Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia: Islam, Christianity and Politics Entwined

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Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia: Islam, Christianity and Politics Entwined. By Haggai Erlich. Boulder, Colo, and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007. Pp. xi, 249. $49.95.

With the 1990 toppling of the military regime in Ethiopia and the rise to power of Meles Zenawi's EPRDF, Ethiopia began reshaping its national self image and worldview. So argues Professor Erlich. While Ethiopia has always been a multicultural state, Menilek II's late-nineteenth-century conquests tripled its size and likely shifted the population balance towards a Muslim majority. Earlier efforts to "redefine" the state under Lijj Iyasu in the 1920's were forcefully aborted. Meles Zenawi's approach to state-building, according to Erlich, recognized the realities of modern Ethiopia and the changed international context following the Cold War, endeavoring to include Muslims and an array of ethnics into the country's political mainstream. Such effort has politicized Ethiopian Muslims and provides fertile ground for both Saudi Wahhabists and al Qaeda to promote their own visions for the region. Meles's "experiment," while certainly praiseworthy, has its dangers. Of course not all Ethiopians or even all scholars will necessarily accept Erlich's argument that Meles is a heroic innovator; instead they see the EPRDF's multiculturalism as a façade to mask Tigrayan political domination. But the fact remains, whether one buys Erlich's central argument, this book is well worth reading. It provides all kinds of interesting insights and draws connections between Ethiopia and the Arab world that have been little pondered, with vital implications for the modern world.

Just as Christian Ethiopia molded its identity around the Solomonic myth, Arab perceptions of Ethiopia were shaped by the first hijra: early Muslim converts seeking refuge in the Axumite court. This story portrays Ethiopia as a just and tolerant state, safeguarding its minorities and thus exempt from jihad. An alternate version has the Axumite ruler personally embracing Islam, making Ethiopia part of dar-al-Islam (the land of Islam), vulnerable to cleansing of corrupt rulers and ideas. Muslim (and particularly Arab) relations with Ethiopia have been defined historically by which version of this story gets promoted.

Erlich traces the historical dynamics of these two themes, emphasizing the twentieth century. Haile Sellassie I symbolized the traditional Christian state, marginalizing Muslims as a group, while cooperating with individual Muslim merchants. The Italians undermined Christian rule, touting a policy of inclusion for all minorities including Muslims. …