Islam, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia

With Islam, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia, Terje Østebø contributes a historical ethnography to two under researched domains. First, to African and Ethiopian studies and secondly to Islamic studies. As a field of study, African studies, and Ethiopian studies in particular, have tended to focus on dominant themes, such as the largest populations, key livelihoods, or centers of political power, leaving many issues in the periphery (including the role of religion beyond religious studies). This is not only a matter of coverage in content, but also a matter of the vantage point from which those perspectives are told (e.g., from whose perspective are histories constructed). Similarly, the knowledge produced in Islamic studies that focus on the experiences and contributions south of the Sahara is comparatively less relative to political-economic centers. Scanning the Journal of Islamic Studies, as an example, there are more than 600 publications on Egypt, around 50 on Ethiopia and less than 20 on Tanzania. What makes this book notable is it being one of the exceptions. Further, while the subtitle, The Bale Insurgency, 1963-1970, suggests the book might be specific to Bale and to the 1960s, it offers much more in breadth and depth. One of the strengths of the book is its attention to the perspectives and experiences of key local actors who were involved in the insurgency. The author's ethnographic fieldwork provides a nuanced account of their strategies, tactics and motivations.

The chapters that cover the history, organizational structure, international linkages and leading individuals involved in the Bale movement are fascinating. As an example of the richness of the historical work, the leaders presented in Chapter 5 (and elsewhere) bring to life people who were international figures, having studied in Harar and Yemen, were travelling to Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Djibouti, and had ties to Egypt and Iraq. These geographies further emphasize the importance of the re-orientation that this book attempts, in centering religion within a context wherein it has often been periphery. While enjoyable to read, there are points that readers might have expected to be questioned or critiqued. For example, the author describes these leaders as having "little to no education" (Page 129), drawing on what appears to be Euro-Western assumptions and conceptions of what is considered valued and valuable forms of learning (discounting the immense expertise and learning that these leaders embodied).

The richness of this historical ethnography presents theological aspects as well as theoretical insights. For example, the author explores the nature of the emergence and syncretisms of Islam within Bale, which are often descriptive, and while lacking analyses are interesting and informative (as the author says: the process of the "Islamization of the Oromo and the Oromization of Islam"; Page 52). This continues with describing how Islamic practices were integrated into identity, resulting in a distinct form of Islam. Chapters 6 and 7 not only provide a contestation of how the conflict is classified but also provides a wealth of data, history and insight that will be useful for scholars and students for exploring other research questions.

One of the primary academic investigations that the author engages in is with forms of identity. Terje uses the concept of peoplehood or imagined peoplehood (Page 5) to conceptualize descriptors of ethnic and religious identities (which he defines as the foundational dimensions of peoplehood). While this concept does offer flexibility, it remains somewhat unclear why certain aspects of identity are emphasized at certain times, by certain people, and why this changes. In other words, how association with identities varies based upon time and circumstance (or, as Terje puts is: how an individual self defines in relation to a continuum of realities; Page 8). The application of this concept as an analytical tool is not as interwoven into the chapters as readers interested in the concept might like (references to it are largely in the opening and closing chapters. Between Chapters 3 and 8 / Pages 66 to 208 the concept is rarely mentioned, which seems a missed opportunity to integrate perspectives using the historical and ethnographic content). Nonetheless, peoplehood is a useful approach to enable a rethinking of identities, and specifically a centering of religion within the continuum of realities. This book does well in contesting binary forms of assessing identity, and the rebalancing that Terje offers is warranted and valuable.

Chapter 2, with details on the geography, infrastructure, and demographics of Bale, could have been strengthened with additional specific data and clarity of sources. In Chapter 3, similarly, the sources given for parts of the historical narrative are not always clear for follow-up research. While readable and enlivened with personal experiences, from a university press book, one would typically expect altitudes and areas to be provided with more references, and for the references used, more recent data than what was obtained in 2004 from a zonal administration report. This is not just a matter of academic style and acknowledging the contributions of others, utilizing the available data from the Central Statistical Agency as well as the regional and zonal administrations would have given this chapter another layer of depth.

