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‘Salat Man’ is symbol of resistance for Muslims in Ethiopia


Ethiopian Muslims have been struggling for over two years now to secure their religious freedom and rights against state interference and discrimination. It is a story that does not receive much coverage but one inspiring image may change all of that.

‘Salat Man’ is symbol of resistance for Muslims in Ethiopia

By Mohammed Ademo (AlJazeera English)

The appeal of non-violence as a means of social transformation is almost universal. Few deny its awesome power when unleashed with discipline. However, in the face of an impeding danger, especially one known to be as brutal as they come, it takes a lot of courage to remain nonviolent. Even though it calls for more valor than one need in a pitched battle, history has recorded only a handful of such defiant acts of ultimate heroism in man’s long quest for freedom and justice.

But no incident exemplifies the true genius of such silent rebellion more than China’s Tank Man. The year was 1989, at the height of a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing that saw hundreds, if not thousands, dead and many more arrested. A sole rebel, whose identity remains unknown quarter of a century later, took matters onto his own hands by blocking the advance of rumbling Chinese tanks near Tiananmen Square – at least 18 of them ­- dispatched to squash the popular protests threatening one-party rule, once and for all.

The Unknown Soldier walked to the middle of the street, held what looked like a shopping bag, and swerved left and right to halt the advance of the juggernaut. The symbolism of his defiance was instantly broadcast around the world and photos of his heroic resistance were globally published. Even in the pre-Internet era, that single image of a skinny young man blocking the path of the most fearsome of war machines immortalised the eventual triumph of the fight against authoritarianism worldwide.

Ethiopia’s ‘China Tank Man’

On August 8, 2013 – far from China’s Tiananmen Square, in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, a lone worshiper prayed the Eid Salat and was encircled by an army of riot police. The image shows a man on his knees praying unintimidated as a phalange of soldiers, bearing shields and batons, looked on. The desolate background, apparently deserted by other worshipers fearful for their lives or carted away, against an array of uniform police magnifies the image of this unknown rebel. Asked to name the faithful in the picture, Dimtsachin Yisema, the Facebook group often seen as the de facto leading body of the horizontal Ethiopian Muslims movement, said in an email, “it was sent to us by an activist.”

Like the Chinese activists of the 80s, even if for different grievances, Muslims in Ethiopia have been protesting against government interference in religious matters for nearly two years.

Some 29 leaders of the nonviolent campaign that calls on the Ethiopian government to respect it’s own constitution remain incarcerated on tramped up terrorism charges, the same charges used to muzzle journalists like Eskinder Nega and dissenting politicians Bekele Garba .

A week before Eid-al-Fitr in Kofele, central Oromia, far removed from the prying eyes of foreign cameras, over a dozen Muslim protesters, including a mother and child, were massacred in broad daylight. The story received passing references in the mainstream media. A foreign correspondent who visited the town few days after the incident was returned to the capital under threat of imprisonment.

As was with the Tiananmen  Square protests of 1989 , sometimes it takes a symbolic gesture to inspire courage. The photo of the ” Salat Man” in Addis Ababa will likely go down the annals of history as one of the most iconic symbols in the history of not just the Muslim protests but also of the struggle of the country’s diverse population for an end to the mounting repression by a one-party rule, now in power for more than two decades.

Although similar in appearance, the two iconic images faced starkly different fates. One was captured by CNN and the Associated Press cameras – and instantly broadcast around the world. The other was captured by a citizen journalist, perhaps with a mobile phone camera, and casually uploaded on Facebook.

Ethiopia, a donor darling of the West, is considered to be one of the most oppressive countries for journalists. It also boasts the largest number of exiled journalists in the world.

Under these dire circumstances, even with a below regional average Internet penetration rate, social media has enabled Ethiopian activists, at least in urban areas, to organise and get their message across more effectively than the state, albeit to an indifferent world .

Paradigm shift?

Protests are rare in Ethiopia. The last sustained protests in the country’s long but troubled history took down Emperor Haile Selassie, the last monarch. The fatal blow to the tottering imperial regime was delivered by Muslim protesters, joined by their liberal Christian allies, who staged one of the largest demonstrations preceding the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. The ongoing Muslim movement is the most sustained, unified and well organised the country has seen, perhaps in its entire history.

