In her recent commentary in the New York Review of Books, “Obama: Failing the African Spring?”, Dr. Helen Epstein questioned the Obama Administration for turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Africa, and particularly the persecution of Muslims in Ethiopia. She argued that “After more than four years in office… Obama has done little to advance the idealistic goals of his Ghana speech.” In fact, she finds the Administration playing peekaboo with Paul Kagame, the Rwandan dictator and puppet master of M23 (the rebel group led by Bosco Ntganda under indictment by the International Criminal Court) which has been wreaking havoc in Goma, (city in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Youweri Museveni, the overlord of the corruptocracy in Uganda. Dr. Epstein is perplexed by President Obama’s lofty rhetoric and his paralysis when it comes to walking the talk in Ethiopia:
Perhaps most worrying of all is the unwillingness of Obama and other Western leaders to say or do anything to support the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Ethiopians who have been demonstrating peacefully against government interference in their religious affairs for more than a year. (The Ethiopian government claims the country has a Christian majority, but Muslims may account for up to one half of the population.) You’d think a nonviolent Islamic movement would be just the kind of thing the Obama administration would want to showcase to the world. It has no hint of terrorist influence, and its leaders are calling for a secular government under the slogan ‘We have a cause worth dying for, but not worth killing for.’ Indeed, the Ethiopian protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle.
Is Dr. Epstein correct in her profound observation that the Ethiopian Muslim “protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle.” Are the Muslim protests that have been going on for nearly two years the moral equivalent of an anti-Apartheid movement in Ethiopia? Is Obama failing an Ethiopian Spring?
The importance of religious freedom to Americans and in U.S. foreign policy
Religious freedom is arguably the most important cornerstone of all American liberties. Promoting religious freedom worldwide is so important that the U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA)affirming religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in various international instruments, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Obama Administration’s record on international religious freedom in general has been deplorable. In 2010, Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commission openly complained that the Administration is ignoring religious persecution throughout the world to the potential detriment of U.S. national security. “We’re completely neglecting religious freedom in countries that tend to be Petri dishes for extremism. This invariably leads to trouble for us… Regrettably, this point seems to shrink year after year for the White House and State Department.”
The Obama Administration’s disregard for religious freedom and tolerance of religious intolerance and persecution throughout the world is incomprehensible given the centrality of religious freedom and separation of religion and government in the scheme of American liberties. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the foundation of all American liberties, first and foremost prohibits government involvement in religion in sweeping and uncompromising language: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The “establishment” clause guarantees government neutrality by preventing government establishment of religious institutions or support for religion in general. The “free exercise” clause protects against religious persecution by government.
In the 1796 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary”, the U.S. formally affirmed to the world the sanctity of religious freedom in America without regard to doctrine or denomination: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” (Art. 11.)
Many of the American Founding Fathers including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were deeply suspicious of government involvement in religion, which they believed corrupted religion itself. George Washington championed separation of religion and state when he wrote, “I beg you be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” Thomas Jefferson believed religion was a personal matter which invited no government involvement and argued for the “building a wall of separation between Church & State”. Jefferson wrote, “Among the most inestimable of our blessings is that … of liberty to worship our Creator… a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support.” James Madison, the “father of the U.S. Constitution” was a staunch defender of religious diversity: “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which pervades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.” President John Adams minced no words when he wrote, “Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.”
President Barack Obama himself made it crystal clear that he personally disapproves of government’s involvement in religion or government imposition of religious orthodoxy on citizens. “I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody’s religious beliefs -including my own- on nonbelievers.” In his first inauguration speech, President Obama declared, “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
The right of freedom of religion is the quintessential “rights of man” and an “ideal that still lights the world”. Yet, neither President Obama personally nor his Administration collectively have made any statements or taken any action concerning religious persecution in Ethiopia. It seems President Obama has given up the “ideal” of religious freedom for “expedience’s sake”. Such facile expedience is difficult to comprehend because President Obama was a constitutional lawyer before he became president.
It seems the President Obama now prefers a foreign policy based not on principle and the ideals of the Constitution but rather one based on expediency. It is more expedient for President Obama to have drone bases in Ethiopia than to have bastions of religious freedom. It is more expedient to sacrifice human rights at the altar of realpolitik than to uphold the right of Ethiopians to worship at the altar of their faiths. It is more expedient to chase after terrorists in the name of counterterrorism while sharing a bed with state terrorists. It is more expedient to tolerate dictatorship than to uphold the fundamental rights of citizenship. It is more expedient to support a benighted police state that to use American “ideals that still light the world” to enlighten it.
