Ethiopia’s increasing vulnerability to Islamic extremism and what that means for the Horn of Africa

Fifty years ago, J.S. Trimingham asserted that the Christian state in Ethiopia is a “beleaguered fortress in the midst of the sea of Islam” (in his book Islam in Ethiopia). While some accept this assertion, others have challenged it or even sought to speak about the “beleaguered Muslim fortresses” whereby historical relations between the medieval Christian kingdom of Ethiopia in the north and Muslim Sultanates in the South East was one of aggressive expansion by Christian kings. How one understands Ethiopia’s history of state formation and its religious journey determines one’s position in relation to these opposing views and indeed one’s perspective on the impact of Islam on Christianity in Ethiopia. I would argue that while the 13 centuries-long history of Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia is characterized by the juxtaposition between positive interactions and periodic conflicts, the current internal socio-political and religious dynamics, and the geopolitical and religious roles external forces from the Middle East in particular continue to play make Ethiopia vulnerable to religious extremism…

There are some forces within and outside Ethiopia that Ethiopia’s “historical” position as dar al Islam or “land of Islam” must be reclaimed…

Nowadays, outside forces seek to clandestinely cement the fictitious claim that Ethiopia was a land of Islam. The notable example is Turkey, who, like the Ottomans particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, has developed an interest in the Horn of Africa in general and in Ethiopia in particular. President Erdogan a few years ago received an honorary doctorate from the University of Addis Ababa and commissioned the restoration of an ancient mosque and a tomb purported to be that of the King (the Negus or Nejashi), who was hospitable to the Meccans. Having successfully carried out the restoration project to the tomb by adopting Ottoman architectural style, the Turkish government has now proposed that the king’s tomb be added as a route of umrah, the non-mandatory pilgrimage made by Muslims. This will probably contribute to the tourism industry of Ethiopia, but I seriously doubt that it would contribute to the mutual trust between Christians and Muslims in the region.

There are some who hope that Turkey’s proposal, along with other activities, would pave the way for Ethiopia to reclaim her status as a land of Islam and Ethiopia’s historic enmity to Islam would end…

Islamic extremism is a growing reality in Sub-Saharan Africa too. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is active. In West Africa’s Sahel region (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso), Ansaroul Islam (AI), Boko Haram (BH), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wul-Muslimin (JNIM), which is affiliated to Al-Qaeda, are operating. Islamic State has staged many attacks in Mozambique. Wahhabism through al-Shabaab continues to threaten Kenya.

Over the last 30 years, Islam has grown in confidence and in number in Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of mosques have been built in the country, Muslim businesses have grown, and an Islamic bank was established recently. Extremist tendencies, centering on Wahhabist teaching, have also grown. Indeed, one of the biggest threats to Ethiopia’s survival, in my view, is Wahhabism, which has been funded by the massive oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors over the years. Since the early 20th century, Wahhabism has been exported to the Horn of Africa through the provision of support to mosques, Qaranic schools, imams and, nowadays, to various government and humanitarian projects. All this is consistent with the Saudi Kingdom’s long-term project, which is explained in Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca.

I wish to inject a personal anecdote here. I once had a conversation with my relative Hajji Ahmed, who worked at the Grand Mosque in Mecca until he died a few years ago. Hajji Ahmed funded a large number of mosques in my area in the South of Ethiopia. In so doing, he explained to me, he was fulfilling the wish of the Kingdom to spread not just Islam but the Wahhabist version of Islam to which the Kingdom has been forced to subscribe since the 1970s.  What he told me made huge but chilling sense to me after I read Trofimov’s book. 

Arabian and indeed all Muslim states view Ethiopia as the most strategic state in the Horn of Africa. It is in the same way that radical Islamists view Ethiopia. Now a centuries old moderate form of Sufi Islam is endangered by the ascendancy of al-Shabaab in Somalia. Eritrea, who used to support the Houthi rebels in Yemen and was, therefore, friendly with Iran, has switched sides and is now a strong ally of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A struggle for influence between Riyadh and Tehran is evident not only in Eritrea but also in Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland.

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