On the theoretical side, the author discusses why he does not categorize this movement as "separatist" or "nationalist" but does not consider the possibility of its being a liberation struggle (Pages 90, 117-118, 268). Terje draws on the typology of Clapham (Page 90) and opts to use the language of "insurgency" and "insurgents" throughout most of the book (although some informants the author spoke with used the word "struggle", see Page 89, which the author himself uses more often in Chapter 5. Later in the book, the author notes that people he spoke with positioned their movement as striving for freedom; see Page 269). The choice of terms might have been done as an effort to select a more value-neutral framing. However, as the author notes the connotations in Ethiopia are negative and the apparent lack of recognition of the potential of liberation are both value assessments. As the author describes, the struggles for freedom and dignity in the Horn were not new occurrences in the 1900s, nor were they limited to struggles against colonizers. The author describes the treatment experienced by the people of Bale (e.g., the targeting and indiscriminate killing and bombing of civilians), and a long-lasting collective experience of marginalization and discrimination against non-Ethiopian Orthodox Christians by the government (as the author describes in Chapters 8 to 10). It seems worth considering that this pursuit of freedom and dignity might be one of seeking liberation (at least as a possibility).

The author is a scholar interested in religion and has written a book seeking to center religion in discussions of identity. However, in many of the chapters the Islamic perspective is missing. By that I do not mean a lack of references to Islam or the identification of individuals as Muslims, but rather regarding discussions about how Islam and being Muslim influenced the decisions made. For example, the author is surprised at an apparent false testimony (Page 152). Readers familiar with Islamic history, however, might wonder the extent to which these leaders considered this acceptable as either occurring in the context of war or due to the necessity of the situation (from the lens of Islamic jurisprudence). Similarly, did people in Bale make analogies to the Mekkan era when traders carrying stolen goods were raided? (Page 93) Readers do not know whether, or how much, Islamic jurisprudence influenced or informed these decisions or the positions taken regarding such choices. Similarly, Chapter 7 offers substantial contextualization of the epistemology and ontology of what the author calls the "pre-Islamic religious universe of the Arsi Oromo" (Page 189) but relatively little on how Islamic perspectives changed or were woven into that worldview (such as conceptualizations regarding land, which are focal to that chapter). The answer may be, for these or other aspects, no consideration at all. However, the text does not provide these answers. Given that at least some of the leaders of the movement in Bale undertook Islamic studies, including abroad (as outlined in Chapter 5), it seems probable that Islamic jurisprudence played a role in these decisions (as emerges in Chapter 10, the implication is that Islam may have been focal). Particularly as the author seeks to reorient religious roles, the consideration of decision making from an Islamic perspective seems to this reader a valuable consideration to have included (which furthers the depth to which religion can be associated with the movement in Bale).

I recommend this book and I anticipate it will be used in many anthropology classes as well as African studies ones. The contribution is stronger in African studies than Islamic studies (hence its inclusion in the African Studies series). However, for those interested in Muslim experiences in the Horn of Africa, this book is a unique contribution and well worth reading. The text might be a challenge for first and second year undergraduates but would be a great text for in-depth upper undergraduate and graduate level courses. The above notes on the book could be entry points for further classroom discussion, providing pathways for further study in the historical, anthropological and Islamic studies domains. 

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War in 140 Characters

If you have been following the problematization of social media over the years, the stories in "War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century" (2017) by David Patrikarakos might not be all that surprising. For those who are interested in how these processes actually take place - beyond the headlines, abstract or theory - the author presents some insightful qualitative examples, from multiple perspectives on the war fronts.

