Tuesday, July 26, 2016

TB Davie Memorial lecture: Flemming Rose should have faced music on Muhammad cartoons

Unlike the anarchic freedom of speech as expounded by Rose on the Muhammad cartoons, our constitution draws a line in the sand with regards to respect and ridicule

THE decision by the University of Cape Town (UCT) to stop former Jyllends Posten cultural editor, Flemming Rose, from delivering the 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture scratches at the scars of the Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005, and opens up all the old questions of the freedom of speech in South Africa.

Invited by UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) last year, Rose is said to be disappointed at the cancellation of his lecture. The cancellation was prompted by UCT’s fears of an inappropriate response from a sector of the Muslim community, and the volatile situation at local university campuses.

The TB Davie Memorial lecture is traditionally one of UCT’s main academic events, its stated purpose to celebrate academic liberty and freedom of speech. Previous guests have been celebrated intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and the Palestinian scholar, Edward Said, famed for his work on Orientalism.

The AFC had initially refused to rescind Rose’s invitation, but vice-chancellor Max Price, on behalf of the university’s executive, had informed the AFC that it would not be permitted to bring Rose onto campus. Stating that public order on South African campuses was in a “fragile state”, Price had said that it had been felt that Rose would retard, rather than advance, academic freedom.

Price had added in a letter that academic freedom was not unlimited, explaining that its exercise depended on a careful assessment of when such limits might pertain, “in line with the directives of our Constitution.”

And whilst to all intents and purposes the AFC, acting in the best interests of academia, had started out with a pertinent question on religious tolerance, and whilst the UCT authorities were forced to confront the question given today’s climate at universities, the whole process has to be interrogated as the main stakeholder – the Muslim community – was only consulted when UCT was reviewing the situation.

It has to be remembered that the Jyllends Posten cartoon feature became a very painful issue for Muslims when the Danish newspaper published twelve editorial cartoons on 30 September 2005 of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.

The newspaper’s explanation that it was attempting to contribute to Islamic critique and self-censorship had not gone down well in the international Muslim community, which regards iconic or caricaturistic depictions of Muhammad as blasphemy – no matter the context. The Jyllends Posten cartoons were seen as yet another post 9/11 provocation.

Muslim groups in Denmark had petitioned unsuccessfully – losing a judicial appeal – and the issue had led to protests, some of them unfortunately violent with 200 fatalities, in the world’s capitals. It also led to trade boycotts of Denmark with eleven Muslim ambassadors requesting a meeting with then Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

In South Africa the Gauteng and Durban-based Jami’at ul-Ulama was granted a court interdict preventing local newspapers from publishing the cartoons. The gagging order was seen as a moment of pre-emptive overkill by the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) and some of our country’s editors.

At the time Rose had said that modern, secular society was rejected by some Muslims and that they demanded “a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings”.

He had gone on to say that this was incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one had to put up with ridicule. It was not attractive, and it did not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that was of minor consideration in the present context. He had said we were on a slippery slope if no-one could tell where self-censorship ended.

Jyllends Posten eventually issued an apology, regretting if it had caused any hurt, but maintaining it had a right to publish the cartoons.

In our local context, Rose – hailing from an almost belligerently secular society – would meet with stiff challenge on his assumptions. Our constitution – secular but framed within a believing community – considers all faiths equal, and special, in terms of their freedoms and the right to practice with dignity.

The question is not just Islam, but the standpoints of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, African traditionalists, Rastas and any other traditional belief.   

It is highly significant that the Prophet Muhammad was equally sensitive to these questions of identity over 1,400 years ago, when he specifically forbade his followers to harm churches and synagogues as well as rabbis and priests – which has led to mainstream Sunni scholars condemning even the burning of flags.  

In other words, unlike the anarchic freedom of speech as expounded by Rose, our constitution draws a line in the sand with regards to respect and ridicule. There are actually limits; gross insult draws us into the domain of hate speech, a nasty territory that often engenders institutional discrimination, retributive anger and violence.

These are things Jyllends Posten did not understand all those years ago, and what led to the disaster of the cartoon saga in a case of catastrophically unintended global consequences.

