Monday, April 29, 2013

Habibia celebrates 100

Over the weekend the Habibia mosque in Cape Town celebrated the 100th  anniversary of Maulana Abdul Latief al-Chistiyyah (ra) the founder of the institution, which includes a mosque complex, an orphanage and a school. It started as a corrugated iron shack in a then desolate area of Cape Town called the Cape Flats.

The Maulana predicted that it would eventually become a "city", and today the mosque complex is situated in the flourishing suburb of Rylands Estate. His 100th anniversary also marked the renovation of his mazaar, which is in the mosque grounds. Guest speaker was Shaikh Ahmad Sa'ad al-Hasani, a descendant of the Holy Prophet who spoke about ihsan, or character excellence.

© Photos Shafiq Morton

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Ladies of Leliesfontein

Twenty-five years ago the community of Leliesfontein in Namaqualand won their birthright back after a successful court claim. To celebrate they had a church service and and showed the media their ancestral land taken from them at the height of apartheid.

© Shafiq Morton Photos

Friday, April 12, 2013

Syria: now a human tragedy beyond words

Pic: Mark Austin -

While the cold war that is Syria rages on with Iran and Russia on the one side, and Israel and the western axis on the other, Syrians witness their country self-destruct and their lives unravel in brutal fashion. It’s a human tragedy beyond words, beyond description.

The figures – over 70,000 dead, up to 60,000 missing, five million displaced, millions starving, thousands detained, thousands raped, thousands tortured and thousands massacred – have become meaningless.

They are numbers that cannot express the suffering that Syrian civilians now endure in their smashed cities and overcrowded refugee camps. For these people burying their dead, their cries are that the rest of the world has to wake up. Recently the UN Relief Agency said it was running out of funds for Syria.

But while President Bashar al-Asad – who is seen to be the stumbling block – is propped up by Iranian and Hezbollah forces and Russian-supplied arms, he will hang grimly onto power. He will last as long his Iranian and Russian masters find him useful, and as long as the Syrian opposition remains politically fractured.   

Called a ‘dead man walking’ by the US State Department last year, Asad is remarkably healthy for a political corpse. Iran, which regards Syria as its closest ally and supports Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, has much to lose in the region.

 Iran’s concern is a hostile Sunni-led government (Syrians are 80% Sunni) as opposed to the Shi’ah-aligned, but thoroughly secular ruling Alawite minority. There are Iranian officials who believe leaving Syria will break a ‘golden thread’ running through Tehran to Damascus.

They believe it will also bring Israel – itching to make a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s non-existent WMD programme – to within a shouting distance of Tehran. It’s hardly likely, either, that Iran will be happy to contemplate a sectarian homeland, which has been suggested as a last resort for the 10-15% Alawite minority.

For Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have financially supported certain Free Syrian Army groups, an Iranian withdrawal from Syria and Lebanon would prevent their bogey, a ‘Shi’ah crescent’ from sweeping deeper into the Middle East and the Gulf through neighbouring Iraq.

Russia’s presence in Syria is because Damascus has been a faithful ally for over 50 years. Russia’s last cold-war naval base is in Tartus. With Moscow not willing to forgo a regional presence, Russia’s (and China’s) Security Council veto checkmates the western axis on NATO intervention.

For once, the US – wary of another Iraq – has been forced to be something of a bit player, lobbying for sanctions and providing what is essentially small-scale financial support to the FSA. Turkey has had to play a cautious diplomatic role, allowing refugees and humanitarian aid to cross its southern border, as has Jordan – who now wants a US sponsored buffer zone between it and Syria.  

Russia, I believe, is now playing its ‘Iraq-Halliburton endgame’ in Syria, and like China and Iran, will probably want to benefit from deals to rebuild the country’s infrastructure once the conflict ends.

Since the Arab Spring, power vacuums have been created in the Middle East. Syria, for instance, has had little experience of political process. Asad’s few concessions to the uprising (which he blames on western-sponsored religious extremists) have all been geared to maintaining the status quo.

The point is that there has been no room for political discourse. Politics, and not religion, is at the core of the Syrian problem – and the Syrian mukhabarat, or security police, have clamped down on any opposition since 1970.

It’s unrealistic, therefore, to expect that the FSA – reflecting diverse viewpoints – would be able to coalesce overnight into a united political front. We all know how Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have struggled.

The disparate, if not rag-tag Free Syrian Army is unanimously resolute in removing Asad, but equally determined to guard its hard won turf. Many FSA commanders, for example, are said to be extremely unhappy about the extremism of Jabhat al-Nusra, the foreign-manned Al-Qaeda-linked unit said to be responsible for many of the bombings. 

Bashar al-Asad, however, has had to deal with much more than revolution and mercenary Salafists. It has hardly been noted that he has also had to face economic meltdown – partly caused by his own greed, and partly by climate change.  

With the economy moribund by the late 1990’s, the Asad regime resorted to privatisation. This resulted in wealth accumulating amongst the ruling elite, and it caused Syria’s already yawning poverty gap to widen even further.

A devastating drought in the north-east of the country saw an implosion of the agricultural sector, mass urbanisation, burgeoning youth unemployment and massive cost-of-living increases.  

So when teenagers scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a school blackboard in the city of Deraa, and were viciously beaten and tortured (this incident sparked the uprising) it was an equal measure of political and economic frustration that moved the Syrian cataclysm.

Asad’s response to peaceful demonstrations was to turn his guns upon the crowds and to unleash the shabihah (notorious paramilitary gangs).

The escalation of the conflict is well-known, and the extent of its violence, horrifying. Human Rights Watch in its April report, ‘Death from the Skies’, accuses the Syrian air force of ‘indiscriminate’ and sometimes ‘deliberate’ attacks on civilian targets such as bakeries and hospitals.

A UN panel earlier this year also found that ‘gross human rights violations’ had occurred at the hands of the Syrian government. It found that the Free Syrian Army had also committed abuses, but not on the same scale as Asad’s forces.

But the most disturbing development has been the assassination of religious leaders. The most notable has been Shaikh Ramadan al-Buti, an internationally renowned scholar who was politically cautious, but reportedly on the brink of speaking out against the regime. He met his demise in a suicide blast whilst delivering a lecture in his Damascus mosque.

In one of the darkest moments of the Middle East conflict, over 40 died. Who is responsible for such a despicable act is not the question here. For when sacred space becomes the battlefield, and we have forgotten how to disagree, we have surely entered the darkest domains of the human spirit, a detestable place where cruelty and hate rule over compassion and mercy.

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.”

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


The Ratiep, where the participants stab and hit themselves without injury, has been a regular practice in Cape Town for over a century. It is said that the dhikr - the recitation of Allah's names - imbues the participant with protection against injury. This group was performing at the karamat - or tomb of Shaikh Yusuf of Makasar (the political exile and founding father of South African Islam in 1694) - over the Easter Weekend. The festival at the Karamat dates back 150 years when Muslim families would pack their belongings into donkey carts and camp for the weekend at the banks of the Kuils River where Sh Yusuf lies buried.




Pics © Shafiq Morton