So goes the saying: “if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck.” What if it does not look like an eagle but it really is an eagle, seriously? Despite its peaceful and somewhat slow paced nature, what the Ethiopian Muslims are undertaking looks like revolution. Defiance and determination are crucially important revolutionary qualities, and there is no dearth of them in the undertakings of the Ethiopian Muslims. A peaceful, sustained and determined defiance of the TPLF led regime political intervention in religion. It’s a revolution in progress.
Yes, unlike most other revolutions in history, Ethiopian Muslims movement is free of spontaneous emotional actions. For instance, their march to Kaliti, the famous and infamous prison place in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, this week did not end up like the storming of Bastille –which was an important event in the famous French Revolution. Nevertheless, moderation did not overshadow the purpose it was intended for- which was visiting their arrested leaders. When hundreds of thousands of people march to prison to visit incarcerated leaders, it is not a social act. It is a political act. The way it unfolds itself is political. Its message is political too. In the process, it is shaping, I believe, consciousness in how to transform peaceful struggle into a revolutionary act.
Erstwhile strategies of domesticating and/or repressing peaceful demands are not working this time around and failed to outsmart the insight, bravery, subtlety and determination of the movement. What usually happens is that whenever there is peaceful struggle with a demand for justice or pursuit of political rights in a political way, TPLF led government swings to its habit of putting leaders of the movement behind bars apart from launching brutal atrocities, and then demands that caused the movement end up being relegated to demands of securing the release of leaders behind bars. In fact, that is not just it. Intensifying negative propaganda campaign, thanks to media monopoly of the government, putting activism for a cause in a bad light, framing it for “legal” attack and outright repression are norms for the governing TPLF dominated government. Movements in the past experienced all these entanglements and in most cases fell victim to it.
What distinguishes Ethiopian Muslim movement from all the previous movements is that it endured all the negative propaganda and atrocious attacks (attacks in Gerba ,Degan and Dessie comes to mind) and it is marching forward, as it should like a revolution. Of course, the movement has already achieved something extraordinary: it disempowered ethnic ideology and unified people from all language speaking groups and the bond looks strong. Far from being suspicious about the movement, on grounds of alleged “Islamist agenda” driven by expatriate extremists – as government did try to project it, majority of the non-Muslim Ethiopians are relishing it and are sympathetic about it. Apparently, the piquant glance emanates partly from the history of Islam in Ethiopia and partly from the strong social bond between Ethiopian Muslims and Ethiopian Christians. Clearly, many Ethiopians are convinced that the Ethiopian Muslims are not in the business of selling out their country and non-Muslim Ethiopians for expatriate Muslims – whatever their agenda is. Yet, it has to be admitted that there is still a significant number that is not at ease with and even suspicious about the movement.
We have to be clear about the demands. Although, the movement is being undertaken by Ethiopian Muslims, there is really nothing that is purely religious or even religious about the movement. What they are resisting (in fact now it is in a stage of defiance, which is revolutionary) is political intervention from TPLF dominated government which manifested itself in three forms: that government should not appoint, clandestinely, its own personnel to their Islamic council, that government should not orchestrate (in any form) infiltration of strange Islamic teachings (they refer to it- Al-Ahbash) to their congregation and that government should not interfere in the business of running their Islamic school.
These demands are, as Mesfin Negash expounded a few months back, related to, and in a fundamental way, assertion of (or defending) constitutional rights and there is nothing apolitical about it. When constitution and assertion of rights are involved (it does not matter whether the issues are related to religion or not), and when these assertion is pursued outside of the courts in a very political way due to the very political nature of the “justice system”, the movement is clearly not religious. In that case, the process through which the assertion of rights are pursued and what the process results in are inevitably political.
And this is what makes the Ethiopian Muslims movement more of a “rights movement” rather than a religious one (as it is related to assertion of constitutional rights outside of the court) and this is why non-Muslim Ethiopians need to take up the issue aggressively and own it instead of disowning the movement on illusory religious grounds and on grounds of manufactured suspicion. Even if we assume that the alleged unEthiopian root of the movement is true and the “agenda” it seeks to promote is something “radical”- in which case it would be political again, disowning the movement does not render service to skepticism that is lingering among some Ethiopians. Yet, I want to be clear on this matter: as a person who grew up where religious difference did not matter in social interaction, where religious difference did not cause conflict, and where religious difference did not even matter in marriage (not because people were less pious about their faiths but because social harmony was so strong), there is no reason to buy the pessimist propaganda of “hidden agenda” and disown the political movement simply because Ethiopian Muslims took the initiative to be serious about their rights and happened to be harbingers of impending “rights revolution” (not to be confused with the US “rights revolution” in the 1960’s). The movement is not religious. It’s political movement.
A revolution is in the making. And it is in the interest of all Ethiopians to own the movement and even more Ethopianize it. Those of us who are simply relishing the movement need to do something more significant and meaningful. Those who are skeptical about the movement need to kill their skepticism and be able to see the very political nature of the movement, have a share, be part of it and own it. Opposition leaders, especially young leaders in the opposition, need to approach the movement and the leaders and discuss in how to make the “rights revolution” possible. I understand this is a risky business for the opposition. Yet, the moment is a moment of defiance. Seize it.