Monday, December 12, 2011

Áshura: the right to know the difference

ON our community calendar there’s what I call a series of “seasons”. And like spring, summer, autumn or winter, they have their moods. One such “season” is Muharram, which marks the beginning of the Islamic year.

This is because it is a sacred month in which major events occurred, especially on the 10th day: for example, the creation of Adam and Eve and the escape of the Bani Isra’il from the Pharaoh.

However, its wider significance is often eclipsed by the martyrdom of Hussein, the son of Sayyidina ‘Ali, the noble Prophet’s cousin. His passing (in 680 CE) on the 10th of Muharram is lamented for ten days by the Shi’ah sect, and is called “‘Ashura”.

Hussain’s slaying – also lamented by Sunnis, but without the ritualistic dramaturgy of the Shi’ah – is an event hallmarked by the intrigue that characterised the politics of the era.

For instance, this is why Sayyidina ‘Ali – condemned for being too lenient in punishing the assassins of his predecessor, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan – was forced to lead an army against A’isha bint Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s (SAW) wives, at Basra.

Historically, the problem has always been that the Prophet (SAW) left no indications as to what political system Muslims should adopt after his demise. It was a “consensus of the elders” that had elected the first Caliph, Abu Bakr.

It was this decision that led to a measure of dissent amongst ‘Ali’s supporters. Their view was that Abu Bakr, and the succeeding Caliphs ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, should not have accepted office ahead of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, a blood relative of the Prophet (SAW).

The Shi’ah quote the Hadith of Khumm, related after the final Hajj, which has the Prophet (SAW) passing the mantle of Commander on to Sayyidina ‘Ali, and Sayyidina ‘Umar pledging allegiance. Sunni scholars do not accept this interpretation of the Hadith.

Nevertheless, ‘Ali became the fourth Righteous Caliph, but he was handed a poisoned chalice: those who had been associated with the assassination of ‘Uthman supported him becoming Caliph.

So when ‘Uthman’s kinsman in Damascus, Mu’awiyyah, refused to accept ‘Ali’s rule, a schism arose in the Islamic realm. In public interest Sayyidina ‘Ali submitted to arbitration. He was assassinated by Ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, who claimed that ‘Ali had committed apostasy by allowing human intervention.

“Kharijite” originates from the Arabic root word “kharaja”, and means “seceder”, or one who “goes out”. Their belief was that jihad was a sixth pillar of Islam; and that if a Muslim sinned he became an infidel or a kafir.

Scholars such as Sayyid ibn Zaini Dahlan consider the offshoot of the Kharijites to be the modern Salafi-Wahhabis, the disciples of Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, the 18th century Saudi cleric. Kharijite (and Wahhabi) opposition to the Shi’ah spans over 1,300 years. For their ilk the Shi’ah are kafir and their blood halal – a view contrary to Sunni legal thought.

After Sayyidina ‘Ali’s demise, Mu’awiyyah became the Caliph. And as the centuries passed, the Shi’at ul-‘Ali (the party of ‘Ali) grew into a sectarian doctrine. There are historians such as Tabari who say Shi’ism was introduced by Abdullah ibn Sabah, a Yemeni Jew, who embraced Islam and declared ‘Ali divine.

Ibn Kathir also refers to this, but the question of Ibn Sabah is an academic minefield.

Shi’ah culture was definitely strengthened by the slaying of Hussain at Karbala. This was after Mu’awiyyah died and his son, Yazid, took power. Hussain’s elder brother, Hasan, had already retired from public life. Today, the Shi’ah curse Yazid and the Salafi-Wahhabis praise him. The Sunni ‘ulama, seeking balance, say that he had good and bad qualities.

Like his father, Hussain was caught up in events beyond his control. The citizens of Kufa, unhappy at Yazid’s Caliphate, wrote a letter to Hussain, requesting him to come to the city as their leader. But whilst he was en-route, Kufa switched allegiance to the Ummayads.

Hussain encountered Yazid’s forces at Karbala outside Kufa. After a 10-day siege during which time he refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, his small party was slaughtered – Hussain dying with his infant son in his arms. His head was cut off and delivered to Yazid in Damascus.

The poetic lamentations about Karbala, recited during ‘Ashura, are famous in Shi’ah lore, as are the self-flagellations of Shi’ah devotees.

I’ve already said that calling the Shi’ah kafir has never been the Sunni way. The Shi’ah perform the Hajj. But during the ‘Ashura season, when emotions run high, there has to be a more level-headed community understanding of Shi’ah belief.

Yes, there is divergence, and in the spirit of adab i-ikhtilaf (the ethics of argument) surely it would be better to face these differences than to indulge in pulpit bashing or, worse still, killing the messenger by targeting the media?

Briefly, there are key points where Sunnis differ with the Shi’ah. But surely, the goal of confronting these differences should be comprehension rather than conflict, and critical empathy rather than emotion-soaked enmity?

The primary sticking-point for the Sunni world is that the historical Shi’ah imams, leading up to the end-times Mahdi, are regarded as infallible. Sunni theology only accords perfection and lack of sin to prophets. It does not agree that mere humans can enjoy the same status.

Whilst there are some similarities to the Sunnis in the application of Shi’ah Sacred Law, Sunni theologians do not agree with the rationalistic Shi’ah view that the Qur’an was “created”. In Sunni theology, the Qur’an was inherently “uncreated”.

Shi’ah aversion of Traditions transmitted by A’isha, Sayyidina Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, is problematic for Sunni Hadith scholars. The edict of temporary marriage, or mut’ah, permitted by Shi’ah fiqh seriously troubles Sunni jurists.

Finally, the fact that taqiyyah, the disguising of one’s true beliefs, is obligatory in Shi’ism is an anathema to the four prominent Sunni schools of legal thought, which only permit such dissembling if one’s life is at stake.

Obviously, space does not permit more than a cursory look at some complex questions, but it has to be said that the paranoia about Shi’ism during Muharram is baffling. Surely the right to know the difference, on an intellectual level, should be the preserve of every Muslim, Shi’ah or Sunni?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Al-Shabab - Taliban of the Horn


WE never came across Al-Shabab forces in Mogadishu, but reminders of their presence was everywhere – from the bullet-ridden pasta factory to the IDP camps dotted around the city. Fighters had only been forced out by AMISOM forces a month before, and there were still pockets of resistance.

The crump of mortars and volleys of gunfire we heard every night in our compound reminded us just how close the conflict still was, as did the grenade blast around the corner at the Medecins Sans Frontieres offices.

Public spaces were safer, but our armed technicals would get jittery if we stopped to get out of our vehicles. They had good reason. In urban areas, Al-Shabab had become faceless.

Two weeks before our arrival a car loaded with explosives had been defused at Banadir Hospital. Several NGO’s worked there. Foreign fatalities would have been disastrous for the Transitional Federal Government (the TFG).

However, we did locate a group of Al-Shabab fighters in Mogadishu, albeit a group of defectors who were being “rehabilitated”.

We found them at a rudimentary camp near to the “pink house” where Al-Qaeda suspects were held by the Somali National Security Agency (the NSA) under the aegis of a covert US military command.

We arrived unannounced. The rehab camp, in operation for about three months (and its location no secret to anyone in Mogadishu), was a series of nondescript cement buildings amongst the dunes.

The somewhat surprised camp commander, Abdurahman Omar Osman, welcomed us. He made a call to get authorisation for us to visit. Permission was granted, the only condition being that we couldn’t interview the camp inmates, some 213 people.

That was disappointing. I knew that these ex-Al-Shabab fighters would have been processed by the NSA. Their security threat would have been zero, and their personal accounts would have made great human interest stories.

An Associated Press journalist had been briefly allowed to interview some of these Al-Shabab defectors, but – for whatever reason – the instruction was that SA journalists could not.

The defectors gathered around us as we chatted, and I could see that Al-Shabab – which means “the youth” – was an apt moniker. These were all very young men, some hardly old enough to have facial hair.

They were all Somali. Neither did they look like cold-blooded killers guilty of the beheadings, amputations and bombings for which Al-Shabab had become feared. They looked more like the hungry, jobless kind of adolescents you could see on any corner in East Africa.

Their ages ranged from 9 to 45 years, said Osman. The majority of Al-Shabab’s 14,000-strong force was under 25, and conscripting children younger than 15 years – which Al-Shabab actively did – was a war crime.

The 9-year old boy, Liban Mohammed, had been interviewed by AP, saying he’d been conscripted as a “spy”.

We moved out of the hot sun and settled down in Osman’s office, an echoingly empty room with a desk, a computer and a few plastic chairs. We asked him why these young men had defected.

“They are forced into things. They are told that music and TV are forbidden, and that they have to beat women …they also find that the killing is too much…that what they are doing is wrong,” explained Osman in halting English.

In reply as to why Somalis joined Al-Shabab, Osman said that Al-Shabab lured the unemployed and uneducated with promises of opportunity, but that fighters had also been kidnapped from schools and villagers.

He added that the defectors told him they’d been ordered to prevent people in the drought-stricken villages and towns (who paid Al-Shabab taxes) from fleeing the famine, and that the men had sometimes been shot.

The idea of the rehabilitation camp, the brainchild of a former Interior Minister, was to re-integrate Al-Shabab fighters into Somali society. The long term plan was to teach the youth job skills, but a lack of funding was hindering the process.

Back in central Mogadishu I questioned our translator, Abdi Nasser, about Al-Shabab (whose leadership had pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2009). He said the organisation was currently divided into three and was not as homogenous as people thought it was.

He told me that originally about 90% of Somalis had supported Al-Shabab after the Ethiopian invasion of 2006 and the defeat of the Islamic Courts Union.

“People initially supported Al-Shabab because they thought they were good Muslims who would create order. But now after the all killings people realise Al-Shabab is extremist, and try to avoid it,” he said.

