Muslim Protests in Ethiopia and the Symbolism of Human Rights
Almost every week since 2011, American news corporations have reported on the non-violent grassroots democratic movements in Egypt and Tunisia and the violent, U.S.-supported movements in Syria and Libya — the so-called “Arab Spring.” However, almost never reported are the conditions for a viable democracy in Ethiopia, and even in those few reports about Ethiopia such as this one, what remains missing is any account of the religious, ethnic, and ideological complexities of that country and the changing multifaceted history of that region. In other words, what remains missing is precisely the information one might need to really understand what is happening. How do we understand human rights and democracy? I’d like to begin with this photography here taken on Thursday, August 8th that quickly circulated on various forms of social media and eventually was posted on Al Jazeera last night along with some earlier photographs and Twitter feeds.
The picture is of a young man in the capital city of Addis Ababa, confronting Ethiopian police non-violently by kneeling in prayer before them. Some conversation began on Facebook and Twitter about the symbolic meaning of the photo, and what I’d like to suggest to the readers of my blog is that, for many Americans, the way “democracy” in other countries is understood is largely through images such as this one. It is worth thinking about such images because they often take on a symbolic significance that may be emotionally moving but also may obscure many of the political details and actual functioning of democratic social movements.
But before I continue to think about my questions about how we understand the images that come to symbolize democratic ideals and social movements, I should provide some context for the photograph. Last week, as the month of fasting for Ramadan came to a close and the feast-day of Eid al Fitre was celebrated across the world, Muslims in Ethiopia were protesting the government’s closing of some mosques and arrest of Muslim community organizers and journalists. The Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed responses to those protests in various towns across the country and in the capital city of Addis Ababa left many dead and more injured. The government’s position is that these are violent Muslim extremists, but against this view, the Muslim community organizers argue that they represent the moderate form of Islam that has existed in Ethiopia for over a thousand years and that their movement that started in 2011 is non-violent. On Thursday, August 8th, in support of the Muslim protesters, Amnesty International filed this complaint against the Ethiopian government for human rights violations. Muslims make up about one third of the population of Ethiopia, but the state government has been dominated by Orthodox Christians since the incorporation of Muslim territory at the end of the nineteenth century. The entire history is a long one, and considering that the protest movement started about two years ago, I don’t want to dwell on all the details in this blog post; you can read or hear more about the past week’s conflict by following these links to OPride, BBC Africa, Reuters, and a United Nations brief. One frustrating thing is that the place where you won’t hear anything about these events is on the major sources of information in the United States: The New York Times and National Public Radio.
Coincidentally, exactly when this conflict started in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, I was listening to Oromo intellectuals at the Oromo Studies Association conference at Howard University in Washington DC who were engaging in a debate about the complex historical relationship between religious organizations (namely Islam and protestant Christianity), cultural self-determination, and democratic movements. One of my students and I were at that conference to give presentations on a panel about international education, media and film along with OPride‘s editor and the Oromo-language journalist for Voice of America.
So, drawing on what I learned at that conference and what I had already learned before going to it, we can deepen the context for this single photo to go so far as to suggest a context of a thousand year history of political involvement from Turkey, Portugal, England, France, Italy, the United States, and most recently Saudi Arabia, China, and India. The cultural divisions in Ethiopia are not merely religious but also ethnic, and this is complicated because the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, are a mix of Christian, Islam, and older forms of religious practice. Earlier this year, on June 25, Al Jazeera became the first global television news network to focus on these issues in a segment that you can watch here. But there are other factors to consider too, not mentioned on that segment of Al Jazeera. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, both Christian and Islamic religious institutions participated with other organizations in a broad-based revolutionary democratic movements that eventually led to the revolutions in 1974 and 1991, but since the 1990s, new forms of Christianity and Islam have emerged that claim to be fundamentalist but whose funding and ideology seem to come from outside the country. We might consider too that for almost a century Ethiopian law prohibits religious practices (such as burial and marriage) that do not fall under the jurisdiction of sanctioned Christian or Muslim institutions (e.g., the Oromo’s traditional Waaqeffannaa), and these new forms of fundamentalism (not only Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms, but also western neoliberal fundamentalism) appear to be suppressing some of the older forms of ethnic culture that predate the adoption of the world religions, including older forms of ethnic culture that give women some important forms of agency in their communities (e.g., addoyyee and siiqqee.)
So, now that I’ve summarized that context, let’s return to the photo. The non-violent gesture of the man engaging in “salat” (prayer) seems to have stopped the police officers. The image might remind us of other champions of non-violent action such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued for the effectiveness of moral persuasion through non-violent action that exposes the hypocrisy of the ruling regime whose excessive use of force undermines the legitimacy of the state. The action of this man engaging in salat is not passive, but firmly active non-violent practice. However, noticeably, other forms of non-violent protest (e.g., marches and assemblies) did not have the same effect on the police. Two things seem special about this photo: first, that it is an act of prayer and second that it is a solitary individual putting his body at risk. This does two things. First, there is a bias in western media that tends to read Islamic practice and liberal human rights in opposition to each other, and indeed, the Ethiopian government’s rhetoric to the outside world seems to deliberately capitalize on that bias in order to discredit their political opponents. But for Muslim Oromos living in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, the meaning of this photo would seem to suggest that liberal human rights and Islamic practice can function together. Second, it foregrounds the decision of an individual to put himself at risk for the greater good rather than a group identity or mobilized mob. It creates a hero.
