Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The sheen of Mandela still shines from afar

Mandela "magic" was reconciliation, something that resonated around the world.
HAVING just spent a fairly protracted period out of the country, it was interesting coming home. I’d been based in Malaysia on a book tour where I did not encounter much South African news. But that is not to say I was unaffected by events in my host country.

I was in Kuala Lumpur when the opposition grouping, Bersih, gathered in public protest against the ruling party Barisan Nasional, a Malay dominated coalition that has ruled the country since independence in 1957.

Dissatisfaction at issues from corruption to electoral legislation had seen an opposition alliance consisting of Chinese and Indian minorities, and former United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ebrahim, capturing a number of government seats and state legislatures after the 2008 elections.

This was when Ebrahim had brashly predicted that he would be taking over the country from PM Abdullah Badawi, only to fall short. It was, in a sense, similar to COPE riding a wave of sentiment in our last elections, only to later wipe out on the rocks of over-reached ambition.

With the very broad tri-partite church of the ruling Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional having become the focus of widespread public dissatisfaction, similarities to South Africa were not lost on me.

Malaysia is constitutionally a democracy, but its political landscape has been controlled for over forty years by Barisan Nasional – a party strong on affirmative action for Malays in an economy dominated by the Chinese.

Interestingly, former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed –the wise old fox of Malaysian politics – had said in response to the 2008 election results that the traditional Barisan Nasional 90% majority had not been good for democracy, and that the new 60-40 split would be healthier.

At social gatherings I was assailed with a host of what was seen as the country’s problems. Corruption, and executive incompetency due to nepotism, came up strongly on the conversational radar. Comparisons are odious, I know, but once again I couldn’t help seeing parallels to South Africa.

The appointments of party cadres such as Richard Mdluli, Menzi Simelane and Bheki Cele – who’ve all been publicly discredited in terms of their aptitude for high office – sprang to mind. Malaysia also had its fair share of Mdluli’s, Simelane’s and Cele’s.

But that’s where the comparisons started to end. I told my hosts that as a South African I didn’t want Kuala Lumpur’s traffic jams and high-rise buildings, but that I would certainly welcome its cheap food prices and subsidised fuel. And with Malaysia’s Gini Co-efficient impressively lower than ours, I said we would be happy to have their low unemployment rate of just under 3%.

I said that complaints about crime were a trifle compared to ours. I had to give a rider, though, that South Africa was safe for the visitor– as the biggest question I faced was on how safe it was to walk in the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town.

Basic Malaysian literacy was high and I was told that internet and wireless communication, apart from being cheap, had a social penetration of over 90% – in other words, 22 million people out of 25 million had access to digital communication.

However, I could also see – our pressing socio-economic challenges aside – that we had made huge strides as a nation since apartheid. Our human rights culture is, I feel, more entrenched and strongly defended in South Africa than in so-called“mature” democracies.

I remember, for example, speaking to a government official who told me that Malaysia had only just rolled out a minimum wage limit for workers of 900 ringgit (about R2, 000). In South Africa this question is old hat.

I had an interesting chat with an executive from a prominent international HR company, which had branches in Africa. He reminded me that in South Africa affirmative action had copied much from the Malaysian model.

“AA needs to get your young people to work. Your universities are good and your young people must be given opportunity,” he said.

He added that experience had taught him AA would not work unless there was “meritocracy”. He explained that AA would become dysfunctional and effect service delivery if it became the domain of the ruling elite. To work efficiently, it had to be broad based.

On the media side, most media houses were government controlled (though I did do a series of interviews with a private radio station, BFM). I missed the rough-and-tumble of South African journalism and the healthy cynicism of public figures, sometimes too pompous for their boots.

It also re-enforced my view that freedom of speech is probably the most precious legacy of the post-apartheid era. Few countries can speak their minds like we do, and it made me think about the travesties of the understandably condemned Protection of Information Bill.

In Malaysia, the tameness of the institutional press was more than made up by a vigorous blogging community. In that arena I could see that the gloves were off, and it was in cyberspace – and not the mainstream media – that political scandal (of which there was a steady stream) circulated.

When your country is viewed from afar, it can be revealing what people think of you. Political observers knew about Julius Malema, and were thoroughly bemused by him. I was informed that the UMNO elders would never give ABIM (UMNO’s youth wing) such rope as the ANC had done to its Youth League.

President Jacob Zuma was perceived as a somewhat benign, if not avuncular figurehead associated more with BRIC than the AU (like Thabo Mbeki). There was more a polite curiosity in his multiple marriages, and someone even asked me whether our President was Muslim.

