Thursday, March 3, 2016

On being anti-racist...

Is Islam in the townships any less in value?
Photo Copyright Shafiq Morton.
RACISM, a discriminatory and distasteful fact of human life lingers unpleasantly in post-apartheid South Africa. Twenty-two years down the line the social cancer has not been completely excised. Whilst its symptoms can be traced back to an underlying pathology of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, racism is still utterly repugnant – despite its post trauma.

To regard oneself superior to another person on the basis of a particular identity, no matter when or due to what cause, is an arrogant failure of the human spirit. So to argue, as some boorish politicians currently do, that the historically disadvantaged cannot ever be racist against whites, is equally repugnant.

Whilst some people (such as Penny Sparrow) may not be conciliatory citizens in our social tree, their crass ungraciousness can’t ever be an excuse for a generalised prejudice that all whites must be racist.  This is “reverse” racism, a hate speech that has manifested itself in the worst forms of Zionism, where those who should be more mindful of the Holocaust and its suffocating horrors, have inflicted terrible atrocities against Palestinians in order to “not forget” these very horrors.

In our Muslim community, particularly the Western Cape, racism is a rattling skeleton. Even our politics represents this. The Democratic Alliance – despite its Mid-East policies being abhorrent to many Muslims – still gets the Muslim vote because the African National Congress under Zuma has come to represent in many minds black privilege and coloured disempowerment.

This sense of disempowerment – which results in what I call “status xenophobia” – originates from disgruntlement on affirmative action and perceived threats of losing privilege. It has to be crudely acknowledged that our forefathers, such as the Khoi-San, were the original inhabitants of the Western Cape, not the Nguni. Then there has been divide-and-rule, where during apartheid one clung desperately to one’s second-class citizenship and its paltry privileges over the third-class.

Again, all of the above – whilst still very much with us psychologically – should never be a vindication for the racially derogatory platitudes that pervade our suburbs and mosques. The point is:  how many black imams do we have? What about Muslims in the townships? Can one marry out of one’s village Mumbai side? How do we treat our black domestics? And, how do we regard Muslim refugees here, despite some of our slave roots being in East Africa from where they come?   

Space prevents further discussion of what we’ve discussed so far, but I’m sure the message is clear that our own backyard needs as much clearing as anyone else’s – which leads to the next point, the little understood Prophetic paradigm with regards to the burning question of racism.

Of course, many would agree with the metaphor of the Iblis, the Satan, being the first racist when he refused to prostrate to the figure of Adam (as), his body symbolically imbued with the variegated soils of the earth. The cursed jinn, made of smokeless fire, thought in his heart that his fiery nature was superior to the divine DNA.

However, most of us – when besieged by malicious argument and phobic invective on issues of race in Islam – would most likely resort to the Madinah socio-political model, the first Islamic society nurtured and educated by the Prophet (SAW) via Qur’an and Sunnah, his personal example.

Many like to regard Madinah as some kind of utopia, a perfect world. I don’t, because if one looks closely at the Madinah years, one soon realises that the perfection was in the Prophet, not in Madinah. Compared to us, yes, the people of the city were more elevated in character and they did develop towering personalities and reach stupendous heights of spirituality, but they were still human.

This is not said with any disrespect, but these noble and pious forbears still had to confront their inherent humanity, their demons, their own weaknesses; they had differences of opinion, they experienced marital discord and they suffered from poverty, bereavement, illness and hunger just like everybody else.  

The point is how they were taught to deal with these things by the Prophet (SAW). That is the big question – the “imperfections” of those in Madinah and how they dealt with them provide us with the lessons of today, first by the Righteous Caliphs, then Imam Malik and the other imams of knowledge.

One person, who admittedly had few faults, was Bilal – a former black Abyssinian slave freed by Sayyidina Abu Bakr. The master Bilal’s loud and melodious voice would call the Muslims to prayer. We all know the instance when Bilal, a thin man with bushy hair, was referred to as a “black crow” by three Quraish tribesmen who’d just entered Islam after the conquest of Makkah.

Through divine means, the Prophet (SAW) got to hear of this dialogue and the famous verses from Surat-ul Hujjarat, “We have created you into nations and tribes to know each other not to despise each other”, were revealed to him by Jibril, the Archangel.

Interestingly, the Prophetic model of anti-racism (we’ll define it later) was not the stereotypical black-white scenario of today. Whilst Bilal is a shining example of how a black person can achieve true human greatness, Madinah was also a multi-racial, multi-cultural locus of being. Suhaib ibn Sinan the Roman and Salman the Persian, who’d joined the community, were Companions too.

Not only did east meet west as prophesied at the noble Messenger’s birth, but in modern terms in the enlightened city of Madinah, Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Iranians met each other as well. The Prophet’s (SAW) last sermon on the final Hajj tied all of this together when he proclaimed on the Mount of Mercy that there was “no superiority of Arab over non-Arab, nor black over white”.

However, what we often forget is that the Prophet (SAW) was not preaching “non-racism” (where race is not officially acknowledged in the political and social sense). He was, in fact, being anti-racist (where race is officially acknowledged - but on firm and equal, non-discriminative ground). This, after all, is the profound subtlety of Surat ul-Hujjarat – by the grace of God we are who we are, and our challenge is to learn how to live together.

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