Thinking theoretically, and reflecting on this interesting question about the structural relationship between the practices of Islam and the idea of human rights, might all of this illustrate the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s inquiry into the nature of globalization? In his book Modernity at Large, he argues that various ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes all play a role in social formations and local cultures — sometimes functioning together, but sometimes functioning in contradiction to each other. These global “scapes” are in tense dialectic with the local (i.e., the actual lived experience and social organization of communities.) My presentation at the Oromo Studies Association conference alluded to Appadurai’s theory to argue that today’s international education is very much enmeshed in these different “scapes.” In the case of the photo that is the subject of this blog, we see the ethnic identity of Oromos, the practice of Islam, the ideology of human rights, and the technologies of social media. The photo might seem to fuse these various “scapes” into a singular image that celebrates a global sense of local freedom.
However, what we do not see in this symbolic image, of course, is the economics, and this includes the distribution of wealth and Ethiopia’s GDP that Jawar Mohammed emphasizes in the interview with Al Jazeera, but also the daily labor of individuals that Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa talks about in his book on coffee and khat production, as well as the speculative labor of financial institutions (what Appadurai calls financescapes), and even more basically the home-making of families. What do we make of this absence? Might it be important for how we read the effectiveness of symbolic images that come to represent such ideologically loaded concepts of freedom and democracy for American consumers of media?
We might compare this image to another one, the famous Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 when a single individual stopped military tanks from interrupting a public protest.
In fact, Oromos on social media (e.g., here) have explicitly made the comparison between the recent event in Addis Ababa in 2013 and that event in Beijing in 1989, and it is precisely the making of such comparisons between different movements that is the point of my blog post today, because in the media these images can become filtered through a western ideology of human rights that may not be fully attentive to some of the local cultural practices and understandings of what was happening. For instance, the American and European media all understood the Tiananmen Square demonstration to be a pro-democratic and anti-communist demonstration. What the media failed to appreciate is how communism and democracy are not inherently antithetical, and that one could protest the government for other reasons. In an important book written by one of the leaders of the Tiananmen demonstration, Wang Hui, and published by Harvard University Press in 2006, entitled China’s New Order, it is revealed just how incorrectly the western media understood this event when they filtered it through the global ideoscape of human rights and democracy. Wang Hui outlines the variety of economic and social issues that concerned the Chinese people and the demonstrators, and how all these issues did not neatly fit under a single ideological perspective. Importantly, for many of the demonstrators, instead of protesting communism, what they were actually protesting was the capitalist reforms, opening relations to American and European capital markets, and the “financescapes” being dictated by the government that were causing some forms of economic displacement of peoples (e.g., working conditions) and general uncertainty. In other words, in a sense, the movement was actually in some ways a conservative one, exactly the opposite of what the western media assumed.
So, what lessons do we learn from Arjun Appadurai and Wang Hui’s inquiries into the nature of democratic practice in a globalized world order? What further questions might we raise about this photograph of a man kneeling in prayer before police in riot gear? How might we untangle the tangled relationship between the Islamic practice of salat, the local demands of various religious and ethnic institutions, and the international ideology of human rights and non-violent political practice that the photograph seems to symbolically fuse?
One of Appadurai’s points about using the terms “ethnoscape” and “ideoscape” instead of the more ordinary terms “ethnic group” and “ideology” is that the neologistic “scape” alerts us to the ways that the meaning of ideas changes depending on the contexts. For instance, African American civil rights activists in the 1960s, the U.S. government in the 1980s, and leaders of the democracy movement in Tunisia today might all use the same ideas of freedom, democracy, and human rights but mean slightly different things by them. Gandhi’s practice of non-violence is connected to a Hindu tradition whereas Martin Luther King, Jr.’s is to a Christian one. Scholars of the civil rights movement in America have long expressed frustration about the way Martin Luther King, Jr.’s political message has been watered down in the popular media and high school history textbooks and grafted onto the ideology of American patriotism. Likewise, the Ethiopian government’s branding opposition groups as “terrorists” appropriates the inflammatory rhetoric of U.S. president George W. Bush a decade ago, but does so for its own ends, and when Oromo’s speak of genocide and ethnic cleansing, they are using legal terms formulated by the United Nations in the context of the Jewish Holocaust in ways that may or may not be slightly different from the way a UN legal team might use them. Hence, we are dealing not with ideologies, but with ideoscapes whose very signifying power is supposed to be part of a universal language that everyone in the world can understand but is actually quite local and context specific. Similarly, just as ideas are not pure and stable concepts, ethnicity is not a pure identity based merely on territory or authentic culture, because the lived experience of ethnicity and cultural practices have a dialectical relation to the global transformations and movements of peoples due to financial speculation, colonialism, etc. For instance, a little over a century ago, the Oromo were a rather diffuse ethnicity of many tribes, kingdoms, religious practices, and dialects who were forced to unify as a singular political liberation movement only after their rights and their land were threatened by a newly formed Ethiopian imperial state and global capitalism. Notably, an ethnic group’s right to self-determination is usually argued with terminology borrowed the European enlightenment’s discourse on “rights” but applied to local cultures who may have a different language for talking about such things. During the conference, one Oromo feminist community organizer said she preferred to think of women’s empowerment in terms of “social balance” and traditional Oromo culture rather than in terms of “rights” and western ideas. Hence, the lived experience of “ethnicity” changes depending on context and also depending on the “ethnoscapes” relation to other “scapes.”
And so, in the case of this photo, we might need to think harder about what human rights and non-violent protest really mean in the context of Islamic practices within Ethiopia that are themselves undergoing a transformation due to various global forces such as the competing ideoscapes of religious fundamentalism and liberalism and also such as the ways in which finance capital transforms territory, the use of land, and a community’s access to natural resources such as water.
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