But the most dominating personality by far was still Nelson Mandela. The sheen of “Mandela magic” still shines brightly in the foreign imagination, and I think we sometimes forget his iconic status as a symbol – not of struggle and liberation – but of reconciliation.

When I would mention in talks that he’d drunk tea with Betsie, the wife of Hendrik Verwoed , jaws would drop in amazement. And when I would remind audiences that one of the first things he’d said upon release after 27 years of detention was“forgive but don’t forget”, there’d be a murmur.

Coming back to the anger, indignity and political opportunism of the Presidential organ being exposed at the Goodman Gallery (which I know would have shocked my Far Eastern friends) I realised I’d forgotten just how raucous freedom of speech could be – especially in a multi-cultural society such as ours. Yes, “Spear of the Nation” or not, it was good to be home.

Monday, May 28, 2012

"Spirituality", more than just a word

Imam ShafiĆ­, like all the great Imams, recognised the value of spirituality.
THE other day a local cleric argued from the mimbar that the word “spirituality” did not exist in the Arabic language. That point in his talk (on which I will focus) certainly caused a measure of consternation in the community.

This surprised me because I’d heard Islamic scholars using the term “ruhaniyyah”. To make sure, I checked it in the famous Al-Mawrid English-Arabic dictionary, finding “ruhaniyyah” on page 889. There was another noun meaning "spirituality" too, “al-Kanasiyya”, which had a Christian perspective. “Kanees” is the Arabic for church.

The cleric’s perceived agenda – to prove that tasawwuf, or spirituality, does not exist in Islam by playing on words – proved baffling. This is because Islamic terms can never be pigeon-holed, let alone satisfactorily defined, by closed statements borrowed from other languages such as English.

Islam is much more sophisticated than that, and most Muslims easily recognise its internal metaphors. Islam is a Deen, a dynamic process of being Muslim. Or to borrow from American Indian philosophy: a tree can’t simply be described as a tree; it is “tree-ing”; it is a process. A tree is always growing, budding, flowering and bearing fruit.

In the same way, a Muslim is Muslim through his ongoing actions of worship, charity, pilgrimage, fasting and behaviour. Then there is the fact that Arabic nouns (based on root verbs) enjoy lexically compound meanings, often not very well – as we've already said – approximated in translation.

This is because the word “God-fearing”, as opposed to“spirituality”, does not even appear in the Mawrid dictionary. Yet every Muslim instinctively knows that “taqwa” embraces the idea of “God-fearing”, but encompasses a far wider textual meaning.

The denial of “spirituality” as an Islamic or Arabic word, however, cannot camouflage the fact that “spirituality” – or Sufism to coin its proper Islamic synonym – has existed as a concrete reality, and has been a central pillar of mainstream Sunni Islam for over 1,400 years.

“Spirituality” was a norm during the era of the Prophet (SAW) and his immediate generations. Sufism – or tasawwuf – was later codified as a science of the heart by scholars and spiritual adepts such as Shaikh ‘Abd ul-Qadir Jilani and Junaid al-Baghdadi.

All the great Imams – Abu Hanifah, Imam Shafi’i, Imam Malik and Imam Hanbal (ra) – professed support and admiration for those who followed the path of spirituality (or tasawwuf), but warned that there had to be a balance. Imam Malik (ra) said in a famous statement:

     He who practises spiritual knowledge without gaining knowledge in Fiqh will become a heretic; he who   
     gains knowledge in Fiqh without practising spiritual knowledge will become corrupt; and he who gathers
     between the two has become complete.

However, because the word “Sufi” – or “spirituality” – was not expressly used during the time of the Prophet (SAW), people (such as our cleric here) often like to argue (or hint) that its contemporary usage is an obscene innovation. To be consistent, though, they would have to declare Imam Shafi’i (ra) an undesirable innovator too, for he developed legal terms after the Prophetic era.

Shaikh ‘Abd ul-Qadir ‘Isa, the famous Syrian scholar, writes in his book the Realities of Sufism:

      No matter what the case may be, Sufism is so well-known that it needs no etymology-based definition or
       word analogy…the argument that it was not used at the time of the Companions… is rejected.

As an Islamic science, like Hadith or Fiqh (the application Sacred Law), Sufism has developed its own technical language over the centuries. Its path – externally through noble conduct and internally through reflection and worship – is codified via Shari’ah, Tariqah and Haqiqah.

In other words, its bedrock is the obedience of Sacred Law (Shari’ah) followed by the actual journey (the Tariqah) and ultimately, the intimate knowledge of Allah (Haqiqah). There are no short-cuts. The one cannot function without the other.

