Standing for justice means defending even those in our society who seem to have all the advantages

By Farid Esack 28 June 2018

Photo by Emilio Jaman on Unsplash

Only a university could elevate the Higgins Affair into a full-blown moral and political case. That being said, let’s look at what was said – and try to determine the motivation for saying it in a fair and just manner.

There is a verse from the Qur’an that I have invoked on countless occasions in my interminable rants for a more just society; I have invoked when addressing Muslim anti-Semitism, Indian and coloured Muslim racism against people of a darker hue, patriarchy against women, the landowners against the landless… the list is endless.

This particular Qur’anic verse adorns the outer wall of the UN headquarters in New York and is arguably my favourite. Let me correct that, “the first and last section of the verse” are my favourite; somewhere in the middle is a phrase that always stuck in my throat and vexed me intensely over the years.

Finally, I have begun to get it. The John Higgins Affair at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is what did it for me.

The verse reads:

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, or whether it relates to the rich or the poor; God is a Better Protector to both (than you). So follow not your prejudice, lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, Allah is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do. (Qur’an 4:135)

Being a socialist I could not for the love of God figure out why the rich would ever be in need of His/Her protection.

The Higgins Affair started off as an email response to a Muslim student, Ms Nuhaa Soeker, who enquired from her lecturer‚ Professor John Higgins of the English literature department, whether she would be able to break her Ramadaan fast during the exams.

Soeker – wrongly in terms of Islamic law – indicated that it was as obligatory to eat at the specified time as it was to pray. To this Higgins replied: “By breaking the fast‚ do you mean a five-course meal with dessert‚ or a small snack whose eating would disturb no one around you?”

What was going on here with Higgins’ email?

  • A tired professor who had one e-mail too many for the day?
  • A professorial power dynamic where the professor or lecturer feels at liberty to speak to students in this manner without ever expecting them to respond in kind? (Possibly, but not sure, given that the student refers to him as “John” – something none of my black or Muslim students would ever do to someone more than double their age.
  • A clumsy, possibly thoughtless attempt to be humorous?
  • Sarcasm – which could be attributed to a whole range of motivations – none of them obvious from the contents of the message and/or
  • Mere ignorance by what is meant by breaking the fast? (Muslims themselves constantly use the expression both in the sense of just eating a date and, possibly, a glass of water on the one hand and, on the other, in the sense of – let alone a “five-course meal with dessert” – a 10-course one with numerous deserts!)

So which of the above was it?

None, if the dominant articulated views among a group of Higgins’ colleagues at UCT are anything to go by.

Possibly any one or combination of the above – impossible to conclude definitively” was the response of 15 academics, activists at an international conference organised by the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project in Granada, Spain which I am currently attending.

The academics – most of whom are active in anti-racist and anti-Islamophobic activism – were informally approached and polled and no context was initially provided.

When further informed that the professor was white and not a Muslim and the student was not white, 13 still declined to offer any particular judgement and only one respondent said that “this professor opens him/herself to accusations of Islamophobia if there is anything in the immediate context or his general attitude towards Muslims which support this”.

The editor of an international journal on Islamophobia offered: “The professor seemed concerned about the convenience to others in the class but could have been more polite. It was an insensitive response.”

Meanwhile, back home in South Africa, Higgins was being condemned and is currently on pre-trial procedures at UCT for Islamophobia and racism. As for much of the local social media, the case was over as soon as the student posted Higgins’ response to her query and many were now only interested in the sentence or, for some, even better, the date of his dismissal from UCT.

None of us produce or approach any text without a context and a text with an intrinsic or inherent meaning is at best rare – more likely an impossibility. The same applies to the Higgins response. Here I only want to deal with the accusation being levelled at Higgins – racism and Islamophobia.

Both accusations require massive and utterly unscholarly leaps in the imagination to be sustained by the contents of Higgins’ response. At best they could serve as a tiny supplementary footnote to buffer a case for which substantial evidence is produced in the main text.

This main text may be a pattern of documented racism or Islamophobia on Higgins’ part personally or as an academic (even a series of allegations, could serve this purpose) or that he played/plays a consequential role in the university organs which putatively sustain or promote these.

Racism is the attribution of social or personal characteristics – positive or negative – to individuals or communities based on their shade of pigmentation. Increasingly, black scholars and activists are adding the condition of power to give effect to that attribution.

Somewhat simplistically put, an example of this word be that black people cannot be described as racists because, while they have the capacity to resist white power, they do not have the socio-economic capacity to negatively impact on it.

In this case, noises of black racism would be viewed as vacuous protestations intended to deflect from the real problem of white racism. There is nothing remotely evident in Higgins’ email which hints at racism. The only way that one can possibly see this is the presumption that all white people are inherently and irredeemably racist, that they cannot ever possibly be non- or anti-racist and that every statement that they make reflects this racism.

While it is arguable if Islamophobia – or Judeophobia for that manner – are forms of racism given that the element of pigmentation is absent, they correctly belong to the same set of prejudices which are no longer acceptable in respectable social, political and academic circles. An expanding awareness of the various permutations of prejudice and the accompanying injustices enhances our own humanness.

As for Islamophobia, it is real – particularly in Europe where this piece is written and it, regrettably, has not begun to make an appearance in the realm of the “reactionary” as it would be in South Africa or in the larger community of international progressive scholars where Higgins finds himself.