The tragedy today is that the impression has been created, again unintentionally, that the local Muslim community would have had a violent, or inappropriate, response to the appearance of the former Jyllends Posten cultural editor on a UCT platform. That is far from the truth. Cape Town’s Muslim community is vociferous, yes, but violent? No.

It is a pity that Flemming Rose was not allowed to be part of a panel debate with Islamic and other experts where some of these matters could have been discussed. He would have learnt that modern, secular society is not spurned by Muslims – just some of its darker aspects such as corruption and xenophobia that the rest of humanity questions too.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Searching for the Imam: the legacy of Imam Abdullah Haroon revisited

Imam Haron's tombstone. Photo Shafiq Morton
THE story of Imam ‘Abdullah Haron, one of South Africa’s most renowned anti-apartheid martyrs, is something that has haunted me for years. I have never been able to forget the earthquake on the evening of his burial in September 1969, and how it literally shook the world. 

The narrative of Imam ‘Abdullah Haron, who was murdered in detention when he was 46,  is a bittersweet one, made accessible by Khalid Shamis’ documentary the Imam and I. Shamis, who grew up in England, was Imam Haron’s maternal grandson.

Shamis incorporated animation, rather than re-enactment, in his 2010 award-winning piece which borrowed from the iconic cover of Cardiff Marney and Barney Desai’s 1978 book, The Killing of the Imam. It shows the imam falling down a flight of stairs – the alleged cause of his death – while being held in incommunicado for 123 days under the Terrorism Act.

Imam Haron’s funeral was attended by over 30, 000 people, yet his family was left to fend for itself. Muslim News – of which he was an editor – dithered and prevaricated (the paper did eventually pay homage to the imam), and his widow, Galiema, received no aid from the community – legal or otherwise. As a sole breadwinner, she was forced to sell their house whilst the MJC, Ashura and the Muslim Assembly looked on.

And only when Muslims became emboldened to mobilise against apartheid in numbers (well a decade after the imam’s death) did awareness of him begin to stir amongst the youth, the Qiblah movement making him a cause celebre in the late 1980s.  

But only recently has Imam Haron got the recognition he has always deserved. The Order of the Disa was conferred on him by Premier Ebrahim Rasool in 2004. A section of Landsdowne Road was named after him in 2013. An honorary doctorate was awarded by UWC in 2014, and in the same year, the prestigious Order of Luthuli Gold was bestowed upon him by President Jacob Zuma.

Then there is the Imam ‘Abdullah Haron Educational Trust. It has granted over R1.5 million in bursaries since 2006, and hosts the annual Imam Haron Memorial lecture. But after a long search, it appears as if the IAHT – supported by the family – has been the only Cape Town institution to dignify his memory, other than Community House in Salt River.  

And this is our very great shame: the first Muslim to receive the tribute of a memorial service in St Pauls Cathedral in London has still never been truly honoured by his own community. It is an astonishing revelation.

So who exactly was Imam Haron? We know that he was one of the youngest imams of his day, appointed at Stegmann Road in Claremont in 1955 when he was only 32. We know that he refused to accept payment for his position. We know that he was a community man, a dapper dresser who loved sport and movies.

We know that he was a progressive leader, that he’d assimilated a wide spectrum of views ranging from the Coloured People’s Congress, the Non-European Unity Movement and the Teacher’s League to Hassan al-Banna.

We know that he was one of the first imams to extend invitations to non-Muslims in the mosque. We know that he empowered women. We know that he founded the Claremont Muslim Youth Association that published the Islamic Mirror, which became the Muslim News.

We also know that the imam had a solid theological grounding. His son, Dr Muhammad Haron, writes that his father studied with Shaikh Ismail Hanif and Shaikh Abdullah Ta Ha Gamieldien, both local scholars, and sat for two years at the feet Sayyid ‘Alawi al-Maliki in Mecca.

So how did he become politically aware? The late Barney Desai said that the imam was roused by his visiting Langa as a sales rep for Wilson-Rowntree. Nonetheless, Imam Haron became the first imam to support da’wah in a South African township.

His propagation occurred in an era of strict segregation and cultural isolationism. In the context of apartheid it was daring, if not revolutionary – especially given that the Afrikaner Nationalist government’s policy was that blacks were inferior to Coloureds, Indians and Malays.

It soon attracted notice from the anti-apartheid movement, as well arousing the interest of community informers and state security. He also became publicly outspoken, describing the Group Areas Act as a “tyranny” and “un-Islamic” at the Call of Islam rally in the Drill Hall in 1961.

Only a few imams signed the Call of Islam anti-apartheid document, and it is clear that Imam Haron’s activism did not appeal to most of his apolitical colleagues who’d advocated a quietist dichotomy of faith and government. It is evident that Imam Haron embraced a secular socio-political response to apartheid, but that as an individual he was informed by his faith.

In other words, his political awareness was a convergence – something that would be espoused by a breakaway group from the Muslim Youth Movement in 1984, which would interestingly name itself the Call of Islam.

There has always been conjecture whether Imam Haron was a member of the PAC.  His association with people such as Alex La Guma, Robert Sobwuke, Albie Sachs and the Black Sash proves that his brief was more common cause than a party one.

In 1966 the imam went on Hajj. He was interviewed by the Arab media, thus raising his security profile. He visited Cairo and London, where he met Canon John Collins of St Pauls Cathedral, who had collected money for political detainees under the International Defence and Aid Fund.

The IDAF would channel millions of rands into South Africa, and the imam would be one of its go-betweens. The special branch would never be able to penetrate the IDAF.

It’s at this stage of Imam Haron’s life that a spiritual aspect begins to appear, and where there has been little coherence. And whilst – as we’ve already stated – the imam’s politics were a convergence of faith and social conscience, his spirituality is another thing entirely.

By the late 60s Imam Haron was very much on the special branch radar, and they’d already questioned him several times when they detained him on 28 May 1969. It was on the day of the Milad un-Nabi.

Whilst in detention, Imam Haron was brutally beaten. His death, due to cardiac failure, had been directly caused by the trauma – baton blows, electric shocks and needles stuck into his spine.  His post-mortem revealed 28 bruises, a broken rib and an empty stomach.

When Khalid Shamis interviewed Dr Yusuf da Costa, celebrated historian and spiritual leader, he told Shamis that one day he’d visited the Salt River cemetery. Da Costa relates that an elderly person with him had asked him whose grave was emitting a blazing light. It was discovered to be Imam Haron’s. Da Costa asked Shamis if he could imagine the intensity of the imam’s ‘ibadah during his ordeal, and what it could have meant.

But in terms of inner worship, it is the imam’s fasting that stands out. When he was about to leave Mecca due to the Second World War, his Shaikh had asked him what he would do to serve his Creator. The 16 year-old Imam Haron had said he would obey the Sunnah of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. By 1969, the imam would have been following this practice for 30 years.

Space precludes a discussion on the merits of the imam’s fasting, known only to Allah anyway. But it’s also the curious synchronicity of events surrounding his final days that deserve further study.

Imam Haron was snatched away on Milad. Was there significance in that? Then an earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale hit Tulbagh on the evening of his janazah. Bearing in mind that the last earthquake in the Cape had been 160 years previously, the co-incidence is uncanny.

Another curiosity is a dream experienced by the late Sayyid Abdul Qadir Naqshbandi, a former imam at Dar ul-Qarar in Wynberg. Imam Hasan Walele, a student, remembers Sayyid Abdul Qadir saying:

“I dreamt that I was sitting in the Haram about five rows from the holy Ka’bah. As I looked up I noticed two clouds coming speedily from the heavens and descending onto the roof of the Ka’bah.

“Suddenly the door opened and two persons appeared. I did not know the first one…. the second appeared with a beautiful nur, and I immediately recognised Imam Haron. He seemed to be searching…and when he saw me, his face lit up. Suddenly, he was standing next to me, and we were embracing each other.