Another definition of the spiritual path – or “spirituality” – is ‘ilm ul-yaqin (the certainty of Islamic knowledge), ‘ain ul-yaqin (the certainty of the heart) and haq ul-yaqin (the ultimate reality).

Shaikh Ahmad Zarruq, an Egyptian scholar, wrote in 1898 that Sufism has been defined in over 2,000 ways, but that it boiled down to rectifying the heart – by coming close to Allah in devotion. The 10th century saint, Junaid al-Baghdadi, said that Sufism was the observation of every lofty characteristic, and the abandonment of every lowly trait.

This was clearly shown in the famous Hadith when the Archangel Jibril, in the guise of a traveller, sat facing the Prophet (SAW) knee-to-knee and asked him three questions in front of the Companions It is from this Tradition that the concepts of Islam, Iman and Ihsan were born.

The Prophet’s (SAW) answers to the questions of what were Islam and Iman, the details of which I will not repeat here, set out the foundations of Islam. The third question of Ihsan – which loosely means “excellence” – was answered as a Muslim worshipping as if he saw Allah, and if not capable of that, worshipping as if Allah saw him.

That the five pillars of Islam re-iterated in the Hadith by the Prophet (SAW) could be the underpinning of the heart, that the understanding of Iman or faith could be the journey of the heart and that Ihsan could be the final destiny of the heart, is an obvious and self-explanatory Sufistic parallel.

Our cleric’s apparent denial of the concept of“spirituality” in Islam can perhaps best be explained away by philosophical intoxication. We have to think good of people at all times, and maybe he has only been informed by charlatans or scoundrels posing as Sufi masters.

This is because he has, after all, walked beside Sufism’s merciful ocean without hearing its mighty roar, without admiring its diverse and colourful splendour, without smelling its misty perfumes and without realising its spectacular depths of meaning.

Then there is the reality that those most opposed to ideas can often become their most adept protagonists. This happened to Sayyidina‘Umar (ra) whose original intention was to assassinate the Messenger of God. Let’s hope and pray that our cleric becomes truly suffused with the light of his knowledge.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Really Understanding Shari'ah

Shari'ah is not about anger or extremism, but mercy and compassion.

IT is my view that two of the most over-worn words in the English vocabulary today are “democracy” and “jihad”. Democracy has gained currency through the aspirations of people everywhere, whether it be my home country, South Africa, or Egypt after the “Arab Spring”.

Most of us understand the theoretical objectives of democracy – responsible government and basic civil liberties. Most of us understand too, that jihad has something to do with a struggle.

With its literal meaning “to exert oneself to one’s utmost” – and its primary application the self – the modern perception of jihad has, unfortunately, been coloured by its worst examples.  

No sane jurist, for example, would ever condone self-immolation or the blowing-up of civilians as justifiable in terms of its precepts, as some extremists tend to do. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) expressly taught that soundness of reason, moderation and mercy had to underlie human behaviour.

Those who dislike Islam struggle to comprehend this. They often accuse academics such as Tariq Ramadan – who has openly addressed the issue on various platforms – of talking with a forked tongue.

However, in recent months I’ve come to the conclusion that another over-worn word is “Shari’ah”. Also served today by its worst examples, the word “Shari’ah” sends a collective shudder down the spine of those commentators whose inborn prejudices make them see Muslims as savage and uncivilised.

Even those who proclaim humanism, which I define here as those who support human rights secularly, will express aversion to the idea of Islamic Sacred Law – whose English term, curiously, seems to intimidate far less than the Arabic one.

As a journalist who covers Muslim affairs daily, my opinion – after thousands of interviews across the Islamic world – is that most of us don’t understand what Shari’ah, let alone Islamic rule, really is.

But let’s give some context as to why Shari’ah has become a critical part of the Muslim debate. For those communities suffering in places such as the sub-Sahara, Asia or the Middle East, their understanding of the Shari’ah – via its most drastic form of Hadd (or punishment) – offers a quick fix.  

This is because unstable societies bedevilled by the failure of leadership and social justice, and by grinding poverty, IMF economics, institutionalised corruption and hopelessness, clutch onto desperate straws.

It’s here that the hard line ideologies find fertile ground, brandishing their AK47’s (the modern sword or alif) and their crude flags of Shari’ah (the cure-all codicil). When you’re the underdog, these jihadists can be a seductive group of ideological vigilantes.

But the problem here is that their understanding of Islam (inspired by the 18th century cleric, Ibn Abd ul-Wahhab) is ritualistic, literalistic, reductionist and politically primitive, if not despotic.

