Presentation by Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim to the 5th Annual Wasatiyyah Symposium organised by the International Peace College of South Africa, in association with Shahmohamed Trust, 23 November 2013, Cape Town

Mr Shafiq Morton, Programme Director
Deputy Minister Fransman
Ambassadors and DDG Sooklal
Shaykh Ighsaan Taliep, Dr Tofar, Prof F Essop, Dr Omar, Mawlana Hendricks and other distinguished panellists
Brothers and Sisters
As salaam ‘alaikum wa rahmatullah

Thank you for inviting me to present my thoughts at this symposium that deals with a crucial theme that has the potential to affect relations in our country and the Muslim world for a long time to come. Certainly, the theme is critical for understanding developments as they have been unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa region, and in the broader Muslim world – especially in the past few years. For the South African government, it is also a crucial subject to deal with as the issue of sectarianism among Muslims becomes a threat in this country too. If we are, as a South African society, to address the issue effectively, it will require efforts from the Muslim community and its representatives, as well as from our political leadership – sometimes each acting separately, and sometimes in partnership. I hope that this symposium will help to lay the basis for addressing this potential problem in this way.

It is no secret that sectarianism has existed among Muslims for fourteen centuries. I differentiate, of course, between sectarianism and differences of opinions. The latter has always existed among Muslims and, we hope, always will. For, as Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, differences of opinion is a blessing among believers. Such diversity in thought and opinion should be welcomed, and the conditions that facilitate such freedom of thought must be encouraged in all Muslim societies – whether in Muslim majority countries or in countries such as South Africa where Muslims are a numerical minority. It is because Islam and Muslims celebrate such diversity that we found in South Africa, for example, an Islamic theology that emerged in the 1980s that was anti-apartheid, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and which recruited Muslims into the struggle for justice, equality and democracy. This despite the fact that the majority of Muslims at the time, as well as the political and religious leadership in the Muslim world, eschewed such ideas. The establishment in many Muslim countries still do.

However, what we are dealing with at this symposium is quite different. We are attempting to address the problem of Muslims who entrench themselves into particular sects that not only vie with each other in terms of their ideas, but go beyond that to demand that their views are the only correct Islamic views, who then label each other in terrible ways, and, further, seek to intimidate and even eliminate people of other sects or shades of opinion, including through the use of violence. This kind of sectarianism has reared its head – in new and different ways – on a global level in recent years and poses a threat to Muslims communities on the southern tip of Africa as well.

I will deal with Sunni vs. Shi’a sectarianism, but I will not begin there. I do not want to give the impression – which some Muslims and many outside the Muslim community want to propagate – that the only fault line within the Muslim ummah is that separating Sunnis and Shi’as. Many Muslims who believe this then argue that the problem should be dealt with by making the other sect (whether Sunni or Shi’a) subservient. For those who are not Muslim and have political justifications for subjugating Muslim states and Muslim peoples, such an argument assists in placing whichever Muslim state or group they believe to be the ‘enemy’ in a negative light, and thus cause the favoured Muslim group to triumph over the other.

However, the sectarian issues among Muslims are much more diverse and varied. The Muslims that have been killed and attacked, and whose properties and religious symbols were destroyed by the Sunni al-Shabab in Somalia have not been Shi’as. They were Sunnis who were also Sufis and whose practices are regarded as deviant by the Salafi Shabab. In Tunisia, the government led by the Sunni Islamist Ennahda Party classified the Sunni Salafi group Ansar al-Shari’ah as a terrorist organisation. In Egypt, while we witnessed the horrible incident of four Shi’as being slaughtered by Salafi extremists, the vast majority of political killings have been of Sunnis by Sunnis. Lebanon witnesses sporadic fighting between two groups which, when not fighting each other – which is most of the time, are allies. Hizbullah and Amal are both Shi’a Muslim organisations.

Such incidents, as with much Muslim sectarianism over the past fourteen centuries, are usually more political than theological or religious. The theological differences often become convenient ways in which to mobilise people for political or geo-political objectives. Is this not also where we might trace the split of the ummah into Shi’a and Sunni?

And when we look at the Muslim world today, racked by these sectarian divisions, we find political agendas at the heart of most of these battles. I am not suggesting that there is a neat division between religion and politics for Muslims; there isn’t. But we must carefully analyse the sources of conflicts before pontificating about them.

The divisive and fractured political tapestry that characterises the MENA region today must not be seen merely from a sectarian or ethnic perspective. It is critical in order to obtain a deeper and comprehensive analysis of why we have this situation dominated by sectarian strife that we examine the impact of global power dynamics on the countries of the region - more specifically designs on its vast energy reserves - and how this has impacted and continues to impact on the stability or instability of the region of the whole. The current challenges of sectarianism and its severely negative impact must be framed within the larger geo-political power paradigm, which sustains an order that pits so-called ‘allies’ against ‘others’ in further advancing a global agenda based on a policy of division rather than what South Africa subscribes to, namely a global order of participatory politics which all members of the international community have a role in shaping.

That said, it is also the case that sectarianism is a global phenomenon common to all religions, and so as Muslims, a key question we must ask is why we have allowed ourselves to be used, divided and manipulated by global powers in this disastrous way?

The most worrying sectarian problem among Muslims today, and the one that poses the greatest long-term danger, is that between Sunni and Shi’a. This has been a sectarian division that has existed for centuries, with animosity often smouldering beneath the surface – despite the efforts of great scholars and leaders from both sides who have attempted to dampen the embers, and to promote reconciliation and cooperation. A recent example of such an attempt is the Amman Message, endorsed nine years ago, on 27th Ramadan 1425, or 9th November 2004. It recognises the validity of the eight madhabs of Sunni, Shi’a and Ibadi Islam, and forbids takfir (declarations of apostasy) between Muslims. The Message’s endorsers include: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi; Ayatullah Ali Khamenei; the Sheikh of Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi; Egypt’s mufti, Ali Gomaa; Ayatullah Ali Sistani; Bosnia’s mufti, Mustafa Ceric; as well as a host of political and religious leaders, and organisations such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

These tensions have become violent and are growing to such alarming proportions that Mohamed Javed Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, recently told the BBC that strife between Sunnis and Shi’as now poses the greatest threat to global security. The potential dangers that we anticipate are not only for Muslim communities, but for significant sections of the globe, according to the foreign minister. And, again, the spark for these tensions is largely political. The civil war in Syria, the violence in Lebanon and Iraq, are all linked to political objectives. Sectarianism has become, and is being used as, a convenient way to articulate these political tensions.

Perhaps the biggest culprit in this regard is the Syrian crisis. The fact that the Syrian political elite is dominated by Alawis, and that the government is supported by Shi’as in Iran and in Hizbullah, while the majority of the opposition is Sunni, has helped fuel perceptions that it is a battle with sectarian objectives. Our reading of the situation is that the Syrian crisis is not, at its heart, a sectarian battle. Indeed Syria’s contemporary history of secularism, peaceful coexistence and religious harmony bears witness to this. It has, however, become convenient for various sides to portray it as such in order to cynically mobilise support and thus gain the upper hand in the political and military battles unfolding. The fact that extremist fighters – many of whom are not Syrian – entered the fray about two years ago has also helped to insert a sectarian element into it. The idea of this as a sectarian conflict has been further fanned by the role of a number of foreign groups and agencies, some of them linked to different governments.

As a result, these political tensions, presented as sectarian tensions, have spread to various parts of the world through active propagation by a number of actors – both Shi’a and Sunni. Unfortunately, they have reached our shores as well. And the threat posed by these tensions within our country should be concerning not only to the Muslim community but also to the government. If Foreign Minister Zarif is correct that Sunni-Shi’a battles could pose a global security threat, and we believe that he is, then it is possible that these tensions – having landed on South African shores – could, in the near future, pose a security threat for us as well. None of us, whether in government or civil society, wants a sectarian war in this country. However, if matters tend in this direction, government will cooperate with the various Muslim institutions and organisations to prevent the emergence of any substantial danger to the community. It must be said that those South African individuals and organisations that are fuelling this discourse and developing sectarian scenarios in order to scare Muslims in this country against one or other sect are behaving in a most irresponsible and un-South African manner, and they should know that if security problems arise as a result of this rhetoric, they will bear the moral – and perhaps legal – responsibility for this.

It is also appropriate for me to note at this forum that, as these tensions have grown in South Africa, government has also come under attack from certain quarters. For example, government has been criticised for its position on Syria and its friendliness with Iran, and it has been said in some quarters within the Muslim community that South Africa’s position is based on government having been taken in by Shi’a rhetoric, and South Africa has thus become subservient to a Shi’a agenda. This is, to put it plainly, nonsense. Of course, all citizens have the right to criticise our foreign policy, and we encourage reasoned criticism. But such accusations are not based on fact or on the reality of government policy.

South Africa develops its foreign policy on the twin basis of our national interests and our values as a new democracy. In the case of Syria, our main objective is to put an end to the atrocities the Syrian people are suffering and save civilian lives. The only way to achieve this is not by taking one side or the other, which will just pour fuel on the fire and prolong the bloody stalemate, but by using our influence to bring all parties to the table to negotiate a Syrian-led political transition aimed at establishing a democratic pluralistic society in which minorities are protected. In Syria, we do not support either side, what we support is peace and democracy.

Sectarianism will always play a role in religious communities, and we should expect that it will in South Africa too. However, we should not be too quick to jump on a sectarian bandwagon, blame all kinds of conflict on a sectarian impetus, and then be willing to respond on behalf of the sect we might belong to – especially when the response is in favour of political actors. While the Syrian crisis, for example, might be imagined and presented by many role-players as a sectarian one, the fact is that many outside powers are very deliberately exploiting and politicising the issue of sect in Syria in a cynical attempt to further their narrow geopolitical objectives. The conflict in Syria, in fact, cuts across the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Many Sunnis, for example, support the Syrian government - in fact most of the Syrian army is made up of Sunni soldiers. The fighting between extremist Sunni groups in Syria – even between two affiliates of al-Qa’ida – is also illustrative of this.

It is clear that the simple sectarian motives that are attributed to political players in the Middle East are actually much more complex, and it would be foolish for supporters of various actors there to conceptualise, develop and propagate hatred towards their sectarian others on the basis of these complexities. The result could be long-term sectarian problems in South Africa, long after the political difficulties between the actors in the Middle East have been overcome.

South Africa was brought into being and is led by people who sacrificed a great deal for the attainment and establishment of the values of justice, equality, freedom, democracy, non-racism and non-sexism. These people include many of our heroes and martyrs that you know quite well, people such as Imam Abdullah Haron, Dullah Omar, Ahmed Timol, Yusuf Dadoo, and Ahmed Kathrada. Their sacrifices – which for some included their lives – stood in opposition to sectarianism, but were made for noble ideals that we hold dear - ideals such as unity, celebrating diversity and tolerance–values that are reflected in the South African constitution, values which drive our foreign policy, and values which we must do everything in our power to uphold.

I thank you.

For further information please contact Mr Clayson Monyela, Spokesperson for DIRCO on 082 884 5974


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