In the north central Ethiopian town of Dessie lovers hold hands and stroll down the main avenue at night under a sky filled with uncountable stars. Bugs slash and dive bomb each other and people under what little ambient light there is. The town has the feel of being a community, a place where people talk before acting out their differences, a place where neighbors, Christian and Muslim alike share in good times and bad, evinced by the idir a communal, inter-religious effort at raising money for funerals.
I know this because I stayed in Dessie. In fact, in a run down old colonial era hotel shared with a few hardy German tourists and a company sized contingent from the Chinese army assigned by some Foreign Affairs bureaucrat in Beijing to build black-top roads in the region.
A place with a run down but lively and self-sufficient atmosphere.
Lately however, as Stephanie McCrummen documents in an excellent Washington Post story, religious agitators are trying to change Dessie, and it’s not the fault of Ethiopian Christians.
Continued after the jump.
Now a couple of things need to be said at the outset. McCrummen notes in the beginning of her story that:
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi cited radicalism within an Islamic movement that had taken power in neighboring Somalia, and its potential to spread across the border, as the main reason Ethiopia invaded that country in December
We all know that’s spin. The reason Ethiopia invaded Somalia was to keep the country weak and divided. A unified Somalia on good terms with Eritrea is a strategic nightmare for Ethiopia, religion was an afterthought, but a good excuse.
That being said, there is a very real trend of Muslim conversion in Africa and Ethiopia has historically been a battleground. For most of the 16th century the Muslim Oromo raided and wrecked as much of Ethiopia as possible, bringing about the end of one dynasty. It was a time of massive change in Ethiopia, a place where memories are long. Only in the last 150 years have Ethiopian Christians and Muslims found a modus vivendi, one that doesn’t exist in the Ogaden a large arid region bordering Somalia and inhabited by many ethnic Somalis. Witness the recent attack on Chinese oil interests by Somali separatists there.
During the modern ‘Empire’ not much in the way of Muslim infrastructure was built. The Derg who toppled the emperor were communists and had no interest in religious displays of any sort. But in 1991 when Meles Zenawi took power things changed. The Saudis poured in, building mosques anywhere they could. While I was there I counted at least 20 mosques in some stage of construction and saw others in every city I visited, even Lalibela and Axum–two key cities in the history of Ethiopian Christianity, a trend McCrummen herself corroborates:
Since then, mosques have been springing up across the country, many funded by Saudi or Yemeni financiers, along with a kind of competition with the Orthodox church, and to some extent, evangelical Christian churches, which receive funding from U.S. religious groups.
As I said earlier, it’s not Ethiopian Christians who are keen on stirring up religious trouble. Muslim fundamentalists who cross the long border between Kenya and Somalia into Ethiopia (or the Bab al Mandab) do stir up trouble. However, another kind of fundamentalist just flies into the airport, two of which I met in my Addis hotel near the end of my trip. Both were pasty ‘Born Again’ fellows from an evangelical church in Alabama doing ‘the Lord’s work. Here fighting the battle of words against the infidel,’ is what one told me at breakfast. I tried to keep him talking but his partner arrived and they left–heading out into the city on their ‘ministry.’
Ethiopia, before the religious fanaticism of the last 50 years poured into the country from all directions was (and still is in many places) very well integrated, something McCrummen documents with a keen ear:
In Dese, it is easy to find someone like Zinet Hassen, a Muslim woman wearing a long, black burqa who said, nonchalantly: “My uncle converted to Christianity but there was no stigma.”
But if the past is anything to go by Ethiopia will face some serious strife. The trend when communal sectarianism and nationalism collide isn’t good. Look at India, Pakistan and the Balkans. Toss in Turkey during WWI for good measure. Most countries are moving towards homogeneity. If that fails violent secession seems to be a useful fallback.
As McCrummen writes, “Muslim leaders in Dese say they have been accused of encouraging radicalism, a claim they tend to dismiss as Christian propaganda.” The pressure, on Muslim leaders especially, will only get worse as the persecution complex inherent in most religious disputes sets in. And no one can deny there is a real creeping brand of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, which is growing in Ethiopia, as this quote from McCrummen’s article highlights: “There were these confused people, Christian-to-Muslim converts, who tried to instigate people,” the sheik, Hadji Mustafa Mohammed, said about the rumormongers.” The recently converted are usually the most extreme. Just look at that ‘born again’ neighbor of yours and you’ll see what I mean. And the competition for converts in Ethiopia and other countries is real:
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, concern about Islamic extremism has been rising across the Horn of Africa, and notably in Ethiopia, a country where Orthodox Christianity is often associated with national identity but whose population is nearly half Muslim, according to Ethiopian demographers and U.S. officials.
I know it’s anecdotal and hence somewhat suspect, but I saw more burqas (not chadors mind you, but burqas) in Ethiopia than I’ve seen anywhere else, even Iran.
There is a very real struggle, one I am sure Ethiopia’s unique brand of Christianity can endure but the next 50 years will be rough unless Ethiopia can heed the wisdom of people like those in Dessie. When faced with growing outside agitation the city fathers, Christian and Muslim alike, sat down together, created a plan and acted on it, thus defusing the violence. That’s something we could all learn from. And something to be hopeful of.