يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ
وَلَوْ عَلَى أَنْفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ
إِنْ يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَوْلَى بِهِمَا
فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَى أَنْ تَعْدِلُوا
وَإِنْ تَلْوُوا أَوْ تُعْرِضُوا
فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا
(Qur’an, Surah al-Nisa 4:135)
Youth of 1976
I was asked to speak on the occasion of Youth Day, the commemoration of the start of the youth-led Soweto Uprisings on June 16, 1976. On this day, thirty-nine years ago, South Africa experienced the organised militant defiance of young students. Armed with Black Consciousness and freedom songs they marched in their thousands to express their revolutionary anger against an oppressive education system. No armed intimidation could stop their persistent firmness towards justice. They threw stones. They threw bricks. They watched their comrades die as they led a movement that became a decisive turning point in the struggle against racist capitalism.
This month, let us remember their revolutionary anger and defiance that reverberated through the country. Let us remember their stones and their bricks. Let us remember their martyrs (May Allah rest their souls).
Sisters, brothers and elders, at this commemorative time I do not intend to romanticise the many victories of the anti-apartheid struggle, or the role Muslims played in these victories. I do not intend to cosmetically beautify the ugly reality of our country with platitudes of Mandela and Tutu’s rainbow nation.
The need for honesty
Today, dear Muslims, I want us to speak. I want us to engage. And I want us to do this with honesty.
It is important that we reflect on our role in the anti-apartheid struggle, as well as our complicity in propping up the apartheid system. Allah reminds us in Surah al-Baqarah, chapter 2, verse 155:
Say not of those who have died in the path of Allah that they are dead. Nay! They will live on.
I shudder with inadequacy as I recall the revolutionary spirit of Imam Abdullah Haron, Shamima Shaikh, Ahmed Timol, and our many other comrades of past.
But with our admiration, we need to be cured of our selective amnesia. There is a Muslim identity beyond the heroic anti-apartheid Muslim – which we so proudly claim. In order for us to properly progress with our political participation, we need to speak about this. We need to speak about how the majority of Muslims, often with Ulama encouragement, were conveniently apathetic towards apartheid and forgot the fiqh imperative that silence in the face of injustice is tantamount to tacit approval. It is therefore also important that we speak about those Muslims who collaborated in the capture and murder of Imam Haron. And about how some Ulama bodies even explicitly rejected the anti-apartheid struggle and denounced these Muslim activists, freely throwing around the label of kufr.
We should also speak about the prominent elite amongst us who, now, massage the shoulders of capitalism on the boards of big businesses, ignoring the real needs of the poor and exploited masses of our country whose existence should pose a serious challenge for any conscientious Muslim. Our community embraces the “generous Muslim” identity as we pay our hundreds of millions in Zakat. They say we are “good citizens”. We fit in to the system. In the main, those in leadership positions in our community continue to court and be courted by political power. Those in power allow us to further so-called Muslim interests, we are told. This, of course, was what they also told us about the apartheid government. Sometimes, especially before elections, these politicians are invited to Palestine solidarity marches and rallies where they feed us rhetoric, Mandela quotes and false promises of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction against Israel). We host conferences and dinners and more rallies where we invite presidents and deputy presidents and ministers to commend us on our collaboration and cooperation and all the good work we are doing. Last year, some of our so-called leaders even instructed us to vote for these powers. When politicians regard us ‘good citizens’, brothers and sisters, we should ask ourselves what it is that we are not doing sufficiently, or what political interests we are serving.
We are living in the most unequal society in the world; and there’s a serious lack of transformation which could affirm the poor black masses. There still is no accountability and justice for the 34 mineworkers murdered in Marikana for simply demanding a dignified wage. The reality is that the majority of people in this country have no real hope of living economically dignified lives; and there’s a money-hungry elite with no intention of behaving responsibly, or divesting from apartheid Israel. This government is showing almost no willingness to progressively address these issues. With this context and in light of the Islamic principles of Justice and Truth: what have ‘our interests’ been reduced to?