I asked Abdi Nasser how Al-Shabab rule had affected the citizens of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

“Under them Mogadishu was a horrible place. Very dangerous. Now we’re sitting together; then it was very hard to sit and chat. They (Al-Shabab) were killing the people, even slaughtering women and using young kids as soldiers.”

He added sombrely that if AMISOM were to leave, Al-Shabab would be back in Mogadishu the next day. Abdi Nasser, a businessman, was understandably cynical about Somali politics, but said that he could only hope for the best from the TFG.

I also spoke to Abdi Harari, a 35-year old TFG soldier who’d been in uniform since 1999, and asked what he thought about fighting his own countrymen.

“They (Al-Shabab) have no mercy. They will kill me if they catch me. But when we capture them, we don’t kill them. One of our troops was captured by Al-Shabab and the leader told the man’s very own cousin to execute him.”

What was so appalling from the above – and so many of my interviews in Somalia – was the constant mention of death, this apart from the horrific attrition of the famine. Al Shabab, once a beacon of hope in a country desperate for solutions, had become yet another grim political reaper.

This underlined the biggest failing of Al-Shabab’s fundamentalist Salafi-Wahhabi ethos – its inherent neo-fascism, something that rushed into the political vacuum created by the meddling of Ethiopia and the US in the name of the “war on terror”.

In the hands of the remaining uneducated and illiterate, their angry black-and-white universe enables the blood of the other, “the infidel”, to become halal – and for the Sacred Law to become an ass.

This is why the Afghan Taliban could ban singing canaries, marginalise women educators, forbid music, amputate at will, justify suicide bombing and indulge in the cultural terrorism of dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas.

This is why, in exactly the same vein, Al-Shabab could declare three-cornered samoosas haraam; why women wearing bras could be whipped in public, and why school bells could be banned. This is why Al-Shabab could justify killing fellow Somalis in public suicide bombings.

This is why Al-Shabab could smash Sufi shrines and zawiyyahs – and in a disgusting act of irreverence – dig up the bodies of the Shaikhs. This is why a 13-year old gang-rape victim could be buried up to her head in a football stadium and stoned to death for adultery.

This article ends the series on Somalia.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where's the beef? Halal meat scandal rocks the community


THE three minute video on YouTube is often out of focus; it pixellates when there is lots of movement. But one thing is clear. Something fishy is afoot in a Cape Town refrigeration plant, where we are shown boxes on an assembly line.

When the cameraman zooms in on a label we can see that it reads “pork”. As the video moves on, workers are seen again – this time using a heat gun to remove labels. Generic halal signs are then pasted on to the boxes, and we see that they now say “veal hearts”.

Amazed, I’ve watched this video several times, and freeze-framed it to make sure what I’ve just seen. Whether this YouTube vignette is proof enough for criminal conviction is another question, but it has certainly caused a major furore.

This is because Orion Cold Storage, a Muizenberg-based refrigeration company, stands accused by two unidentified informants of relabeling imported meat products – including pork – as halal and passing them on to the unsuspecting consumer.

In an urgent High Court interdict it was alleged that Orion had also relabelled expired broiler turkeys from Shoprite Checkers; that it had relabelled animal feed milk powder as being fit for human consumption; that it had sold kangaroo meat as halal chuck-and-blade and that it had marketed water buffalo as beef.

The story was broken by Voice of the Cape and Eye Witness News, immediately raising temperatures in a community still reeling from the Hajj visa scandals.

Orion Cold Storage MD, Patrick Gaertner, replied that he’d been “set-up”, claiming that one of the “informants” (whom he did not name) was an unrehabilitated insolvent and former employee. The other, he claimed, worked for an opposition company (which he also did not name).

He said he valued his Muslim customers and that he intended to prove that he’d been subjected to “blackmail”. Gaertner also claimed that he had been threatened.

An interim interdict was lodged at the High Court against Orion by the South African National Halal Authority (SANHA), the Red Meat Industry Forum, the South African Meat Industry Company and other parties.

The application was supported by the Muslim Judicial Council and its Halal Trust (MJCHT), which had certified 18 containers of chickens imported by Orion. Gaertner had also claimed (before the hearing) that he’d enjoyed a “close” relationship with the MJCHT.

Shaikh Achmat Sedick, Deputy MJC president, had replied on Channel Islam that the MJCHT had not operated inside Orion’s plant. It was not a slaughtering facility, and the MJCHT had only checked the Halal credentials of poultry consignments from Denmark and Brazil.

He said the MJCHT had no responsibility for goods in Orion’s freezers, and had not certified any other Orion products. Maulana Ebrahim Adam, a spokesperson for the MJCHT, said on Voice of the Cape that Gaertner’s claims of a close relationship with the MJC were exaggerated and untrue.

In an affidavit Orion denied that it had altered any labels, claiming that the videotaped incidents were orchestrated without knowledge of management. A haggard-looking Gaertner said that the informants were untrustworthy and undertook to work closely with the MJC.

He told the judge he would welcome the MJCHT being at his premises to assure the public that his procedures were halal-compliant, and pledged that labels would not be changed on imported goods. The judge made this undertaking an order of the court, and that if the company did not comply, it would be in contempt.

Attorney for the applicants, Amish Kita, told the media outside court that the outcome of the interdict would not prevent his clients from ensuring that Orion be criminally investigated for fraud.

Spokesperson for the National Islamic Halal Trust (NIHT), Maulana Abdul Wahab Wookay, said that the Orion saga emphasised the need for uniform Halal standards between countries. He added that his organisation did not accept imports at face value, and that NIHT had been so “stern” that 85 butchers in the Gauteng region no longer imported meat.

He proposed a national Halal meat trader’s summit to iron out the problems, especially with butchers who imported dubious meat products.

However, as the dust begins to settle on the Orion saga, it becomes evident that there is much more to the court application than meets the eye. It has to be asked, for example, why Orion, a Cape Town company under the geographical domain of the MJCHT, had to be taken to court by SANHA, a Gauteng-based body, with no connections to Orion.

SANHA, reportedly the most reluctant of the parties of the National Halal Forum, could indeed claim “public interest” in this case which has certainly evoked much community ire, but it’s not enough to convince those in the know that the upstaging of the MJCHT might just have been on the cards.

Both organisations will vehemently deny this, but they are commercial rivals who’ve been locked in a longstanding multi-million rand turf war that has seen products such as bottled water, toothpicks, coffee, pasta, wet-wipes, sugar, lentils, mixed nuts, spices, breakfast cereal, canned fish and even sago being certified Halal.

The Orion case is also a neat distraction from the real issue, where God-given ibahah (initial permissibility) is turned on its head to prey on the fears of a Halal- ignorant public who don’t know any better.

The other point, made vociferously by the National Consumer Forum, is that the paying public sees no direct benefit whatsoever from the proceeds of the Halal certification, and that a regulation of the regulators is long overdue.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The blonde lady & surfing the other side of apartheid



This piece was written for the 35th anniversay edition of Zig-Zag Surfing Magazine

I can’t believe that Zig-Zag is 35 years old. That’s a lot of pages.

Wasn’t it only yesterday that the mag was pasted up in a garage, and we shot pics in Kodachrome 64? I can still remember those first muddy black and white “action” shots, and the ultimate luxury, a grainy double-page colour spread.

But it was an era in which it was a privilege to grow up surfing. The waters were less crowded, False Bay sharks were mellow and there was genuine camaraderie in the line-up.

In my part of the woods, Johnny Paarman had earned the moniker, “Iceman”. In the power zones he was fearless and unbeatable.

I also pioneered surf photography down south, swimming at giant Sunset for the first time and getting my sinuses flushed with kelp.

Those were the days when Pierre de Villiers and Peter Button had just ridden a spot called Dungeons near Hout Bay.

“It gets bigger than the Crayfish Factory,” I remember Pierre telling Davey Stolk with typical understatement. Pierre and Peter used to hike over the mountain and then paddle out. Thank God I never swam at Dungeons. My sinuses.

But I think some of my most cherished memories are of the mid 80’s when South Africa was living through turbulent times. Of course, we carried on surfing. That’s what surfers do.

Many of my surfing mates were on the other side of the apartheid fence. Catching waves came against the background of police harassment and prejudice. But, hell, it was still fun.

It all started when Davey Stolk and I befriended people such as Shani Nagia, Ahmed Collier, Mogamad Davids, Tahir Davids, Faeez Abrahams and Rafiq Bagus. Rafiq, who won the SASU title before Cass swept the boards, was a street-wise survivor like Stolk.

In fact, I challenge anybody – even today – to throw Stolk or Bagus from the top of a building. By the time you’ve caught the lift to the ground floor, they’ll both be wiping the butter off their feet.

Another indomitable character was Ahmed Collier, father of Cass Collier – a talented athlete and fearless big wave rider, who went on the ASP Tour without surfing a single heat in SA against a white competitor.

Cass definitely got his balls from his father. Ahmed never stood back for anyone, and it was he who first paddled out at Long Beach, breaking all the racial taboos and really getting in your face if you didn’t like it.

Shani had started Wynberg Surf Club, the backbone of non-racial surfing, and later SASU, which was aligned with the anti-apartheid body, SACOS. Shani – still an unheralded and unrecognised figure – would also be one of the leading forces in surfing unity.

By 1984 Wynberg made contact with surfers in J-Bay, Port Elizabeth and Durban. The Jappie family in PE, the Jeggels’ in J-Bay and Terence Naidoo in Durban were the stalwarts.

SASU held national champs in J-Bay, Cape Town and Durban, and I remember Cheron Kraak of Billabong being the first sponsor. It was at Kitchen Windows that Cass Collier and Steven Jeggels first showcased their talents.

Stolk and I joined Wynberg, much to the shock and chagrin of the establishment, but we both felt that we were right. Black surfing was on the rise, and black surfers weren’t allowed to surf on white beaches. We felt we could make a difference.

The Cape Flats, where most of the surfers came from, was burning. Stolk and I got caught in the middle. We realised the seriousness of the anti-apartheid uprisings when we saw people dying in the streets.

But there was a funny side too. This is because the Security Branch started to take a keen interest in Wynberg Surf Club and its members, some of whom were the sons of a famous UDF activist, Essa Moosa.

The Branch took to following us around. We got to recognise a certain officer Mostert, who sported a bristling Voortrekker beard. He was relentless. Late one night he managed to collar one of our members, Addie.

He took him to a police station, and started slapping him around, as was the usual custom.

“Where is the fokkin guns? We know you donnerse fokkers has buried them on the beach?” thundered Mostert, who was trying to catch Rafiq for public violence.

“What does you discuss at your secret meetings on the waves?” he asked.

“Uh, we talk about J-Bay,” answered Addie innocently.

In their paranoia the Security Branch had thought we were about to launch a military attack on the Western Cape. But even when it became obvious that Addie (and the club) were not part of an Umkhonto Isizwe unit, Mostert still didn’t give up.

“And who’s that blonde lady with you?” he asked. This time Addie was really perplexed. Blonde lady? But his interrogator was insistent. It was then that that Addie realised Mostert was referring to me. In the 1980’s I still had hair.

True to form, Mostert pitched up at my work early one morning, but I managed to escape. As usual I was late, and Mostert – his usual impatient self – was leaving as I arrived. Ah yes, those were the days.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Russell Tribunal: I think Israel is an apartheid state



LIKE so many interested in the course of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, I will be keenly watching the Cape Town leg, which is the third of its hearings on Palestine.

With its brief to examine the superiority of international law in solving the Palestinian conflict, those eminent personalities standing before the jurors will be more than well-versed in what they have to say about apartheid as crime against humanity in the Israeli context.

Initiated by Lord Bertrand Russell in 1966, the original Russell Tribunal was originally founded to look at war atrocities in Vietnam. The Tribunal was supported by a host of intellectuals and academics. Its first chairman was the French philosopher, Jean Paul-Sartre.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine, employing the same principles as similar tribunals in Vietnam and South America, had already sat in Barcelona and London on the question of European Union and corporate complicity with Israel.

The Russell Tribunal enjoys no legal status, and has been described by its officers as a “tribunal of the people,” one which examines instances of injustice and violations of international law that are not dealt with by the international community.

For pro-Israeli lobbyists the Russell Tribunal is seen as an annoyance, a pesky distraction capable of making a noise, but incapable of executive decisions.

As a journalist, Palestine and the Middle East has been one my beats, and I’ve been there on assignment on numerous occasions covering a variety of issues over the past 15 years. My conclusion – after having interviewed hundreds of people from all sides of the conflict – is that Israel, basically an ethnic island in a sea of Arabs, is an apartheid state.

Having made that bald statement, let me qualify my view. This is because Russell Tribunal naysayers will immediately assume that I’m drawing cosy parallels and vehemently deny that comparisons can be made between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel.

The point is hardly the comparison, but that as South Africans we are better positioned than most to understand the layered nuances and emotions of institutionalised racism. And whilst Israel is a different place to South Africa, the similarity is in the naked intent of political power – to subjugate another people in the name of an ideological, ethnic agenda.

It is our empathy and understanding – as well as our practical experience of a hard fought for peace process – that we bring to the table as South Africans.

There is, of course, the fact that apartheid has gone on to enjoy a generic definition via the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court. The South African model no longer applies. Today apartheid is regarded as an inhumane act in the context of it being a crime against humanity.

The Rome Statutes are confined to violations of international law committed after 2002. And so for the purpose here, without venturing into the complexities of Middle Eastern history, I’ll confine myself to a small sample of what I’ve witnessed since 2002 – things that I would consider worth examination by those who argue so passionately that Israel is not guilty of apartheid.

But, to a brief comparison: when I first landed in Tel Aviv in 1997, fresh from years of covering the anti-apartheid struggle and the TRC, I was shocked.

For a brief moment Israel was like a post-traumatic stress flashback to South Africa. Communities surrounded by guns, pimply teenage conscripts with power beyond their wisdom, prickly attitudes – and the mind-numbing bureaucracy – reminded me of home in the 1980’s.

However, there was a vital difference to South African apartheid. This was a point repeated to me to me by Ribbon Mosholi, International Relations Manager for the ANC, who visited Palestine late last year.

She was initaially shocked too, saying she had never thought she would come across another system like South Africa. During South African apartheid people had been banned and put under house arrest. In Palestine people were not banned, but a whole nation.

And that is the most critical divergence between South African and Israeli apartheid. Rather than confining those of other races into group areas, Israeli apartheid has essentially focused on denying the existence of a people.

To put it bluntly, it’s Erez Israel – a greater racially defined Israel – or bust. Israeli political scientist, Professor Ilan Pappe, has gone so far as to call Zionism a policy of Palestinian “ethnic cleansing”.

That is why Gaza is such a huge issue. If confining a population the size of Mitchell’s Plain (or Soweto) into an area equivalent to the Cape Point Nature Reserve, and then completely sealing it off to starve, is not a form of institutionalised racism, then what is?

The pro-Israeli lobby also has to ask itself questions about operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. I was shown pictures in a medical report of flechettes (limb-cutting devices) found in explosives that had killed and maimed civilians.

What about the phosphorous bomb, banned by international convention, which landed in the courtyard of a Gaza school? I’m in no way justifying Israeli civilians being targeted, but asymmetric response with internationally sanctioned weaponry is obscenely beyond the law.

What needs to be answered too are the concerns of municipal officials I spoke to from Nablus and Gaza about over a million people having their water periodically cut off during the summer months; this done against the background of Palestinian West Bankers not being allowed to dig wells.

They wanted to know why the illegal settlements, which consist of about 40% of the current West Bank population, used 80% of Palestinian water resources.

Then there has to be investigation into the “unrecognised” towns and villages deliberately denied water, electricity and municipal status. There are plenty of these in the Galilee and Negev regions if anybody wants to look for them.

People such as the esteemed Judge Richard Goldstone have argued that Israel is not an apartheid state. And yes, there may not be “Jews only” signs on Haifa’s park benches, but what about Palestinians who have to travel on separate roads to settlers, and West Bankers (carrying ID documents not dissimilar to the dompas) who cannot enter Jerusalem?

After 2002 I saw the construction of the West Bank Wall, or “Apartheid Wall”, which has completely destroyed the fabric of Palestinian life.

Five metres higher than the old Berlin Wall, the “Apartheid Wall” was declared an unlawful construction by the International Court of Justice in 2004, and has stripped away swathes of Palestinian territory. I defy anyone to argue that the West Bank Wall is not an instrument of forceful racial separation.

At the end of the day, the issue is not whether the Russell Tribunal enjoys executive powers or not. The issue is that the Russell Tribunal is an opportunity for civil society to see things in Israel for what they really are without the camp Zion-isms, the political absolutisms and the crude distortions that currently bedevil its fretful landscape.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Gilad Shalit Release: Weighing up the Positives


THE Gilad Shalit deal, Shalit’s safe conduct home from Gaza after six years of incarceration in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails is – without doubt – one of the more fascinating chapters of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But it has to be understood in context, something that has been lacking in the current discourse surrounding the event.

For when Gilad Shalit, a teenage member of an IDF armoured brigade, was captured in 2006 by the Al-Qassam Brigades who’d burrowed under the Gaza wire, the Levant was still in the control of dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, men who acted as mediators between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

These were Arab leaders who would unquestioningly see to US and Israeli interests. In 2006 perceptions were completely different to what they are now. A hard bargain from Hamas would have had little truck in Cairo, whose leadership would have seen Hamas with the same jaundiced eye as its own Islamic Movement.

When Shalit was captured in 2006, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had already overseen the end of the ‘Arafat era, and had ensured the death knell of the Oslo Accords by persisting with illegal settlement building on the West Bank.

With Hamas on the post 9/11 US list of terror organisations and PA President Mahmoud Abbas officially declared persona non-grata by Sharon, Israel had earned – as former aide Dov Weisglass would have put it – its “no-one to talk to certificate”.

But this was to prove a brief respite for the Israeli hawks, so reluctant to engage with peace or Palestinian statehood. Sharon was cut short by his stroke and a much weaker man, Ehud Olmert, would take his place.

In January 2006 Palestinians (on the urging of President Bush) were sent to the polls and defied the script by voting Hamas into power. The covert arming by Bush (as revealed in Vanity Fair) of the PA strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, did not result in the expected overthrow of Hamas.

By July of that year, Israel under Olmert had invaded Lebanon in response to niggling incidents in southern Lebanon. The IDF lost several of its crack troops at the hands of Hizballah, whose intensity of challenge – and incessant rocket fire into Israel – was something it had not been fully prepared for.

In spite of Lebanese infrastructure being destroyed and one million people displaced, the Arab street rejoiced in what it perceived was victory. Israel, the invincible, had been humbled by Hizballah.

This, I think, was the turning point in the region – the event that planted the seed for the Arab Spring. I was in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon during the war. For the first time ever, I saw the Arab world cursing its leaders in the streets.

And when Benjamin Netanyahu, carping at Ehud Olmert, told the BBC that he should have razed Lebanon’s cities to the ground, I saw people laughing. For those who had little left to lose after decades of dictatorships, failed nationalisms and disastrous wars, the feared Zionist entity had become a joke.

For Gilad Shalit in his cell somewhere in Gaza this would have meant little. But in the larger scheme of things it was a big moment. The plates had shifted under the ground and an earthquake was imminent.

For Israel, who shares long borders with Egypt, Mubarak’s fall this February was an unexpected blow. The murderous hand of Gaza’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the Mavi Marmara killings in 2010 had proved disastrous, and now in 2011 Israel’s go-to man in the Middle East had gone.

According to the Middle East Monitor’s, Dawud Abdullah, the diplomatic role of Egypt with regards to Israel and the US changed to a less subservient one after Mubarak’s departure.

Egyptian mediation became more attuned to Arab interest, and with the aid of Turkey, Hamas and Fatah met in Cairo in April. This was followed by the PA’s campaign at the UN to get official recognition for a Palestinian state.

Facing a restless Israeli constituency, Netanyahu had to confront demands for Gilad Shalit’s release. Always a politician, though, his move was well considered. Opinion polls in Israel showed 79% approval of Shalit’s release, in spite of the clamour saying he’d capitulated to terrorists.

Then there was the fine print for the release of the first 477 Palestinians, 42% of whom would be deported and 11% of whom would face some form of house arrest.

There were also unfulfilled expectations. Marwan Barghouti (FATAH) and Ahmad Sa’adat (Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the most prominent inmates of Israeli jails, were left out of the deal.

Both are seen as major role players in Palestinian politics and integral personalities to any future peace process. There are those in FATAH who feel that Barghouti, a popular youth figure, could be its next leader.

Whilst Netanyahu basked in the euphoria of the release of Shalit, and tried to play down the Israeli negatives, Hamas, FATAH, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP also claimed victory. Their cadres came home to heroes’ welcomes.

Unfortunately, Gilad Shalit’s release – a positive event – has evoked intransigent response in Zionist quarters. This has clouded the issue. Melanie Phillips of the British Daily Mail, for example, told her readers that Shalit’s release had marked the “end of the peace process”.

By dealing with Hamas the Israeli government had sidelined Mahmoud Abbas, she claimed, describing Palestinian celebrations as an “obscene joy” and that Israel faced “genocidal Arab rejectionism”.

But as Wadi Abu Nasser, head of a Haifa think tank, pointed out to me last week. Israel did not deal directly with Hamas, but through German and Egyptian mediators. As for the peace process, there was no peace process. Oslo had been extinguished by Sharon.

However, there are several lessons to be learnt from Gilad Shalit’s exchange. The first is that if you negotiate with an enemy that you don’t necessarily have to like, the sky doesn’t fall in. The second is that genuine political compromise is measured by its positives, because there will always be unfulfilled articles of desire.

Thirdly, Israel is no longer in the untouchable position it was in the Middle East before the Arab Spring. The landscape has changed, and the nascent Arab governments – facing daunting challenges – will be expected to be far more demanding with regards to the peace process and international law.

Indeed, if any victory be granted in the Gilad Shalit deal, it is by a nose length the Palestinian one.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Hajj visa selling scandal: Public Protector must intervene


South African Hajj pilgrims might well be up in arms about the illegal sale of visas and the alleged corruption of certain tour operators, but historically, Hajj rip-offs are as old as the Hajj itself, a sacred Abrahamic ritual.

Wherever people have journeyed to Mecca, carrying their precious silver, gold or cash, there have been predators waiting in the shadows. To visit Mecca during the lunar month of Dhul Hijjah is only incumbent on a Muslim once in a lifetime, but its hardships are legend.

Chronicles by mediaeval authors such as Nasir Khusrow, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Jubair talk of the dangers of Hajj travel, and relate heart-rending stories of people being robbed of their belongings and money en-route.

Hardly a century ago, the Hajji could not enjoy the guarantee of a safe return home. For most pilgrims, the Hajj would take several months of arduous travel by sea and land.

And if concerns about physical safety weren’t enough (Ibn Sa’ud only chased away highway robbers on the Jeddah-Mecca road in the 1920’s) there would be the challenges of malaria, bubonic plague, yellow fever, TB and cholera.

Air travel, inoculation and air-conditioned buses have certainly reduced the discomfort of the Hajj. But with it have come different challenges. Safety, comfort and the affordability of air travel have meant that more people can visit Mecca.

This is borne out by figures released by the Saudi Press Agency. In 1950, 100,000 pilgrims gathered on the plains of Arafat, the locus of the Hajj. By 1983 this number had increased to one million pilgrims.

In 1988 this led the Organisation of Islamic Countries (the OIC) to pass a resolution on Hajj quotas to ensure that the Saudi infrastructure could cope. This agreement, which allows a country to only send one pilgrim for each 100,000 persons, restricts the total Hajj quota today to about 2½ million – which is its limit.

Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country on earth, has a quota of 221,000.

For decades South Africa, with a Muslim minority population, existed under the Hajj radar. A special Saudi dispensation to South African Muslims during apartheid was that they could get visas on entry to the country.

This meant that the South African Hajj was not regulated, and each year an average 8,000 South Africans would perform its rites. By the early 1990’s our Hajj industry had grown to be worth more than R220 million annually.

In 1994 with the advent of diplomatic accord after apartheid, the South African Hajj landscape began to change. The South African Hajj and ‘Umrah Council (SAHUC) – recognised by the Saudi Hajj Ministry – was established to act as a regulatory body to liaise with the Hajj authorities.

Formed with the best of intentions by a former ANC parliamentarian, SAHUC was met with scepticism by the community, especially the Hajj agents who saw their turf threatened. Many slated SAHUC – whose executive members came from community organisations – as being incompetent.

Hajj numbers, however, stayed up. It was only in 2004 that South Africa was obliged to accept a quota, 3,500 pilgrims. In addition to these new restrictions, travel agents had to lodge sizeable deposits in Saudi Arabia, and abide by a code of conduct under which they had to be accredited by SAHUC.

Hajj totals were cut by half, and SAHUC instituted an online application system designed at grading pilgrims according to first time needs. The system was swamped and just over 10,000 applied for Hajj. Glitches in the system caused suspicion, allegations of nepotism and widespread dissatisfaction.

This led to the formation of an organisation called Hajj Watch, one that claims SAHUC is illegally constituted, has no mandate to represent pilgrims and should be disbanded.

With demand now outstripping supply by over 50%, smaller Hajj agents struggled to meet their commitments. The multi-million rand industry went into a tailspin. The attrition rate amongst Hajj operators would be high. Many went out of business or had to merge with bigger companies to survive.

For pilgrims all was not entirely lost as the Hajj Ministry would usually grant South Africans a further 1,500 visas just before the Hajj. This would bring the total up to 5,000 – but would still be 3,000 short of the average figure.

The additional visas, I was informed by Saudi authorities, came from poor sub-Saharan countries unable to fill their quotas.

But this year many prospective South African pilgrims were shocked. The Hajj Ministry – also having to deal with the logistics of a Mecca under re-construction – had strictly applied OIC diktats.

The OIC and the Saudis estimate that there are 2½ million Muslims here, and so the 2011 Hajj quota was 2, 500, the lowest ever. The additional quota of 500 was also the lowest ever too, and it left SAHUC facing an angry constituency, as it only met the needs of 10% of those waiting in the Hajj queue.

One can then imagine the fury of those in line when news broke that 11 Hajj operators had been fingered in a “highest bidder gets served” visa scandal. Hajj visas are issued free by the Saudi embassies and their sale is illegal. Visa corruption is the scourge of many a Hajj mission.

What has to be noted about visa selling locally is that it has been going on for years, even reportedly within the inner circle of SAHUC. In 2004 I exposed a visa tout on Voice of the Cape radio, as well as other cons by certain Hajj operators.

But with Hajj being a seasonal thing, passions soon wane after it passes. And that, combined with SAHUC’s constitutional limitations in punishing miscreants, has always been the problem in rooting out the offenders.

And never more urgent has the call been for agencies such as the Public Protector to intervene in the Hajj, a sacred South African Muslim institution that is not only riven with widespread dissatisfaction, but alleged malpractice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hajj crisis: yearning for the traditional values


WHEN I first went to Makkah in the 1980’s I bought a ticket via Thomas Cook – no SAHUC, no agents, no problems. But then things were a lot simpler. The most direct air route to Jeddah was via Nairobi, where you hoped your transit would be brief.

We were then the world’s number one nasty nation, and Kenyan immigrations treated South Africans like dirt. We were not allowed to enter the country, and I once remember being stranded at the airport without food for 36 hours.

But challenges of that era aside, the process of getting to Makkah seemed so uncomplicated. I would simply book my ticket and go. Visas were obtained on entry to Saudi. Accommodation, which was cheap, was negotiated upon arrival.

I can recall staying in Aisha Bewley’s Bayt – the Arabic for “residence” – a stone’s throw away from the Makkah Haram for 10 riyals a night. Granted, it was a small room – but it had an air-con and a bed.

I use the word “Bayt” with fondness because that’s what we used to call accommodation in the Holy Cities. There was no such thing as a “hotel” with satellite TV, dinner buffets and obliging Bangladeshi butlers.

In fact, I’m probably the last generation able recall the old ways of Makkah and Madinah; an era when the locals, people like the late Sayyid Safi, were such gracious hosts. You felt you were a guest of Allah in the true sense of the word.

The old buildings were still standing, and the Wahhabis had not yet managed to flatten all the ziyarah places. In Madinah I can still recall walking a few blocks from the Haram, and discovering quaint old mud houses amongst palm groves filled with birds – and a magical world that reminded me of the Qur’an.

The neem trees hadn’t even been planted at ‘Arafat, and the Wahhabi muftis hadn’t yet put up the funny green boards saying it was against the Prophet’s (SAW) wishes to climb Jabl Thawr.

If I sound wistful, it’s not because I’ve airbrushed my travels to create a glossy, postcard of yesteryear. Indeed, there were challenges. The Wahhabi morals police would think nothing of smashing your cameras – or as I once witnessed, dragging a woman out of a phone booth during the adhan.

Reciting the Qasidah Burdah, or the magnificent Dala’il Khairat, in Madinah was enough to get the askaris – as we called the Haram guards – rushing to tear up your book. I heard lots of bida’h, shirk and kufr in those days – and once had my hands slapped when making du’ah at the Prophet’s (SAW) grave. I just ignored the askari and lifted my hands again.

But if I have to comment on my nostalgia, it’s because what I yearn for is the more soulful, traditional values of the Hajj and ‘Umrah. This is something that many Saudis have totally forgotten in their indecent haste to transform Makkah and Madinah into “Allah Vegas”.

I would argue that crass materialism and interest-based market forces have permeated into the very cloth of the Ka’bah. Many of our so-called Hajj agents and certain SAHUC office bearers, currently caught up in visa and other obscene scandals, are mere symptoms of this end-time malaise.

Mimar Sinan, the famous Turkish architect who renovated the Haram in the 16th century, was so in awe that he refused to build anything higher than the Ka’bah. Yet today Saudi developers boast about a multi-million dollar clock, a monstrous wart looming 1,000 metres over the Haram.

It seriously begs the question: where’s the spiritual respect, the old-fashioned adab towards the sacred environment?

Indeed, the same developers have kept quiet for years about the ecological havoc they’ve wreaked in the Holy Cities. Sewage now flows into Makkah’s oldest cemetery, the Jannat ul-Ma’ala. This is where Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet (SAW), lies buried.

How many pilgrims visiting Makkah nowadays know that the same developers, deaf to the ears of experts, damaged the well of Zamzam when rock-blasting? The BBC conducted chemical tests on Zamzam last year and discovered that it now contains arsenic.

The fact that residence near the Sanctuaries is only now for the pockets of the usurious elite is equally scandalous. The wealthy dwell around the Ka’bah in six-star, timeshare comfort. The rest of us exist on its periphery. Where is the egalitarianism of the pilgrimage now?

In 2004, when the Saudis last allowed me to enter the country, I could see all of this beginning to happen. The dust and destruction of engineering Armageddon had just started, and I remember desperately wishing that this time round, the developers would try and tastefully blend the past with the future.

Unfortunately, my hope for urban aesthetics was a vain one. The first thing to go was the historic Ottoman fort. This put huge pressure on the birthplace of the Prophet (SAW), a building demolished by ibn Sa’ud in the 1920’s, turned into a cattle-market and then rescued in the 1950’s by philanthropist, Shaikh ‘Abbas Kattan.

To this day no archaeologist has ever been able to dig at the site. This is the very last vestige of the old, sacred Makkah – now threatened by the unsympathetic concrete and marble expansion of the Haram.

Indeed, the house of Sa’ud enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the only regimes in history to have overseen its own cultural genocide, and to have consciously obliterated its sacred spaces in the name of a religious demagogue, ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab.

Today in Makkah and Madinah there is nothing to remind future generations of what was before. The ancient ziyarah spots, which could have been preserved in an environment-friendly modern renovation, have all gone.

The places where the Prophet (SAW) and his noble Companions prayed, fought battles, slept, brought up children, drank from wells and witnessed miracles to found one of the world’s greatest civilisations are blessed historical footprints that have been swept away forever, and we are all the poorer for it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Al-Shabab: the Taliban of the Horn



Part One, the Birth of the Islamic Courts Union

TWO weeks after we’d left Mogadishu, the wall next to which I used to make my satellite broadcasts in our compound was damaged in a bomb blast. A mere block away on Kilometre 4, the city’s most notorious junction, an Al-Shabab suicide bomber had driven an explosive-laden truck into a government building.

The attack was directed at the Ministry of Education, where parents and students had gathered to get news of bursaries offered by Turkey. Its prime minister, Recep Erdogan, had recently visited Transitional Federal Government head, Shaikh Sharif Ahmed, a former Islamic Courts Union member – and now Al-Shabab’s number one enemy.

The explosion had killed 70 and injured at least 100 – all innocent civilians, and the perennial victims of Somalia’s conflict.

Shaikh Ali Mohammad Raghe, Al-Shabab spokesperson, had warned his fellow countrymen to stay away from Transitional Federal Government institutions. He had warned of further attacks. Everybody in Mogadishu knew that he was deadly serious.

For during our brief stay in the capital of 2 million people AMISOM (African Union) troops had defused three IED’s (Independent Explosive Devices) and disarmed a 13 year-old suicide bomber.

Nightly clashes

The nightly clashes we heard from our compound were also a reminder that the battle for the capital was ongoing, as was the grenade blast near the Medecins Sans Frontieres office down the road.

Madina Hospital, where Gift of the Givers surgeons had worked miracles in a makeshift surgery, was overwhelmed with casualties. This bombing – the latest in a litany of Al-Shabab terror attacks – came after it had been driven out of Mogadishu by AMISOM forces in August.

Somalia is said to be one of the most perilous places to work on earth, with 32 journalists and numerous aid agency workers killed on the job since 1992.

We used to drive past the Ministry of Education, which is also near to the spot where only a week prior to our visit in late September, a Malaysian TV journalist, Noramfaizel Mohd Nor of Bernama TV, had lost his life.

Ironically, he’d not died at the hands of Al-Shabab – renowned for its antipathy towards westerners and its proclivity for killing fellow Somalis – but rather the nervous trigger finger of an AMISOM gunner atop a South African Casspir.

According to eyewitness reports, the journalist’s militia had swerved in front of the Casspir. And in a jittery part of town where questions have to be asked later, the Ugandan soldier had opened fire.

But this is Mogadishu, a dusty seaside city – once known as the “white pearl” of the Indian Ocean – reduced to rubble by 20 years of strife. In its edgy streets where killers do roam free, it’s the AK47 that gets respect. With its ever-ready militias and all sorts of shady gunmen, Mogadishu is like the Wild West on steroids.

But in spite of a lack of effective government, life does go on in Somalia. It is this indomitable spirit that has sustained Somalis, many of whom have found Islam the most coherent way to endure war, political failure and famine.

Somalia is a clan based society. Siad Barre – who grabbed power in a 1971 coup – was able to ruthlessly exploit the clans, and bring the country to its knees by 1991, leaving a power vacuum filled by warlordism when he was ousted.

However, it has to be remembered that Somalia is an African country, and that its traditional Islam is African. The lingua-franca and culture of Somalia is not Arabic, in spite of its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula.

Until Al-Shabab’s Salafi-Wahhabis tore it apart, Somali Islam enjoyed a tolerant status rooted in Sufism via the Qadiriyyah, Salihiyyah and Ahmadiyyah Orders. Kismayo, the southern port city now occupied by Al-Shabab, was known as a Sufi centre.

Clan life then, was a tapestry of tasawwuf, tradition and customary law. Called “Xeer”, Somali customary law is – interestingly – not entirely contradictory to Shari’ah. Totally indigenous, its approach is polycentric, and is based on patriarchal consensus and conciliation.

The major difference is that in a Shari’ah court the victim of murder, for example, will have a choice of the penalty, legal retribution or blood money. Under Xeer, the clan elder – and not the victim – will determine the response. Xeer also entreats just treatment of women and children, and looks at family matters, the handling of resources and the disbursement of charity.

An interesting aspect of Somali clan life is that whilst clan elders might have been swept up into the maelstrom of Somali politics, the clans themselves had internal mechanisms of social order – mechanisms which would not have been political.

This is something that is not understood sufficiently by analysts of the Somali compass. For when the first Islamic Court appeared in northern Mogadishu (a Sufi stronghold) in the 1990’s, the response was not a political one.

Civilians caught in the crossfire

Civilians caught in the crossfire of anarchy were merely looking at a non-political solution to what was a social problem. The initial focus of the courts – which then sprung up all over Mogadishu – were primarily aimed at order and harmony.

Another neglected aspect is the role of the ‘ulama, whose attempts at conciliation over the past two decades have not been given fair due. Few remember the efforts of the scholar, Shaikh Muhammad Moallim, in trying to get General Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi to lay down arms in 1991.

The Islamic Courts of Mogadishu were clan-based, but decided to merge in 2004, their control extending over the city and into the countryside. Tensions rose when the Sufi-orientated movement, Ahl us-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah, found itself at odds with the hard-line Salafi-Wahhabis.

In the meantime, the rise of Islamic consciousness on the Horn of Africa had started bleeping on the “war on terror” radar in Washington. A throwaway line by Usama Bin Laden to journalist Peter Bergen – that al-Qaedah had been present in Somalia since 1993 – saw the Bush regime creating a new frontier in Somalia.

In 2006 Ethiopia – claiming that it was a besieged Christian nation – invaded Somalia to crush the ICU and ruin the fragile peace. This invasion, backed by Bush, saw 600,000 inhabitants in Mogadishu being displaced. It also saw the creation of yet another Somali power vacuum – a vacuum into which Islamic extremism would rush to become an even bigger player.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Giving Hope to Somalia

Shafiq Morton accompanied Gift of the Givers on its most recent aid mission to Mogadishu
FROM the air, the Somali coastline is postcard pristine. Waves curl over coral reefs, and dunes lead to sandy beaches. As our plane dips towards Mogadishu, the Horn of Africa’s most troubled city comes into view. As we prepare to land, our pilot skims over the heaving swells. It’s an exhilarating way to arrive, but as we taxi, the gloss disappears. A shot-up Russian Ilushin, its wings broken, is abandoned on the side of the runway. Beyond the fence, I see a bubble of plastic huts – the camps of those who’ve fled famine and Al-Shabab. Urbanisation has now ensnared Somali’s rural poor. The airport building is a basic structure without air-conditioning. It was built by the Chinese during the ignominious reign of General Muhammad Siad Barre, the man who started the rot in the Horn when he grabbed power via a coup in 1969. General Barre’s 21-year contribution to Somalia – once one of the most democratic of African states – was to divide it along clan lines, to fight a losing war with Ethiopia and to impose Cold War Marxism. Having courted the Soviets, the Americans and the IMF, General Barre was deposed in 1990. His departure left a vacuum, briefly filled by Farah Aideed, and then by warlordism, the brief rule of the Islamic Courts Union (until Ethiopian intervention in 2006) and the Salafist absolutism of Al-Shabab (after the ICU). The US’s ill-fated intervention in 1993 – relating to drought relief and nervousness about the security of the Gulf of Aden – was immortalised in the movie Black Hawk Down. We arrived in Mogadishu a month after AMISOM (African Union) forces, aided by South African, French and Scandinavian “advisors” employed by Bancroft Global Development, had chased Al-Shabab out of the city. Manned by 10,000 Ugandan and Burundian forces, AMISOM is an AU success story. Forget about international conspiracies (of which there are many). Forget about romantic notions of Al-Shabab being the heroic vanguard of the Somali underdog. Formerly the military wing of the more moderate Islamic Courts Union, Al-Shabab – which means “the youth” – has become part of the Somali problem. AMISOM chasing it out of the city has done a huge favour for the locals. My observation, based on numerous interviews with Mogadishu residents, is that Al-Shabab will be remembered for chaos and carnage. Whenever I mentioned Al-Shabab to those I spoke to, all I heard was “kill” and “bad”. This was corroborated by concrete evidence: the boy whose right arm was hacked off by his commander just because he had doubts; or the soldier who told me of a cousin who’d been forced to slit the throat of another family member. Stories of Al-Shabab bullying refugees fleeing the famine in the south were rife, from rape and plunder, to abductions. Rising out of the ashes of the ICU – which was an effort by businessmen to restore law and order in the 2000’s – Al-Shabab’s clumsy efforts to “Talibanise” Somalia, an African country boasting a tolerant Islam based on the traditions of tasawwuf, or Islamic spirituality, has been a disaster. Allegedly infiltrated by foreign mujahidin, Al-Shabab pledged allegiance to Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Usama bin Laden’s mentor, and over-ran the country with bloodthirsty vigour. Declared a “terrorist “ organisation by the US and Britain, Al-Shabab destroyed Sufi shrines, captured young boys to serve in its ranks, and terrorised the population with its distorted interpretation of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. AMISOM, the only counter to Al-Shabab, is backed by the UN. AMISOM is an implementation of the Djibouti Accord (a peacekeeping initiative aiming for elections by August next year). All parties in the Somali mix – except for Al-Shabab – have representation on the 550-strong Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in Nairobi. From afar, this may all seem crazy, interventionist and somewhat surreal. However, the Somali Assembly is a bombed-out ruin, and there is no infrastructure in Mogadishu. Here food and guns reign supreme. We had to travel everywhere accompanied by heavily armed militia. I would also learn from reliable UN and AMISOM sources that violence had dropped in the city by over 80% since their intervention in August, and that Mogadishu was coming to life again. In fact, during our stay three IED devices were successfully defused by AMISOM, and a 13 year old suicide bomber was intercepted. But, as interesting Somali politics may be, my story here is more about the South African mercy mission by Gift of the Givers, a Pietermaritzburg aid agency that has mobilised R40 million worth of aid for Somalia in a mere 47 days. Mogadishu – once an attractive and tree-lined seaport city – lies in ruins, bombed to its foundations by over two decades of conflict. With many of its own citizens Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) due to recent action against Al-Shabab, Mogadishu was in trouble. With no disaster relief, and most hospitals dysfunctional or closed for years, the flood of famine IDP’s flocking to the city for help since April had put it under unimaginable strain. War and famine had run into each other. International NGO’s, mostly conspicuous by their absence, had put those present (such as Medecins Sans Frontieres) under severe pressure. It was into this breach that Gift of the Givers stepped, giving hope to Somalia’s needy. We flew into Mogadishu with a large contingent of medical staff. Their brief was to work at Banadir Hospital, one of the few functioning health care centres in Somalia. After a few days at Banadir, GOG director Dr Imtiaz Sooliman received an offer from a hospital superintendent at Forlanini Hospital in the Abdi Aziz district north of Mogadishu. The hospital, recently liberated from Al-Shabab, had been standing empty for three years. Much to his surprise, Dr Sooliman was offered full control of the hospital, the only surviving structure in the neighbourhood. His team split up and moved in, putting up a fully functional operating theatre in less than a day. It was there that many miracles occurred. And whilst five month old Nasreen Siyad – weighing less than two kilograms – survived, there were those who didn’t. After having set up at Forlanini, GOG’s was asked by another hospital – Madina – to offer orthopaedic services. Again, the team went into action, the surgeons performing their first operation in a matter of hours. If that wasn’t enough, Saint Martini – another hospital in Mogadishu – had opened its doors for the first time in 20 years and desperately needed orthopaedic surgeons. With his crew on the ground already stretched to its limits, Dr Sooliman flew in another medical team. With most Somalis not having seen doctors in decades, the medics were under pressure. One doctor I spoke to said he’d seen a new patient every three-and-a-half minutes. At Forlanini alone, 600 people were seen a day. Somalia has thousands of people with high velocity bullet wounds and in theatres without lights, air-conditioning and running water, our surgeons saved many lives. Then there was the feeding. The IDP camps are big, and people live under bright plastic huts built out of twigs. Immaculately clean, considering the abject conditions, 30,000 people were being fed three wet meals a day, and would soon be drinking water from a well dug by South Africans. As I stood in the hot sun covered in dust, I acknowledged that I had a lot to think about. South Africans, via Gift of the Givers, had truly opened their hearts to Somalia, and seeing the smiles on the faces of once starving children, I realised that the impact had been immense.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Syria: A Question of Competing Narratives


IT is much easier to understand Syria, currently stricken with political revolt, in the light of history. Since time immemorial, a host of empires have decamped on its soil. Damascus, watered by the Barada River, is one of the oldest capitals in the world.

Sharing a 900 km border with Turkey, the gateway to Asia, it is no stranger to conflict or colonisation: conquered by the Pharaohs, Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar, Hulugu Khan, Tamerlane, the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the French, Syria’s soils have often run with blood.

But Syria has also been a place of peace and prosperity. Ibn Jubair, a tenth century traveller, wrote that Syria was a land of blessing. According to his diaries it was a land of civility and culture abounding in fruits and holy men.

Today the holy men may have gone to ground, but a visit to modern Syria – a country buffeted by post-colonial coups, pan-Arabism and Ba’thism – will reveal that it’s graced with fertile valleys, water, gas, oil, a pristine coastline and ancient historical sites.

But with nearly 2,000 civilians killed and over 3,000 “disappearances” since the events of March, tourists and investors are staying away.

President Bashar al-Assad, the son of strong-man Hafez al-Assad, has welcomed the Arab Spring to his fiefdom by unleashing tank brigades upon his citizenry. After four decades of iron rule, Syrians don’t want to be lorded over by yet another Assad.

With journalists banished from Syria and a media blackout, one is confronted with competing narratives. Assad’s regime has blamed intellectuals, the disadvantaged and militant groups for his troubles.

His spokesmen have argued that the violence has been manufactured abroad and is implemented by armed gangs, and that the Syrian people want government to restore security.

There has been lots of diplomatic spin too. Foreign Minister, Walid Moualem, has promised a Syrian democracy by December, and a new constitution by March next year. This reassurance (given to South Africa, Brazil and India) has been deemed “illusory” by Human Rights Watch.

The other narrative – the one of the Syrian street – has had to rely upon social media to get its message out. This story has revealed, mostly via cell phone footage, ongoing human rights abuses by Assad’s security forces, now deemed crimes against humanity by many in the international community.

And whilst the refusal of the military to shoot civilians in Egypt and Tunisia toppled its dictators quickly – and relatively painlessly – the role of Assad’s security forces in putting down public dissent has cast a pall upon the Arab Spring (as has Western meddling in Libya and the Gulf Co-operation Council’s clampdown in Bahrain).

Fouad Ajami, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, has observed that Syria has been locked in a stalemate, where “an irresistible force” has clashed with an “unmovable object”.

And whilst Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution gained real impetus after 26 year-old Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in frustration at Ben Ali’s corruption, Syria‘s defining moment was the death in detention of the 13-year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb.

He was arrested for singing anti-Assad songs in the village of Jiza during April. When his parents retrieved his corpse a month later – not only was his body riddled with cigarette burns, contusions and bullet wounds – but his neck had been broken, and his penis cut off.

Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Palestine Chronicle, says that this only serves to highlight why progress will only be made in Syria without the old symbols of power. We are dealing with a popular uprising led by civil society wanting complete change.

He says that Syria can’t be held hostage by familial considerations, one-party rule and colonial sectarian classifications forever. Baroud believes that Arab criticism had been traditionally muted on Syria until now because the country had been under genuine threat from Israel and the US, especially after 9/11.

But Syria’s strategic friendship with Iran, its support of the Kurds on the Turkish border, its long involvement in Lebanon, its aid to Hizballah and its refuge to Hamas leaders were aimed as much at stilling internal conflict, as they were at showing that Syria was a regional player, he says.

However, Syria’s role was always “theoretical”. The truth is that the crafty Hafez al-Assad wanted a popular regional profile, but without problems back home.

Imam Abdul Hadi, a Syrian exile who lectures at the London School of Islamic Studies, feels that no-one should doubt the ruthlessness of the Ba’thist regime. He recalls that as a 16 year-old in 1982 he’d witnessed the massacre of over 20,000 people in his home town of Hama when Hafez al-Assad cracked down on the Islamic Brotherhood.

He feels that the recent condemnation of Syria by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, known for his cautiousness in Foreign policy, is a critical moment in the Arab world. The Saudis’ condemnation has been followed by harsh words from US president Barack Obama and other leaders.

Hadi agrees with Baroud, and other Mid East commentators, that Syria has to avoid the pitfalls of Libya where any margin in the conflict could be used as an excuse for western, or even regional, intervention.

This is something that would taint the Syrian revolt. Western pressure on Syria had always been more about specific policy regarding Israel, than the human rights abuses of the Assad regime.

Unfortunately, it seems as if the meddling may have already begun. Al-Manar television, the mouthpiece of Hizballah, reported this month that two local gun smugglers had been intercepted by Lebanese military intelligence trying to ship assault rifles to Syria.

The Lebanese media was quick to point out that the men had a connection with assassinatedLebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri – reportedly a favourite of Saudi Arabia and the US – and that Salafi fighters with Lebanese papers facilitated by the smugglers had been allegedly captured by Syrian authorities.

However, Al-Manar was silent on another allegation – made to me by Imam Abdul Hadi – who said that people in Hama had told him over the phone that they’d identified Hizballah operatives supporting Assad’s regime.

According to Baroud, the Syrian government is deliberately mixing up regional and national narratives, this while civilians continue to endure the wrath of a single family backed by the Ba’thist party. But there is only one way to read the future of Syria, he says.

“The Syrian people deserve equality and social justice, free from empty slogans, self-serving elites and corrupt criminals. What Syria and its courageous people deserve is a new dawn of freedom.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Muslim Community Media: a Ground Plan

Muslim Community Media: a Ground Plan

The Muslim Community Media Trust

MY article in the pre-Ramadan edition of Muslim Views (Muslim Community Media: Is it My Final Crossroads?) has, I hope, led to some introspection about the lot of those who work within our community, especially the media.

In it I confronted the harsh realities that community media faces, and the even harsher economic challenges for those and their families who work within it.

Whilst some who read the article felt it better that I – a loose cannon – should finally retire, others tactfully asked whether it was that bad in the community media. Unfortunately, the answer is, yes.

So how bad is it? Well, the combined take home pay (sans benefits) of our two most senior journalists – with 70 years on the coalface between them – is still less than that of a reporter of five years’ experience in the mainstream. Do the Maths.

And for those who might clamour that community media is all about volunteers, of course, it is – as well as training, empowerment and education – but there has to be a professionally skilled corps at the centre to keep the wheel turning.

The point I’ve made many times is that in the Western Cape, at least, Voice of the Cape, Radio 786 and Muslim Views have to compete with the mainstream, which demands standards. Interns and volunteers have to fit into the skilled structures, and not the other way round.

I’m sure few will disagree that a thriving Muslim media is absolutely essential to our wellbeing as a community. Whilst providing a social stage, it opens us up to local and international audiences.

But where do we go from here?

My suggestion is that a waqf – a trust – be set up to ensure the long-term survival of community media. This waqf, which I will call the Muslim Community Media Trust (MCMT), will act as a central, independent body.

The fine print of how it will be run will have to be left to the experts in this field, but I don’t think it would be out of place to suggest that the MCMT – a national body – be responsible for administration, collection and disbursement.

The main function of the MCMT will be to augment the salary bills of Muslim media houses, freeing them to face running costs with less anxiety.

These funds will be allocated on a pro-rata basis – so a radio with 25 permanent staff members and 300,000 listeners will be entitled to a larger proportion than one, for example, with five staffers and 20,000 listeners.

Whilst my suggestion is that the monies should be spent on human resources first, should the media houses need funds for special development projects, the MCMT should have the mandate to grant an exception – but only if the better interest is served.

Naturally, the MCMT would have to embody the highest principles, and media houses would have to first qualify for the grants.

A successful application would have to be based upon criteria such as good book-keeping, audited audience surveys, compliance of licence conditions, consistent turnover, competent management, a proper business plan and appropriate labour practices.

Muslim media houses will not be allowed to have sole dependency on the MCMT, and as I’ve said above, will have to have proven records.

My instinct also tells me that each media house will have to administer their MCMT funds in a separate account served by officers who must have specific skills in the accounting, legal and HR professions. These people would not be allowed to be Trustees or Directors of the media houses in question.

This leads to some of the hard questions: how do we form the national MCMT? How much is needed? Who will be the players? And, how do we raise the funds?

It’s not a cop out, but I leave ideas and debate about the constitutional formation of the MCMT to those who know more than me. My suggestion is that it is served by competent professionals in our community, of whom there is no shortage.

As for funds, I’m looking at R5 million annually.

And before I’m shot down in flames of derision, let me explain. Is R5 million a lot of money? Yes, it is, and yes, it isn’t. In terms of social and human investment it’s priceless – offering empowerment, stability and peace of mind for our community media, as well as enabling us to create institutions. In terms of a bank balance, I agree, it’s a challenge.

But I cannot emphasise enough the need for a stable local media, and the critical role that it has to play. If one considers how much money the Zionist lobby spends on its agendas, R5 million (about 800,000 dollars) will pale by comparison.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question of spending wisely on our most precious resource, human resources. And to crunch a few numbers, I estimate that R5 million is enough to double the pay annually of 48 of our journalists, managers and admin staff.

So who will be the players? Again, that’s something that would have to be open to discussion, but most likely Voice of the Cape, Radio 786, Muslim Views, Al-Qalam, Radio Islam, Radio IFM and Radio Al-Ansaar.

Channel Islam, to my knowledge, is commercial – but even media review agencies with a proven reputation, such as the Media Review Network, could be considered under this aid umbrella.

And the money?

Here’s a golden opportunity for the multi-million rand Halal industry to finally do something for us, the consumer who bankrolls it. It would be a perfect trade-off. But the best option, I suspect, would be to create a platform for national corporate social responsibility – again the realm of those more qualified than myself.

In conclusion, all that I’ve formulated is an idea – agree or disagree with me – but, surely, if we do nothing, we all stand to lose?



Monday, August 8, 2011

The Root Causes of the Somali Famine


THE 21st century has brought with it tremendous technological progress, but allied with predatory capitalism, has offered selective benefits.

Extreme rich-poor divides bedevil most developing countries that provide raw materials for this technology, and in failed states such as the DRC and Somalia, poverty has only deepened.

This century has also seen some of our worst natural disasters; many brought on about by the combined forces of man and nature. In Pakistan, 20 million people were directly affected by the floods of September last year.

Rampant deforestation of the Indus highlands could not absorb the heavy rainfall and an unseasonal early snow melt, which resulted in huge volumes of water gushing into the Pakistan lowlands.

Even in the Far East one has to ask how much less the impact of the Indonesian tsunami could have been had the mangrove swamps not been destroyed to build beachfront hotels?

And now in the Horn of Africa, 20 million Somalis are being affected by famine and drought. It’s alarming to think that in less than 12 months, 40 million people in the poorest parts of the world have been displaced by environmental disaster.

However, to understand these disasters we have to look at them in a wider context. This is because they are inevitably the consequence of more complex happenings. Global warming is a scientifically recognised phenomenon, but that doesn’t help us to understand the social, human perspective.

Science only deals with actions in a box called a paradigm, and can only look at events relating to that paradigm via a laboratory benchmark. To understand global warming and the Somali famine, man (and not science) has to be placed at the centre of things.

Our perspective is historical, because it is history that sheds the most light on causation. The truism is: nothing on this earth happens in isolation, and everything is inter-connected – from the strands of human thought over the ages to the dust of the Western Sahara blowing across the Atlantic.

The Somali famine, the symptom of a greater social and environmental mechanism, has its distant roots in the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries; religious wars that witnessed hundreds of thousands of people dying, and Mamluk armies finally driving the Franks back to Europe by 1290.

This encounter with the Islamic Orient – then the world leader in the arts, sciences, economics, music, medicine and philosophy – saw the birth of the European Renaissance.

And whilst life in the Sahel continued as before, and the universities of Timbuktu still produced some of the world’s finest scholars, events were already stirring that would begin to affect sub-Saharan Africa in unimaginable ways.

The Knights Templar of Jerusalem, the forefathers of modern Western banking and the Masonic movement, brought many ideas back home. Scholars such as Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon drank deeply from Islamic sources, but not before many of the Templars – in a mediaval sub-plot – had been executed by King Philip of France on Friday 13, 1307.

The adoption of the scientific method caused conflict with the church. Its leaders saw themselves as direct heavenly intermediaries. The idea of reason being superior to revelation was not only an anathema to them, but a threat to their political and economic grip on power.

Medieval scientists such as Galileo clashed with ecclesiastical authorities, and the rise of the Catholic Inquisitions in the 13th and the 16th centuries ensured that doctrinal tyranny reigned supreme. This in turn engendered a reaction against the church, with science often at odds with clerical authority.

This separation of science and religion is described by the late Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansari as the “tragedy” of Western civilisation. Western civilisation was the “child” of Islam. But, as he says, it was a “disloyal child” as its progress, except for technology, was hostile to the moral direction that Revelation could give it.

This dichotomy became epitomised by the injunction of giving unto “Caesar what was due to Caesar and to God what was due to God”. With religion – and more importantly, its morality – divorced from economics, government and knowledge, it was a slippery slope to rampant materialism.

This materialism was accelerated by the Industrial Revolution that stirred in the late 18th century due to the invention of the steam engine. The iron and steel, textile, agriculture and transport industries were revolutionised overnight.

With the rise of industry and its need for workers and finance, it also heralded the era of “bankism”, the predatory exploitation of interest.

The urbanisation of Europe had begun, often accompanied by the discontent of the poor, who found life in the city largely dehumanising. Poor living conditions, low wages and exploitation dogged their existence, nothing new in terms of urbanisation today.

But what really changed the human landscape was the means of production. Mass production needed energy and that energy came from coal that pumped smoke and toxins into the air. London, for example, became infamous for its pea-soup smog.

It does not take rocket science to realise that from here on in, the global environment was never going to be the same again – and as technology got smarter, and its by-products messier, the destruction of everything around us just picked up speed. With his machines, man was now master of all he surveyed – without due consideration.

The advent of colonialism in the 19th century merely accelerated this process worldwide. To say that Africa was its worst victim is an understatement, if not a cliché. Already seen as a rich harvesting ground for slaves, the continent became the primary source of the developed world’s raw materials.

And whilst some of our ills in Africa are self-inflicted, it’s fair to say that the effects of climate change – due to the industrial revolution – are not. Indeed, the story of Africa is that the poorest of the world's poor are its worst victims.

Of course, the Somali situation has not been helped by the fact that it has been a failed state for 20 years. But its chronic underdevelopment is equally the result of colonial meddling and international fudging.

The calamity of starvation and disease in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel has been only added to by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Niger suffered a famine in 2006 after the IMF instructed the government to sell off its food reserves to service its loan.

But in Somalia, as children perish like flies from preventable diseases, the ongoing disaster is that people are dying of thirst above water aquifers. But the biggest tragedy, by far, is that those who contributed most to this crisis on the edge of the world’s largest growing desert will probably never pay back their debt.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Civil society: scoring a coup on the arms deal, Ncgobo and Malema


SOUTH AFRICAN civil society scored three important coups for the country recently. The judiciary and the media both survived challenges. And the multi-billion rand arms deal, something that has haunted us since the 1990’s, was given a new lease of life.

News that head of the Hawks, Anwar Dramat, had sent his people to meet European investigators is a dramatic about turn – especially after the unit had stated last year that further prospects of arms deal investigations were slim.

However, an admission by defence company SAAB of Sweden that its former British partner, BAE systems, had paid R24 million in bribes to South African officials has thrown new light on the case.

Already a victim of political cover-up, sleazy corporate suppression and legal obstructionism, the arms deal’s ultimate fate is inextricably linked to both the openness of the media and the autonomy of the judiciary.

For sans an independent judiciary and a free press, communities can have no measure of public oversight, or accountability, on things such as shady arms deals. When justice and information become compromised, nations become tied to the coat-tails of their political masters.

The point is that a functioning democracy is a human system, and if unchecked, will be continually vulnerable to human frailty. Correction will always be fundamental to the democratic process.

Public vigilance is the most vital element of clean government, and in South Africa, it is played out against the backdrop of the Constitution. In a functioning democracy, a judicial system separated from the state is the one that protects its citizens most effectively.

With regards to the judiciary we had the decision of Chief Justice Sandile Ncgobo not to accept an extension of his term at the Constitutional Court.

Chief Justice Ncgobo had initially agreed to the extension of his term. But after public outcry that his re-appointment via the President’s office – and not parliament – would be unconstitutional, he wisely decided to step down.

Saying that he feared impending litigation would compromise the integrity of his office and the judiciary as a whole, he said he had to “protect the office of the Chief Justice”.

His resignation closed the gate on the alarming precedent of President Zuma appointing judges. It also pre-empted unsavoury civic action highlighting the bungling of the President’s men, as well as the prospect of the Chief Justice being thrown out of his own court.

The coup for the media was when the City Press newspaper was able to successfully defend an urgent interdict in the South Gauteng High Court.

The interdict was to prevent it from publishing details of a secret trust fund used by ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, to bankroll a lifestyle not proportionate to his party salary. According to the report, Malema had used the trust fund to accept monies in return for political favours.

Judge Colin Lamont found that City Press’s story was in the public interest. Malema was a public figure, and South Africans were entitled to full disclosure on the matter of high-profile personalities.

But whilst developments in the arms deal and the Ncgobo story were distinguished more by principle than personality, the Malema saga has been defined more by personality than principle. And because of that, there are some important caveats.

This is due to Julius Malema being a larger-than-life figure, which makes him a soft target. As a reckless populist he is easy to hate, easy to like and easy to lampoon; with him there appears to be no middle ground.

For Afriforum, a white Afrikaner organisation, Malema falls into the “easy to hate” category due to his singing of “Kill the Boer” – and it is they who’ve laid charges of corruption against him with the Hawks.

In terms of his Ratanang Family Trust named after his 5 year-old son, Malema is the symptom (some would even say a victim) of a far greater malaise: the virus of money and cronyism that has so badly infected the ANC’s ranks.

Malema’s statements to the Mail and Guardian that people don’t care about his money, but more his political conscience, is merely reflective of the arrogant materialism of his seniors; people who years ago lost touch with the grinding poverty of ANC voters, 60% of whom a Markinor poll reveals are unemployed.

Malema’s further justification that he is a private citizen with no access to taxpayer’s money reveals, in a bizarre Freudian way, that it’s okay to take money from elsewhere as long as it’s not government.

But in the heat of legal battle will Malema’s followers, quick to rise to victimisation because of Afriforum, be allowed to remember this?

In Malema’s case the frustrating thing is that the lines between politics and law will be blurred. Or, as political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi points out, politics will enter the stage “dressed in drag” and “disguised as all sorts of noble intentions”.

Or to put it another way: if Malema stands in the dock, will he reduce his appearance to a political circus? Will t-shirted supporters, supplied with a free lunch, be ululating before the television cameras like they did at Zuma’s rape trial?

The other drawback, due to the inevitable glare of publicity, could be the further diminution of national debate on poverty, job creation and wealth distribution – something to which Malema has contributed only kindergarten clichés and virulent hate-speech.

But when all is said and done, the ensuing investigation by the Hawks and the process of law must be allowed to follow its natural course. Malema, like any South African citizen, is innocent until proven guilty.

The triumph here is not the possible humiliation of a public figure, but rather the fact that the media – unfettered by the Protection of Information Bill – has been allowed to shine a light in a dark room, and that officials such as Malema have to be held accountable for what they do.

Pitfalls aside, it should send a resounding message to corrupt and greedy officials that if the guppies can be caught, so can the big fish too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ramadan: a reminder of our frailty


TODAY over a billion Muslims around the globe, having sighted the first crescent of the moon, will begin to fast in the Holy Month of Ramadan.

From just before the first thread of dawn to just after sunset, they will be compelled to abstain from food, drink, sex, vainglorious talk and gossip. At the same time, they will be obliged to remember those less fortunate than themselves.

The Ramadan charity – or fitrah – is an essential component of the lunar month, and those who’ve fasted will have to ensure that a poor person will be given enough alms to eat for a day.

Those unable to fast – such as diabetics, heart patients, the elderly and the ill – will have to pay a fidya, or compensation.

For those who cannot pay fitrah or fidya, a payment of what they can afford suffices. This is based on an Islamic maxim says that faith is judged according to intention, and also that believers should not be taxed beyond their endurance.

Apart from the known physical benefits of fasting, Ramadan is regarded as the most spiritual month of the Muslim calendar. Fasting was practised by all the Biblical prophets, and it was institutionalised as a pillar of Islamic belief by Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.

Ramadan is derived from the ancient Arabic word “Ramada”, which refers to the scorching heat of the Arabian Desert. According to classical scholars, the hunger and the thirst of Ramadan burns away ego, pride and arrogance.

But what Ramadan commemorates more than anything else is the arrival of the Qur’an, the divine constitution of Islam. This was when a young Muhammad, enjoying a solitary retreat in a mountain cave above the city of Mecca, was visited by the Archangel Gabriel in the form of a man.

It was the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, and already spooked by mysterious voices addressing him in the name of peace, Muhammad was embraced by Gabriel. The Prophet was to later relate that he felt as if the air was being crushed out of his body.

“Read! Read in the name of Your Lord,” said Gabriel to an astounded Muhammad, an unlettered man. This would be Islam’s first Revelation. Later on, as the Qur’an’s 114 chapters began to flow from his tongue, it would become his unique prophetic miracle.

But for the Prophet Muhammad, an already overpowering moment would become even more emotionally overwhelming when Gabriel would transform into his heavenly shape after the Revelation.

Traditions relate that Gabriel’s luminescent, jewel-studded wings covered the skies, stretching from one horizon to the other. Terrified out of his wits, a quaking Muhammad ran down the mountain into the arms of his wife, Khadijah, and asked her to cover him with a blanket.

Khadijah – who was Muhammad’s single partner for over 20 years – was destined to become not only his first convert, but the Prophet’s greatest comforter and Islam’s most celebrated matriarch.

Further significance is added to Ramadan because in its last ten nights, on odd dates, there is the hidden secret of the “Night of Power”, a night that promises spiritual insight and munificence for those who can discover it.

“The Night of Power is better than a thousand months,” says the Qur’an.

As Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an, mosques from east to west, and from north to south, will be reciting it during special evening – or tarawih – prayers.

The recital of the Qur’an from cover to cover in Ramadan, its text unchanged since its words fell on the Prophet’s tongue, is probably one of the greatest acts of collective remembrance on the face of the earth.

The Holy Month, as we’ve already said, imposes social responsibility upon the Muslim. During Ramadan a Muslim’s conduct towards others has to be beyond reproach; fasting is regarded as an act of devotion for which the Creator has reserved his own special rewards.

It is said that one of the Creator’s greatest joys is watching his subjects break their daily fast; and it is also said that those will gain spiritual benefit who offer food to guests, travellers, orphans and the underprivileged.

Imam Ghazali, a great 12th century scholar, once proclaimed that if a fasting man did not modify his behaviour, his soul would be as good as unconscious. His abstention from food and drink would be mere hunger – in other words, his fasting would be worthless.

Fasting in Ramadan, which is ordained to move a Muslim towards compassion, is a collective activity based on family, community and an optimism that one’s fast will be accepted by the Creator.

It is precisely this communal activity, this mass introspection as it were, that gives Ramadan its devotional impetus. And in Africa, a continent which is over 60% Muslim, there are many things for South African Muslims to consider.

In sub-Saharan Africa we are undeniably the basement people of the world; poverty, exploitation, famine, climate change and conflict are our daily realities. And very frequently – not even a stone’s throw from our groaning tables – there are hungry, cold people shivering in unheated shacks.

And as the first pangs of hunger and thirst gnaw at our stomachs this month, it will be the moral duty of us all to empathise – even if for 12 hours – the lot of those millions in Africa who have to survive on less than a dollar a day.

Ramadan is indeed a fleeting, but frightening, reminder of our human frailty on the face of this earth.