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Ethiopian Muslims: Religious Freedoms, the Ahbash and the War on Terror

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Written for the Muslim Link newspaper

In a major development in the struggle of the Ethiopian Muslims, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released a statement that it is “deeply concerned about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.”

UCSRIF makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress of the United States.

The statement recognizes that since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash sect on the country’s Muslim community. Stipulating that the government has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC), a former independent body, the USCIRF now views it as a government-controlled institution.

“The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia,” states USCRIF.

Sheikh Najib Mohammed, 59, is the imam of First Hijrah Masjid in Washington D.C. He says that after the late August death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, “the new prime minister is proving his leadership worth by getting tough on Muslims.” In order to prove to the U.S. his dedication to weed out extremism in the Horn of Africa, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has been cracking down on Muslims protesting the usurpation of their religious freedom.

On October 29, 2012 the Ethiopian government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state.

“These charges are only the latest and most concerning attempt by the Ethiopian government to crush opposition to its efforts to control the practice of religion by imposing on Ethiopian Muslims a specific interpretation of Islam,” said USCIRF Commissioner Azizah al-Hibri.

“The UCSIRF statement is a positive step. The last court hearing was filled with Western journalists; now the western media will extol them,” says Mohammed.

This August, Ethiopian Muslims protested in Washington, D.C. in front of the Department of State. Sheikh Imam Khaled Omar of Washington’s First Hijrah Foundation called on the US government to put pressure on Ethiopian authorities to address the three key issues raised by Ethiopian Muslims.

“We have demanded that U.S. government stop supporting the regime, and not be misled by the guise of the war on terror and pressure the Ethiopian government to grant freedom of religion according to Ethiopian constitution ,” says Mohammed.

Father Philippos of the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (in exile from Ethiopia) attended the rally representing Ethiopian Christians. He supported the issues raised by the Muslims and said that the beatings and imprisonment to which they have been subjected to must be condemned, according to a report filed by the Amharic Voice of America.

UCSRIF submits in its findings that since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to force a change in the sect of Islam practiced nationwide and has punished clergy and laity who have resisted. Muslims throughout Ethiopia have been arrested during peaceful protests.
To combat what the authorities say are the affects of the ideology of the Shabab in neighboring Somalia, the government has imported al-Ahbash leaders from Lebanon to train Ethiopian imams and Islamic school educators on that sect’s beliefs.Anyone who refused to be trained or teach al-Ahbash has been dismissed from their positions and their schools and mosques closed. This is a great concern to the Muslims globally, as the Ahbash are not viewed as mainstream Islam by Islamic scholars from a variety of theological leanings. Historically, it is not a religion practiced in Ethiopia.
The Al-Ahbash are also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects in Lebanon which was founded by Abdullah ibn Muhammad al Hirari, nicknamed ’al Habashi’, after his Ethiopian roots.Even though Al-Ahbash claim on their website that they reject “the takfir ideologies that denounce Muslims as infidels”, what is happening in masajid in Ethiopia is quite the opposite, say Ethiopian Muslims in America who still have relatives and friends there.
“They [Al-Ahbash] do not consider anyone else Muslims, they are making everyone retake their shahadah in the masajid,” stressed Imam Mohammed.”Many Imams, leaders, youth have vanished. We don’t know where they are,” says Mohammed,” the dawah to Islam has ceased completely.”The UCSRIF recommends that the Ethiopian government cease interfering in the internal affairs of its Muslim community and immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully imprisoned.
“The U.S. government should raise with the new leadership in Addis Ababa the importance of abiding by Ethiopia’s own constitution and international standards on freedom of religion of belief. USCIRF has found that repressing religious communities in the name of countering extremism leads to more extremism, greater instability, and possibly violence,” said USCIRF Chair Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett.Beginning in December 2011, tens of thousands have protested following every Jumuah, nationwide.  The heart of campaign has been the Awalia Mosque and the Islamic school in Addis Ababa.To negotiate with the government an Arbitration committee of 17 religious leaders was formed. Among their demands were the ending government imposition of al-Ahbash on Ethiopian Muslims and re-opening of schools and mosques.By July 2012, the negotiations had failed and the protests increased in both size and frequency.
The Ethiopian government surrounded the demonstrators with armed guards. According to Human Rights Watch, several witnesses saw scores of men and women being loaded into separate trucks. Many appeared to have broken bones and other serious injuries, apparently inflicted by the police, the witnesses said.”Hijabi women are harassed on the streets, beaten and taken away. Anyone with hijab can be picked up; it is becoming a liability to look like a Muslim,” states Imam Mohammed,” they go house to house and round up people so many of the youth have fled.”Independent news agencies report that the government arrested all 17 members of the Arbitration Committee and at least 70 protestors. (This number is disputed by the demonstrators, who place it in the hundreds).
The arrested protestors were not charged until October 29, 2012. The individuals charged were first detained and held in Maikelwai federal police detention center, which frequently houses political prisoners and is according to Human Rights Watch ‘notorious’ for abusing prisoners, including torturing them during interrogations.

