Thank you Julius!

By Na’eem Jeenah

Anyone that succeeds in getting the Muslim community to be introspective surely deserves some gratitude. I am referring, of course, to Julius Malema’s speech in Durban, where he criticised indian businesspeople for exploitation of their african employees. It was followed by hours of audio and video and metres of newspaper column space responding – often in anger – to Malema.

Initially, the Rajbansi Front, that political party that claims to speak for “minorities” (whatever that means), led the charge, until they ran out of steam. But there were also many Muslim media hours and metres dedicated to this issue, much of it very defensive, from Muslims who regard themselves as indians.

First, let me say that Julius got one important fact wrong, or omitted it in ignorance. The impression that all indians in Durban are businesspeople is, of course, not correct. There is a large indian working class population in Durban, and they also get exploited by indian bosses (though, admittedly, not as badly as african workers do).
But the fact is that Malema had a point that needs seriously to be considered. And becoming defensive about his accusation is not helpful to anyone. Admit there is a problem, and spend time talking about how to deal with it rather than insisting there is no problem, or having public fora spending inordinate amounts of time asking whether there is problem.

Of course, talking about ‘how to deal with it’ will, inevitably, reveal other truths; that, in fact, the racism is not limited to indian businesspeople exploiting their workers; that while this is a serious matter, the problem is much deeper and more serious.

Now I’m referring particularly to the Muslim community. Anti-african racism – including against african Muslims, not that that is worse than racism against african non-Muslims, of course – exists across the country within the Muslim community. And it is not just indians who are guilty of it; other non-african Muslims also have much to answer for. Almost all Muslims who might be accused of racism will be shocked at such accusations. But the evidence is stark.

Much of that evidence was highlighted again – as it is every now and then – in the wake of the Malema statement. Many posts and discussions on social media raised and discussed this, with african Muslims vocal about the marginalisation they face within the community.

This marginalisation or ill treatment takes many forms: outrageous behaviour in personal relationships or interactions, to the role (or lack thereof) of africans in Muslim institutions, to the invisibilising of african Muslims – as if they don’t exist, or as if their ill treatment is someone else’s problem. One of the people who highlighted this recently was journalist Nelisiwe Msomi, who wrote about experiences that african Muslims (and mainly young african Muslims) face, being called derogatory words such as ‘kariya’, being badgered about whether she was married to a Pakistani or Bangladeshi – because why else would an african be a Muslim. (There are multiple layers of racism, xenophobia and other prejudice loaded into that one comment.)

No one reading these accounts can miss the pain, marginalisation, and anger – all of which are entirely justified. One fact that seems to have escaped many non-african Muslims is that many in Nelisiwe Msomi’s age group represent a new generation of african Muslims, young Muslims who have grown up in Muslim families. They are no longer part of what the late Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) leader, Essa al-Seppe, referred to as ‘the emerging, unorganised Muslim community’ (as opposed to what he called ‘the established Muslim community’). Those terms of his are no longer relevant – if they ever were. These are established communities, organised and its members are quite willing to tell their stories – angrily, if necessary.

Their parents, who converted to Islam, would have entered the Muslim community as adults or teenagers, impressed with the beauty of Islam, and only later discovering that their co-religionists didn’t follow (or even understand) Islam as they found it in the Qur’an and the books they read. This new generation grew up as Muslims, within the broader Muslim community, and faced prejudice from their co-religionists from birth. They are less keen to make excuses for other Muslims’ unIslam. They did not ‘enter’ the Muslim community as adults; they grew up within it – marginalised all their lives.

This generation is the future of Islam in South Africa; and these are the people who feel the racism most harshly –including from other Muslims of the same age group (as Nelisiwe’s campus stories illustrate). It is clear that we do not have a Muslim community in South Africa; we have many, and between them there is no equality, and, often, not even respect. We can complain as much as we like about politicians’ statements, but this truth has to be addressed.

There is another aspect of the post-Malema response that I found interesting: the rush to defend indians by Muslims. Clearly, these are Muslims who see themselves as indians.

I grew up in the MYM, having joined as a 14-year-old, and I was taught, carefully, that I was a Muslim (out of choice) and a South African (from Allah’s choice). Apart from that, the only other relevant identities were that I was black (in a political sense) and African (again, from Allah’s choice). I was certainly, I learned, not Indian.

That there are Muslims in South Africa who hold tightly to the spurious identities of ‘Indian’ or ‘Malay’ (as if either of these means anything) is a sad reflection of how little we have progressed, as Muslims and as South Africans. Unfortunately, such fictitious identities have been reinforced in the past decade by the increasing trend of race and tribe consciousness. If political leaders can proudly claim to be “100% Zulu boy”, why can’t other citizens proudly claim to be “Indian”? But Muslims should be smarter than that, and more committed to our people (South Africans) than that. Emphasising divisive identities in our divided nation is dangerous, and Muslims should be seeking to unite, not to deepen divisions.

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