“Imam Haron introduced me to the other person, and then addressed me saying that he had a message for me and the ummah. He then recited Qasidah Munfarijah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_W6WhTriMM , saying that if people recited this du’ah constantly, Allah would bestow great blessings upon them.”

Sayyid Abdul Qadir relates that he woke up with great joy. He would recite the du’ah weekly after that with his followers.

Qasidah Munfarijah is an extremely powerful invocation. It’s read with a galloping rhythm, and was penned by Sayyid ibn al-Nahwi al-Tawzari, a celebrated 11th century Tunisian jurist and saint. Does the Munfarijah, a du’ah written for warding off calamity and oppression, embody the legacy that Imam Haron wanted to leave us?

For he told Sayyid Abdul Qadir in his dream that the rewards for the Munfarijah would be compassion for one another, love for one another, solidarity with one another, succour for one another and unity with one another.

Given his obvious spiritual status, it is my view that the shaheed, Imam Abdullah Haron, should be associated with our historical forefathers. These are our towering pioneers, people such as Shaykh Yusuf, Tuan Guru and September van Bugis – who on the rack in 1709 for crimes he did not commit – did not utter a word other than the kalimah as he was left to die a painful death, his arms and legs torn from their sockets.

Like van Bugis, Imam Haron’s sacrifice was the ultimate one, and surely, it now behoves us to really understand what it all means. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

From Nice to Baghdad: the horror, the horror!

Terror truck driven by Bouhlel. Daily Mirror image.
IN Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, The Heart of Darkness – which is an anti-imperial statement on Africa – one of the main characters, Kurtz, utters “the horror, the horror” as he lies dying. These are the words of a man commenting on his crumbled sanity, as he faces the bitter truth of his dissolute life exploiting the Congolese.

What the suicide bombers and attackers uttered before their recent nihilistic acts of terror in Istanbul, Baghdad, Dhaka, Medina and now Nice, I do not know. All I’m sure of is that God would not have accepted their dying prayers. But on initially witnessing these incidences via social media, my first words were the same as Kurtz’s, “the horror, the horror!”

I’m not Kurtz, but his deathbed utterance did seem to express what I was feeling at a time when I was lost for words. The sheer effrontery of it all and the darkness of the minds that must have concocted the idea of killing innocent people in public places during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year and during Bastille Day, one of France’s biggest holidays, just beggars belief.

Medina, the Saudi Arabian city where the Prophet Muhammad lies buried, is regarded by Muslims as one of the most sacred places on earth, and yet, a misguided young man with explosives strapped to his body wanted to kill innocent worshippers. It’s the horrible equivalent of someone trying to bomb St Peter’s Square at the Vatican over Easter.

The same can be said about the young men who attacked a restaurant in Dhaka (killing 20), those who blew themselves up in a Baghdad market-place (killing 250) and the wild shooters at the Attaturk Airport in Istanbul (killing 41) who also ignited suicide vests when security guards closed in. And then, what about Mohamed  Bouhlel driving a truck into a crowd in Nice and killing 84 more innocent people?

The attacks have been accredited to the Islamic State, and even if a subsidiary group was responsible for the terror (which is likely in some instances), IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s edict in the IS magazine, al-Dabiq, that IS supporters should commit terror attacks on “infidels” should be borne in mind as the nucleus of the evil that started it all.

However, whilst centres outside of the IS caliphate have been targeted – especially as IS takes a hammering from coalition forces inside Syria and Iraq – historically it is mostly Muslims who’ve had to bear the brunt of IS, as utterly tragic as any other fatality has been.

Indeed, it is ironic that IS, claiming the voice of true Islam, has proved to be totally anti-Muslim in its behaviour. Fostered by its belief that every Muslim who disagrees with it is an infidel, and whose blood it is permissible to spill, IS in reality represents less than 1% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

IS’s enemies within Islam are expansive: Sufis, Sunnis, Shi’as, political leaders, religious leaders, Deobandis, Barelvis, inter-faith workers, journalists, scholars, the Islamic Brotherhood and even Salafis.  And in addition to being anti-Muslim, IS is also anti-faith. And in addition to being anti-Muslim, IS is also anti-faith, as faith universally holds human life sacrosanct.