Muslims, estimated to be more than a third of Ethiopia’s 93 million people, began protesting against government meddling in religious affairs in late 2011. Demonstrations were set off when students at the nation’s only Islamic institute walked out of classes after their teachers were dismissed, and replaced by regime loyalists through a government edict in an effort to impose Lebanese Islamic sect called Al-Ahbash .

But the incident had an unforeseen consequence for the regime; it served as a catalyst for a wider Muslim movement that called for a redress of years of marginalisation and silent suffering. The protesters demanded a free and fair election of Islamic leaders to the highest Muslim council, known as Majlis.

First, the government agreed to negotiate with the protesters. The protesters elected a committee of 17 Muslim activists to communicate their grievances to the authorities. When the negotiations failed, the regime arrested all of them in a desperate attempt to nip the movement that it deemed extremist at the bud. This too backfired as the protester’s calls grew bolder and their nonviolent tactics more sophisticated. Ironically, the jailed leaders of the two-year-old protest movement were among the most educated and moderate Muslim thinkers the public has known.

As was the case in China throughout the 1980s, Ethiopia’s state-run media have launched continuous attacks on the movement and its leaders, including a now famous mockumentary called Jihadawi Harakat. The fictitious film juxtaposes unrelated events in an attempt to link the protesters to terrorist groups in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia.

Absent the alternative, activists now use social media as a primary broadcasting medium. The greatest strengths of utilizing digital platforms are also its greatest weaknesses. Given the information overload on social media networks, some of the most important messages can easily be buried – including the photo of the Salat Man .

If the image of Tank Man was one of the top 10 photos that changed the world, then when the symbolism and the defiant spirit of the Salat Man finally reaches the public – those on the exteriors of Facebook walls his image too will forever inspire a generation of Ethiopian human rights activists, Muslims or not.

Mohammed Ademo is a New York-based freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he’s also the founder and editor of, an independent news website about Ethiopia.

Follow him on Twitter at @OPride.

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  • You may also like to see my reply to Diego above.

  • The Wahhabis (rather than the real Salafis who aren’t blind followers of the Saudi regime) have chosen to join the Western-liberal-secular camp. So what? This
    doesn’t change the fact that the MAIN camps are the Western liberal world and the Muslim world. The oppressors are the first, and the righteous and democratic victims are the second. The Wahhabis have chosen to be in the Western liberal secular camp, not in the Muslim one. And in the Western liberal secular camp (with the word “liberal” used in a broader, older sense of the term), there are some people of better conscience than most. But their discourse is mostly ineffective and their voices (usually but not always) too soft. Their existence doesn’t change the fact that there IS a rift between the Western neocolonial and Muslim worlds. If you do not acknowledge this fact and continue to live in denial based on some few exceptions that you want to see rather than the whole of the situation, then YOU are part of the problem Diego.

  • Diego Hernandez

    You’re right to highlight the hypocrisy and the apparent cheapness of Muslims’ blood in certain people’s eyes, but your last paragraph is full of overstatement and dangerous generalisations. From the liberal Guardian newspaper in England to the conservative U.S. Senator John McCain, there has been significant condemnation from Westerners in the so-called “secular-liberal murderous world” of the Egyptian junta. There is palpable outrage, to the extent that a majority of Americans now support cutting off military aid to Egypt:

    Americans are apparently less supportive of the violence by the Egyptian junta than Egyptians themselves:

    Try to distinguish between the “secular and liberal people” who actually support the protestors against the junta and the bloodthirsty neoconservatives (McCain excluded, it seems) who revel in their deaths. Even within Egypt, there has emerged a group which claims to represent an alternate path to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military junta:

    Also be aware that many of the coup-supporters and those baying for blood are Muslims – even Salafists – themselves, so don’t limit your condemnation to secularists, Christians and Jews. The Egyptian junta is currently supported by the theocratic Saudi Arabia and UAE. As Garibaldi highlights below, there is a lot of hypocrisy on all sides.

    I sympathise with your anger about the coup and the shocking behaviour of the so-called “Rebellion” movement in Egypt. However, if you genuinely believe that “there has arisen an eternal rift between the secular-liberal murderous
    world and the universal Muslim community after these events,” then your anger is wildly misdirected. No such rift exists, let alone an “eternal” one. If you’re trying to push the notion that such an immutable divide exists, then you are part of the problem.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Well, you can easily validate this through a simple search…the economy, some estimates say and I agree 40%-50% is controlled by the Egyptian military.

