The Role Of Religion In The Ogaden Conflict
Published on: Jan 26, 2009

Contemporary conflicts and the religious factor

Due consideration must be given to the historic evolution of Muslim-Christian relations in Ethiopia when analyzing current discourses about the conflict in the Somali Regional State. Perhaps this is why Ezekiel Redikel asserts that

To understand the conflict in the Ogaden during the 20th century, it is necessary to go back to the 15th century, when the Abyssinian Christian Empire, the predecessor of modern day Ethiopia, and the Muslim city-state of Ifat fought periodic wars for control of the Ogaden region (Redikel, 2003:204).

A number of factors support and explain this proposition. First, neither the religious identities nor the socio-economic and cultural values of the primary stakeholders in the conflict have significantly changed. Orthodox Christian elites continue to dominate the political process in Ethiopia, despite its vast Muslim population. In the eyes of many, Ethiopians and foreigners alike, Ethiopia is still considered a Christian enclave, which attracts the support of other powerful Christian states (Desplat, 2005). Similarly, despite attempts to project itself as a purely nationalist organization, ONLF has to be looked at from the vantage point of its Muslim members and the community it represents. Although both sides seek to dissociate themselves from religious agendas, neither the Ethiopian government nor the Ogaden insurgents have taken steps to reduce the memory of the past, which would allow people to see the conflict from a different, less religiously driven, perspective. The ongoing conflict is given a religious colouring as it is perceived in continuation with historical conflicts that occurred between the same two religious groups.

Second, the political system established by the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has little legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the population in the Somali Regional State. Reciprocally, the majority of the Ethiopian highlanders consider the Somalis in Ethiopia as alien to the country. As a result the political allegiances of the former continue to be strongly contested (Hagmann and Khalif, 2006: 24). Unlike the central regions of Ethiopia, the peripheral Somali Regional State has never been fully incorporated into the Ethiopian state (Lister, 2004). This reinforces a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ between the Somalis and other Ethiopians. Religious tensions that existed for a long time and which were never fully eliminated can thrive under such circumstances. The point here is that religion acts as one of the identity traits a group may resort to in order to differentiate itself from others. This tendency is further exacerbated by the socio-economic and cultural marginalization of Somalis within Ethiopia, which encourages the formation of religiously framed collective identity. Third, political manipulation by leaders on both sides reinforces the role of religion in the conflict. To begin with the ONLF does not make it a secret, at least when addressing its supporters, that this conflict is nothing but the continuation of Ahmed Guray and Sayid Mohammed’s wars against highland Ethiopia. The following lyrics are drawn from one of the most famous songs ONLF cadres recite to instigate supporters during public gatherings.

Axmed guray ma uu dhiman Ma gablamin darwiishkii Geenyaduu ma daalanaa.

It can be roughly translated as follows:

Ahmed Guray has never died, The Dervish has never lost, and The horse is not retired.

Accordingly, if one recognizes that religion had a big influence in Ahmed Guray’s and Sayid Mohammed’s struggles against Abyssinia, there is no reason to deny that in the current conflict between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government religion has a place as well.

Despite portraying itself as secular when communicating with the international community, buzzwords such as jihad and fighting for the Muslim nation against invader ‘infidels’ characterise ONLF’s strategies for mobilising supporters.1 The majority of ONLF’s top officers live abroad where they are allowed to campaign relatively freely. In order to present ONLF’s struggle as legitimate, its leaders deliberately appeal to Somalis’ Muslim identity to garner Diaspora support. ONLF cadres in the rural areas of Somali Regional State use a very similar rhetoric to justify their cause and rally support. Other proof of ONLF’s reliance on religious propaganda is a recent fatwa by Sheikh Sharif Abdi Nur, a most respected and knowledgeable Somali cleric based in Saudi Arabia, who describes the Ogadeni rebels as Mujahideen and their war with Ethiopia as a legitimate jihad against Christian aggressors.2

Whether political Islam is genuinely pursued by ONLF while it uses a secular rhetoric to mislead the Western countries in which a majority of its leaders reside, or vice versa—whether ONLF is genuinely secular and has used religion for tactical reasons only—their religious undertones influence the conflict lastingly. Whatever leaders’ true intention may be, the combatants are mobilised under the banner of jihad against Christian aggressors. Consequently, combatants will remain loyal to ONLF as long as they see it through the lens of jihad. Any other organization with more dedication to a radical Islamic ideology might be able to attract ONLF combatants in the future in case the latter fails to uphold its religious principles. In the case of Afghanistan during the Soviet-Mujahideen war, religion was an important factor in mobilizing the insurgents. To generate the support of a Muslim people invaded by a non-Muslim power, leaders have not spared any chance to manipulate religion to win the war. This has been the case despite a majority of leaders’ tendencies towards nationalism rather than religion. The jihad rhetoric and idea has attracted many Muslims around the world, which are part of a transnational network of Islamic militants that goes far beyond the Afghan context in which they originally emerged. (Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 2005:15).