some people have received such support on behalf of the (Sufi) Muslim community.8http://wikleaks.org/plusd/cables/09ADDISABABA1672_a.html Many Sufi centers in Ethiopia, such as the Jamma Nigus and Dire Sheikh Hussein shrines, were visited by the former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto as “sites for potential Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation Grant.” The Mejilis leadership has indicated to the US Embassy that “it will be part of the alliance to fight Wahhabism if the Embassy continues its financial and moral support.”9See, for example, a letter written by the former Mejilis Vice President Elias Redman to the US Embassy in 2008 addressed to the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, titled ‘Acknowledging Your Support’ with reference number S/C/1883/60/2008. The invitation and promotion of Ahbash by Mejilis10Mejilis is an Arabic term to mean council and Mejilis in the Ethiopian context mean the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council responsible and manage all Islamic affairs in the country. form part of their effort to benefit from continued US support and promote its “legitimacy.”

The Ethiopian government is part of the “alliance” for fighting terrorism through the promotion of moderate and tolerant religious groups in East Africa. Ethiopia has been recognized as an outstanding partner” of the US government in its fight against terrorism in the Horn.11BBC, “Obama praises Ethiopia over fight against al-Shabab,” July 27, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-33671340. The US, through its East Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative (EACTI), has also provided counter-terrorism training for several countries in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya.12Rand Corporation, “Radical Islam in East Africa.”

The Ethiopian government has showed a clear inclination towards promoting Ahbash’s teachings in Ethiopia – Mejilis being a surrogate of the group.13Ahbash is believed to be part of Sufi and religiously moderate, politically neutral and advocator of co-existence. Hence, its teachings have been supported by the Ethiopian government. For the sake of avoiding being direct involvement in religious affairs, the government used Mejilis to invite Ahbash religious leaders and disseminate their ideologies in Ethiopia (for more on this, see Mohammed, 2016, PhD Dissertation, Addis Ababa University). However, this alliance has attracted widespread opposition and protest from the Muslim public with an adverse effect on the peace and stability of the country.

Conclusion

Political reform in Ethiopia following the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed in 2018 have facilitated increased cooperation between the US and the Ethiopian government in combating terrorism and countering extremism. Threats from Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and al-Shabab from Somalia pose the greatest concern to the Ethiopian government. The US also has a vested interest in countering such terrorist organizations. The threats posed by extremist groups in Ethiopia are less likely to destabilize the country, but they cannot be ignored. The Ethiopian government, in the last three years of “reform,” has focused on mending the broken relationships among various religious groups, such as the Sufi-Salafi dichotomy, and divisions within Orthodox Christianity. However, the Ethiopian government’s policy of promoting religious moderation through Sufism with US support was somewhat disrupted during Trump’s presidency. Part of the explanation for this was that Trump considered Islam in its entirety – not just Muslims – as a threat to the US. He was quoted for reportedly asserting in 2016, “Islam hates us.”14Theodore Schleifer, Donald Trump: “I think Islam hates us,” CNN, March 10, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/09/politics/donald-trump-islam-hates-us.

President Trump’s policy was preoccupied with US domestic affairs and driven by the promise to “Make America Great Again.” It also thrived on a rhetoric that was anti-Islamic. His four years in power were marked by fiery speeches but fell short of articulating a cohesive counterterrorism and deradicalization strategy in the Horn of Africa, particularly in relation to a US-Ethiopia alliance.  Many Ethiopian Muslims and the Ethiopian government hope the Biden-Harris administration will have a clear, cohesive, and effective policy for partnering with Ethiopia in countering extremism based on mutual trust – in ways that transcend merely supporting “moderate Sufis” against “extremist Salafis,” as was the case in the past four years.

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