Theory Teacher's Blog

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.

Salat man Muslim protest in Ethiopia

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 Largehe 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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August 10, 2013 - Posted by | global, Oromia


  1. I think you produced a good article but have fact flaws. First Oromos are not majority, because they account for 34%, Amaras 28 %, others also must count. Despite this the intermarriage among the different ethnic groups makes ethnicity so fluid. I think rather than focusing on ethnicity and religion as a mode of political mobilization it is better to focus on liberalism and creating secular state. The so called Oromos look agitated about the happening of ethnic conflict and chaos in Ethiopia. That has no support and it will move no step forward. They had been in small scale movement for half a century. No success so far, we will see if they account the majority and succeed with narrowness

    Comment by Gemeda Kebede | August 11, 2013 | Reply

    • Gemeda, thank you for your comment, and speaking as a white American man married to an Oromo woman, I empathize with your point about intermarriage and the sort of liberal, secular pluralism that might ensure the peaceful coexistence among peoples of differing backgrounds and views. However, in your comment you imply that I said Oromos are a majority. In fact, I never said that. I simply said they are the largest ethnic group (34.5% according to United States Central Intelligence Agency’s factbook, compared with the Amhara at 26.9%.) So, we actually agree there. You also say that ethnicity is fluid, and in fact that is similar to my own argument, so we somewhat agree there too, though the word “fluid” is a little vague, so I was trying to think through the details of what that might mean historically and practically in order to be as precise as I could. What I hoped to also suggest is that the terms of an Islamic movement need to be understood better and not misread through the lenses of ethnic and liberal ideologies, but at the same time we need to recognize that no cultural movement exists in a vacuum, so these ideologies (or, ideoscapes) have to be recognized and thought through carefully and respectfully. What concerns me about your comment is that it seems to me that haven’t actually read my blog. Please, next time, pay me the respect of actually reading what I wrote before telling me that my facts are wrong.

      Comment by steventhomas | August 11, 2013 | Reply

      • Steve thanks. Actually I read it well. I just stated what I said just to emphasis the need for creating a democratic society than thinking in ethnic lines. I was observing activists from Oromia going on the trails of ethnic and religious line. Otherwise you well indicated a direction to create a plural society. You are absolutely supporting a good cause!!

        Comment by Gemeda | August 11, 2013

  2. Thank you, Gemeda, for your polite and intellectually engaged reply. I should qualify my response a bit, for the sake of transparency, and mention that although my own personal circumstances commit me to pluralism and therefore also to a liberal attitude towards diversity, part of my blog post was also a critique of liberalism, since its belief in its own universality is problematic (as I hoped I demonstrated), and its own concepts (e.g., freedom, rights, democracy, etc.) are actually even more “fluid” than ethnicity, which is why local cultural practices are still important. After all, it is the local culture through which the hopeful promise of such symbolically loaded words is put into actual practice. Moreover, liberalism often overlooks fundamental problems like the power politics and instability of financial markets that affect ordinary peoples’ access to clean water, arable land, etc., as Marxist critiques of liberalism rightly reveal. And hence I think it’s important to appreciate the Oromo argument that the basic disparity between the economic production and economic distribution inside Ethiopia is basically unfair. As theorists as different from each other as Frantz Fanon and Gayatri Spivak have both suggested, nationalism is sometimes the necessary strategic response of the politically weak to the politically powerful. There are, of course, other possible strategic responses. What’s troubling in our era of globalization is that it’s hard to figure out how power actually works and who is really pulling the strings. The blame-game and personal attacks between groups makes it all the more difficult to objectively assess the situation and think clearly. Anyways, no matter what my own personal views are, the goal of this blog is to raise questions and provoke intellectual engagement, and not stake out a political position.

    Comment by steventhomas | August 11, 2013 | Reply

  3. Steven, I can see your point of view and I witness you have a well structured approach. Analysis is supported by evidence and data. However, the contours of Ethiopian political situation needs a through analysis of the federal system and a comparative analysis of a robust federal systems supported by a genuine democracy. Considering the pervasive poverty, huge unemployment, low literacy rate, and other factors; elites in different ethnic groups are well positioned to dictate the political play ground. The ordinary citizens are not consulted in many instances. The x Soviet Union, the x Yugoslavia, India and Nigeria can be mentioned to analyze the failure and success of a federal system. Apart from that, the west experience can lend a lot to learn. In Ethiopia, as you mentioned there are issues of wealth distribution and hegemonic rule. Institutions are not built. Yet, the current system created a lot more problem. I absolutely agree with you regarding the limitation of liberalism.

    Though I am a public health practitioner, I am trying to contribute to the current political discourse in Ethiopia. If my written work suffices your editorial, we will see, I will send you an article for publication.


    Comment by Gemeda Kebede | August 11, 2013 | Reply

  4. Simply Thank you very much Professor Steve for trying to be voice of voiceless. We Oromo people appreciated your work.

    Comment by Abba Ngaa | August 13, 2013 | Reply

  5. If the photo was distributed with commentary, how would individuals respond to the image? I am not a political analyst, my background is in English Literature. However, my educational orientation finds an appreciation in the constructs of ideals, and how those ideals function to articulate appreciation for lived experiences. I can view the image as an over response of state power, to a perceived threat by one individual. The photo does not depict any form of demonstration or challenge to religious freedoms; but simply one man kneeling against organized representative legal authority. Western media would not carry the photo. Simply because there is no interest in the area. That does not lessen the impact of perceived violations. Given that the event is occurring in a country in Africa. Much of Western bias is framed in perceptions of political corruption and power struggle, displayed by many of Africa’s leadership. There exist no historical appreciation of Western influence of colonialism and post-colonialism, on the psychosocial development of diversity in Africa. Many view Africa as a homogeneous ethnic/social culture, where there exist, no differences in social structure. That may be problematic to forming an affinity for the many, many challenges faced in an emerging global economy. Especially In America, we have grown use to poverty and stratification deprivation of masses of individuals. Which In a sense leads to, an inability to appreciate struggle. I find that counterintuitive to, Ideals of humanity.

    Comment by Ritchie Mayes | August 13, 2013 | Reply

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