Muslim Views . January 2014
Muslim sectarianism in South Africa: symptom or cause? International Peace College South Africa (IPSA), in association with the Shahmahomed Trust, held its 5th Annual Wasatiyyah Syposium on November 23, 2013. The theme was Sectarianism: A Middle Way Reflection. Over the next few months, Muslim Views will be publishing a selection of abridged papers delivered at the symposium. DR ABDUL RASHIED OMAR, Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, United States, and Imam at Claremont Main Road Mosque, Cape Town, questioned whether sectarianism was a cause or a symptom of the problems in the Middle East.
ACCORDING to Shaikh Ighsaan Taliep, Principal of IPSA, ‘The Muslim ummah is currently witnessing a dangerous rise in sectarianism and factionalism that seems to be palpable even to people of other faiths.’ To underescore Shaikh Taliep’s concern it might be instructive to note that the Human Rights Commission is currently investigating a litany of complaints of discrimination and hate speech directed at individual Muslims because they are Shiites or are perceived to be sympathetic to Shiasm. In one case, the funeral prayers of a foreign national who had been brutally murdered was refused entry into a local masjid. In another case, a Cape Flats
The Arab Spring has triggered and ignited a long-standing and deep-rooted schism between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East into an open war. In Bahrain we have a Sunni autocratic regime oppressing a majority Shiite population while in Syria we have a despotic regime aligned to Shiasm tyrannising its largely Sunni population. man whose father had helped build the masjid and who has been patronising the same masjid since his childhood was denied permission to solemnise his daughter’s marriage ceremony at this venue. Not only are these kinds of incidents of intolerance in our community of concern but even more alarming is the growing number of intolerant voices and views being expressed on local internet and social network sites. From some of the views expressed on these sites, it would appear that there is an attempt to orchestrate a campaign of hate against local Shias. This raises a legitimate fear that, God forbid, such an orchestrated campaign of hate and intolerance could escalate into direct physical violence as it already has in other parts of the world. How then should Muslims, who embrace and understand Islam as a religion of the middle way (din al-wasatiyyah), respond to this scourge of sectarianism?
An Islamic understanding of sectarianism Sectarianism can be defined as bigotry, discrimination or hatred of ‘the other’ arising from attaching an exaggerated importance to
perceived differences. Advocates of sectarianism usually believe that their own salvation requires that they aggressively purge their community of those they perceive to hold heretical beliefs. Within the context of Islam, it is my considered view that religious sectarianism is both a symptom and cause of an extremist mindset or worldview which is the antithesis of wasatiyyah (the middle way) as advocated by the Glorious Quran (2:143). In other words, extremism breeds and feeds on sectarianism. At the same time, if religious sectarianism is left to flourish, the conditions become ripe for extremist views and actions to take hold. Hence, if extremism feeds and breeds off sectarianism then we should be equally guarded against the growth of religious sectarianism. How then should we understand the genesis and growth of sectarianism (fitna ta-ifiyya) and extremism (tatarruf or ghuluw) from the worldview of Islam? According to a number of contemporary Muslim scholars, including local scholar, Shaikh Siraj Hendricks, this tendency of violent ‘othering’ has found viru-
lent support in the so-called wahhabi-cum-salafi movement during the last 200 years. Shaikh Hendricks, during his keynote address at IPSA’s inaugural Wasatiyyah symposium in 2009, incriminates the wahhabi doctrine of al-wala wal-bara (the doctrine of loyalty and disassociation) as the source of this intolerance and sectarianism. According to him: ‘(T)his is a doctrine that defines both its proponents and the “other” in rigidly exclusivist terms and – in an archaic Calvinist sense – as reprobates.’ During the past few years, this small but active salafi wahhabi movement has exploited the changing political landscape in the Middle East to advance its religiously sectarian agenda. Unfortunately, the negative outcome of the Arab Spring has been that it has provided an opening for Muslim sectarianists to insert themselves into the new space that has opened up through democracy to propagate their obscurantist views. The Arab Spring has triggered and ignited a long-standing and deep-rooted schism between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East into an open war. In Bahrain we have a Sunni autocratic regime oppressing a majority Shiite population while in Syria we have a despotic regime aligned to Shiasm tyrannising its largely Sunni population. It is my contention that this Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East appears likely to not only intensify but expand beyond the borders of Syria and Bahrain to other parts of the Middle East
and beyond. In an interview on Voice of the Cape’s Open Lines, during Ramadaan, Moulana Zakariyya Philander, director of Discover Islam, asserted that ‘international sectarian issues were now making its presence felt in South Africa and is threatening to undo the sterling work this country’s citizens have done over the last nineteen years in setting an example of how to co-exist in a democratic dispensation in a diverse society’.
Conclusion I want to make reference to a historic document, ‘The Amman Message (Risalatu Amman)’, in the context of grappling with growing sectarianism. This document provides a framework for mitigating against the threat of Muslim sectarianism. The Amman Message calls upon Sunnis and Shias to rise above the differences that separate them and to emphasise the commonalities that unite them as a single ummah. It is noteworthy that Shaikh Ebrahim Gabriels undersigned and endorsed the Amman Message on behalf of the South African ulama. I am convinced that the vast majority of ordinary Muslims are not supportive of the current trend of sectarianism that is being fomented by certain individuals. Muslim scholars, and leaders in particular, have an especially onerous challenge of not allowing misguided individuals who act in a thoroughly reprehensible and depraved way to undermine the middle way of Islam (wasatiyya).
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