Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

At Issue: The "Muslims in Ethiopia Complex" and Muslim Identity: The Trilogy of Discourse, Policy, and Identity

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

At Issue: The "Muslims in Ethiopia Complex" and Muslim Identity: The Trilogy of Discourse, Policy, and Identity

Article excerpt


Understanding the relationship between Ethiopia and Islam has for decades been of little interest to social scientists. The problem even gets worse for the issue of Muslim identity in Ethiopia. A closer scrutiny of pertinent literatures shows wide gaps in research engagements that aim to bridge the affinities of Islam, Muslims, and Ethiopia. Notwithstanding evidence of the past and present showing mutual convergences, many of the past and contemporary social scientific discourses favor divergences and incompatibilities. Consequently, the focus to a larger extent tilted towards the notion of incompatibility and divergence between Islam and Ethiopia. As I will argue, this in turn has led to a dualism in Ethiopian history, culture, and society, a dualism that assumes a Christian Ethiopia and Islam as foreign. The externalization of Islam and thus Muslims, as I will demonstrate, is part and parcel of what I call the "Muslims in Ethiopia complex" (hereafter referred to as the complex). It has three fundamental and relevant dimensions: one is the view of it as a discourse among academics in the field; the second is as a policy and praxis of the Abyssinian kingdom and/or the Ethiopian state; and the third is that of the overall condition of Muslims and the resulting "Muslims in Ethiopia" self-perception. (1) It should be noted that these dimensions are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are closely related.

The present article, thus, argues that except for a few recent studies, the overwhelming majority of academic engagements still explicitly portrays dualism in Ethiopian history, culture and society and thus largely remains under the shadow of the complex. Second, although there are certain changes in the ways the ruling elites view and treat Islam and Muslims in Ethiopia, especially in the existing Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government (1991 to present), there are various instances and growing evidences that suggest the perpetuation of this complex. In other words, except for some reform efforts in the 1990s, the EPRDF regime is still failing to address some of the historically evolving questions of Muslims in the country. Thirdly, despite the failure of the ruling state elites and the social sciences to respond to the changing circumstances of Muslims, Muslim self-perception and identity has been shifting from one of Muslims in Ethiopia to more of being Ethiopian Muslims. As I will briefly discuss below, the complex has partly played a role in the emergence and development of this shift in the question of Muslim identity within Ethiopia.

The purpose of this contribution is basically twofold. In the first place, it closely engages past researches to see how Islam and Muslims are studied and represented. This paves the way for critically examining some of the widely held knowledge and discourses, on the one hand, and exploring, if any, continuity of change in this regard, on the other. Second, by complementing the already produced knowledge with current evidence and developments, it aims to shade some light on the shift in identity construction of Muslims from being Muslims in Ethiopia to becoming more one of Ethiopian Muslims. Accordingly, the first part of this article questions the dualism in academic discourses. The second part briefly explores the ways in which various ruling elites approached issues of Islam and Muslims in the country. The third part closely examines the relationship between the complex as a policy, specifically focusing on the EPRDF regime and its implications for the Muslim identity in Ethiopia.

The Muslims in Ethiopia Complex: Engaging the Actors

The Muslims in Ethiopia complex is a state of imagination, portrayal, and execution of the task of disentangling Islam and Muslims from Abyssinia and/or Ethiopia and the resulting intended sociocultural, economic, and political consequences. However, it has also produced unanticipated and antithetical outcomes. …

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