Reshaping Islam in South Africa

Despite living on a continent devastated by millions of deaths because of poverty, wars and HIV/Aids, there are, sadly, few dramas that grip our attention as much as the so-called War on Terror and its various twists and turns. Empire, to borrow from the title of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s latest work, continues to fascinate and infuriate. For South Africans, the latest twist is the capture of two local Muslims in Pakistan.
“The war on terror arrives on our doorsteps. Finally” is the sense that permeated some of the local news reports.

“Did they do it or didn’t they?” “Is South Africa a new outpost for al-Qaeda or not?” “Where do local Muslims in South Africa really stand on this issue? Declare your hand guys! Yes, you Muslim okes …”

As a South African progressive Muslim, I refuse to catch a cold just because the Empire is sneezing; the Empire treats my 1 400-year-old faith, Islam, as a cheap restaurant that caters to all needs and tastes. It walks in, flaunts its wallet and muscle and demands “jihad” on the menu when that suits its power-driven palate, and we are expected to deliver — as we indeed did in the jihad against communism in Afghanistan. After a few years, it shifts gears and demands “peace” on the menu — as all dominant empires demand of their subjects, never of themselves — and now the dutiful restaurateurs are expected to nod, smile and go around proclaiming that “Islam means peace”. Islam is far more complex than this and, as a self-respecting Muslim — or a restaurateur with integrity — I can say: “Awfully sorry, but you may be in the wrong restaurant.”

The problem is that it is far from sure whether the restaurateur is a person of integrity. So much of Muslim invective directed at the Empire is not about the inherent evil of imperialism but that we — Muslim men — are not the ones running the Empire.

How do we refuse to use the Empire as an excuse for our unwillingness, inability or refusal to deal with our own mess? Recently this paper asked: Where the Muslim voices are on the genocide currently taking place in the Sudan? Or on the marginalisation of Christians in Pakistan, or on our refusal to make space for women in our mosques, or for black persons in our theologian councils?

There is nothing “traditional” about religious traditions; regardless of the fervour with which believers cling to notions of tradition, they are constantly being shaped. While I may refuse to participate in the shaping of my faith in response to the demands of the Empire, as a believer, I am never freed from the responsibility of shaping it. For me, the question in response to those demands is: Do I rethink the meaning and implications of my faith? 

South Africa remains a fascinating country — not so much for a putative miracle that has never really occurred — as the many hungry, landless and homeless will testify — but because of the way our people are struggling to negotiate the many wounds of the past, our willingness to embrace the heritage of many diverse communities along with the refusal of so many individuals and organisations to sacrifice the fruit of our liberation struggle for the impoverished just because we are “oh so nice and multicultural”.

Muslims are an integral part of this country’s past and its present. Nowhere in the world are Muslims freer than in South Africa. This freedom is not a gift that has been handed down to us by some external entity to which we are now beholden. It is something that we — along with other people in this country — have earned by dint of our willingness to contribute to the destruction of a violent, exploitative and racist past and our ongoing participation in a system that becomes freer and more just all the time.

Let me also be clear about the fact that this “we” was not “the Muslim community”, nor the Christian or Jewish communities, for that matter. Those who were engaged in the liberation struggle know that these activists often did what they did in the name of their communities — and even in spite of them.

This is an important issue because the new South Africa is still being shaped. In the same way that there is a contestation about what Islam is really all about, there is a contestation about what the new South Africa is all about.

Questions about the support of the major theological councils in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng for the Taliban when it was in power remain significant; the quiet approval of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan; the earlier widespread support for the gangsterism of People against Gangsterism and Drugs; the intolerance of dissent and the practice of seeking fatwas of kufr (heresy); the witch hunt against Ahmedis and Qadianis; the 20-year-old war against Christians in Southern Sudan — and now against darker skinned Muslims in Darfur; the widespread anti- Jewish racism in so many of our sermons … All of this flies in the face of what we seemingly rejoice in when we speak about the new South Africa, and of the image we present of Islam at interfaith gatherings.

How we deal with our internal “others” is really the only truthful measure of what our values are really all about. The price that was paid for the country to arrive where it has today — for Muslims and for all South Africans — has been huge and none us can afford to mess it up. Nurturing dissent and a principled commitment to justice “though it be against yourselves”, to cite the Qur’an, is really the only way to go for Muslims if they sincerely believe that their restaurant is one of integrity and one which offers an authentic cuisine.

Farid Esack is chairperson of ethics, religion and society and professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, United States

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