Space precludes an examination of the political, if not secular, birth of IS in the US detention camps in Iraq in 2003, and the political vacuums it exploited in Syria and Iraq, especially in 2014, when it finally captured world imagination by declaring a “caliphate”.

IS is, however, different to its extremist forerunner, al-Qaeda, in that it became an identifiable geographical entity with the primitive strappings of statehood – and an economy – when it robbed the banks of Mosul, Raqqa and Fallujah and gained access to northern Iraqi and Syrian oilfields.

But back to the terror attacks. Istanbul can easily be attributed to revenge for Turkey’s role in combating IS, and Turkey’s vulnerability due to its porous 1,200 km border with Syria and Iraq. However, stories that the attackers had merged with refugees is unlikely as most of the three million Syrians in Turkey were fleeing IS themselves.

What is not widely acknowledged is that Turkish security guards fingered the three attackers early, and had they not done that, possibly thousands could have died. Without detracting from the fatalities, Istanbul was an epic IS failure. But not so Baghdad, where most of the victims were innocent Shi’ah shopping for the post Ramadan ‘Eid festival. And not so Nice, where people were innocently celebrating a French public holiday.

The attacks on three Saudi Arabian cities, Jeddah, Qatif and Medina (which caused a minimum of casualties) were – according to my sources in the kingdom – locally engineered and directed against the Royal family’s patronage of the Holy Sites, the US embassy in Jeddah and the Shi’as in Qatif.

But what sent a tremor throughout the Muslim world on the eve of the Eid ul-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan was the attempt to blow up the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina. The bomber raised suspicion, and when four security officers spotted him at the breaking of the day’s fast, he detonated his vest.

Without the sharp eye of the security – and the Saudis use the eagle-eyed Bedouin for such purposes – one can only wonder at how many innocent people would have perished had the bomber succeeded. Again, thankfully, another IS failure – although four young men had to sacrifice themselves to save thousands.

Unfortunately, whilst we all reel from the tragedy of terror, trying to locate the roots of extremism – and even creating a psycho-social identikit of an extremist who would join IS – is an almost impossible task. This is something that the French, who’ve had the worst of it in Europe, would agree with.

Dr Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, says the task is indeed made difficult because there are different streams of localised grievances in different states that feed into a global IS – or even al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or al-Shabab – perspective. This is something she feels we need to understand.

Amidst all the dust and aftershock of places such as Nice and Baghdad there is perhaps one lonely certainty with regards to Islamic extremism: the most vulnerable are usually the most ignorant about Islam, and the most na├»ve about world politics. This is something we’ve witnessed in Lebanon, Europe, Somalia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, the Far East and even, now recently, South Africa.

However, the solution does not lie entirely in the lap of Islam – which is trying hard to face the challenges – but also in the domain of world leadership where the bitter wars, the political power plays and the simmering conflicts need to be peacefully resolved, the affected countries rebuilt on the foundations of true justice and the hopeful youth given jobs.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The SABC: going from crisis to catastrophe

Moetsoneng. Image ewn.co.za .
If the rot is not stopped, the SABC is well on its way to becoming a Broederbond-style puppet it was before 1994.

THE censorious, high-handed, Stalin-esque edifice that currently passes for our national broadcaster today is a cause for grave concern. Admittedly, the SABC has been in a crisis for years, but under its current Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Moetsoneng, the SABC has drifted from a crisis to a catastrophe.

So much so, that the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, the World Editors Forum and the African Editors Forum have expressed concerns about the silencing and censoring of SABC journalists.

The demeaning response by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi  to acting chief executive Jimi Mathews’ resignation is equally disappointing. Mathews has been at the media coalface for decades – apartheid and post-apartheid. His comments about a “corrosive” atmosphere at Auckland Park – or Hlaudi House as it’s now known – should be taken very seriously.

Without doubt, one of the greatest questions in the whole distasteful saga is how the government has allowed Moetsoneng, a man of dubious qualification and dishonest character (confirmed by the Public Protector), to run such a critical institution as the national broadcaster.