"This book is about war. But it is also about stories, the narratives of conflict and the conflict of narratives" (p. 3) writes the author. While some aspects of war and conflict remain the same, Patrikarakos argues that we "are in need of a new conceptual framework that takes into account how social media has transformed the way that wars are waged, covered, and consumed. (p. 5). How has conflict actually changed? "First, power has shifted from hierarchies or institutions to individual citizens and networks of citizens. Second, the narrative dimensions of war are arguably becoming more important than its physical dimensions. And third, the conflicts I am examining were not "traditional" state-on-state wars" (p. 5). The conclusion? "Our information environment is sick. We live in a world where facts are less important than narratives, where people emote rather than debate, and where algorithms shape our view of the world" (p. 264). 

One of the most interesting examples I found in the book was how the "troll factory" actually operates and its objectives. "The goal was twofold. The first was to shore up the Kremlin's own constituency by giving them a narrative to hold on to and subsequently disseminate. The second, more bemusing to him, was to simply sow as much confusion as possible: to counteract the realities on the ground with counternarratives made forceful not by the strength of their content, which was blatantly false, but by their sheer volume" (p. 144). 

Other problems of social media - on echo-chambers and cocoons: "As we cocoon ourselves in online bubbles of like-minded friends and followers posting content we find agreeable, so the Facebook algorithm feeds us yet more content that, based on our online habits, it calculates we will like. This is designed to keep us on their forums for as long as possible to allow companies to advertise specific products to us users based on what they know we like." (p. 12)

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Civil Wars in Africa: Roots and Resolutions

For some period in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a trend in conflict studies that suggested civil war in Africa was externally caused and driven. To counter that narrative, a group of scholars came together to explore the internal, domestic aspects of civil war in Africa (without neglecting the external factors). The result was "Civil Wars in Africa: Roots and Resolutions" (1999) edited by Taisier Ali and Robert Matthews. This edited volume provides a set of case studies on civil conflict in Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda as well as how conflict did not emerge in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. As with edited volumes of this nature, they are difficult to summarize because each chapter is unique and presents its own perspectives and conclusions. A new noteworthy points:

On causes of conflict:

  • "In the Horn, development has contributed to conflict primarily in response to state decisions about investment in export sectors, especially agriculture and livestock. The state has steered investments towards areas controlled by the ruling elites. Resulting investment patterns have led to extraordinary regional disparities in economic opportunity. These disparities have been intensified as the state provided social services primarily [go] to the same areas. This post-colonial continuation of a colonial trend intensified inequalities among social groups and regions; and resulting tensions fed larger civil conflicts. The most conflict-prone areas in the Greater Horn are nearly all areas that have been excluded from the fruits of state investment." (p. 44)
  • "Both threads of conflict in Rwanda – the civil war and the genocide – can be traced directly to the impact of manipulation of social cleavages, in this case ethnicity, by political elites in competition over power" (p. 80)

On overcoming conflict:

  • "Uganda's experience suggests that the re-establishment of stability in a country that has suffered extensive, recurrent upheavals requires firm but nationally minded leadership, extensive broadening of the political process to include previously marginalized groups, intra-elite cohesion, and positive developments on the economic front. Only then can conditions be laid for addressing the structural imbalances that underlie social conflict." (p. 14)
  • "To ensure the long term stability of Ethiopia, the newly elected government will have to allow for more political liberalization than it has at present. (Because of their close links with the government, forged during the liberation struggle, NGOs and donor countries have a special role to play in pressing the government in this direction.) In the absence of political reconciliation, the central government will probably have to resort to increasing repression to ensure its control over Ethiopia." (p. 305)

On preventing conflict:

