Opinionista Sha'Ista Goga 25 August 2014

ISIS and the ‘Islamic State’: Not in our name

The beheading of American journalist James Foley is the latest in a line of brutal and inhumane actions by ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State”, that are completely contrary to the tenets of Islam. “Not in my name”, say South African Muslims.

Muslims around the world woke up on 30 June 2014 to the confident declaration by ISIS, a militant group fighting in Iraq and Syria, that it now controlled a Caliphate (Islamic State). Its leader Abu Bakr Al Moussawi unilaterally declared himself as the leader of Muslims around the world. Around me, Muslim responses varied from amusement at the bizarre presumptuousness of the declaration, to anger. It was unbelievable that a group who had been responsible for a range of atrocities including beheadings and crucifixions, actually expected support. As weeks passed, the news flowing from Iraq and Syria became increasingly depressing. ISIS continued attacking Muslims and also began horrific attacks on age-old Christian and Yazidi communities. Churches were being burnt, and people made to forcibly convert to Islam or face execution, while women were taken captive. These actions are completely contrary to the basic laws of Islam.

Feeling deeply aggrieved at the plight of the victims of ISIS, Faithworks, a group of Muslim women, began a campaign highlighting our community’s opposition to the human rights violations promoted by ISIS. We began this by developing a petition that verbalised our opposition to the behavior of ISIS and other groups who have disgusted us by using religion to justify the unjustifiable. We wanted the world to know that we stood, not in solidarity with ISIS, but in solidarity with Christians, Yazidis, Jews and Muslims who have been forced to leave their homes, and experienced terror and trauma at the hands of those who claim to speak for Islam, but behave in a manner contrary to the tenets of our faith. We wanted the world to know that the Islam that we know and love is centred on values of justice, mercy and compassion. It stands in solidarity with all people facing persecution.

While we acknowlege the role of historical and political forces that have led to the emergence of such groups, ultimately, as individuals they are responsible for their own actions. These organisations, and the states that sponsor them, do not act in our name.

The forums available to us to express our strong repugnance of ISIS and their actions are fairly limited. ISIS has no embassy that we can march upon; they have no trade links that we can target through boycotts; and there are no proxy countries that openly support them that we can demand action from. They are already ostracised by the world and unlikely to care about public opinion. All that is left is to show our support to their victims.

The response to our initiative has been gratifying. Over 1,000 South African Muslims have already signed the petition in their personal capacity despite it being predominantly spread through social media. These include prominent South African Muslims including academics such as Adam Habib, the Vice-Chancellor of Wits, former Constitutional Court justice Zak Yacoob, Deputy Minister of Education Enver Surty and the Ambassador of Iraq to South Africa, Dr Hishaam Al-Alawi, as well as respected religious leaders. In addition it has been endorsed by a range of Muslim organisations from broad representative bodies, such as the Islamic Medical Association of South Africa (IMASA) which represents over 1,000 Muslim doctors and healthcare workers as members and the Muslim Student Association Union (MSA Union) which is the representative body of Muslim students at tertiary institutes across the country, to small groups including individual mosques, charities and prayer groups.

We have been somewhat surprised by the response to the petition by those outside of the Muslim community. One tweet called it a “brave voice of dissent”. We find this surprising in a climate in which the largest Muslim religious bodies in the country, the Muslim Judicial Council and the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa have also put out their own statements condemning the actions of ISIS. We truly believe that our statement is not at all a voice of dissent, but represents the views of many ordinary Muslims in South Africa.

The petition has led to some debate within the Muslim community as well. Some have felt uncomfortable with the idea that as a community we should find it necessary to condemn the actions of fringe extremists who act outside the guidelines of the religion. They have pointed out that Church groups and ordinary Christians did not find it necessary to distance themselves from the behavior of Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of bombings and a mass shooting in Norway that killed 69, despite his rationale for the attack being his belief in a “monocultural Christian Europe”. In addition, Christian groups in South Africa have not needed to condemn or distance themselves from the widespread crimes including abduction, slavery, mutilation and murder, commited by the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, ostensibly operating as a Christian militia. We acknowledge this criticism. However, our intention is not to offer an apology on their behalf. Many of us do not even classify ISIS as Muslim. Rather, we want to make a statement of solidarity for our fellow humans who are suffering and experiencing hardship and pain from organisations claiming to act in our name.

Ultimately we are guided by the statement made by Ali ibn Abu Talib, a Muslim caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad: “Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.” DM

Sha’ista Goga is an economist and director at an economic consultancy. A Rhodes Scholar, she was educated at the University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford. She has spent the last ten years working across the private and NGO sector. She is passionate about healthcare reform, improving educational outcomes and public policy.


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."

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