Friday 26 April 2013

Defending democracy and secularism: Ethiopia's Muslim civil rights movement

The Open Democracy website covers democratization efforts, and its discontents, across the world. It just posted an article on a country that is rarely mentioned in current affairs on the Muslim world: Ethiopia, where a Muslim civil rights movement has recently sprung up in defence of democracy and: 
has so far had some spectacular implications for the development of democracy and democratic political culture in the country. It has affected its culture as well as its institutional dynamics.
Author Alemu Tafesse contends that in the face of severe constrains on NGO activism, the virtual absence of a free press, tightly-controlled religions organizations, and professional organizations operating in cahoots with the government, Muslim activists are defying the country's repressive regime led by the janus-faced Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which sends out a barrage of 'legal speak' about the need for safeguarding the rule of law, whilst simultaneously curtailing citizens rights through what is an effect an authoritarian one-party state.

The regime has tried to manipulate the Muslim segment of the population by orchestrating tightly controlled elections for a new Islamic Supreme Council whose loyalty the government can count on. But since late 2011 it is confronted by newly emerging protest movement of Muslims who are campaigning for the restoration of citizens rights, establishing a 17-person committee to coordinate its actions, in January 2012  However, they face an uphill battle as becomes clear from the Human Rights Watch report on unfair trial of twenty-nine of its activists, including no less than 9 members of the committee, leading journalists and NGO activists.

Rather than advocating religious communitarian interests, they are challenging a formidable adversary with a very different set of demands: 
The movement has consistently demanded the protection of democratic and constitutional rights, nothing more or less. It has couched its demands in the most legitimate manner, and has staged perfectly non-violent rallies. It has never, on the one hand, asked for, or worked towards, the realization of religious interests beyond or independent of the constitutional framework, nor, on the other hand, has it demanded, or sought, the displacement of that framework by a new secular system. This is very significant for the development of an inclusive and non-violent democratic culture in Ethiopia.
Here we see a phenomenon that seems almost counter-intuitive, not to say, paradoxical: Muslim citizens criticizing a government's anti-secular policies. Thus Ethiopia's Muslim-led civil rights movement stands in marked contrast to other Muslim organizations which tend to focus on the interests of their co-religionists. In this case, Muslims appear to be defending an 'Ethiopian agenda' that is inclusivist:
By its very nature, recent Muslim activism has been trans-ethnic and trans-regional, and hence it has offered a glimpse of a pan-Ethiopian trait (despite the obvious limitation of its being religion-based). But it has also been “Ethiopia-centered” in the sense that its discourse, its actors, its visions etc have been Ethiopian, not international or regional. The government’s accusations notwithstanding, there has not been any trace of foreign involvement in this struggle.
Read the full article by clicking here