  • "In this dominant climate of scepticism towards anything Tanzanian, inadequate due has been given [to] the political accomplishments of the Nyerere era. Yet these achievements were major… Tanzania enjoyed continuous, stable civilian rule for some twenty years. Then, peacefully and within that framework of civilian rule, there was not only a change of political leadership but also a near-180 degree change of ideological direction, with Tanzania becoming a more open political society, now in transition to a multi-party system." (p. 239)
  • "Most of the poorest African states today face the same central dilemma as did Tanzania in the mid-1960s. They must balance the contribution to good government that often flows from a greater popular participation and fuller respect for civil and political rights against the likelihood that these same democratic features may unleash divisive ethnic, regional, and class divisions, which may shatter the still-fragile unity of the state. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether something like the Tanzanian democratic, one-party system may be preferable for many very poor Third World states than either a competitive party democracy on the Western model or any of the most autocratic alternatives." (p. 246)
  • "It now seems almost inevitable that, in the absence of strong popular forces that can insist on greater answerability, democratic, one-party states will finally be unable to check the self-seeking, oligarchical temptations that lurk within them. Ideological commitment, nationalism, exceptional leadership, and even fear of the disastrous consequences of severe intra-elite rivalry seem unable to ensure that the ambitions, abilities and energies of the new elites serve, rather than undermine, the common good." (p. 248)

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The Battle for Afghanistan

The way war is waged has significantly changed since the 1800s. One might assume the lessons for contemporary times from such a period would be limited as a result. William Dalrymple's telling of the British attempt to conquer Afghanistan in 1839-1842 convincingly show the opposite. In "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan" (2013), Dalrymple tells the stories of battles long past in an engaging way, while also drawing allusions to present efforts of conquest in the country. The 567 page book tells the history of how the British army was devastated, and then their response following defeat – to toss away their own moral positions and engage in what we would today classify as crimes against humanity. In this post I focus on the linkages Dalrymple makes to the present, and have not attempted a summary on the attempted conquest itself. For those interested in Afghanistan, and conflict generally, this is essentially reading.

"I asked if they saw any parallels with the current situation. 'It is exactly the same,' said Jagdalak. 'Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say "We are your friends, we want to help." But they are lying' (p. 485). In a conversation with elders, Dalrymple recounts: one explaining "some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, "Why do you hate us?" I replied, "Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time."' (p. 487). The author recounts a visit to the "the Herat Museum of the Jihad: a collection of objects left behind by the various foreigners who have foolishly tried to conquer Afghanistan, ranging from British cannon from the First Afghan War through to Russian tanks, jets and helicopter gunships. It won't be long, one can be certain, before a few shot-up American Humvees and British Land-Rovers are added to the collection" (p. xxxvi).

Much like the Canadians, Afghanistan was an arena engaged not for its own sake, but for other self-serving military and political reasons. The British effort of the 1800s was similar: "it was also clear from this attempt to reach out to the Afghans that the British were not interested in cultivating Shah Shuja's friendship for its own sake, but were concerned only to outflank their imperial rivals: the Afghans were perceived as mere pawns on the chessboard of western diplomacy, to be engaged or sacrificed at will. It was a precedent that was to be followed many other times, by several different powers, over the years and decades to come; and each time the Afghans would show themselves capable of defending their inhospitable terrain far more effectively than any of their would-be manipulators could possibly have suspected" (p. 8). So too would the hypocritical rhetoric about independence, freedom and justice – applied as a means to promote agendas when in fact the actors themselves were often worse perpetrators of what was apparently the reason to go to war against another (see p. 77). Justifications would be supported with what Dalrymple describes as "doctored intelligence" (p. 490) with exaggerated threats "manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks" (p. 490).

Much like the Americans, victory was declare prematurely, and new wars were started, resulting in weakened efforts to hold territory in Afghanistan: "rather than concentrating on consolidating Shah Shuja's fragile rule in Afghanistan, and providing the resources needed to make the occupation viable and secure, Lord Auckland – like more recent invaders – instead took the premature view that the conquest was already complete and so allowed himself to be distracted by launching another war of aggression in a different theatre" (p. 220). Dalrymple makes this point: "in 2001, the British and American troops arrived in Afghanistan where they proceeded to begin losing what was, in Britain's case, its fourth war in that country. As before, in the end, despite all the billions of dollars handed out, the training of an entire army of Afghan troops and the infinitely superior weaponry of the occupiers, the Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit. In both cases the occupying troops lost the will to continue fighting at such a cost and with so little gain." (p. 482).

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