The many faces of Islam

Muslims are more than just Muslims. They are artists, homosexuals, feminists, theologians, politicians, fundamentalists, culturalists, modernists and even communists.

And how these identities interrelate and co-exist in secular societies was the focus of much debate at the ­Muslim cultures symposium in Johannesburg earlier this month.

Identities are not formulaic, an event organiser said.
And on hearing the media would be covering the event, she had a suggestion: ‘Use the most ordinary photograph of conference delegates speaking from their podium.” Her reason? When newspapers use pictures that ‘look Muslim” they reaffirm the stereotypes.

Her point: ‘There is no such thing as a homogenous Muslim identity” because there is more to Islam than the image of a veiled woman or a gun-wielding man.

Images that have come to represent Islam were problematic for many academics and activists who gathered at the three-day symposium to present papers on the question of Muslim identity and how it manifests in societies where Islam is a minority religion.

Organised by the French Institute of South Africa and other local groups, the seminar examined the political sphere, the media, feminism, HIV/Aids, homosexuality and the cultural diaspora relevant to religious and national identity formation in France and South Africa, among other topics.

But, with the need to move away from stereotyped, worn-out images of Islam, there is still a predominance of the veil in most conversations about the Muslim world, including those at the symposium.

‘The idea of France [as being part of the symposium] was always in the background because of the issue of veiling,” said Rehana Vally, a co-organiser of the event and an anthropologist at the University of Pretoria.

Recent debates in France and throughout Europe have centred on the use of the veil and hijab in public spaces, especially schools, where it is deemed anti-secular and against the principles of these societies.

Similar debates worldwide mean the image of the veil still dominates.

‘All of Islamic gendered practice gets reduced to the veil,” Sa’diyya Shaikh, from the religious studies department at the University of Cape Town, said. ‘But associating militancy with the sartorial norm of the hijab is prejudiced and ignorant.”

She agreed that there is coercive veiling present in situations such as ­Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and post-revolution Iran, where women have no choice. However, she said: ‘[Veiling] is also a symbol of resistance, such as in pre-­revolution Iran and in Egypt ... It is an assertion of identity in some cases.”

Vally agreed, saying although European feminists might call the veil oppressive, ‘North African feminists could argue that they wear it for political reasons. Because they want the French to accept Muslims in the country, they want to assert their own distinct identities and open up ideas of what it means to be French.”

French political scientist François Burgat spoke about the language of identity used during the time of the recent French presidential elections, which equated a ‘veiled woman” with a ‘raped woman”.

‘A Palestinian woman can be killed by bombs and we don’t care. But if she wears a veil, we move in [to liberate her],” Burgat said of the West’s attitude towards the issue. Other speakers said it was not the veil that was necessarily problematic, but rather its refusal to be hidden in these societies.

‘Power can deal with fringe minorities as long as fringe minorities do not demand to be recognised as equals,” one delegate suggested.

But Burgat argued that in France the main political resource was in actual fact an economic fear of the ‘other”, especially the ‘veiled other”, with whom the French were hesitant to share their universality.

‘At some level it’s about ‘he who does not drink like I do cannot share the same universality in political terms’,” Burgat said.

Islam occupies a different political space in France than in South Africa. In South Africa Muslims make up almost 1,5% of the population, a ‘numerical minority”. But in France Islam has overtaken Judaism to become the second-most-prominent religion there.

‘But the margin is constructed,” Vally said, arguing that ‘there can be many people, but having the power decides who is pushed to the margins”. In France these are often Muslims, a ‘vocal minority” who, unlike their South African counterparts, have a much greater proportional representation in the political sphere.

Farid Essack, chairperson of the ethics, religion and society programme at Xavier University in the United States, said of the perceived threat that Islam poses for the West: ‘There is an in-your-faceness about the way Muslims are asserting themselves,” with Muslim presence in Europe now being seen in the language of an ‘invasion”.

Pointing out a graffiti message on a wall in Paris after 9/11 that said ‘Islam = Sida (Aids)”, Essack drew similarities between the Islamo­phobic language used in Europe and the language used when speaking about issues such as HIV/Aids within a South African Muslim context.

‘Much of the European anti-Muslim discourse uses the metaphor of the European nation as the body and Muslim immigrants as the virus invading it,” he said, adding that both rhetorics used connotations of filth, invasion and disease to describe the foreign ‘other”.

Following Vally’s view of constructed margins, he said: ‘There are attempts by the dominant group in a society to marginalise groups they see as threatening. The rhetoric is used to marginalise and stigmatise, yet it is acceptable to the communities that use them,” because they feel threatened.

There is an underlying message of it being ‘not here”, but elsewhere, he said, adding that problems arise when those marginalised elements rise up and demand acknowledgement. ‘They want equality and they don’t want to be invisible,” he said.

Muslim movements

Speaking in a mix of French and broken English, Syhem Belkhodja put her index finger to her lips in a gesture that suggests silence. ‘Chutt like shuuu-sh,” she said.

A choreographer working with the Tunisian Sybel Ballet Theatre, Belkhodja was in Johannesburg earlier this month for the performance of Chutt, part of the Muslim cultures symposium.

A contemporary dance piece with Arab textures, Chutt (which stands for silence) uses modest movements to explore the dynamics of the woman’s body in Islam. ‘It is not a Western body, but an Arabic body, a body which is less free and which in some ways is a forbidden body,” Belkhodja said.

The more stifled movements of the female dancers are contrasted with those of the males to express the different limitations of the male and female body in Arab culture.

Belkhodja was accompanied by 10 dancers from the Sybel company and choreographer Imed Jemâa, whose work, Rojla, was also performed. Set outdoors in the city’s Maghrebian streets, Rojla speaks about young Tunisian men, their struggles and the real stories of the ghettos. It is a contemporary hip-hop piece that uses capoera, as well as other dance and musical elements specific to Tunisian street culture, Jemâa said.

‘The idea for the event was very much not to speak about Muslim cultures from just an academic or activist perspective, but also from an artistic perspective, to bring in the artistic sensitivity ... And these pieces were more specifically about the Muslim identity in relation to the body,” the French Institute of South Africa’s Aurelia wa Kabwe-Segatti said about the inclusion of these works.

Two films were screened at the symposium: The Malawian Kiss, by South African documentary filmmaker Akiedah Mohammed, about the first South African Muslim woman to publicly declare her HIV-positive status, and Samia, by French director Philippe Faucon, about a teenage girl’s struggle for independence in a patriarchal Muslim family in Marseille.

Telling these stories was to give as broad a perspective as possible, Rehana Vally said. ‘People make films about Muslims, but Muslims also tell stories about themselves.”