Ethiopia’s ‘jihadi’ film and its boomerang effects
The film seeks to transform the “demands for freedom of religion” into a joint criminal enterprise with terror groups
On February 5, 2013, Ethiopia’s only and publicly funded Television Station, ETV, aired a controversial documentary during prime time in violation of an outstanding court injunction. Oddly subtitled “Boko Haram in Ethiopia”, Jihadawi Harekat – Arabic for “jihadi movement” – denounces leaders of Ethiopia’s year-long protest movement for alleged links to foreign terrorists.
Muslims in Ethiopia have been protesting the government’s control of the Supreme Islamic Council and its imposition of al-Ahbash, an unknown Islamic sect across mosques in Ethiopia. In a press statement last year, the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom said: “The Ethiopian government has sought to force a change in the sect of Islam practiced nationwide and has punished clergy and laity who have resisted.” Elected to represent the movement, the accused Muslim leaders were arrested and charged under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law when negotiations with the government failed last July.
A joint production of the Ethiopian National Security Agency, the Federal Police and ETV, the film draws a parallel between a local protest movement recognised for its peaceful acts of resistance with Africa’s most notorious terrorist groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Mali’s Ansar Din and Somalia’s al-Shabaab.
With dozens of journalists, politicians and activists already charged or convicted under its vague and broad anti-terrorism law that criminalises all forms of dissent, the fight against terrorism has become the primary juridical framework within which to legitimise and justify war against political foes. It is the new legal ideology in which these political motives are institutionalised to provide long-standing relationships of domination some legal pretext. In Ethiopia today, America’s “war on terror” is used to short-circuit both the constitution and international criticism.
Making fiction intelligible
Made to portray the Muslim community’s struggle for religious freedom as a terrorist ploy designed to “establish an Islamic state“, Jihadawi Harekat is less about what it describes so much as the alternative reality that it depicts and crystallises. By drawing politically explosive parallels between groups with radically different political presuppositions, the film dramatises and escalates the gravity of the threat. It replays deeply held narratives of the past and accentuates the “evil” embodied by the committee in its attempts to frame them as “public enemies” working towards a common goal with groups that inhabit an entirely different political universe.
To amplify this new reality, that is, the cinematic production of new subjects of terrorism, the film appropriates pre-existing frames of reference that sociologists call “processes of signification”. To augment the parallel, it situates the protest movement in the context of terrorism – a discourse whose antecedent is always Islamic and “whose stereotypical characteristics are already part of socially available knowledge”.