By Seleshi Tessema
Ethiopia’s traditionally cohesive and tolerant Sunni Muslims on Saturday began the holy fasting month of Ramadan amid growing divisions and fear over what is officially labeled “radicalism and extremism.’’
The Horn of Africa country is the second-most populous nation in Sub-Saharan Africa with a population of 99.4 million, according to the World Bank. Population growth in 2015 was 2.5 percent.
Alfadal Ali, secretary of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, the main official body, told Anadolu Agency that Ethiopia’s Muslim population, which was 33 percent of the 74 million population in the latest 2007 national census, is estimated to have grown since then to 43 million.
“We are the third-largest population in Africa after Nigeria and Egypt,” he added.
Adem Kalid, an independent researcher in Islamic studies, told Anadolu Agency that the Ethiopian Muslim community over the past couple of decades has transformed itself into a visible and influential element of the majority-Christian society.
“The Islamic intellectual base, moral consciousness, and economic power of individuals have grown, but the majority of rural Muslims who maintain the Islamic faith and tradition are poor,” he said.
He added: “Ethiopian Muslims have been stretching out of centuries of marginalizing and subjugation perpetuated by successive Ethiopian states, thanks to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship.”
However, he said that all was not perfect: “The implementation of rights has been embedded with recurring institutional problems and theological differences among the elite that have negatively impacted the process of empowerment.”
Voices on the streets
On the eve of Ramadan, the streets, markets, and public spaces of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, were exceptionally colored with men and women clothed in Islamic dress.
A young man who identified himself as Jilalu Adem was one of them. When asked about the changes in the lives of Ethiopian Muslims, he said that Muslims were more assertive and conscious than ever.
“Our generation is proud of its Islamic identity, and we are well aware the place we deserve to have in society,” he said.
“But despite some changes, due to the theological differences in our community, it has become increasingly difficult for some to express views which are different from the official point of view.”
Jemal, 54, a civil servant, spoke reluctantly to Anadolu Agency, and did not want to provide his last name.
“I am not willing to be fully identified, as there is a real danger of being branded a radical or extremist, and this has serious consequences,” he said, sipping his coffee at a coffee shop.
“There has been government interference in our affairs, and those who opposed it are languishing in prison cells,” he claimed.
The Ethiopian government denies such accusations.
At a peace education conference organized by the Ethiopian Islamic Council last week in the city of Adama, 175 kilometers southeast of the capital, the head of the Oromia Islamic Council said that radicalism was on the rise.
“Radicalism and extremism, which had been subdued for some time in Ethiopia and particularly in [its state of] Oromia, has now reemerged confidently and is engaged in agitations and fundraising,” he said.
“This a critical moment in which we are obligated to maintain our tradition of peace and tolerance, through education,” he added.
A house divided against itself
Ethiopian Sunni Muslims have lived for centuries in a deeply entrenched Sufi tradition.
“The tradition is primarily to live in peace and harmony with the other faiths while being at the center of our religion,” according to Kalid.
“Due to this we have never seen acrimonious relations, conflicts between the flowers of Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia.’’ he said.
He added: “We should not impose Wahhabism, or a sect known as Al-Habbash which is advanced by the Ethiopian Islamic body, on our community. We have a tradition which is tested by fire.”
According to him, instead of branding and excluding each other, the Muslim community must open itself to debate and dialogue.
“God willing, during Ramadan we will pray for peace, unity and understanding,” he added.