For not only is classical scholarship spurned in this model, but also the four schools of Islamic legal thought that inform Sacred Law. Diversity, paradoxically the cornerstone of social unity, is not tolerated at all.

And significantly, the claim of this camp that jihad should be the sixth pillar of Islam sets an unheard of precedent in the faith. This is a precedent regarded as an abominable innovation by the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars.

However, a lack of classical Islamic learning in the Islamic world (a problem too complex to discuss here) ensures that the extremists can operate unchallenged, and sometimes with disastrous, tragi-comic effect. This is why the Taliban could blow-up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, or Al-Shabab could ban the consumption of three-cornered samoosas in Somalia.

With basic Islamic knowledge in the street withered and stunted, the world around us is seen in simplistic terms – “them” and “us”. It is a stark contrast to the embracing and inclusive outlook of the great Caliphs such as ‘Umar the Great and Suleiman the Magnificent.

This “them” and “us” mindset is a legacy of 20th century thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, who – reacting to secular imperialism – divided society into the saved Muslims and the unsaved ignorant, non-Muslims.

This saw concepts like Dar ul-Islam (the domain of Islam) and the Dar ul-Harb (the domain of war) taking root. For those in this school, the Dar ul-Harb is emphatically the West.

For those who see justice in society exclusively as Shari’ah under Islamic rule, the shoe doesn’t fit here. There are significant Muslim minorities living peacefully in the West with a proud full-house of constitutional rights, as in South Africa. It could be argued that these communities exist in a state of Dar ul-Shahadah, a place where their belief can be freely expressed.

In this case the Mardin fatwa of Ibn Taimiyyah, the doyenne of the literalists, applies. He ruled that Muslim communities could live under peaceful, non-threatening non-Muslim governments.

Given the light of recent elections in the Arab world, the idea that justice can only exist in a Shari’ah-centric milieu needs further examination. Shari’ah ends up meaning different things to different people, especially in the highly-charged political arena.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, the 13th century Hanbali scholar, once stated that Shari’ah – based on Qur’an and the ways of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) – had to be defined as a relief and a mercy to all people.

Imam al-Ghazali, the 12th century colossus, felt that Shari’ah – incandescent with Allah’s kindness preceding his anger – could only be effectively applied if it reflected compassion. This was something echoed by Salahuddin Ayyubi, the conqueror of Jerusalem in 1187.

The “Arab Spring” has already seen an Islamic, if not Shari’ah-centric ethos emerging through the ballot boxes. This is an inevitable consequence. The Arab world is, after all, predominantly Islamic. And if these new governments wish to define their future course in the light of Shari’ah, it will have to be in the context of a modern world.

Endemic social problems, the economy, jobs, the challenges of the military-industrial complex and rising expectations will loom like Mount Everest. Democracy, if it’s ultimately going to mean something, is a tough climb. This is a humbling lesson that we’ve learnt in South Africa.

In this respect I hope that the “Arab Spring” governments will embrace the idea that if Shari’ah is ever going to enjoy relevance, it will have to reflect even-handedness, mercy and empathy. It will have to be based solidly on the classical four legal schools of Islamic thought, and not the mediaeval whims of an obscurantist scholar.

Finally, I believe Shari’ah will not be able to stand on its own in a vacuum. It will need a solid, universal constitutional framework embracing all diverse citizens – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – based on the most common values dear to man such as freedom, equality and justice.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Penang and the Pattani problem

Georgetown mosque, Penang.
30/4 – 2/5/11

AFTER the book launch at the Park Hotel, we sell out of Surfing behind the Wall. It’s an encouraging sign. My friend Iskander takes me to visit the tomb of Habib Nuh al-‘Attas, the famous saint of Singapore. His tomb, once atop a hill, now nestles against a freeway that overlooks the harbour.

Next day Mohamed Nassir and Feisal Marica of the Simply Islam Centre pick me up at the Ba ‘Alawi Zawiyyah. We have lunch with Habib Hasan, who apart from being a tireless worker for inter-faith dialogue, is a keen historian. His generous table is always an interesting mix of guests.

I pick up on some discussions with his nephew, Saleh al-Attas, about the Companions of the Cave.

After lunch I’m whisked off to Simply Islam on 152 Still Road, where I’m interviewed for their webzine, 

Mohamed and Feisal have acquired a waqf property for their centre, which offers a mix of adult and madrasah education, Arabic translation and corporate consultancy. They’ve also just opened an e-store, and I check out their literature. I’m kindly given two books, both by Shaikh Hisham Kabbani, whose title Angels Unveiled I read on Voice of the Cape radio.

