Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Into the future, a reflection on the Western Cape Muslim community

The changing face of South African Islam.
© Shafiq Morton
A VISIT to the Boland outside the urban fringes of Cape Town for a jumu’ah indicated to me that since the historic fall of the apartheid government, our community has undergone substantial demographic change. Two decades ago, this small country town had few Muslims – let alone an established place of worship.

But on this Friday, the mosque was full – not only with local congregants – but with people from North Africa, Somalia, the Indo-Pak region, Malawi and other destinations. Indeed, those sitting on the patterned carpet facing the imam were a veritable league of nations.

It is often in the microcosm, the miniature, that we gain understandings of the greater societal macrocosm. In this case, the Cape Muslim community is evidently not the same it was in 1994 when we first experienced democracy. 

I would venture that after a “stagnation” of many decades, marked by political and geographical isolation (even before 1948), the very fabric of our community has undergone massive sociocultural transformation due its post-apartheid encounter with the rest of the world.

It surprises me, however, that so few of us seem to have noticed the critical significance of this trend – and the possible dynamics of the Western Cape Muslim community in the future.

To understand this we have to delve into the past. This is because in the 1830s, when slavery was abolished under the British, the Cape Colony was believed to be one-third Muslim. And not only did this community consist of emancipated slaves, but a much forgotten class called “black freedmen”.

Research reveals that the community has always been an assimilative one. The 19th century scholar, Shaikh Abu Bakr Effendi, married a woman of English blood. In fact, there is enough archival and oral evidence to suggest that in the 19th century there were numerous “mixed marriages” in the Cape.

For this reason I suspect that “Malay”, which was the lingua-franca amongst slaves as Malayu was widely spoken at the time, was used to deny mixed DNA during apartheid. Bradlow and Cairns, who researched early slave communities, reveal that only 31 per cent of slaves hailed from the East Indies, with 36 per cent from India and 26 per cent from Africa.

It is powerfully evident, nonetheless, that it was the Sufi Shaikhs from the noble class of the Orang Cayen – the exiles from the Dutch East India colonies – who taught the community their Deen, despite the Statutes of India forbidding the practice of Islam. Later, with slave owners under more pressure to liberate Christian slaves, there was little resistance to them becoming Muslim.

However, today Muslims are not one-third of the populace. The City Council reported in 2011 that Mitchells Plain, for instance, was only 22.6 per cent Muslim. Other numbers are merely speculative, as the two post-apartheid censuses did not measure South Africans by faith.

1996 research papers did courageously claim that Muslims constituted 6.6 per cent (281, 050) of Cape Town’s population against 3.9 million people. The national total of Muslims was pegged at 600,000 – 1.5 per cent of the nation.

Then again, Google claims that we are 3% of the population (1.59 million). This unattributed figure is more realistic – but perhaps still vastly understated – as audience surveys at Voice of the Cape have topped 300,000, indicating that if any of the above numbers were to be true, every single person in the Cape Town community would have listened to the radio.

With our numbers highly speculative, it makes it difficult to go beyond perceived trends, but they are still significant and they do ask for interpretation.

On the one hand we have become an upwardly mobile community; a generation of artisans and shopkeepers has been replaced by a generation of doctors, dentists, academics and corporate lawyers. On the other hand, some sections of our community have remained mired in poverty, unable to break the chains of social anomie, backyard dwelling, unemployment, crime and gangs.

In the meantime, over the last two decades I have counted Muslims hailing from fifteen different African countries and seven from Asian and Middle Eastern ones living and working in the Cape. As a blend of refugees and economic migrants, most have weathered extreme hardship and xenophobia to contribute to our local economy.

Some of their children are even starting to attend our schools, and yet another assimilative process has quietly begun. The interesting question, of course, is how this melting pot of identities – mostly still in self-defensive silos – is going to converge into the greater one. In fact, one of the major challenges is the breaking down – in the positive sense – of these social silos.

The other big question is where the community’s base of power is going to rest in the future, and what kind of Islam is going to predominate. Whilst many new South African Muslims boast centuries of Islamic tradition, and share the intrinsic values of our Sufi heritage, some have been ideologically poisoned by the strictures of Wahhabism and damaged by the intolerance of sectarian conflict.

Then there is a growing interest in Islam in the black townships, where locals are fast realising that being Muslim is not an ethnic identity determined by beard length, shortened trousers and Pakistani shirts. The visits of African Shaikhs, such as Shaikh Hassan Cisse, have had a huge impact, as have the well-publicised reversions of figures such as Judge Hlope and Mandla Mandela.

Some in these township and expat populations have indicated that the Jami’ats and the Muslim Judicial Council, as we now know them, will have to change if they want to be truly representative of the community. There is already sentiment amongst those who see themselves as marginalised, that the traditional “Malay” and “Indian” blocs are an anachronism.

Whatever the case, our social landscape is transforming before our very eyes and it should be our duty to observe it, to study it and to understand it as we become a melting pot that forges the substance of a fresh new South African identity.

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