Aaron Maasho of Reuters recently asked for my views on charges by Ethiopian Muslims that the government is trying to impose Al-Ahbash ideology in the country. His article titled Ethiopian Muslims Protest Government 'Interference' contains one of my comments at the end. Click here to read Aaron's piece.
I am including below my longer 1 May 2012 email response to Maasho:
From this distance [Washington], it is impossible to determine if the EPRDF government is playing a role in encouraging the Al-Ahbash ideology in Ethiopian Islam. In the past, the government has tried to stay out of religious affairs. If this policy has changed, it would be significant. But I have no evidence it has changed. For the most part, Islam in Ethiopia has been based on Sufi values. As a result, it has never been seen as a threat to the government. In fact, if you look at voting patterns in the controversial 2005 election, I believe the EPRDF did well in predominantly Muslim constituencies. The government has done a pretty good job over the years in ameliorating religious differences where there are potentially serious conflicts among Ethiopian Orthodox, Protestant (including fundamentalists and Pentecostals) and Muslims. Catholics, animists and others are too few to constitute a political bloc.
The government has been concerned for more than 15 years about the activities of Wahhabi proselytizers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. They have funded numerous mosques in Ethiopia. In the 1990s and up until about 2005, before the Saudi Arabian government cracked down, several of the Wahhabi charities such as al-Haramain operating in the Horn of Africa had connections to terrorist groups. This activity seems to have ended in recent years. Although I am not aware that groups like al-Haramain were active in Ethiopia, they were very active in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. Wahhabi influence in Ethiopia did result in some localized conflict between it and followers of Sufi beliefs. Many Muslims in the Oromo community have, for example, grave stones above ground that are sometimes painted in bright colors. The Wahhabi do not accept this practice and are believed to have been responsible for destroying some of them. This caused some serious tension between Sufis and Wahhabis, but to the best of my knowledge the government stayed out of it.
You can be sure that if the government believes any mosque is spreading extremism, it will take measures to end the extremism. I believe it would work through the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs rather than interact directly with the mosque. I doubt that it would push a particular Muslim ideology such as that of the Al-Ahbash group.