P165 – Religious Revival, Secularism and Contested Public Spaces in Contemporary Ethiopia
9 July, 14:00-15:30

Fantini Emanuele / University of Turin, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society
Ostebo Terje / University of Florida, Center for African Studies & Department of Religion University of Florida


Ethiopia is a secular state that separates politics and religion, attempting to confine the latter to the so-called private sphere. While in the West secularism has been associated with decreasing religious allegiances and the emergence of competing narratives for orientations, in a context like Ethiopia we see continued religious commitment, intense revitalization activities and increasing religious pluralism and competition. The panel examines the current dynamics of Ethiopia’s secularism and religious discourses and the multifaceted role played by religion in the context of political reconfiguration after the death of former PM Meles Zenawi. It points to how a hegemonic regime has limited the access of religious actors to the public space, and how the authoritarian enforcement of its assertive secular principle have exacerbated the relations between the government and religious communities, particularly the Muslims. At the same time, the panel analyses how the policies aimed at marginalizing religion have produced separate and highly dynamic religious spaces – also in the Ethiopian diaspora -, where spiritual actors compete among themselves and with the government in defining political identities, constructing social imaginaries, legitimising moral economies and occupying public spaces, leading to increasing political and inter-religious tensions.

Renouveau religieux, sécularisation et espaces publiques contestés dans l’Ethiopie contemporaine
L’Ethiopie est un Etat laïque dont la Constitution sépare politique et religion, reléguant cette dernière à la sphère privée. Tandis qu’en Occident la laïcité a été associée à un affaiblissement des allégeances religieuses et à l’essor de narratives concurrents pour l’orientation des sujets, en Ethiopie on assiste à des engagements religieux persistants, à un intense réveil spirituel et à une grandissante pluralisation et compétition religieuse. Le panel cible les dynamiques liées aux discours sur la laïcité et la religion en Ethiopie, ainsi que les multiples rôles du religieux dans la reconfiguration politique suite à la mort de l’ancien Premier Ministre Meles Zenawi. Le panel s’interroge sur les modalités autoritaires adoptées par le régime éthiopien pour limiter l’accès aux espaces publiques aux acteurs religieux, et comment l’application agressive des principes de laïcité a exacerbé les relations entre le Gouvernement et les groups religieux, en particuliers les Musulmans. Dans le même  temps, le panel analyse comment les politiques visées à marginaliser le religieux ont résulté dans le développement d’espaces religieux séparés et très dynamiques – aussi dans la diaspora éthiopienne – où les acteurs spirituels rivalisent entre eux et avec le Gouvernement pour la définition des identités politiques, la construction des imaginaires sociaux, la légitimation des économies morales et l’occupation des espaces publiques, toute en alimentant les tensions politiques et intra-religieuses.

Paper 1

Egeland Erik / Uppsala University, Faculty of Theology, World Christianity and Interreligious Studies

Inter-denominational relations and coalitions among Christian communities; an example from Awasa and the Sidama zone, Southern Ethiopia

After the 1991 political transition in Ethiopia, religious groups and organizations that were formerly marginalized have gained access to public space. The Ethiopian government has facilitated the religious diversity between communities, but also separating religion and state. In the recent decades Protestantism has been growing rapidly and this setting has created both competition and ecumenical cooperation between denominations in Ethiopia.
This paper analyses inter-denominational relations and coalitions between Christian communities in the city of Awasa and in the Sidama zone, Southern Ethiopia. The city of Awasa and the Sidama region has played an important role for the growth of Protestantism in Southern Ethiopia. During the last decades there has been an increase in the number of new Christian groups that are adhering to a plurality of Evangelical and Pentecostal identities. The purpose of the paper is to describe the dynamics and negotiation of relations between the denominations. This happens both through competition and cooperation between smaller and larger denominations, as well as through new ecumenical coalitions between smaller autonomous denominations, thereby challenging the established ecumenical organizations.

Paper 2

Ficquet Eloi / EHESS

Obedience, Dissidence or Neutrality: Attitudes of the Ethiopian Orthodox Communities in the USA towards the Home Church and Politics in Ethiopia

In 1959, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) became autocephalous by emancipating itself from its hierarchical dependency to the Coptic Church. By losing its external spiritual authority, the Church was submitted to the temporal authorities without counterweight to prevent and condemn potential excess of domination of the State over the Church. Since the 1980s, however, the international factor has regained some importance as an oppositional element through the involvement of the Ethiopian diaspora in religious affairs. The network of Ethiopian Orthodox parishes abroad, particularly in the USA, have been instrumental in the formation of a distinct and active Ethiopian diaspora. When the Church was confronted to radical transformations and even persecution under the Derg dictatorship, and when the Church had to reinvent itself under the secular framework of the Federal regime after 1991, diaspora communities channelled financial support and provided refuge to dissident figures in the clergy. The last three patriarchs of the EOTC spent many years in the USA that had significant consequences not only for their own careers but for the evolution of the whole church. On the basis of observations made in Washington DC, this paper will examine the ambivalent relations of opposition and interdependency between the Ethiopian diaspora, ecclesiastical issues and politics.Three positions — obedience, dissidence or neutrality — will be examined.

Paper 3

Ostebo Terje / University of Florida

Thinking about the Muslim Brothers: The Intellectualist Movement in Ethiopia

The ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, generally labeled as Islamism, have followed an interesting and uneven trajectory over the last few decades. Moving away from a more exclusivist position, the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have increasingly sought to accommodate liberal democracy, human rights, and secularism. Similar discourses have been taking place in Ethiopia, yet the secluded nature of such dynamics has made them rather invisible to outside observers. Recent years’ Muslim protests and increased strained relations between the regime and the Muslim population have intensified internal debates about the nature and future of the Ethiopian society: the nature of the secular state, inter-religious relations, religious freedom, and the role of religious values in the public.
This paper investigates what I have called the Intellectualist movement, a movement dominated by young, urban Muslim intellectuals and professionals, and highly influenced by – yet critically selective to – the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood. The main aim is to shed light on local representations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Ethiopia. It focuses in particular on the ideological dynamics, and an important aspect is to analyze such local expressions in light of broader ideological developments within the Muslim world. The tentative suggestions are that these ideas have provided young Muslims coming out from the Derg period with material for the production of an assertive religious identity,

Paper 4

Gagliardone Iginio / University of Oxford

Fantini Emanuele / University of Turin

Religious identities and politics in Ethiopia’s online sphere

The state and nation building project the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has embarked on since it came to power in 1991 has led to a progressive freezing of both political and ethnic identities. Apart from the period around the 2005 elections, the avenues for participating in opposition politics have been reduced to a minimum, and ethnic belonging has been increasingly institutionalised and bureaucratised as part of the project of ethnic federalism. Religion, on the other hand, has progressively emerged as a more fluid terrain where to express individual and collective identities.
Through a systematic observation of Ethiopia’s most popular online spaces, this paper investigates the ways in which religious identities are negotiated and defined online; their relationship to other forms of political expression; and how users belonging to different faiths interact and navigate online spaces for dialogue. Against the backdrop of previous elections where those that were accused of hate speech were primarily on the grounds of ethnic and political identities, the paper explores whether also religion is also moving to the forefront of online identity debates.

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