Protestors now hold up yellow or white placards to signal that they are peacefully condemning the arrests and charges.

According to the UCSRIF report: “While the demonstrations largely have been peaceful, there have been a few violent incidents: On October 21, 2011 four Muslims were killed as they stormed a jail attempting to free protestors and in April 2012 five people were killed protesting the dismissal of an imam who refused to propagate al-Ahbash.”

This Washington Times July headline “Muslim protests raise fears of radical Islam” is a narrative that contributes to the complexity of the issue. American Ethiopian Muslims say that this use of war on terror is a gross misrepresentation of what is happening on the ground in Ethiopia. According to the UCSRIF, “the individuals detained also were charged under the nation’s anti-terror law which has been used to target dissent, rather than to stop terrorism.”

At a recent State Department press briefing a question was raised about religious freedom in Ethiopia. U.S. Department of State Spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated,” I hadn’t seen that particular statement, but you know that we’ve been extremely straightforward about our ongoing humanitarian – sorry, human rights questions with regard to the way Ethiopia develops. When the Secretary was there, she raised these issues, and we have been clear from this podium. So in the context of new leadership, we are renewing our hope that Ethiopia will continue to improve human rights standards for all inside the country.” American Ethiopian Muslims wait and pray.

Ethiopia’s constitution bans government meddling in religious practices.

Ethiopian Muslims refute their status as a ‘minority’, and quote their numbers as 50-60% of the population. They say the government intentionally misrepresents their numbers in order to keep the balance of power in its favor.

Two members of al-Ahbash were also mentioned in connection to the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF’s principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.

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Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She leads the DC office of the human rights organization, Justice For All, focusing on stopping the genocide of the Rohingya under Burma Task Force, advocacy for the Uighur people with the Save Uighur Campaign and Free Kashmir Action. She was a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

#Current Affairs

The New Scramble For Africa

Africa
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Africa is a blessed continent with resources and biodiversity that would impress anyone. Africa’s history in Islam (while neglected) played a major role, it was home to the first country to welcome the Muslims and allow them to practice freely. After the spread of Islam trough traders, regions across Africa became hubs for knowledge and trade. The richest man in history hailed from Africa and was Muslim, and his name was Mansa Musa. The riches of Africa have always sought after. People from all over the world have aimed to to do business or exploit the blessed continent. Unfortunately, the history of Africa is filled with strife, bloodshed, slavery, and holocausts. This rings true till today. The purpose of this article is not to dwell on the past, be it Arab influence or colonization. The events going on today needs out attention, we have ignored the struggles of our Muslim brothers and sisters in Africa long enough. 

The first major scramble for Africa was in the 19th century, when Europe carved it up like it was their property. The second was during the cold war, when East and West seek allegiances of newly independent African states. We are witnessing a third scramble that is less obvious, and more behind the scenes with “investments” and “wars”. It can be described as a cold war between China and America. 

African mines

Some see the resources they have like oil, chocolate, rare earth minerals, diamonds, etc. as a blessing (investors mostly), but to the people living through this every day it is a curse. Oil or mineral dependent countries in Africa suffer from enclave industrialization, limited diversity in their economy, and vulnerability to price shock. While this is happening, they see decay in their agriculture, manufacturing, and other trades. The continent is still traumatized by five centuries of exploitation. It is no easy obstacle to overcome. What we are seeing will only get worse as oil production is expected to peak in 2025, world scarcity will increase, and we will see more wars around oil. For the last decade, China has been using “soft power,” basically using money for leverage. This comes in the form of aid, trade, infrastructure projects, and loans. This is a plot to make them a superpower in the region. America, on the other hand, is doing what it has been doing since 1776, it is confronting Africa as a “battlefield,” basically running operations or anti-terrorism projects in dozens of countries that the American public is unaware of. 

One example is South Sudan, and the American campaign to split the Muslim country of Sudan to two. Before the split, China reportedly had invested $20 billion in Sudan. With American interventions occurring, China watched the events unfold. After the split the newly inaugurated president of South Sudan flew to China to secure an $8 billion investment. By 2013, China controlled 40% of their largest crude oil producers and was importing 77% of the country’s output. After unrest and bloodshed occurring in Libya, Mali, Sudan, etc, China has established a stronger effort with peacekeeping officers to protect their oil interest. As one superpower implements one tactic, another superpower follows its traditional method. Last year in Niger, American soldiers, including two commandos, were killed. This was surprising to me as I was unaware of American military operation in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world with Muslims making 98% of its population.