Why is the Obama Administration tone-deaf and bat-blind about religious freedom in Ethiopia given the established fact that the ruling regime in that country has engaged in egregious religious persecution with reckless abandon. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body constituted by the Congress and the President of the United States to monitor religious freedom worldwide, recently reported:
Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on the country’s Muslim community, a community that traditionally has practiced the Sufi form of Islam. The government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution. The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia. Muslims throughout Ethiopia have been arrested during peaceful protests: On October 29, the Ethiopia government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state.
U.S. foreign policy of expediency in Africa
Expediency has been a guiding principle in American foreign policy in Africa for quite a while. “Expediency” emphasizes “pragmatism” or “realpolitik” over principles and ideals. It is an approach that dictates consideration of each case in light of prevailing circumstances. Expediency subordinates values, ideals and principles to particular political or strategic objectives. Expediency justifies full support for blood thirsty African thugs just to advance the national interest in global “war on terror”. Expediency sacrifices principles and ideals on the altar of hypocrisy. Expediency has allowed the Obama Administration to pump billions of America taxpayer dollars to strengthen the iron fist of Meles Zenawi and his cronies in the name of fighting the so-called war on terror while preaching a hollow sermon of human rights to ordinary Africans.
What is most disconcerting is the fact that President Obama speaks with forked tongue. In Accra and Cairo, he hectored African dictators and made promises and affirmations to the people of Africa: “Development depends on good governance… We must support strong and sustainable democratic governments… Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty… That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there…” He spoke of a “new partnership” with Africa, but his Watusi dance partners were Kagame, Museveni, Zenawi and their ilk.
As a strong supporter of President Obama and one who sought to exhort and mobilize Ethiopian Americans to support his election and re-election, I feel pangs of conscience when I say the President has been a poor advocate of American ideals in U.S. foreign policy in Africa. He has hectored ordinary Africans and African dictators about the need to be “on the right side of history”. For four years, President Obama has talked a good talk to Africans that America symbolizes freedom, liberty and democracy. But when it comes to walking the talk, we see him sitting in a wooden wheel chair that ain’t going nowhere fast. This paralysis has created a monumental crises of credibility for the President personally. Few Africans believe he is on their side and even fewer believe he is on the right side of history. But they do see him standing side by side with African dictators.
But could there really be expediency in dealing with blood thirsty African dictators? President Obama knows Ethiopia is a virtual police state. He knows elections are stolen there in broad daylight as those in power claim victory by a margin of 99.6 percent. He knows thousands of political prisoners languish in Ethiopian jails considered by international human rights organizations to be among the most inhumane in the world. He knows civil society institutions in that country have been wiped out of existence. He knows opposition parties, the press and dissidents have been crushed. He knows of the crimes against humanity that have been and continue to be committed in the Ogaden region, in Gambella, the Omo region and many other parts of the country. He knows about religious persecution. President Obama personally knows that 193 unarmed protesters were massacred and 763 wounded following the 2005 elections and that no one has been brought to justice for those crimes against humanity. That crime against humanity is on par with the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960 in South Africa in which South African police slaughtered 69 unarmed black protesters in the township of Sharpeville and wounded 180.
It is said that politics makes for strange bedfellows. But must the Obama Administration get in bed with those who have committed the most heinous crimes against humanity in the 21st Century? Is it worth sacrificing American ideals to coddle and consort with brutal African dictators just to get drone bases?
Can Ethiopian Americans hold the Obama Administration accountable?
Yes, we can! The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-292) [IRFA] was enacted to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy of the United States, and to advocate on behalf of persons and groups facing religious persecution throughout the world. Very few people are aware that IFRA came into being as a result of the religious persecution of a Christian Ethiopian man named Getanah Metafriah who was “imprisoned and tortured by the Communist rulers of Ethiopia for talking about Jesus.” Getanah’s cause “manage[d] to help start a grassroots movement to publicize religious persecution abroad” eventually leading to the passage of IRFA.
IFRA requires that the United States designate as “country of particular concern” (CPC) those countries whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious and “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” and prescribes sanctions against such countries. IRFA provides the President 15 options ( 22 U.S.C. § 6445(a)(1)-(15)) to consider against states violating religious freedom including demarches (diplomatic protest) , private or public condemnation, denial, delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges, cancellation of a state visit, withdrawal or limitation of humanitarian or security assistance, restriction of credit or loans from United States and multilateral organizations, denial of licenses to export goods or technologies, prohibition against the U.S. government entering into any agreement to procure goods or services from that country, or “any other action authorized by law” so long as it “is commensurate in effect to the action substituted.” Once a state is designated a CPC, the President is required by law to conduct an annual review, no later than September 1 of each year, and to take one or more of the actions specified in IRFA.