Not only that, he was found wanting as a media professional in 2006 when he was a producer at Lesedi FM. A Deloitte and Touche audit had his colleagues regarding him as a “semi-literate” journalist who was “inexperienced” and unable to communicate effectively in English.

Then there is the fact that with the Western Cape High Court ruling his appointment as COO unlawful, Hlaudi Moetsoneng should not even be in the building. His boss Madame Faith Mathumbi, who has supported and emboldened him, has a lot to answer for.

Not only does she have to comply with a court order against her department on digital migration and encryption boxes – which she thinks only the SABC should have access to – but the view of media pundits such as the Media Monitoring Agency, who say that the SABC has violated its licence conditions due to Moetsoneng’s showy mismanagement.  

Constitutionally, the SABC is meant to be a public broadcaster, not the personal fiefdom of its COO, or the exclusive voice of a political master such as President Jacob Zuma. 

My concern, as a practising journalist of 40 years, is that if the rot is not stopped soon the SABC will be well on its way to becoming a Broederbond-style puppet, something that it was before 1994. Like so many South Africans, I do not want to see the national broadcaster laundering my news 22 years after democracy.

When I first entered the trade of journalism in 1976, there was almost blind obeisance  to the National Party – and if you wanted to speak the truth, you had to work in the alternative media or for foreign wire services where fear, danger, banning and security police harassment would be your daily diet.  These are things that former executive officer Jimi Mathews, who was a cameraman for Visnews in those days, should remember well.

Moetsoneng’s unilateral shutting down of The Editor’s programme, his ban of newspaper headlines and his censoring of violent protest are just so starkly reminiscent of the old-style SABC, an SABC that blacked-out everything that the state – or Nationalist Party royalty – did not like.

Even Moetsoneng’s style of leadership – best described as post-apartheid baaskap – is similar to the white baaskap of the SABC’s biggest don, Piet Meyer, who according to former Board member, Prof Sampie Terreblanche, ran the apartheid broadcaster like a Mafia.

Moetsoneng’s surprise, if not welcome announcement of the SABC’s eighteen radio stations having to play 90% local content unfortunately does not indicate informed decision making, let alone market research. Even local musicians, most of whom have never received royalties from the SABC anyway, were taken aback at his edict.

His response to Radio Lotus was as bizarre as his Mzwakhe Mbuli composed Morning Live praise song. During a live interview on Lotus’ Newsbreak show he stopped presenter Genevieve Lanka from reading out listener responses. They were expressing concerns about the station being able to find enough local Indian artists to fill the playlist, something that did not seem to bother Moetsoneng.

That Moetsoneng’s elephant in the room could be his own ego is a moot point. But further questions have to be asked about the role that SABC Board chairman, Mbulaheni Maguvhe, has played in the whole saga.  His apparent muteness on Moetsoneng’s wild managerial ways on floor 27 of Auckland Park seems to be a case of tacitere et consente – silence is consent.

This is against the background of Moetsoneng claiming that he enjoys the full support of the South African public and the SABC Board, SABC insiders claiming that the Board has been cowed by his political connections – something Moetsoneng publicly laughs off.

In any case, it seems as if Maguvhe will soon have to literally face the music. A document seen by journalists at the Sunday Times indicates that in September this year he will have to explain how the SABC has managed to post a massive multi-million rand loss for its past financial year, in spite of promises in parliament of a turnaround by minster Faith Mathumbi.

A warning sign has been the broadcaster being refused a special R32 million special allocation to cover the municipal elections by the Treasury, and Moetsoneng’s contradictory utterances to the media about the SABC not facing a financial crisis and having hundreds of millions of rands in the bank.

The issue of Moetsoneng, and his disastrous leadership of the SABC, goes far beyond being an internal spat or a case of political difference. It is an affair that should concern every South African citizen. The SABC, we have to remind ourselves again, is a national – and not an ANC – broadcaster. For millions of us, even in frontline states such as Zimbabwe, the SABC is our only source of news and we all have a right to accurate and fair coverage.