We have seen a dangerous rise of commandos in Africa. In 2006, under Bush, 1% of deployed commandos were in Africa, by 2011 under Obama it had risen to 3%. It does not stop there, before stepping down from office, in 2016, 16.5% of American commandos deployed were deployed in Africa.

In 2006, only 70 special ops were deployed across the continent, in 2014 we have 700 deployed special ops in Africa. “None of these special operations forces are intended to be engaged in direct combat operations,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert S. Karem. Despite this declaration, despite the deaths of soldiers in Niger, U.S. commandos keep finding themselves in situations that are indistinguishable from combat. 

In March of 2018, the New York Times released an article of 10 unreported attacks of American troops between 2015 and 2017. Despite these attacks and distrust towards the region, the Pentagon built a $100 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, regardless of the people’s concerns towards a base being built near their home. Our worldly desires is fueling this new scramble for Africa. Our need for resources, technology, and fuel comes at a cost. This cost manifests itself as the development of the rentier state (eventually developing into a kleptocracy across Africa, professional soldiers ruling the resource-rich lands or an expansion of the “war on terror”. 

Here are a few theoretical solutions, some are to be initiated by the government and some rely on people-power movements. The government needs to reduce corruption and that can be done through a menu of policies created to control and maintain corruption. Controlling corruption can be done through; changing the selections of national agents, modifying the rewards and punishments systems, and restructuring the relations between national agents and users to reduce monopolies. Another venue the government can explore is directly distributing resource revenues to the people. This is practiced in Alaska, and has been wildly successful. Finally, the government can invest the resource revenues in social development. Harnessing the revenues for human development to include education, healthcare, job training, and housing will lift up the urban and rural poor. 

The people can pressure the government to pursue any of those ideas mentioned. A power-people movement can look different depending on the need. One idea is that consumers in the West to boycott African minerals due to corruption and/or exploitation. This can develop into “smart boycotts” where we use internet hedge funds to attack corporations that exploit and feed into corruption. Developing campaigns like “blood diamonds” in the past have been proven effective to generate awareness and bring vital change. The same was done with the ivory, and now even China has laws making the product illegal.

People-power movements work and have helped locals rid of unwanted corporations in their region. Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a leader of the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta, he rallied against the abuses of the Nigerian military regime and the oil pollution created by multi-national companies, which resulted in a change of consciousness for the better. 

In his words: “Whether I live or die is immaterial. It is enough to know that there are people who commit time, money and energy to fight this one evil among so many others predominating worldwide. If they do not succeed today, they will succeed tomorrow.”

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#Current Affairs

CAA – NRC Row: Why There Is More To It Than An Attack On Secular Ethos

indian economy caa
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‘Indian Muslims have nothing to fear. No one knows what CAA/NRC is all about. They are simply protesting because they are misled’, thus proclaimed a former classmate of mine who himself left India for brighter prospects during PM Narendra Modi’s regime but continues to believe in his promise of ‘acche din’ (good days).

Today the whole of India is divided over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which is to be followed by the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Thousands of students from India’s premier institutions like Jamia Milia Islamia, Jawahar Lal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University, Delhi University, IITs and IIMs are thronging the streets to protest against the bigoted law.

The ripple effect has even reached top educational institutions across the world including Harvard, Oxford, Yale and MIT. From lawyers to celebrities to academicians, people across the world, belonging to different religions are raising their dissent against the law which is deemed to be against the secular fabric of the Indian Constitution.

What is this law all about?

The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) provides an accelerated path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhists, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from three countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is an official record of all those who are legal Indian citizens. So far, such a database has only been created for the northeastern state of Assam which has been struggling with the issue of illegal immigration for a long time. In Assam 1.9 million people were effectively rendered stateless after NRC and were put into detention centers. Out of these 1.9 million, around 0.6 million are Muslim.

On November 20, Home Minister Amit Shah declared during a parliamentary session that the register would be extended to the entire country.

Why the uproar?

At first glance the CAA seems to be a harmless law, which the government claims was made to help those who are facing religious persecution. However, the question arises why only those suffering religious persecution? Millions of people are suffering persecution in the name of race, region or language in India’s neighboring countries.

Even if we talk about just religious persecution, why does the law only accommodate those from three neighboring countries? Rohingyas are suffering brutal persecution in Myanmar. Christians are suffering in Sri Lanka. Tibetans have been persecuted because of their beliefs.

Many people opine that the CAA is not problematic in itself. It becomes problematic when it’s seen in conjunction with NRC. When NRC is implemented, millions of people will be declared illegal due to lack of documents in a country where the masses live in villages and documentation is a complicated bureaucratic process with a high error rate. According Professor Shruti Rajagopalan, the State Of Aadhaar Report 2017-18 by IDinsight, covering 2,947 households, found that 8.8% of Aadhaar holders reported errors in their name, age, address or other information in their Aadhaar letter (Aadhaar is the identity number issued to Indian residents). In the NRC, a spelling mistake can deprive one of citizenship and 8.8% affects over 120 million people.

