Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Two Years On: Libyan Reflections

©Shafiq Morton
IT’S two years ago that I crossed the eastern Saloumi border post from Egypt into Libya. Cairo had been empty of tourists and traffic, yet it was a city full of hope. But now, the third domino of the Arab Spring was beginning to fall.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the inimitable Brother Leader, was facing his final nemesis – the Libyan people. It had got so bad, I was told, that Gaddafi had forced his Prime Minister to read the evening news.
Saloumi was a sea of refugees, mainly penniless Bangladeshi labourers and Ghanaian expatriates. Trapped in a stateless limbo, their stories were a harbinger of the situation we were going to encounter inside Libya.
With Gaddafi using African and Taureg mercenaries to brutally prop up his rule, the citizens of Tripoli and Benghazi had indulged in an equally brutal xenophobia against dark-skinned Africans, accusing them of being regime henchmen.

And whilst murderous xenophobia is inexcusable, one has to remember – as we discovered later – that Gaddafi’s foot-soldiers had fired on unarmed protestors with anti-aircraft guns.

As we crossed no-man’s land and entered Libya itself, our cellphone networks died. For the rest of the trip it would be satcom. For the scattered Libyan rebel forces, most of whom did not have radios or satphones, this would prove to be a logistical nightmare.

For with Gaddafi’s armouries looted in the east, most men had armed themselves. Our driver, for example, kept a rocket launcher on his dashboard. Whenever he hit a bump we would pray. The proclivity of gunmen to shoot day-and-night served to make Libya a confusing place.

One never knew whether the gunmen were just happy, sad, or shooting at Gaddafi. I was not the enemy, but I can remember discovering the tell-tale pock marks of AK 47 fire on my hotel balcony in Benghazi.

It is my view that lots of casualties could have been avoided had there been better communication, and discipline. Too many times I saw young men driving to the front and hurling themselves into the fray, firing wildly and indiscriminately.

Only after Gaddafi’s senior military men began to defect did some semblance of order descend upon the rebel militias.

When we were in Libya, most of the battles were fought on the coastal road between Ajdabiya, Brega and Ras Lanuff. It was a vaguely defined battlefront that could shift kilometres daily, and so going to the “front”, as it were, was always treacherous.

This caught out quite a few journalists, even experienced ones. New York Times and BBC teams were captured by Gaddafi’s forces, and South African photographer, Anton Hammerl, was killed near Brega when his vehicle drove straight into enemy fire.

Then there was the nature of the conflict: Hannibal Gaddafi’s gunboats would pound rebel forces from the sea, Gaddafi’s creaking Migs would strafe from the air and mercenaries would advance down the road.  

Given that the road was the only lifeline through the unfriendly desert, rebel retreats would be something like Mad Max on steroids. Imagine hundreds of combat-modified 4X4’s, cars and trucks bearing down the road towards you at the same time!

Being in Libya gave me the advantage of reporting events first hand, yet I would be accused on my return of inaccuracies and pandering to a Western-NATO agenda. However, the fact is that conspiracy theories avoid the political complexities.

Many South Africans, seduced by Gaddafi’s cheque-book diplomacy and myth-making, simply refused to believe that he was a cold-blooded dictator capable of publicly hanging students in Benghazi, or slaughtering over 1,000 prisoners at Abu Salim. So did many leftists, who suddenly became myopic.

What I saw in eastern Libya was a social revolution with its focus on the infamous Brother Leader and his equally infamous sons. What had happened in Libya was no mob rampage led by CIA sleepers. No matter what happened to it afterwards, it was initially a people’s revolution. In each town or village the target had been the centres of power. Nothing else had been touched.

The oil refineries at Ras Lanuf, for instance, were left alone – not because of imperial  agendas – but because the Libyans themselves had wisely realised the value of their own infrastructure.

As for NATO. It was the Libyans – and not the US, Britain or France – who called for NATO intervention.  I heard this plea from military defectors in Ajdabiya, from medical doctors at Harawi hospital and from rebel representatives at the old Benghazi courthouse.