We chat, as we always do, about a myriad of things. Feisal tells me the fascinating account of a local, who on a recent ‘umrah, was granted access to the tomb of the Prophet (SAW) in Madinah.

This person had reported that all he could do was weep. His tears, he said, were also because of the neglected state of the chamber. The graves were not in a good condition, and it appeared as if the dust and debris from the Prophet’s (SAW) room was being sold to pilgrims.

Later this person had had a dream in which he saw the Prophet (SAW) in full figure. In the dream, the Prophet (SAW) is handing him a bowl of rice. The dream was understood as a request to feed the poor, and Feisal said the man phoned immediately from Madinah to carry out this instruction.

This episode reminded me of an account told to me about a little boy, who after being granted access to the chamber, amazed the guards by emerging with an apple. He said that the Prophet (SAW) had personally given it to him.

As the afternoon shadows start to lengthen, it’s time to rush off to Mendaki, the headquarters of the Singapore Malay Association. Mendaki looks after the wellbeing of Malays in Singapore, and is funded by a small 2% tax paid by Malays to central government.

I’m scheduled to give a talk on the history of the Cape Malays, a topic that fascinates Prof Syed Farid al-‘Attas, Head of Malay Studies at Singapore University. I did a talk on the same topic on my previous visit to Singapore in 2010, and Mendaki wants to put it on record.

As I prepare my presentation, I’m interviewed by the local Malay newspaper, Berita Harian. After my talk I’m whisked off to the airport to catch my flight to Penang. It’s the day before a public holiday, 1 May, and the Air Asia flight is full.

Penang is less frenetic than KL or Singapore. It’s a mellow island just off the Malaysian mainland. Resorts such as Lombok are a short hop from its capital Georgetown, a quaint colonial English town with a Victorian-Moghul style mosque and a Chinese sea-god temple. I’m booked into the Georgetown Hotel, a modern establishment.

The following morning I find myself in a kampong, or village, where I’m scheduled to deliver a seminar to a group of NGO officials about working with the media. It’s muggy, and a ceiling fan languidly circulates the air.

I soon discover that I’m dealing with a difficult situation. My audience is Thai, and I have to talk via a translator. They’re from southern Thailand, and are ethnically Malay (and Muslim). Southern Thailand represents one of the world’s forgotten human rights issues, and I find myself being brought up to speed first-hand.

I’m talking to a group from the Pattani province, which is ethnically Malay and 80% Muslim. Pattani, once a semi-autonomous Malaysian sultanate, was annexed to Siam in 1902.

A policy of forced assimilation by the Siamese (Thai) authorities after the annexation enraged the ethnically Malay Muslims, who were not Thai, and many of whose family roots were in Kelantan in Malaysia.

Many Pattanis, however, did adopt Thai names and the national language, but secretly cultivated their local traditions. Between the 1940s and the 1980’s Pattani separatists staged a series of uprisings, demanding autonomy.

This discontent with Bangkok, I learnt, simmered on today. I was told that brutal counter-insurgency policies by theThai authorities had only served to worsen the situation that had bred several opposition groups, and even a whiff of jihadism.

This brutality had only intensified since 2001 and the rule of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former policeman – who using Bush’s “war on terror” as an excuse to marginilise an opposition stronghold – cracked down hard, even abolishing conflict-management structures set up by previous regimes.  

Thaksin was unseated, but continuing political turmoil in Thailand itself, leading to the clashes in 2010 between the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Red Shirts, saw Pattani drifting further off the human rights radar.

I was told that since 2004 about 6,000 Pattani Malays had been killed by Thai security forces with extra-judicial killings, rape, disappearance and detention without trial a common occurrence. I learnt that the Thai security forces acted with impunity in the south, and that shockingly, not one member had ever been prosecuted for human rights abuses.

The youngsters I was addressing further told me that Malays were under-represented politically, that their region was the most under-developed and that the Thai authorities were openly belligerent, even towards NGO’s dealing with purely humanitarian issues.

I was told that Thailand was also reluctant to consider Malay autonomy because southern Thailand was rich in as yet untapped resources such as oil and timber.

I have no idea whether I was able to make a positive contribution media-wise – there’s also a language problem in that few Pattanis can speak an international language such as English – but I had to salute these courageous young people fighting a human rights battle out of the limelight.

After the seminar I find myself changing gear back to Palestine, and briefly addressing the musallees at a local mosque. I just have time to catch my breath before readying myself for another function that evening hosted by PRECISE, the Penang Research Centre in Socio-Economics.

I meet up again with Asti, who is its networking executive, and many others whom I fondly remember from my 2010 visit on the Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah tour.

