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Islamist Radicalisation in South Africa

03/02/2011

In an interview in 2008 South African Muslim, Mustafa Jonker stated, “Over the last few years, the Mujahideen have attacked the Jews in Mombasa in East Africa, they attacked them in Tunisia and Egypt in North Africa and they attacked the Israeli embassy in Mauritania in West Africa and we don’t consider the Muslims here in South Africa to be any less determined to punish the Jews for spreading corruption over Allah’s earth. The Muslims in South Africa hold a special place in their hearts for their suffering brethren in Palestine and perhaps amongst them are those who pledged to fight until the Bastard State of Israel is eradicated and have pledged to pray in Masjid al-Aqsa as conquerors or to meet Allah on the way … We are witnessing the prediction of Sheikh Osama bin Laden come true when he said, `America by picking a war with the sons of the Arabian peninsula will experience things that will make them forget all about the horrors of Vietnam and that America will turn into a shadow of her former self’”.

A year later, on 14 January 2009 in addressing a conference in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, South Africa’s then Deputy Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fatima Hajaig, is alleged to have said: “They [the Jews] control [America] no matter which government comes into power, whether Republican or Democrat, whether Barrack Obama or George Bush … Their control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money and when Jewish money controls their country then you can expect anything”.

It is becoming increasingly self-evident that radicalisation is taking place amongst South Africa’s historically moderate Muslims. Given the ideological basis of Islamist terrorism, understanding the sources of this radicalisation becomes an important step in any counter-terror strategy which focuses on more pro-active as opposed to reactive measures.

Fears have been expressed that mosques and madrassas could be one source of such ideological indoctrination and therefore radicalisation. Some Somali independent mosques in Bellville (Cape Town), Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape) and Mayfair (Johannesburg) have been used to share militant messages from al- Shabaab in Somalia to the local congregation. Moreover funds collected are known to have been passed on to Al Shabaab in Somalia.

The issue of mosques in South Africa that could be used as a conduit for radical Islamist teachings is also a concern if the imam at the mosque himself is essentially taking orders from elsewhere. Some imams are receiving a second income from various Persian Gulf entities in order to push a certain line to their congregations – in the process distorting Islam and demonising the proverbial “other”.

There is also reason to be concerned about South Africa’s madrassas. As early as October 2003, the Washington Post raised concerns about these institutions in the country following at least 500 students from Pakistan’s radical madrassas having fled to South Africa (with more following each year) following a government crackdown on the religious schools in Pakistan. Many of these students took up positions at Islamic schools that sprung up in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. This, in turn, raised some serious concerns about the nature of the instruction given to these students. Are they being exposed to a tolerant Islam or one which is going to lend itself to further polarisation, hostility and, ultimately, violence? This concern rested not only with the South African government. In August, 2004 the then Minister in the Office of the President, Essop Pahad, together with the Ministers of Safety and Security and Intelligence, as well as other senior cabinet colleagues, met with 30 Muslim community leaders on behalf of foreign ambassadors to South Africa regarding their concern on the roles of these Darul Ulooms.

More than just radical indoctrination, fear has also been expressed that these schools could be used for recruitment purposes. These fears surfaced following the arrest of Zubeir Ismail, one of two South Africans found in an al-Qaeda safe house in Pakistan, who was a former student of Farhad Dockrat. The latter, in turn, was the principle of a Darul Uloom in Pretoria who was placed on a terror list by the US as an international sponsor of terrorism.

In the interests of the safety and security of all its citizens, it is time for the South African government to take an interest in the curriculum at these madrassa and Darul Ulooms as well as to engage in an honest dialogue with its Muslim community. South African Muslims also have to engage in some critical navel-gazing and respond to the challenge posed by those who wish to turn a beautiful and peaceful religion into something ugly and violent. The first step in this process is to recognize the dangers posed by radicalisation.