Islamic State’s latest victims: poor defenceless Christian Ethiopians

by Samson A. Bezabeh, Open Democracy, April, 21, 2015

After all, what IS wants is to create a polarized world of Muslim vs Christians by tapping into local discontent of various sorts.

The killing was horrific for anyone with enough resolve to see the video footage. Killing a defenceless human being with no military training, with no gun or weapon in his hand, for the colour of his skin, his country of origin and/or religious faith has been the hallmark of the Islamic State (IS).

In places such as Libya and Iraq being white has become a license for being kidnapped, then tortured. The colour bar, however, has not prevented IS from further killing. The latest victims are black Ethiopians who are adherents to Christianity. The 29-minute videos which IS released show a barbaric scene where poor migrants, as defenceless as their white counterparts, are shot and beheaded while a caption reads, “ followers of the cross from the enemy of the Ethiopian church”.

Their crime is nothing other than being Christian and belonging to the Ethiopian church which has hardly gone out of its way to attack IS in any manner. Killing members of a poor minority for the faith that they are practicing does not have any honour. The many sympathisers of IS found in Africa, Europe or elsewhere in the globe should once again closely question the values that they are upholding. Every single gesture of admiration that is given IS either implicitly or explicitly, every “ like” clicked on Facebook pages, pulls the trigger on innocent Christian Ethiopians who have been butchered.

Confronted by the unprovoked attack on the Ethiopian church, IS and its followers wherever they are should pause for long enough to ask also whether the Ethiopian church and the Ethiopian state has been their enemy at all?

Yes, the Ethiopian Christians that they killed today belonged to a land that is famed for its monasteries and rock hewn churches. But it is not only monasteries and churches that Ethiopia is known for. Ethiopia is also a land where Bilal al-habesha, the first caller to prayer in Islamic history has come from. It is also a land where its Christian king received the prophet Mohamed’s family and companions when they were persecuted for practicing their newly found religion, Islam, by local tribesmen.

The land of Ethiopia which is now portrayed as the enemy by IS is where the first timber was used for the construction of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site. At one point in time the carpenter who helped in rebuilding Kaaba was Baqum al Rumi an Ethiopian foreigner then living in Mecca.

The Deir Sultan Monastery in Jerusalem which is owned by the Ethiopian orthodox church and which existed before many parts of the world had become Christian has been able to exist as a result of the decision of the Calif Omar, the second calif of the Islamic empire, who following the conquest has conferred an Ethiopian orthodox presence on the holy land.

The pages of history also tell us that Ethiopia had an intrinsic relationship with the Muslim land which IS purports to be fighting over. For example, the writing of the tenth century Baghdad-born scholar Abu al-Ḥasan Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Masudi, attests to this in his description of the commercial relation that the Yemeni sultan had with the land of Ethiopia. In his book entitled Murūj adh-dhahab wa maādin al-jawāhir al-Masudi tells us that “ chief of Zébid is Ibrāhīm, son of Ziyād, known as the master of el-harmali. By virtue of the treaty of friendship between the two countries, its ships sailed ceaselessly from Arabia to Abyssinia, to where they transport tradesmen and merchandise”.

The migrants that Islamic State has killed this week are the people who came from this land that we now call Ethiopia whose history has been linked to the Muslim world and whose Christian king rescued the family of the Prophet Mohamed by granting them refuge in their land. So many centuries later, IS disrespects the Islamic tradition and the place that Christian Ethiopians have in the Islamic world. They have butchered defenceless migrants with empty pockets, a hungry belly and nowhere to go just because they are Christians. This is an unforgivable and shameful act.

Their killing, despite the pain and the outrage that it triggers should not turn us into one of them. Our response should be measured and rational and one that remains true to a future of humanity in which a different creed allows people to co-exist on the single planet that we all inhabit.

In this time of sadness it is easy for emotions to run high and for polarisation to occur. After all, what IS wants is to create a polarized world of Muslim vs Christians by tapping into local discontent of various sorts. Such an outcome is however only possible if emotions take over from rationality.

This message should be heard particularly loud and clear in the context of Ethiopia where despite some past conflicts that occurred between Christians and Ethiopians, the two communities have by and large left each other alone. Local, historically specific conflicts should not be linked to current events in a manner that generates hatred and division between Christians and the Muslim community of Ethiopia who live side by side in densely populated neighbourhoods throughout Ethiopia.

The barbarity of a group who does not know their own root and history should not be allowed to tint the history of Ethiopia, Africa or Muslims and Christians in the world. May the soul of those who have been massacred in Libya rest in peace.

Samson A. Bezabeh, an anthropologist, is currently a visiting fellow at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.