They will be rendered stateless and sent to detention centers with inhumane conditions. Out of these ‘illegals’, everyone but Muslims can seek accelerated citizenship under CAA.

The fact is that even if we view CAA alone, the very act of offering citizenship on the basis of religion goes against the fundamentals of secularism and equality as mentioned in the Indian constitution.

UN Human Rights chief, Michelle Bachelet has termed the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory”.

In this context, it’s also relevant to understand the revolt that is happening in the north eastern state of Assam. While the rest of India is against CAA and NRC for exclusion of Muslims, the people of Assam are protesting against the inclusion of 1.3 million undocumented Non-Muslims, as identified in the NCR. According to them, if these foreigners are granted citizenship under CAA, they pose a threat to the language and culture of Assam.

Police brutality against protesters

Student fraternity across the world was shocked when students of Jamia Milia Islamia who were peacefully protesting against the CAA were brutally attacked by police forces. Police accused students of destroying public property and fired tear gas shells, beat them up mercilessly and even open fired at them. They barged into the library, mosque and even the women’s hostels without authorization.

Video footage shot by students and reviewed by Reuters show students, including women, hiding beneath desks in the library, cowering in restrooms, jumping over broken furniture in an attempt to flee. It was later verified that none of the students had anything to do with some of the buses that were set ablaze outside the campus.

Reports of even more horrific police brutality surfaced from Aligarh Muslim University. A student’s hand had to be amputated after a tear gas shell hit him and exploded. Hundreds of students were severely injured.

Section 144 of the Criminal Code which prohibits any gathering of 5 or more people has been imposed across the entire state of UP. Internet has been shut down in several parts.

Videos showing police destroying properties of innocent Muslims in UP have surfaced which the ‘Godi media’, a term coined for PM Modi’s lapdog media, refuses to acknowledge. Innocent youth are being dragged out of their homes and their properties are being seized on the accusation of destruction of public property. Death toll has crossed 22. Thousands are in custody.

It’s not surprising that Narendra Modi is being compared to Adolf Hitler.

India’s secular ethos

Religion based politics is nothing new in India, the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue and Gujarat riots being two of the most glaring examples.

However, in day to day life ‘Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai, Aapas mein sab bhai bhai’ (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians are all brothers) has not just been a slogan but a way of life.

Muslims in India have held prominent positions in every sphere of life, be it arts, literature, sports or leadership and have been admired by Hindus and Muslims alike.

The current BJP government aims to change all of that with its RSS-inspired fascist ideology of Hindutva – Hindu nationalism andHindu rashtra’ (nation).

India’s faltering economy and dejected youth

One of the heartening aspects of the CAA/NRC uprising is that it is not being seen as just a Muslim struggle. It is rightly being seen as a struggle to uphold the secular ethos of the Constitution of India. However, there is more to this struggle which is being led by the youth of the country.

Underlying the CAA-NRC struggles is the country’s deep disappointment with PM Modi’s lofty promises of ‘acche din’ (good days) which gave the country a new hope . Among other things he promised to make India an economic superpower. Today the nation’s economy is in doldrums which has led to frustration and dejection in the youth.

IMF’s last forecast for India was 6.1% growth in 2019. This has slumped to 4.9%. Unemployment is at a 45-year high and industrial growth rate is negative.

One of the major reasons for the economic slowdown has been the government’s radical decision of demonetization in 2016 which sent the entire country in a turmoil and failed to achieve any of its stated objectives. Small businesses took a further hit with the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

At a time when the government’s primary concern should have been the faltering economy, the government diverted the country’s attention to the Babri Masjid -Ram Janmabhoomi issue. As soon as that ended it announced the CAA and NRC, continuing its propaganda of Hindu nationalism as opposed to real issues faced by the nation.

At this critical junction the economy can be expected to take a further hit by the cost of the implementation of the CAA and NRC exercise.By conservative estimates, nationwide NRC will cost Indians a whopping 500 billion rupees in admin expenses alone. Add to it the massive cost of building and maintaining detention centers across the country and the nation looks set for an economic and logistical nightmare.

Today the educated youth of the country is voicing its frustration at the price the country has been paying due to the government’s fascist ideologies. They no longer want the world to know India for its age old mandir-masjid disputes, mob lynchings, communal riots, human rights violations, poverty or illiteracy.

The current uprising is not just against one particular law.The people, especially the youth of India are protesting for their rights to work together as one nation to take the country towards being an exemplary democracy and an economic superpower.

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India Unites Against Discriminatory Law CAA-NRC

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