Based on the USCRIF (a body auhtorized by IFRA) report cited above, there is no question that the regime in Ethiopia meets the IRFA criteria of engaging in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of the religious liberty of Ethiopian Muslims. It is noteworthy that the 2012 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom March 2012 (covering April 1, 2011 – February 29, 2012)) documenting serious abuses of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief around the world does not include religious persecution of Muslims in Ethiopia (which was reported by USCRIF in Novemeber 2012).
The first action Ethiopian Americans who believe in religious freedom in Ethiopia should take in an organized and collective manner is to file a request, (and if necessary a demand) that USCRIF amend or append to its 2012 report religious persecution and government interference in the profession and practice of the Islamic and Christian faiths in Ethiopia and make recommendations to the Secretary of State (SoS) for sanctions or alternative actions. In the alternative, they should insure that the violation is reported in the 2012-2013 USCRIF report with recommendations to the SoS for appropriate action. The SoS is required by IRFA to take “into consideration the recommendations of the Commission [USCRIF]” in formulating subsequent action.
By having USCRIF amend or append to its report and submit appropriate recommendations, Ethiopian Americans concerned about religious freedom in Ethiopia will have a legal basis to demand that the President “take all appropriate and feasible actions authorized by law to obtain the cessation of violations” (22 U.S.C. § 6445(a)(1)-(15)) or make Presidential certification and issue a waiver. In other words, the President would be in a position to take action or not to take action because taking action would be against U.S. “national security”. Either way, the Obama Administration could be held accountable under IFRA. No doubt, any such organized effort by Ethiopian Americans will stir the hornet’s nest of the K Street lobbyists who will rub their palms with glee and grin ear to ear as they come to feast at the trough of poor Ethiopian taxpayers.
The second action Ethiopian Americans who believe in religious freedom in Ethiopia should take is to establish an interfaith council to work on broader issues of religious freedom in Ethiopia. In my July 2012 commentary “Unity in Divinity”, I argued that a threat to the religious liberty of Muslims is a threat to the religious freedom of Christians. I urged Ethiopian “Christian and Muslim religious leaders [to] play a critical role in preventing conflict and in building bridges of understanding, mutual respect and collaborative working relations…” I suggested the establishment of “interfaith councils” patterned after those in the U.S. “These [interfaith] councils bring diverse faith communities to work together to foster greater understanding and respect among people of different faiths and to address basic needs in the community. Many such councils go beyond dialogue and reflection to cooperative work in social services and implementing projects to meet community needs. They stand together to protect religious freedom by opposing discrimination and condemning debasement of religious institutions and faiths. There is no reason why Ethiopians could not establish interfaith councils of their own.”
I reiterate my call for interfaith councils to bring together members of the two faith communities in the United States, and possibly elsewhere, for collective action. Religious freedom in Ethiopia is not an issue that concerns only Muslims. It is of equal concern and importance for Christian Ethiopians who have undergone similar egregious interference in the selection of their religious leadership just recently.
What is needed is sincere and open dialogue and interaction between Ethiopian Americans who are Christians and Muslims to advance the cause of religious liberty and equality for all in unity. Members of these two faith communities must come together in a historic meeting and develop a joint agenda to guarantee and safeguard their religious freedom, overcome any traces of sectarianism and reaffirm their long coexistence, diversity and harmony in a unified country based on the rule of law. They must jointly develop principles of cooperation and coordination. They must develop solidarity which can withstand narrow sectarian interests and the whims and personalities of those in leadership positions. They must relate with each other in the spirit of mutual respect, trust and co-operation and find ways to deepen and strengthen their relations.
Perhaps such dialogue may not come so easily in the absence of existing institutions. It may be necessary for leaders of both faiths to join together and establish a task force to study the issues and make recommendations for the broadest possible dialogue between Ethiopian American Muslims and Christians in America. Christian and Islamic spiritual authorities and laymen should be encouraged to work together not only to defend each other on matters of religious liberty but also to propose long term solutions to reduce the dangers of sectarianism, fanaticism, conflict and misunderstanding and institute a permanent dialogue between members of both faiths. There is no reason why an interfaith council cannot organize joint conferences, meetings, workshops, seminars, press conferences and informational campaigns in the media in both faith communities. The Ethiopia of tomorrow can be built on a strong foundation of dialogue of Muslims and Christians today. Dialogue is a precursor to national reconciliation.
From expediency to consistency
The Obama Administration must do a lot more to improve human rights in Africa. President Obama must not only talk a good talk, he must also walk the talk. But with religious liberty, he must walk the talk and follow the letter and spirit of IFRA. If he does not, he would have betrayed not only the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution but also disregarded the law he is sworn to uphold. There is no reason why the Obama Administration cannot find a harmonious convergence of national security and human rights in Africa. When America cannot lead by ideals it will be forced to follow up by exacting ordeals.
Are the Ethiopian Muslim protesters leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle? Yes, they are!!!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: