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Islamic Terror1 is not a Problem for South Africa

An Interview of Iqbal Jhazbhay


Michael Schmidt of Saturday Star

January 2, 2005

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Mercifully, the integrated Muslim community in South Africa have genuine freedom of expression and association. Sensitive security policy matters on Muslims in South Africa, are discussed openly at conferences hosted both by NGOs and the South African government.

This article below situates key issues on Muslims in South Africa and, challenges with empirical evidence the many damaging stereotypes on Muslims.

Nuradeen readers have an opportunity to read this exclusive interview, which appeared in Johannesburg's well-known newspaper the Saturday Star.

Iqbal Jhazbhay2

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November 20 2004 at 03:46PM




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'Islamic terror is not a problem for SA'

By Michael Schmidt


Islamic terrorism is unlikely to gain a foothold in South Africa, a leading Muslim academic specialising in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies said following the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Act last Friday.


In an exclusive interview with Saturday Star, Iqbal Jhazbhay, a senior lecturer at Unisa, spoke publicly for the first time about his paper entitled Terrorism: Reflections on Islamic Trends.


His paper had been commissioned by the South African National Academy of Intelligence in the wake of the scare in July that al-Qaeda cells were planning a series of terror attacks across South Africa.


His paper had been commissioned by the South African National Academy of Intelligence

Those claims were shot down by the National Intelligence Ministry, but Jhazbhay's paper was still one of the most eagerly awaited at the three-day National Security Conference last month, attended by scores of intelligence, security and military chiefs from as far afield as Angola and Zimbabwe. Jhazbhay fell ill, so the paper did not see the light of day.

Jhazbhay, a third-generation South African Muslim whose grandfather had been involved with Mohandas Gandhi in establishing the passive-resistance movement, said that the roots of modern radicalism in the local Muslim community largely sprang from the inspiration of the Iranian revolution of 1978-79.



Speaking separately, Na'eem Jeenah, the president of the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM), identified three main radical tendencies that arose in political Islam in the 1980s:


Qibla, which included a handful of Libyan-trained guerrillas, preached an "Islamic state" line, initially rejecting as illegitimate the democratic state created in 1994, but evolving into the marginally more moderate Islamic Unity Convention with Radio 786 as its voice;


Jeenah's own MYM, which was initially partly influenced by the Iranian revolution, but which developed a "critical support" line for the new democracy, and now focused on anti-capitalist struggles; and


The Call of Islam, which was allied to the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, preached a loyalist line and so developed in the democratic era into the de facto Muslim wing of the ruling ANC.

More recent radical Muslim tendencies, identified by Jhazbhay, include the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which focuses on anti-US imperialist issues, and People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad), which arose as a "localised" expression of Islam to combat criminality, but which increasingly took an anti-state turn, becoming involved with a series of bombings in Cape Town that saw it blacklisted by the US as a "foreign terrorist organisation".

Jhazbhay said the main thesis of his unaired paper was that "by and large in South Africa since 1994, the state has worked out techniques to manage the expression of Islam" in conjunction with mainstream Muslim leaders.

These methods of containing radicalism included, he said, the ANC's commission for religious affairs which meets four times a year with the president "to get religious leaders (to take) on board its political and social goals".

This commission also engaged with MPs and MPLs, using them to get their constituencies to support ANC policies.

The resulting tacit alliance between mainstream Muslim leaders and the ruling party had successfully managed to sideline more radical voices, he said.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Media Review Network, a lobby group focusing on how the media represent Islam, may have raised many popular concerns in the Muslim community about South Africa's rapprochement towards Israel, and had clearly shown themselves capable of mobilising mass demonstrations, especially on the Palestinian question.

But, Jhazbhay said, he believed MPs and MPLs had successfully explained to their constituencies that "if South Africa has to play a larger role, it has to speak to both sides, as the ANC itself did in its engagement with the apartheid and bantustan authorities".

Other tools used by the state to successfully undercut radical appeal, he said, included the statutory Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Rights for Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, the Muslim Personal Law Framework Bill which allowed for traditional Muslim family practices within the Bill of Rights, and the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs assists the South African Hajj and Umrah Council get pilgrims to Mecca and back.

But running deeper than this, Jhazbhay argued, was the fact that "the community itself plays a check-and-balance role", based on its members' different experience, as South Africans, of their "Muslimness".

This experience is based on a degree of isolation from the Middle Eastern Muslim community engendered both by more than three centuries of settlement in South Africa and by colonial and apartheid segregation.

Jeenah said this had resulted in both positive and negative expressions, ranging from an acceptance of Africanness and an engagement in the anti-apartheid struggle to a certain parochialism.

Jhazbhay noted that virtually all the country's mosques were controlled by the "mainstream" Muslim Judicial Council or the United Ulama Council of South Africa, so that "if a Taliban-inclined imam speaks at a mosque and says outrageous things, the worshippers there may ignore him".

The mainstream mosques may differ with the ANC, "but not to the point where they would take on the state". They were also becoming more active on social issues, thereby eating away at the traditional support base of the radicals.

But, he said, although the radical Islamic Unity Convention was "unable to marginalise the mainstream Muslim clergy", the ANC had made a point of passing a resolution to keep an eye on the global resurgence of "rightwing" religious tendencies, of whatever faith.

Jeenah said there was a definite "pro-al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban sentiment" within the Muslim community, which could enable a few marginal operatives to work in secret or to use South Africa as a base.

The government, busy with co-opting the mainstream, could easily overlook such marginal elements who "have their own spheres of influence".

But the country's foreign policy, generally perceived by Muslims to be progressive on issues of faith at home and friendly towards Islamic states and peoples abroad, meant it was highly unlikely it could ever be seen as a target by genuine terrorists.

He warned, however, that in the light of the passing by the National Assembly of the "anti-terrorist" Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act a clear distinction had to be drawn between the legitimate tradition of South African Muslim radicalism and terrorism.

Jhazbhay said that South Africa had not been immune to a global turn in recent years away from political Islam, towards more libertarian, quietist Sufism, which has an established tradition in South Africa.

But Jeenah pointed out that a recent report by the conservative US-based think-tank Rand recommended that the US needed to encourage both "moderate Muslim voices and the growth of Sufi groups because they were seen, whether correctly or not, as being more pliable".

Both men agreed that radical Islam in South Africa did not provide fertile ground for the development of genuine Islamic terrorist organisations.


This article was originally published on page 5 of Saturday Star on November 20, 2004


  1. Nuradeen website does not agree with the use of the term "Islamic terrorism (or terror)", which is used often by the media, since there is nothing Islamic about committing (deliberate) violent acts against non-combatants. More accurately, this modern development needs to be described as: Terrorism committed by some militant Muslims in the name of Islam. (editors)

  2. Iqbal Jhazbhay teaches at the University of South Africa and is a member of the ANC's Commission of Religious Affairs. He also serves on the Board of the Institute for Global Dialogue. E-mail: jhazbmid@unisa.ac.za


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