Ethiopian Muslims have been struggling for over two years now to secure their religious freedom and rights against state interference and discrimination. It is a story that does not receive much coverage but one inspiring image may change all of that.
The appeal of non-violence as a means of social transformation is almost universal. Few deny its awesome power when unleashed with discipline. However, in the face of an impeding danger, especially one known to be as brutal as they come, it takes a lot of courage to remain nonviolent. Even though it calls for more valor than one need in a pitched battle, history has recorded only a handful of such defiant acts of ultimate heroism in man’s long quest for freedom and justice.
But no incident exemplifies the true genius of such silent rebellion more than China’s Tank Man. The year was 1989, at the height of a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing that saw hundreds, if not thousands, dead and many more arrested. A sole rebel, whose identity remains unknown quarter of a century later, took matters onto his own hands by blocking the advance of rumbling Chinese tanks near Tiananmen Square – at least 18 of them - dispatched to squash the popular protests threatening one-party rule, once and for all.
The Unknown Soldier walked to the middle of the street, held what looked like a shopping bag, and swerved left and right to halt the advance of the juggernaut. The symbolism of his defiance was instantly broadcast around the world and photos of his heroic resistance were globally published. Even in the pre-Internet era, that single image of a skinny young man blocking the path of the most fearsome of war machines immortalised the eventual triumph of the fight against authoritarianism worldwide.
Ethiopia’s ‘China Tank Man’
On August 8, 2013 – far from China’s Tiananmen Square, in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, a lone worshiper prayed the Eid Salat and was encircled by an army of riot police. The image shows a man on his knees praying unintimidated as a phalange of soldiers, bearing shields and batons, looked on. The desolate background, apparently deserted by other worshipers fearful for their lives or carted away, against an array of uniform police magnifies the image of this unknown rebel. Asked to name the faithful in the picture, Dimtsachin Yisema, the Facebook group often seen as the de facto leading body of the horizontal Ethiopian Muslims movement, said in an email, “it was sent to us by an activist.”
Like the Chinese activists of the 80s, even if for different grievances, Muslims in Ethiopia have been protesting against government interference in religious matters for nearly two years.
Some 29 leaders of the nonviolent campaign that calls on the Ethiopian government to respect it’s own constitution remain incarcerated on tramped up terrorism charges, the same charges used to muzzle journalists like Eskinder Nega and dissenting politicians Bekele Garba .
A week before Eid-al-Fitr in Kofele, central Oromia, far removed from the prying eyes of foreign cameras, over a dozen Muslim protesters, including a mother and child, were massacred in broad daylight. The story received passing references in the mainstream media. A foreign correspondent who visited the town few days after the incident was returned to the capital under threat of imprisonment.
As was with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 , sometimes it takes a symbolic gesture to inspire courage. The photo of the ” Salat Man” in Addis Ababa will likely go down the annals of history as one of the most iconic symbols in the history of not just the Muslim protests but also of the struggle of the country’s diverse population for an end to the mounting repression by a one-party rule, now in power for more than two decades.
Although similar in appearance, the two iconic images faced starkly different fates. One was captured by CNN and the Associated Press cameras – and instantly broadcast around the world. The other was captured by a citizen journalist, perhaps with a mobile phone camera, and casually uploaded on Facebook.
Ethiopia, a donor darling of the West, is considered to be one of the most oppressive countries for journalists. It also boasts the largest number of exiled journalists in the world.
Under these dire circumstances, even with a below regional average Internet penetration rate, social media has enabled Ethiopian activists, at least in urban areas, to organise and get their message across more effectively than the state, albeit to an indifferent world .
Protests are rare in Ethiopia. The last sustained protests in the country’s long but troubled history took down Emperor Haile Selassie, the last monarch. The fatal blow to the tottering imperial regime was delivered by Muslim protesters, joined by their liberal Christian allies, who staged one of the largest demonstrations preceding the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. The ongoing Muslim movement is the most sustained, unified and well organised the country has seen, perhaps in its entire history.
Muslims, estimated to be more than a third of Ethiopia’s 93 million people, began protesting against government meddling in religious affairs in late 2011. Demonstrations were set off when students at the nation’s only Islamic institute walked out of classes after their teachers were dismissed, and replaced by regime loyalists through a government edict in an effort to impose Lebanese Islamic sect called Al-Ahbash .
But the incident had an unforeseen consequence for the regime; it served as a catalyst for a wider Muslim movement that called for a redress of years of marginalisation and silent suffering. The protesters demanded a free and fair election of Islamic leaders to the highest Muslim council, known as Majlis.
First, the government agreed to negotiate with the protesters. The protesters elected a committee of 17 Muslim activists to communicate their grievances to the authorities. When the negotiations failed, the regime arrested all of them in a desperate attempt to nip the movement that it deemed extremist at the bud. This too backfired as the protester’s calls grew bolder and their nonviolent tactics more sophisticated. Ironically, the jailed leaders of the two-year-old protest movement were among the most educated and moderate Muslim thinkers the public has known.
As was the case in China throughout the 1980s, Ethiopia’s state-run media have launched continuous attacks on the movement and its leaders, including a now famous mockumentary called Jihadawi Harakat. The fictitious film juxtaposes unrelated events in an attempt to link the protesters to terrorist groups in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia.
Absent the alternative, activists now use social media as a primary broadcasting medium. The greatest strengths of utilizing digital platforms are also its greatest weaknesses. Given the information overload on social media networks, some of the most important messages can easily be buried – including the photo of the Salat Man .
If the image of Tank Man was one of the top 10 photos that changed the world, then when the symbolism and the defiant spirit of the Salat Man finally reaches the public – those on the exteriors of Facebook walls – his image too will forever inspire a generation of Ethiopian human rights activists, Muslims or not.
By Mohammed Ademo is a New York-based freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he’s also the founder and editor of OPride.com, an independent news website about Ethiopia.
Follow him on Twitter at @OPride.