They were calling for a no-strings attached NATO intervention out of a very real fear that Gaddafi would kill hundreds of thousands of his own people to stay in power. Libyans did not want their country to become a blood bath.

In their moment of need, I don’t think many realised that NATO would act – but with an agenda. The Libyan call had presented an ideal opportunity for the Western axis to finally to put away Gaddafi. I believe Gaddafi was assassinated rather than apprehended – mainly to stifle embarrassing revelations of his dealings with leaders such as Tony Blair.   

As journalist Diana Johnstone reported from Paris: Libya presented  NATO with a quick fix, a neat little “humanitarian war” with little cost compared to Iraq or Afghanistan. This was something not lost on powers such as Russia and China – and would have an impact on Syria a year later.

Of course, the cost of the Libyan revolution has been huge. The Taureg, the marginalised indigenes of the Sahara, lost an ally in Gaddafi. Libyan guns – liberated from their armouries – have filtered deeper into the Sahel, and have emboldened Salafi-Wahhabi brigands (often incorrectly called Al-Qaeda) to destroy our Islamic heritage in places such as Timbuktu.

I feel that two years is not sufficient time to seriously evaluate the so-called “Arab Spring”. Besides, too many “experts” in the Arab and African world don’t adequately understand the societies they’re studying.  Transitional politics has never been an exact science, the destination never certain. Our post-apartheid era in South Africa has shown us eloquently that this is the case.  

In my book, the biggest existential  challenge the “Arab Spring” faces is political pluralism. How does one accommodate cultural diversity, freedom of speech and differences of opinion within a socially Islamic milieu? For surely, crude Shari’ah-ism or scorched-earth Salafism is not the answer.

For this I would turn to Imam al-Ghazali, the 12th century polymath, who in his Ihya suggests that siyasa – the nuts and bolts of political governance – must be in the hands of the experts, not the ideologues or the ‘ulama. In other words, engineers should build bridges, not deliver fatwas. The president doesn’t have to be a cleric.

This is not a call for naked secularism – but there has to be a separation of state from the religious fraternity, and even more critically, the judiciary and the media.

Then there has to be an understanding of democracy. For countries in political transition, the Westminster “winner takes all” model doesn’t always work. This often reinforces the incorrect notion that the one who shouts the loudest, or who has the biggest majority, has the most rights. In Libya, where clan-ism is rife, this is a real danger.

What needs to be understood is that proportional representation is the more comfortable transitional mode, but it can only work if everyone is guaranteed inclusion and genuine equal rights through a workable constitution.  For at the end of the day, the winner has to be the people, and not the party.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mawlid: Ad-Dai'rat As-Salihiyyah Dhikr Group, Cape Town

The Mawlid was held on Saturday, 9 February, at the the Primrose Park mosque, Masjid us-Sabr, in Cape Town. The guest speaker was Shaikh Seraj Hendricks of the Azzawia in Walmer Estate. The group, which celebrated its tenth anniversary is led by Hajjah Naeema Manie.

© Shafiq Morton

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Mawlid SA 1434 - an international event


MAWLID SA 1434, Cape Town’s mass celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) birth at the Urban Park in Green Point, was a historical event marking a joyous demonstration of Islam in a public space.

Inspired by a similar event six decades ago – when Maulana Abdul ‘Alim Siddique addressed the community at the old Green Point Track – the mawlid was intended by the organisers to represent prophetic harmony and light.

Put together in less than two months by a group of scholars and community activists, the idea of Mawlid SA 1434 created huge interest and was well-received by the media who widely covered it.

The only negativity came from the anti-mawlid camp, a group of anonymous killjoys, who condemned the event as a reprehensible innovation. Its faceless captains subsequently declared that a curse would befall the mother city.

Curse or not, the organisers certainly faced some daunting challenges. The night before a gale-force south-easterly shredded the VIP marquee, and the city authorities (fearing the stage would collapse in the wind) demanded the next day that before the mawlid could go ahead its superstructure had to be dismantled.

And if that wasn’t enough, the simultaneous visit of Deputy President Kgalema Motlante, provincial Premier Helen Zille and Mayor Patricia de Lille had created an organisational nightmare – the clearing of the park for a bomb sweep.

So when I arrived early on Sunday morning at 8 am, and decided to take a short cut to the main arena from the Green Point lighthouse, I discovered that the gates had been locked. Hundreds of people were waiting to get in. Some told me they’d been waiting since 6.30, but apart from a few grumbles, most were remarkably phlegmatic .

At the stadium end of the park there was a sea of white. Things were happening there. The Reddam rugby field, originally set aside for overflow from the main arena, was already filling up with brightly coloured umbrellas and family groups. At the main gate I spotted three x-ray scanners and teams of security officials in fluorescent bibs.

That was bad news. Bureaucracy had put a serious spoke in the wheel. It would not only mean the scheduled opening procession of Islamic schools and mawlid congegrations would be almost impossible, but that even more frustrating delays would be on the cards.

Eventually, to the relief of the organisers, Mawlid SA 1434 started at 11 am when Premier Helen Zille, accompanied by Shaikh Abdurahman Alexander and the Siddique Pipe Band, entered the park.

The rest of the people, having now waited patiently for hours, trickled through the gates and the arena filled up. Considering the interminably long wait, I discovered that again – apart from a few complaints – most in the crowd were good-natured and determined to see the positive side of things.

City officials told me that about 16,000 had braved the elements (and the red-tape). I thought: What would the anti-mawlid camp, probably choking on their halal-certified coffee, say now?

“Shafiq, this reminds me of Mina!” shouted a cheerful Hajjah, who told me that neither the government nor the windy weather would put her off celebrating the mawlid.

“It’s our day and I’m going to enjoy myself with my family and my friends,” she said as she opened a camp chair and her son offered me a koeksuster. Only in Cape Town, I thought, only in Cape Town.

Meanwhile, on stage VIP’s faced the teeth of the south-easterly in the blistering sun as the stage had been stripped down to bare scaffolding. Marius Fransman (Western Cape leader of the ANC), Maulana Igshan Hendricks (President Muslim Judicial Council), Deputy-President Kgalema Motlante, Premier Helen Zille and Mayor Patricia de Lille sat in a row.

As the speeches commenced, I was asked whether the mawlid had become a political rally. I replied that I didn’t think so.

“Surely we’ve come to celebrate the Prophet (SAW), not our politicians,” insisted this person who – like so many others – had patiently waited to enter the park.

But as the event wore on I began to sense that there was a much bigger picture. None of the politicians made “political” speeches. Forget about vote catching for a moment, our leaders were saying good things about Islam and the Prophet (SAW) in a country where Muslims were not even 5% of the population.

When main guest speaker, Shaikh Yahya Ninowy (a descendant of the Prophetic House) spoke eloquently about the prophet Sulaiman (as), I began to realise that this mawlid was less about politics and more about our unique, polyglot South African identity in the image of the Prophet (SAW).

For sitting in the assembly was a rainbow community peacefully enjoying a day in Cape Town’s mid-summer sun. I’m cynical about politicians at the best of times, yet our leaders – representing different parties and faiths – were not squabbling, but listening politely to a Sufi Shaikh from the US.  

For Motlante, De Lille and Fransman it was an enjoyment of public space once denied to them by apartheid’s masters. If the mawlid had been held in 1985 the Urban Park would have been a sea of riot police. It might have been 18 years after 1994, but being there amongst fellow South Africans was still a triumph – and an affirmation of our collective identity.  

But there was something else too. The whole week I’d been getting messages from abroad expressing great interest in Mawlid SA 1434.

“Wish I was there,” was a sentiment I’d heard expressed in numerous Tweets and Facebook messages from Kuala Lumpur to Cairo. Some of the messages were not without envy that the Cape Town community could host such a significant public occasion, and attract not only the mayor and provincial premier, but the Deputy President of the country as well.

There was no doubt that Mawlid SA 1434, streaming live on radio and television, was being watched by the world. Mawlid SA 1434 was not just 16,000 Capetonians gathered on the grass in Green Point, it was an international event.