The pro-Palestinian and anti-war network of Penang has joined forces with PRECISE, and I have an enjoyable evening signing books, conducting media interviews and answering questions. By the time I get back to the hotel it’s 2 am.

 Next blog: back to KL

Friday, May 18, 2012

Surfing behind the Wall tour: Singapore 2 (the narrative of the unbalanced narrative)

The cover of the book, Far East edition.

THAT night I give a talk at the Park Hotel in Singapore hosted by the Arab Network Society. They’re organised, and the room is full of people, including diplomats from the Middle East. Before my presentation, I quote from Surat ul-Hujjarat in the Qur’an where God created us into tribes and nations to know each other, not to hate each other.

Jerusalem, I explained, had never historically been a political capital. It was a sacred city, a holy city of three faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It was the second place on earth to have a masjid, a place of worship.

And had not the bible itself not proclaimed Jerusalem as a city “for all peoples and for all times?”  And if one was a believer, would it not be the final place of Resurrection?

I then mentioned Imam al-Ghazali’s Six Universal Principles, which I said should define the Palestinian-Israeli landscape: the right to life, the right of belief, the right of property, the right of intellect, the right of progeny and the right of dignity.

I concluded by saying that the Middle East conflict could not be constructively served by raw emotion. Its fate was a shared one; its final destiny was ultimately a common one between all its peoples. It had to be understood intellectually, educationally.

I said all of this as a preface to my PowerPoint presentation, a pictorial mosaic that, I think, faces some of the hardest truths of the Palestinian question. My rationale was that we had to keep focused on the central issues without being sucked into a vortex of aimless emotionality.

As fate would have it, I would be accused of exactly the opposite. But before I get ahead of myself, let me explain what the main elements of my presentation were.

I started off by showing a map of Palestinian land dispossession since 1947 and images of the Apartheid Wall. I explained why its distance was 600 km instead of 300 km (as much land appropriated for Erez Israel with as little Palestinians on it as possible). I added that about 1 million olive trees, the very lifeblood of Palestinian existence, had been uprooted in the process.

In other images I observed that even Palestinian-Israelis had over 40 laws prescribed against them, clicking on photos of an “unrecognised” village within Israel that had no running water, no electricity and no roads. The village was a shanty town because its inhabitants were not allowed to build any permanent structures.

I displayed the image of a young settler walking through the streets of Jerusalem with an M16 strapped to his back. I clicked on another slide depicting three young men walking in Hebron with 2.2 rifles. Those rifles were good for shooting rabbits, I said, but the problem was that their intent here was to shoot Palestinians.

Next up was a group of old men playing backgammon in the Muslim Arab quarter of Jerusalem. With the laser I pointed to a single Hebrew street sign above their heads, saying here was an example of colonisation by language – something we’d known well in South Africa, the 1976 uprisings inflamed by the forced use of Afrikaans in Black schools.

I spoke about the tunnels under Al-Aqsa, the destruction of the Maghribi quarter in 1967 and the forced removal of a community that had been living there since the 12th century. The Maghribi quarter faces on to the Western Wall. I mentioned that it was actually part of the Islamic waqf, and had been deemed so by the UN in 1967.

I added that whilst the wall belonged to the waqf, Suleiman the Magnificent had allowed Jews to worship there in the 16th century, his architect Mimar Sinan designing a special oratory for this purpose. I said that this was an agreement signed by the Sultan we still had to honour. Nobody was saying, God forbid, that Jewish worship should ever be prevented at the wall, but we had to be honest about history. 

Space does not allow me to flesh out every detail, but I’m sure the gist of what I said is clear by now. This is because after my presentation the chairman decided to call a break before question time. That was when I was approached by representatives of the Israeli embassy in Singapore.

They were unhappy at my narrative and wanted to speak to me about it. “We really liked what you said at the beginning, but to be honest with you, I’m disappointed at the rest,” said a young man, short-haired and muscled like a soldier.

“Your take on the 1948 war is not accurate,” said a woman, thirty-ish and the more senior official.

“There was absolutely no balance. You say one thing, and then with your pictures you stir up emotions. So much was wrong I don’t know where to start,” she said.

I told her I firmly believed what I’d said. But I also had to present a narrative informed by my experiences as a South African. However, I was told that I’d only presented one side of things and that, for example with regards to the picture of the men playing backgammon, I hadn’t told the audience that three official languages were recognised in Israel – Hebrew, English and Arabic.

I didn’t have the time to argue what I saw as the Freudian significance of the street sign in the Arab quarter being in only Hebrew.