Impatience of youth
As we observe this reality, we realise that we are reaching a pivotal point in our democracy. We see the impatience of young people and how they are forcing issues onto the national debate. We see the defiance of our comrades in the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which started at the University of Cape Town. Young people who refuse to allow their activism to be defined by reactionary authority. Young people who have uncompromisingly challenged the status quo and are calling for the radical decolonisation of their institutions, which is necessarily linked to the black condition both nationally and internationally. Young people who understand our condition as one that’s existing in a violent system of white power: perpetuating racism, sexism and classism. Young people, who, in the absence of an adult alternative are claiming back their institutions and their freedoms. We see this revolutionary anger reverberating across the country. Young people in the Open Stellenbosch movement at the University of Stellenbosch have begun robust engagement on the anti-transformation and apartheid culture of their institution. Young people who are leading the Wits Workers Solidarity Movement and recently occupied their Vice Chancellor’s office to fight for campus workers’ rights and end exploitative outsourcing of workers. Young people in the Black Student Movement at Rhodes University who are unapologetically pursuing institutional transformation of their campus.
There are some young Muslims who are playing leading roles in these movements. However, there is not much that can be said about Muslim youth organisations. Most of us are lost, unable to relate our Islam to present day realities. But the impatience of youth is universal. African Muslim youth in Soweto, fed up with anti-black religious institutions in their townships, are building movements that represent their realities. These youth refuse to embrace a racist Islam – dominated by an Indian and Malay hegemony. Unfortunately, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) seems unable to sufficiently express their impatience and relate their struggles to their Islam. The Muslim Youth Movement (MYM), in its attempts to revive its radicalism, has been, largely, unable to mobilise behind its ideals. We are now even seeing a number of young Muslims being attracted by the extremist discourse of groups like ISIS – who are offering a radical idealism justified by Islam, and present an Islam that seems to be relevant to the world they inhabit.
The Italian revolutionary Gramsci wrote: “When the old refuses to die and the new is struggling to be born, monsters appear.” This is the price that societies have to pay for the betrayal and duplicity by their elders. This is what we see resurfacing today. The impatience of youth will never be contained by the stagnant politics of the old. We need a radical and critical discourse that is imperative for progression, and that requires honesty. The expression of this honesty is not going to be easy.
Realigning Muslim politics
I started this nasiha by reciting verse 135, from surah 4, where Allah, the Most High proclaims:
“O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kin. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your personal desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold God is indeed aware of all that you do!”
Allah commands us not only to pursue justice but to audaciously and uncompromisingly defend justice. Audacity is pleasing to Allah, if it is done for His sake.
Remember the audacity of Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, one of the first sahaba to accept Islam. Sometime after the death of the Prophet (SAW), Abu Dhar demanded that the Muslim leadership, under the Khalif Uthman (RA), and the elite give up their superfluous wealth and extravagant living. He led a rebellion, an uprising that challenged the economic realities of the time. He spoke what he thought was truth to power – even when that power was held by the Khalifa.
The most wonderful audacity was displayed by the Prophets of Allah. They were sent to critique, challenge and even undermine corrupt societies. They became social revolutionaries. Their Allah-given task was not to fit in, not to conform, but to transgress and transform. No Prophet was ever a “good citizen”.
Sisters and brothers, remember that the Qur’an does not support compromising on justice, and the Prophet’s (SAW) advice was that speaking truth to unjust power is the greatest jihad.
Afdalul Jihadi Kalimatu Haqqin `Aynda Sultanin Ja’irin
(This Sahih Hadith can be found in the collections of Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, and the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanba)
Therefore, it is time we challenge our inherited politics. We need to depart from the status-quo and claim a socially-responsible Islam. An Islam that is linked to political perspectives, that is inspiring for Muslim youth, and provides a radical idealism of a better, more just and more Islamic South Africa.
Therefore, as a matter of principle, we have to align our Islam with the revolutionary anger of the youth of 1976; with the poor; with the wretched of the earth; and with the pro-black student movements that are gaining momentum at our universities.
The first step in achieving this is for us to speak with honesty. We don’t do this enough. As we enter the sacred month of Ramadhan; as we prepare for the process to cleanse ourselves of our arrogance, self-desires and consumerism through self-imposed hunger and constant acknowledgement of our yearning to submit to Allah – let us speak.
Allahu A’lam. And may Allah forgive me.
Ramadhan Karim. Wa’alaikum Salaam.