Contested Secularism in Ethiopia: The Contention between Muslims and the Government

376 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2016

See all articles by Mohammed Assen

Mohammed Assen

Addis Ababa University, College of Law and Governance Studies, Students

Date Written: May 26, 2016


This study examines the nature, causes and dynamics of the conflict between the Muslim community and the Ethiopian government, particularly since 2011 over issues related to secularism and freedom of religion. By analyzing the historical trajectories of state-religion relations and the contemporary developments, the study seeks to answer why the relationship between Muslims and the Ethiopian government has soured – despite an auspicious beginning – leading to securitization of Islam in general and Islamic reform movements in particular. This is evident in the firm governmental control over Islamic institutions and the repression of the Muslim protest movement. Muslim grievances and complaints – channeled through their representative, social media and their weekly protests – were articulated in historical and social terms but sought remedy in religious parity under the framework of secularism and freedom of religion. Using the various complaint letters of the Muslims’ Solution Finding Committee, official speeches, government policy documents and the field data obtained through qualitative methods of data collection techniques, the study scrutinizes the concerns and fears of the Muslims and appraises the government’s claim of religious extremism in general and Islamic fundamentalism in particular as a national security threat. At the heart of the contestation lies the defense of secularism on both sides; each accusing the other ‘violating’ the secular order. From many of the empirical research conducted so far, the data collected and analyzed in this study and information obtained from the narrations and deeds of the Committee members, the accusation of the government of Muslims (what it calls Salafis/Wahhabis) ‘conspiring for establishing an Islamic government and harboring religious extremism’ is found to be an overstretch and government’s responses to the questions of Muslims are too simplistic and inaccurate. Many of the government policies and actions towards Muslims are marked by antithetic between ‘bad and good, tolerant and intolerant, moderate and extremist’ that resonates with the western governments’ dichotomy between what Mamdani (2002) calls “good Muslims, bad Muslims”. By doing so, the option for promoting the practice of Sufism (supposed to be tolerant, apolitical and hence good) and encouraging Sufi-oriented Muslims to occupy important leadership positions in the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council have been ‘on the table’ for countering religious extremism and political Islam in the Ethiopian government policy circles. This has resulted in the deep involvement, if not intervention, of government in religious matters, which the principles of secularism and freedom of religion did not warrant. The strategy of encouraging apolitical and tolerant religious groups for developing mutual tolerance and peaceful coexistence between religious communities by itself might not be a bad idea but it has to be done by the government without taking religious side. Secularism should also be interpreted as ‘a constitutional principle’ that requires states to treat all religions equally and their official policies being free from the dictation of religious dictums instead of interpreting it as ‘a way of life’ to be adopted by individuals to secularize students through the prohibition of religious practices in educational institutions.

Suggested Citation

Assen, Mohammed, Contested Secularism in Ethiopia: The Contention between Muslims and the Government (May 26, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Mohammed Assen (Contact Author)

Addis Ababa University, College of Law and Governance Studies, Students ( email )


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