“And what about the provocation of Israelis? Where’s the balance?” continued the diplomat.

Question time came and the diplomat said there wasn’t time to elaborate on the “most disappointing aspects” of my presentation.  She said that in the political process “opportunities had been missed” on both sides and nobody had been 100% right.

I was asked directly about a statement I’d made where I commented that the conflict had to be mediated without “different agendas interrupting it”.

“I’m just talking about a level playing field,” I answered.

After further commentary, the question was how we could be “more constructive”. I replied that I could not be drawn into prescribing political solutions for the Middle East. I said the problem was that current Israeli and Palestinian leadership was weak.

But I did say that there had to be understanding of the dialectic that governed Palestinian and Israeli worldviews. For the Israeli nexus it was the Holocaust. To deny it would serve no purpose. But at the same time other peoples had suffered genocides in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda and Armenia too. For Palestinians, the Nakba was also not an imaginary event.

To my surprise, the audience then applauded me.

My last question, from the Israeli diplomat, was about an “international environment” dealing with the conflict. That, I replied, could indeed be part of the (mediatory) process. A broader range of countries (other than the Quartet) at the table could perhaps better understand the way forward. We could no longer afford to have the more powerful blocs determining agendas (for the region).

Looking at my notes the following morning, I realised that I hadn’t mentioned the “Arab Spring” or the BDS movement. Arab democracy, I thought, would mean less pliant, less Israel-friendly Arab leaders. The hot-lines between Cairo and Tel Aviv would fall silent and the BDS campaign would see brands such as Caterpillar coming under pressure.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Surfing behind the Wall book tour: Singapore

Former Malaysian PM, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad, together with Fajr Symphomy's Dr Yunus Yasin and the author (right).

Saturday 27th April:

Cape Malay book found in Singapore

On Saturday morning I meet with Dr Chandra Muzaffer, director of the NGO JUST (the International Movement for a Just World). He’s a softly-spoken man in a wheel-chair. Once in the opposition political frame, he’s since beaten a retreat from the ruthless cut-and-thrust of public life.

His office is in a shady street and our short meeting soon becomes an hour. He enjoys my stories about Mandela, and we agree to network. He gives me a signed copy of his latest book, Muslims Today, Changes Within, Challenges Without. I give him Surfing behind the Wall.

Then I’m bustled out of his office to address a workshop on refugees. Around the table are young people from the Philippines, China, Indonesia and Pakistan. The dominating issue is the recognition of child refugees in Malaysia, and how one can make positive interventions.

I relate to the South African experience and the pitfalls of xenophobia. I’m asked to speak about my travels. Whether I make a positive contribution or not is difficult to ascertain, but we do talk a lot.

Then it’s a quick lunch before catching a Firefly charter to Singapore. We buzz along in a propeller aircraft for about 45 minutes. Singapore is as clean and clinical as ever, the “Switzerland” of the Far East, once known for its close ties with Israel.

My good friend Iskandar picks me up at the airport. In Singapore I’ll do a book launch at the Arab Network Society and a talk on Cape Malays at Mendaki, the Malay association HQ. Mendaki is a state NGO funded by a 2% tax on Malays and is responsible for social upliftment.

As we drive, Iskandar hands me a copy of ID du Plessis’ “classic”, The Cape Malays. I’m gobsmacked. “What’s this book doing in Singapore?” I ask stupidly.

“My late brother had it,” he replies, adding that he thought he got it while on Hajj. He then tells me I can have the book.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, “it’s yours.”

 Inside the flyleaf I come across the following:

“El Hadj Erefaan Rakiep…son of…” and a family tree leading to Imam Abdullah Qadi Abdus Salam,  or Tuan Guru, who established South Africa’s first madrasah in Cape Town in 1793. A political exile of Moroccan ancestry from Tidore,Tuan Guru also wrote a Qur'an from memory while imprisoned on Robben Island by the Dutch.

“These are our ancestors,” goes another line.

Also written is “NE Rakiep bought Friday 16 Feb 1973.”

It’s a fascinating, poignant piece of local history inscribed in the flyleaf of a book long out of print – as much the tale of a person suffering under apartheid trying to discover his identity. And I’d found all of this in Singapore, and not in Cape Town.

Of course, as an Orientalist who was a friend of apartheid prime minister PW Botha, Du Plessis has been harshly criticised by academics. But his work is certainly a seminal one, despite his patronising observation that the Cape Malays once “aroused” would be liable to “run amok”.

I stay at the Ba ‘Alawi mosque. My host, Habib Hasan al-‘Attas, is as gracious as ever. His zawiyyah, built by his late father, is a vibrant centre of learning. He has a unique collection of manuscripts and Islamic artefacts, some precious enough to be housed in a special air-conditioned room.

