A practising Muslim, South Africa's ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool has been trying to mend fences between Islam and the West.
To a lesser soul, trying to mend fences between the Islamic world and the West would be an Alice in Wonderland kind of delusion. The horrific events of 9/11—and the wars that have followed it—seem to represent a point of no return in the deeply rooted geopolitical tensions between the West and the Middle East.
Enter Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, who has jumped down the rabbit hole. Since arriving in the US in 2010 he has been preaching unity, visiting mosques, churches and synagogues and spreading the message of the importance of coexistence.
A practising Muslim, Rasool has created a project he calls the diplomacy of ubuntu, drawing lessons from the South African model of reconciliation in a bid to improve the difficult East-West relations and chart a new international order.
His work has not gone unnoticed by President Barack Obama’s administration. “Ambassador Rasool has developed the stature to deliver tough messages and engage in serious dialogue and his deep faith and relationships across the Islamic world have helped build bridges that bring all people closer,” Donald Gips, US ambassador to South Africa, said.
In recent months, Rasool has criss-crossed the US to address everyone from politicians to right- and left-wing think-tanks, university students and communities.
Last year Rasool was invited to inaugurate the Claremont Lincoln University in California where priests, imams and rabbis are being trained in one seminary.
A few weeks ago, the Syrian-American community, opposed to the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, invited Rasool to speak to them about the conflict in their motherland and sought his counsel to prepare themselves for post-conflict reconciliation. And, after the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in Egypt, Rasool addressed its members in the US, telling them that Islam, democracy and freedom were not mutually exclusive.
“I feel the people [in the US] have recognised that I come from a country — [with] a great interfaith tradition where we fought apartheid as a unified faith community.
“I think what has also drawn people’s attention is the fact that President [Jacob] Zuma is represented in Washington by a Muslim,” he said.
But Rasool said his work had not been all plain sailing. Most Americans, he said, were still unable to distinguish between a terrorist and an ordinary Muslim.
“There are Muslims who are being targeted for abuse and there are places where they don’t want to allow mosques and even the spate of work that we do here.
“My own wife has been subjected to some insults by virtue of wearing a scarf. But the response is not to get angry, but to educate and overcome fear,” he said.
To the Muslims in the US, Rasool’s message is that they must not isolate themselves.
“They must be able to embrace the nation that they live in. They must learn its language, they must respect its culture and, where they need to differ with laws, they must do so respectfully. They must not have the expectation they can impose every Islamic law over a society that is not fundamentally Muslim,” he said.
Wise words from a prophet who, like others before him, is more respected abroad than at home.
Charles Molele is a senior political reporter for the Mail & Guardian
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