In these locations to be labelled an Islamophobe is a pretty nasty sting. The problem with labels is that they stick. Even when investigated or cleared upon investigation, one may forever be remembered as “that guy who was involved in that Islamophobic thing”.

A declaration of interest: I am constantly saddled with the baseless accusation that I am anti-Semitic and this annoys me no end. The accusation itself is water off a duck’s back in circles that matter to me; yet the time-consuming bull that I have to put up with from time to time at universities abroad irks me no end. Given a simple choice, most universities would not want to have a Visiting Professor or speaker who is stuck with this kind label. Mercifully, I am assured of a principled crowd who will fight the lies about my supposed anti-Semitism.

While his leftist intellectual pedigree is unassailable –I am familiar with his work on academic freedom and I envy his close friendship with the likes of the late Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak – Higgins doesn’t have a principled crowd that will stand by him. He is white, straight, a male, very English and is not exactly an activist for progressive causes – the kind of thing that white folks have to be seen to be doing in order to dislodge the default position that they are the beneficiaries, upholders and defenders of “the system”.

(That Higgins grew up in an impoverished working class district of England, and was consigned to the back of the class at school with no one wanting to sit next to him because of his low class, or that he views his contribution to society as primarily being a good teacher, is probably unknown and if known, inconsequential, to his detractors. We are a strange lot in the academy; we may demand from others that they get to know an entire community’s cultures without requiring from ourselves that we know who are the folks on the desk pictures of our colleagues in the academy)

As soon as Higgins was made aware of social media responses to his reply to Soeker he offered a public apology (“I see now that my response was appallingly ill-considered and hurtful‚ and has caused offence to the student in question‚ as well as to the broader UCT community and beyond […] “I am deeply ashamed at the lapse in judgement present in my communication‚ and the hurt it has caused.”

Given the contents of his email, his apology went to extraordinary lengths. (If truth be told, I cringed when I read it.) While Soeker never accused Higgins of Islamophobia, some of his colleagues did. Muslims community organisations and people who usually offer comment kept quiet. It was the proverbial storm in a teacup that, quite frankly, only in a university could be elevated to this level of crisis.

It was in the immediate throes of this that I met Higgins at the University of Johannesburg. There and later at his home in Cape Town, in many hours of conversation it was evident to me that Higgins was shell shocked and deeply remorseful. He was embarrassed at his ignorance of basic Muslim stuff in an area – the Western Cape where so many Muslims live – and he was keen to explore ways of redressing this.

I refused to offer any advice. The Zionist Christian Church is the largest church in our country. The 1981 census already indicated that it has 4.97 million members. Our domestic worker and our security guards all belong to this church and I know nothing about them despite the fact that I am paid to study and teach about religious communities.

How many non-black Muslims know anything about life in the black townships? Why should ignorance of Islam and Muslim life in South Africa constitute a crime? Do Muslims want to demand exceptional treatment in South Africa and elevate prejudices against them above all other forms of prejudices?

On the whole – and mercifully – Muslims did not jump on this social media bandwagon of baseless accusations of Islamophobia – baseless because while his original message may, at best, suggest ignorance and, at worse, insensitivity or sarcasm, there is nothing in it that could possibly suggest this.

Our country is engaged with a new wave of addressing the unfinished business of 1994. Led by the veterans of the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements, many are beginning to push a new narrative that challenges the earlier one that all became well when Rolihlahla (the Uprooter) Mandela put on that Springbok rugby jersey, had koeksisters with Tannie Betsie Verwoerd and became Madiba (the Reconciler). The white embrace of Madiba was too swift and many of our young people are now smelling a rat.

In this task of addressing the historical injustice of the past and revisiting the compromises of our liberation movement, we need to ensure that we do not become the evil that we abhor, nor that our struggles to do so be subverted by folks with personal axes to grind, nor that we bury due process of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

We will need this to come to our own rescue tomorrow for there is no guarantee that none of us will ever fall victim to a moment of insensitivity, lapse of good judgement or sarcasm or, possibly, worse.

To return to that Qur’anic text that I referred to in the beginning of this article:

There is no way that one can take a literal interpretation of text revealed – my preferred terminology – as a Muslim scholar, if one wants it to make sense of it in the 21st century. Let “rich or poor” be what it reads literally in Q. 4.135. It does not require a huge hermeneutical leap to have it read as “powerful or powerless”. (Well, not nearly a leap of hermeneutical imagination of the proportions required by those accusing Higgins of Islamophobia and racism between his email and those accusations.)

As a group white people are powerful in the academy, in the world of money… Even their victimhood is elevated above the victimhood of black people. The list is endless.

The Qur’an admonishes us not to be blinded against the powerful even as we are compelled to commit ourselves to the struggles of the powerless for greater justice. Among the powerful may well be victims of every single crime under the sun including slander or murder.

It’s not fashionable in the academy – not for black or for white colleagues – to defend a white colleague. The Beyers Naudes, Ruth Firsts, Joe Slovos, Ivan Thoms, Helen Josephs and Bram Fishers have taught us that being fashionable is not always cool. The Lucas Mangopes and the Oupa Qgozos also taught us that evil is not the monopoly of white people.

So follow not your prejudice, lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, God is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do. (Qur’an 4:135) DM

Farid Esack is Professor in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg, Convenor of the Cape Town Summer School on Islam & Decoloniality and President Emeritus of the International Qur’anic Studies Association.


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