By Imraan Buccus
South Africa, in the post apartheid context, has always enjoyed the privilege of being a country where religious plurality is embraced; and where religious difference added to the peaceful and complex multi-dimensionality of our society.
In recent troubled times in the world, and with the machinations of empire heightening in the post 911 context; societies where intra-faith differences were once embraced were now thrown into conflict. A significant ingredient and catalyst for the conflict internationally has often been the religious differences between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. One ought to remember here the geopolitical contestation in the Middle East; where Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) are involved in proxy battles to extend their respective spheres of geopolitical influence. This sparks Shia vs Sunni battles in various parts of the world. In South Africa, we felt largely immunized from this sort of division and extremism.
But events at the Imam Hussain mosque in Verulam at the start of Ramadan demand that we recalibrate our view and rethink our positionality here.
These acts of wanton violence and barbarism are contrary to the teachings of Islam. In Islamic ethics, the end does not justify the means. Leading South African Muslim scholars such as Imam Rashied Omar have reminded us that religious extremism has no virtue in Islam. And extremism is unequivocally condemned by the Prophet of Islam (Peace be upon Him), who is reported, in a tradition, to have declared thrice: “The extremists shall perish.”
Prominent Muslim South Africans like Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and others have also, for some time now, been warning about the possibility of violence emerging if intra-faith antagonism and the propagation of hatred continued. Historical conservatism in SA has also been less tolerant of Sufi and barelwi expressions of Islam too. At times, progressive scholars have not been spared.
While anti-Sunni posturing has often occupied cyber space; anti Shia rhetoric has been more public; sometimes even articulated by religious leaders using spaces they occupy in the mosque. They would resort to the narrative that being critical of Shia beliefs does not equate to hatred or the promotion of violence against Shias.
This is thorny. Muslims the world over feel that their future is under threat. Conspiracy theories abound about attempts to undermine Muslims from within and without. So any attempt to rethink intra faith perspectives is bound to elicit suspicion, if not outright resistance or even violent reaction.
But some honest and objective questioning is long overdue. In many Muslim societies today, practices that have nothing to do with Islam, or which may even be contrary to the values of Islam, are being reproduced and re-enacted as if they were articles of faith. Embedded messages of hatred about the other has the potential to incite violence. Bear in mind here that extremism is a complex concoction of ignorance, identity and cultural crises, toxic forms of religious education and indeed the machinations of empire.
This calls for a progressive practice, but the progressive current in SA seems weak. Why? The starting point is that any “progressive” school regarding intra-faith cohesion has to begin from premises that are recognizably Islamic.
This “progressive” mode would remain in line with the teachings of the Qur’an and the following of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him), recognizing the progressive nature of these primary sources – unlike the frighteningly conservative interpretations that we have seen in some pockets in some parts of the world, including SA. Key to this understanding is the recognition that we live in a plural context and that harmonious coexistence, despite the complex diversity of this world, is possible.
The culture of hate speech, intimidation and slander are so commonplace in the battle for ideas that they have become regarded as the norm of public debate in many cases. How often have we heard progressive intellectuals and scholars bemoan their fate and utter the lamentable cry: “It’s just a matter of time before I get that bullet between my eyes”?
The apparent ossification of self-critique within the Muslim world has led to the respect for difference among Muslims waning to an all-time low. The oppositional dialectics between the West and Islam have further entrenched the cultural, religious and ideological divide between the two sides, making dialogue itself a hazardous venture.
But the attack on the Verulam mosque is a wakeup call. Muslims in SA, particularly the youth, need to strike a wholesome balance between their identities as Muslims and as South Africans, and thereby develop a South African cultural expression of Islam. Muslim scholars like, Shaykh `Umar Faruq Abdullah and others have reminded Muslim youth in the US similarly.
Our leaders need to do more to empower young people with a compassionate, affirming and inclusive understanding of Islam. Workshops and training programs need to immunize young people against intolerance, hate, extremism and sectarianism.
Religious scholars need to bear in mind that intolerance undermines interfaith outreach because if sections of the community are not able to tolerate those calling themselves Muslims, then questions would be raised about interfaith harmonious coexistence.
And in addressing the dangers of sectarianism in SA, we need to also turn to endorsing the Cape Accord, a document signed by wide ranging Muslim organizations that calls for communities to unite against hate speech and sectarianism; and promotes tolerance and social cohesion.
The progressive current, if it is to emerge at all, will have to burst the banks of conservative dogma that have been reinforced by both Muslim conservatives and authoritarian religious scholars and elites. It needs to show that extremism and sectarian hate has no place in Islam.
Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor and research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN