The article below is based on an interview I gave to the Voice of the Cape FM on Tuesday, 1 March 2011 on the Draft Muslim Marriages Bill that could go before Parliament by the end of this week.
ANALYSIS - The present debate on the Draft Bill on Muslim Marriages (MMB) is proving to be a defining moment for South African Muslims. That is the opinion of three academics VOC spoke to last week to analyse the impact of the debate on the country's ulema fraternity. According to Johannesburg-based independent researcher, Adli Jacobs, the debate may even be a "make or break" for some of the ulema in Gauteng, where things have turned decidedly ugly over the last two years.
He reports a major split in the Gauteng ulema fraternity in 2010. "There are different ulema groupings here in Gauteng. There is the Jamiatul Ulema who have the upperhand, and you also have the Sunni Jamiat which includes the Barelwi group. They are a bit milder, but also smaller than the Jamiatul Ulema. Then you also have independent groups, because the Malay and Coloured community is not really represented by the Jamiat, although of their alims are on the Jamiat."
According to Jacobs, the Jamiat - formerly known as Jamiatul Ulema Transvaal - had played a very prominent role with government on the recognition of Muslim Personal Law. But since then, there has been a "bloody" coup de tat when the so-called Jamiatul Ulema De Deur group broke from the Jamiatul Ulema Fordsburg. There is now a huge fight over even the name Jamiatul Ulema South Africa which both Jamiats wish to lay claim to.
"The Fordsburg Jamiat is the majority group, lead by Maulana Ebrahim Bham. They have a radio station in Radio Islam and are affilliated to the South African National Halaal Authority (Sanha) and those groupings. But the break has been so bloody, in a sense, that you can't find Maulana Bham's group anywhere, because their name was taken by the De Deur group."
Last year the Fordsburg group took the matter to court after the De Deur group registered the name for themselves. Jacobs was not sure yet what the outcome of that case has been. Meanwhile, the fight between the two groups has focused on two main areas - the halaal issues related to Sanha and the MMB.
"The De Deur group is anti-MMB. Also the Jamiatul Ulema KZN is in that camp - the only group in the United Ulema Council of South Africa (Uucsa) which is against the bill. It appears to me that they have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Cape Majlis ideas for their not to be a MMB. So they are not looking for a compromise. They are looking for no bill and not engaging in what they regard as a 'kufr' [disbelieving], secular government."
According to Jacobs, the fight had become "very dirty". "For example, Maulana Desai of the Majlis has been calling Maulana Bham 'reverend Abraham' and there has been lots of court cases at that level as well. So it's become quite a dirty battle, but it's a battle over the hearts and minds (of Muslims) over who is the top dog among the ulema bodies in the Jamiat."
Meanwhile, a new seperate ulema body has been struggling for a few years to coming into being to represent their interests. The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) has also attempted unsuccessfully to assist in the process, Jacobs said. "What happens in the Coloured and Malay community is that because they are so small, they generally take their queue - on Eid and Ramadan for instance - from the larger Jamiat."
On the MMB issue, Jacobs said that the De Deur group had been very vociferous in their campaign, making use of the internet, email and smses among others. "That has been quite massive and ordinary people - even Indian Muslims - don't understand the splits between the different Jamiats. They just assume it is the 'Jamiat'. And people have been forwarding (these emails and smses) to each other, saying 'the Jamiat is no longer supporting the MMB, so we shouldn't either'. And because the Fordsburg Jamiat has not taken the MMB issue up effectively, the De Deur group's Majlis leaning ideas might in the end be successful."
Jacobs said what he found particularly bad about this campaign was its negativity. "It's conjuring up an 'us and them' mentality, saying 'Muslims vs kuffaar'. We have not heard that type of rhetoric since the 1980s when ulema were asking Muslims not to get involved in the struggle. In fact, it was the very same Maulana Desai who was clamouring for an apolitical position from Muslims, criticising all Muslims who were involved in the struggle."
A new partner in the anti-MMB alliance, has been the Al Jamah party, said Jacobs. "In fact, they have taken Ganief Hendricks' pre-khutbah talk and promoted it all over the place. So I see a dangerous combination of the Jamiatul Ulema De Deur and Al Jamah calling for 'jihad' if the bill is passed, changes or not. This is why I say this is going to be a defining moment for the ulema and Muslims here in Gauteng," Jacobs said.
"I don't know if Ganief Hendricks is aware that he is strengthening the hand of people that want to delink completely from South Africa; not from a religious or ideological basis, but on a racist basis. Saying that black people are the kuffar and Muslims are the only ones going to Jannah is a very bad notion. If that wins out in the end, it means Muslims will delink more and more from society and that does not bode well at all for the Muslim community," he said.
According to Jacobs, Al Jamah had overplayed its hand on this debate, "in the same way that Pagad had overplayed its hand" in fighting drugs and gangsterism. "They said they were anti-crime, but then the rhetoric got so vociferous, laying the blame squarely at goverment's door - which was not a bad thing in itself. But it is the rhetoric that goes with that and the allies that you then sweep up with you...in the end, your view (that you are actually pro the bill subject to changes) gets drowned out completely. So you are drowning yourself out by whom you take on as allies."
The fact that Al Jamah's pre-khutbah talk has become part of the campaign was a case in point, Jacobs said. "They have not taken Ganief's speech in its entirety, they have been paraphrasing it. They have taken the whole thing on jihad along with the emotive issues of pornography and abortion which one has to talk through, and conjures up the notion that (because Muslims are opposed to it) they must also be opposed to the MMB. It's not a thinking idea, it's an emotional idea."
Jacobs said this type of approach was a setback for Muslims, but does not come as a complete surprise. "After 1994, all the Muslim organs should have taken a far more active hand in helping Muslims to navigate their way forward. What happens with a minority group when things change around them is that they generally retreat into a laager. And what the Jamiat (De Deur) and Al Jamah is doing by default, is to feed that laager mentality. What we should not be basing our arguments on is retreat, but an argument of moving forward."
The activist said Muslims did well in the 1980's when they came out of their laager and connected themselves to a bigger ideal in terms of the anti-apartheid struggle. "We must not paint ourselves into a tight corner now - only us, only Indians, only Malays, only Muslims. We need to make ourselves bigger and getting this bill passed will help that. We have an opportunity with government listening to us because we are on a very good footing there. We know what it is that we want in that bill and we need to use the opportunity to unite to push ourselves forward."
VOC (Munadia Karaan)
The original article with reader comments can be found here.