Monday, April 8, 2013

South Africa seen as a model for Islamic minorities

A younger Ebrahim Rasool (right) with Mandela, April 1994.
© Shafiq Morton
Whilst we as South Africans face challenges such as poverty, crime, corruption, endemic political sleaze and the ghosts of apartheid, the pioneering work of our constitution builders in accommodating minorities within our post-apartheid society has stood the test.

Most South Africans know today that in principle they’re equal on the playing fields of civil liberties. Under the constitution – which is the overarching national mediator – every citizen is entitled to enjoy the same rights, regardless of who is in power.

Our democratic model guarantees in turn that every community is assured of its identity under the national umbrella. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Rastas, Hindus, African traditionalists, atheists, gays – and every group in between – stand on the same ground.

And whilst a few members of the above communities may sometimes whinge that the constitution is too ‘liberal’, they certainly can’t complain that it has marginalised them. Importantly, they enjoy freedom of association, freedom of speech and access to power.

There are also few countries in the world today where its leaders will happily visit mosques, temples, churches and synagogues, or identify with minority communities on public platforms as former President Nelson Mandela has done.

In Europe, for example, one will have a better chance of spotting a golden unicorn than witnessing the French President attending Ramadan prayers, or the German Chancellor cutting the ribbon for an ashram.

 South African community that has profoundly benefited from the post-1994 constitutional framework has been the Muslim one. Constituting no more than 5% of the national population, it has been empowered to contribute significantly to all tiers of government, the economy and society.

South African Muslims are not only free to exercise their dietary laws, build mosques and enjoy public gatherings such as festivals, but Islamic personal law has finally been recognised after over 350 years of non-recognition.

Recently, the South African situation was regarded as a ‘best practice’ model at a colloquium held in Paris entitled Living Where We Don’t Make the Rules. Hosted by the World for All Foundation (headed by SA’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool) and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, experts from 22 nations gathered to discuss the lot of Muslim minorities around the globe.

According to Rasool, with 25% (half a billion) of the world’s 2.2 billion Muslims now living as minorities, it was time to reflect on ‘the anguish that minorities often experienced’. This anguish was a struggle to find synergy between the values of faith and the dominant culture on one hand, and social and political hostility on the other.

Whilst he agreed that the context of minorities was broad – India has a population of 160 million and Iceland barely a thousand – he felt that questions such as globalisation, migration, secularism and extremism had affected all communities and the 90-plus countries in which Muslims now resided.

9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ had had an impact, and only now was the Muslim world beginning to ‘emerge out of a long night of hostility’. For minorities who had faced this hostility whenever extremist fringes had grabbed the headlines, it had been extremely difficult.

“Two top scholars at the colloquium, Prof Tariq Ramadan and Ingrid Matson, both agreed that Islamophobia and Islamic extremism were inextricably linked,” he said.

Rasool explained that the extremist vision of a jihad between Muslim-dominated territory and non-Muslim dominated territory was debunked as not representing mainstream thought. The colloquium had asserted that a Dar ul-Shahadah (a place of peace, free worship and association) was the orthodox model.

Shaikh Rashid Ghannouchi of Tunisia (and leader of its Islamic An-Nahda Party) had stated that democracy and human rights were germane to Islam. Muslim minorities, he said – citing South Africa as an example ­of how Muslims could integrate into a society without losing their values – had to participate in the affairs of their host countries.

Rasool said that discussion revealed that there were a number of issues common to all communities.

“Infrastructure deficit was the most prominent refrain where people said there weren’t enough mosques. There was also a strong call for judiciary institutions, particularly in post-communist Central Asia.”

Rasool added that right across the board there was agreement that countries should educate their own religious leaders on home soil, so that they wouldn’t reflect influences alien to the cultures they were sent to.

“The question was: how do we train our scholars locally for local needs? We need to develop indigenous scholars.”

On the question of Shari’ah (or Sacred Law) Rasool said that a Cape Town scholar, Shaikh Seraj Hendricks, had stated that Muslim minority communities were not here to subvert balanced constitutions, or even create a ‘sub-text’.

However, there had to be space for an application of personal law in matters such as marriage, inheritance and halal food. Muslims had to be allowed, like any other group, to live peacefully according to their principles.

Rasool said that misrepresentation of Shari’ah within a minority context had seen nine US states passing legislation that would in future deny Muslims personal law on the most basic of issues. In France, where secularism had turned ‘stifling’, lawmakers were talking of passing legislation forbidding any kind of religious wear in public.

 Rasool commented that gender bias and the empowerment of women was a critical discussion in the Living Where We Don’t Make the Rules colloquium. We had to be mindful that whilst in the US women are venturing to the moon, in Saudi Arabia they were not even allowed to drive.

 “In conclusion, we hope via a soon-to-be issued statement, the Paris Declaration, to move towards a programme of positive action and interfaith conversation. We want to move to defuse extremism and Islamophobia, to manage historical issues of concern to the West and to fully understand the application of Islam in a minority context.”

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