By Na’eem Jeenah
I often tell foreign friends or foreign audiences that I speak to that the Muslim community in South Africa is quite unique compared to Muslim communities around the world. It has, to a large extent, to do with the identity that Muslims here have taken on for ourselves, and the identities we are perceived by our compatriots to have.
In general, (pre-1994) South African Muslims – all the various parts of the community or, perhaps, all the different communities – see themselves as very much South African. This includes Muslims who are indigenous to this part of the world; those from other parts of the African continent; those who are descended from Bengali, Indonesian and Javanese slaves and exiles; and those whose ancestors arrived on these shores from India. All these groups and the individuals within them see themselves as South African, with little connection to any other place as a ‘homeland’. In that regard, then, South African Muslims do not see themselves – nor are they generally seen by other South Africans – as ‘immigrants’. Foreigners are often puzzled when they ask South African Muslims of Indonesian or Indian descent ‘Where are you originally from,’ and get given answers such as ‘Durban’, ‘Cape Town’ or, even worse, ‘Lenasia’, ‘Mitchells Plain’ or ‘KwaDukuza’.
This belonging to South Africa, and also ownership over South Africa, that South African Muslims have is an extremely valuable asset and frame of mind (and heart). It roots the community and its individuals on the African continent and, particularly, on the southern tip of the continent. This is not to suggest, of course, that we all get along fabulously with our compatriots. The Muslim community has its fair (or unfair) share of racists; tribalists; and chauvinists of various stripes. But they all see themselves as compatriots to other South Africans.
It is this sense of belonging and ownership that has ensured that many South African Muslims saw (and see) the struggles of other South Africans as their own, and the future of all South Africans as their own. This unique rootedness is also the reason why South African Muslims do not truly understand what Islamophobia means. Apart from the occasional idiotic racists who protest against the building of a mosque in some former white suburb, or the occasional violent attack, Muslims here do not experience the kind of Islamophobia that confront Muslims in various parts of the – particularly Western – world.
South African Muslims do not emerge from masajid to see men with automatic weapons threatening them. South African Muslim women do not have to fear walking around in public with headscarves (or even face veils); and Muslim men with long shirts and short pants can merrily flaunt their fashion sense without any care. Indeed, a recent campaign by female journalists at a national television channel about the right of women to wear headscarves featured non-Muslims; and the headscarf was called a ‘doek’, not a ‘hijab’.
This uniqueness, however, can sometimes fray at the edges, and become fragile. This is usually because of factors external to the community that impose tests on this sense of belonging and ownership.
South African Muslims whose ancestors came from India have started facing one of those tests/challenges/temptations in the recent past, which will be enhanced early July, just after Eid, when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has a huge event in Johannesburg for “South African Indians”. South African and Indian media have had headlines such as: “Narendra Modi fever hits South Africa” and “South African Indians plan grand reception to welcome PM Modi”. As part of his state visit, Modi will try to appeal to a sense of nostalgia about Indians who arrived in South Africa almost two centuries ago. He will take whatever opportunity he can to refer to the memory of Mohandas Gandhi and visit sites related to Gandhi. Of course, he will not mention that Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisation, in which Modi is a leadership figure. In trying to attract Muslims, he will also omit mention of his role in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.
Most troubling is that Modi and his supporters in South Africa will try to convince South Africans to register as what they call “Non-Resident Indians” or NRIs. Supporters of his Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in South Africa have been working for a while already to attract Indian descendants in South Africa to this notion – without a great deal of success. They hope that Modi’s visit will turn the tide.
For Muslims, who already face severe challenges within the community to deal with conflicts between so-called Indians, so-called Malays and so-called Africans, taking up an identity that links one to a foreign state will be disastrous for cohesion within the Muslim community, and for relations between Muslims and the broader South African community.
There are those who will enthusiastically take up the “Non-Resident Indians” status for business. It will be a short-sighted move. Perhaps they should be encouraged to rather drop the “non”. Others might be encouraged by a false sense of romanticism around an Indian identity which has not existed for more than a century – except for the apartheid regime insisting that they were Indians.
We have much to reflect on this Eid, including the mess that our country is in, and the mess the Muslim world is in. But we have much to celebrate this Eid as well. One of the reasons to celebrate is that we are Muslims in South Africa, a unique community that is able to live its Islam as it wants to – in all kinds of diversity. For the sense of identity of ourselves, our children and their children, we cannot compromise this uniqueness because of the temptation of some “non-resident” status. These are the kinds of things we will have to account to future generations for.
Eid Mubarak. May it be reflective and celebratory