    Robert Springboard, in an article from 2011 that ironically speaks about the military’s desire for stability in the face of protests states that the Egyptian military owns virtually “every industry in the country.”

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    What is happening in Egypt is not a simple secularists/liberals vs. Muslims. For instance the Salafists who participated in the coup are not secularists.

    There is much hypocrisy, dishonesty, duplicity and deception in the West and in Egypt amongst secularists and liberals but Islamists are guilty of the same thing as well.

  • Hyde

    Wolf in sheep’s clothing…where are the actual sheep ?

  • Hyde

    Well said of you to incorporate the duplicity and petulance of the Gulf States, particularly that living breathing hypocrisy called Saudi Arabia. Muslims better realize that the biggest problem maker is not always “Israel”, which as brilliantly explained by Prof. John Mearsheimer has reached critical mass within it’s own zionist ideology, but the “horrible histories” of the gulf playhouses.

    Second, it is disturbing to see that not even in a “Muslim country, whatever the heck that actually means, one cannot even try to establish a muslim based government or even advocate an “Islamic way of life”.

    Democracy…yeah when the uncle tomish PLO was finished and Hamas was “Democratically” elected, it was considered the wrong choice!

    (Hey girl do you want to hear a joke ?)

  • RD Sultan

    When 5 protestors were killed in Turkey in 3 weeks, the media bursts into screams. Yet Sisi kills 700 protestors in 1 month, the media stays silent.

    The hypocrisy couldn’t be more evident

  • 1DrM

    Beautiful post. Liberals have proven themselves yet again whether to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  • Reynardine

    Each time and place of crisis must have such an image. This was one of the heroes of my time:

  • Tanveer Khan


  • Leftwing_Muslim_Alliance
    I had never heard of Al-ahbash seems they are not universally admired . Might have been nice if it was explained what or who they were
    Sir David

  • mindy1


  • mindy1

    That is a very haunting image 🙁

  • Reynardine

    That’s not halal.

  • Tanveer Khan

    There have been a few articles on Egypt.

    All the World’s a Stage: Civil War and Western Dominance in Egypt

    David Brooks: Egyptians Too Stupid, Incompetent to Govern Themselves

    On Sheep and Infidels

  • You having spoken about protests, I’m avidly waiting for your article covering the disgraceful media lack of coverage regarding the horrendous massacres by the Egyptian army against the Muslims who’ve been doing sit-ins in many major squares of Egypt in protest of the coup. And regarding the wonderful peaceful resistance put up by the Muslim Brotherhood despite the massacres.

    I am not able to wait for that article, so please excuse my writing my thoughts here under this article which is somewhat related.

    All sorts of Westerners (liberals and other secularists, Christians, Jews, etc.) have shown their true face by looking the other way while Muslims are being mass-murdered by the junta and by even suggesting that those Muslims deserve to be mass-murdered because they are pious Muslims and therefore a threat to humanity and deserve to be ruled and murdered at will by the beautiful secular liberal people.

    There has arisen an eternal rift between the secular-liberal murderous world and the universal Muslim community after these events. Nothing can persuade us to be friends with secularists any more. Secular and liberal people have been proven to be cold-blooded coup-supporters and murder-applauders when it comes to the coups and murders perpetrated against Muslims by secularists. Allah is the greatest, not the nukes of the liberal-secular world, and in Him we trust.

  • Fox-News

    This “Al-Ahbash” boo hoo argument is typical of Salafists. Do we have some other proper trustable sources on what exactly is happening there ? And i hope the Eithiopian government asks the Saudi government to stop favoring Salafists.

  • Tanveer Khan

    …..what did I say? xD

  • Hyde

    Watch yo language young man!

  • Tanveer Khan

    Indeed. As long as a muslim is doing muslimy stuff, he is a barabrian who eats the testicles of his blown up enemies.

  • Tarik

    It’s good that this is out in the open. Helps break the “rioting muslim” stereotype.

  • Tanveer Khan

    I believe the Prophet PBUH would be proud of this man.

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