This small, saintly man introduces me to some of his guests, who are amazed to hear about the Malay heritage of Cape Islam. In his museum he shows me an old Malayu text from Cape Town written in Arabic.

The following morning it rains. Huge drops hammer on the roof like nails, and water pours off gutters in sheets. Tropical rain is not the soft Mediterranean drizzle we experience in Cape Town. Here you get soaked to the skin in seconds.

It’s a Sunday, and as the rain slacks off, the Zawiyyah is empty except for a lone figure huddled over a Qur’an. I retreat to my room to re-read ID Du Plessis.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Launch of Surfing behind the Wall, My Palestinian Journey

25/4/12 Arrive in KL. It’s overcast and rainy. Ponderous clouds hang black in the sky. After a hot Cape summer the humidity is bearable. Meet up with Dr Yasin from Fajr Symphony, co-sponsor together with Dome Publications and the Kaaf Trust. It’s been a long flight, but it’s good to be with friends again.

The programme is busy – we launch Surfing behind the Wall in KL and then I go to Singapore and Penang. But first things first: the book. It’s pages are crisp, the cover is embossed. It feels good in my hands. After years of toil, it’s the moment. The big moment.

26/4/12 CATCH a few hours’ sleep. Do some laps in the hotel pool whilst a cat, probably dreaming that it’s a tiger, watches me trying to shake off jet-lag.

My first appointment is the recording of two interviews with BFM 89.9, a radio station that broadcasts to KL. Three shows are scheduled, and we’ll record two before I leave for Singapore. BFM is a blend of Capetalk and VOC.

The first slot is a book review and, thankfully, the reviewer Amu says he likes the Surfing behind the Wall. In the second interview we talk about South Africa. The third slot, which I’ll do on my return to KL, will be a live evening one.

I also learn that Dr Mahathir Mohamed, former Malay Prime Minister representing his Perdana Global Trust, has taken ill and can’t make the launch at the Islamic Museum. He will send a representative instead.

I also hear that the Malaysian opposition coalition Bersih is preparing for a mass rally in central KL. Police might close the roads to the launch. Not good.

27/4/12 IT’S Friday. It’s a public holiday in South Africa and the day of the official launch of Surfing behind the Wall. We perform jumu’ah at the National Mosque, a massive Bauhaus-Islamic space surrounded by shaded arcades, pools and arabesque airbricks.

I meet Norma, a feisty lady who is the head of the mosque’s admin.I remember her from past visits. She is a fearless da’wah worker.

I’m introduced to a small, humble man who gives me his card: Al-Haj Mufti U Myint Thein (a) Abdus Salam (the writer Nyenchin Lulin) of Myanmar.

“Whenever there’s a Muslim problem in Myanmar they lock up Mufti,” laughs Norma. I ask Abdus Salam, who is studying in KL, whether he’ll go back now that Mynamar has had an election and that Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, will take her opposition seat in parliament.

“I have hope,” he says cautiously.

The Islamic Museum, the venue for the launch, is a spacious post-modern construct – hand-carved Arabesque Moroccan filigree competes with marble, stainless steel, an Iznik blue dome, glass and mirrors. It’s one of the finest Islamic museums in the world, and was built by the Bukhari Foundation. Thank God, the police have not closed the roads.

The bunting and posters add great ambience to the auditorium. My photos, which we’re selling, are displayed and Jack (Muhsin) Kilby, a British photographer now resident in KL, sets up his portable exhibition.

He did nine trips to Palestine to photograph the historic places.

His collection, a collector’s item in itself, needs to be preserved. A tall, gentle man, he tells me of his travails: a smashed camera when he took pics of angry soldiers, and most of his film being destroyed on one trip by capricious security officials, who deliberately “nuked” it in the x-ray machine.

Dr Zuleika from the Perdana Global Fund opens the exhibition and is gracious in her opening address. Malaysia’s top blogger and razor-tongued commentator, Syed Akbar Ali, makes kind remarks about the book.

That evening we go out for supper. One of our guests, who is well-placed within the system, regales me with extremely funny stories of behind-the-scenes corruption.

These are stories that compare in every way to South Africa. We’re strictly off the record. But one tale I can tell – as it’s widely known here – is the saga of a jealous wife orchestrating the murder of her husband’s mistress (herself embroiled in an arms scandal).

This unfortunate woman was abducted and taken into the jungle. Explosives were strapped to her privates and she was blown up.

As they say, hell hath no fury like a woman.

Next time: Singapore and Penang