Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 19 November 2020

Al Jama-ah: The small Islamic political party with a narrow vision and big ambitions

They’re a small party, with huge ambitions. They have a narrow vision, with expansive views. And they’re playing with fire, using Tony Leon’s disastrous “fight back” slogan as their own. That’s Al Jama-ah (The Congregation), the only Muslim political party in the country. From his sickbed – Covid-19 and pneumonia – the party’s leader, Ganief Hendricks, spoke to Daily Maverick on Monday.

I guess the most important thing that came out of the interview was that Al Jama-ah wants to demonstrate to South Africans that “not all Muslims” are like al-Qaeda and ISIS, nor, I should assume, like Boko Haram, or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters of the Philippines. Ganief Hendricks, leader of Al Jama-ah, explained that Muslims can participate in democratic politics under the South African Constitution. South African Muslims, he assured me, are as disgusted by the most recent spate of beheadings and wanton slaughter across Europe

“Just because someone shouts Allahu Akbar before he beheads a person does not make him a Muslim,” Hendricks said. I’m not sure that all South African Muslims are opposed to the extremists, but we have to take Hendricks at his word. He felt it necessary to assure me that Islam was a “religion of peace”. 

I pushed him a bit, saying that they (the extremists and “Jihadists” – Jihad is a somewhat contested term) might think that they are exceptional exemplars of Islam, and that they represented their religion and the views of their Prophet Muhammad. I pushed him a little further (perhaps lightly, given that he was literally speaking to me from his sickbed) on the role and treatment of women in Islam, on Sharia  law as replacement for the laws of the country, and on Al Jama-ah’s position on homosexuality. The only clear (unambiguous) reply was on homosexuality. “We’re against it, because the Quran opposes it.” As for the rest, Hendricks seemed to find it difficult to broaden the vision of Islam in a democratic (secular) society.

Religion is by definition narrow

Hendricks founded Al Jama-ah in 2007. It was a necessary move, he explained. Before and after the 1994 election, “many Muslims joined the ANC, some joined the DA… but they had to toe the party line. They had to toe a very secular line and not be seen to be participants [sic] to their own community, to their own village, to their own town. They had to have a broad South African perspective. So for their own benefit [and] to move through the ranks of their political organisation the last thing they want to do is to be seen as pushing a Muslim line.” 

With this statement, Hendricks breaks with secularism, and endorsed a religion-based polity; in this particular case, a specifically Islamic polity. I put it to him that he was putting forward Sharia law, but he denied that they promoted Sharia. Their policies, he said, were “deen-based”. I should explain. Deen or Din in Arabic refers to: judgement, custom and religion, and is used by Christians and Muslims in the Arab world. It is somewhat similar to Din in Judaism, which (also simply put) means law. (For what it’s worth the word ‘deen’ explains why so many Muslim surnames end with “dien” – as written by Afrikaner home affairs officials. In Muslim countries it is spelt “ddin” or simply “din”.) But getting back to deen, it refers to a way of life Muslims are expected to adopt to comply with divine law, encompassing beliefs, character and deeds. The word is ubiquitous in the Quran, and there clearly is very little light between “deen” and “Sharia”.

Hendricks was cagey about Sharia law, suggesting only that there were times when Sharia law would be implemented. He gave the example of inheritance, where males inherited double the amount compared with females, and hastened to add – when I pushed him on inequality between males and females – that by receiving more money, men carried more responsibility to take care of women.

With the creation of Al Jama-ah, then, and based on the claim that Muslims who joined other parties had to “toe the line” and adopt a broad South African approach, Hendricks seems to have narrowed the focus of Muslims to a narrow Islamic view on political economy. 

What would South Africa look like if governed by Al Jama-ah?

I asked Hendricks to provide me with a working example of the type of political economy that Al Jama-ah would build, should it ever become the governing party. He was quick to say it would not be like Saudi Arabia. It would, he said, emulate the political economy of the late Muammar Gaddafi, who, Hendricks said, sought to reconcile capitalism and Islam.

Hendricks spoke with some reverence about Gaddafi. “The country that captured the imagination was Libya, when Colonel Gaddafi was there… although he tried to find the middle road between capitalism and Islam (called the third international theory). Everyone knew that he was driven by Islam. And he was seen as a leading figure to unite the states of Africa. Nobody [in Africa] had a quarrel with him over policies” to bring people together, like ubuntu. Gaddafi, argued Hendricks, was committed to uniting Africa, and “had wide support”.

What, then, I asked (again), would South Africa be if Al Jama-ah became government, given its commitment to the Quran and Hadith (a set of traditions based on the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, which basically provide guidance for Muslims on how to live their daily lives).

“First of all, we would respect the Constitution, and the constitutional rights of everyone, but nothing prevents us, like the ANC with the communist ideology or any other ideology, from putting it on the table to debate in Parliament. To try to get others to support it.” To support what? I asked. He explained “that socialism and communism” would drive you in a certain direction, “when it comes to a welfare state”. “Similarly, in Islam there would be certain universal humanitarian [policies] and practices that woud be easy for people of other faiths and persuasions to accept. However, there would be hardcore issues from the Sharia … (inaudible). If someone now pushes… If people voted for our party, knowing that we are guided by the Quran and they wouldn’t have a quarrel if we practised principles and policies of the Quran and the Hadith.”

I did not push Hendricks further. Maybe because he was sick in bed with Covid-19, or maybe because things could get acrimonious, if I pressed him (this time). There are very many questions about the criminalisation of apostasy, as a result of the wholesale adoption of Sharia in countries like Saudi Arabia. In other countries, it’s a capital offence that is part of the countries’ penal code (Mauritania’s 1983 Criminal Code, the United Arab Emirates’ Penal Code of 1987, Sudan’s Penal Code of 1991, Yemen’s Penal Code of 1994, Qatar’s 2004 Penal Law and Brunei’s 2013 Criminal Code). Afghanistan and Qatar have incorporated the crime of apostasy into their criminal laws by reference to what are known as the hudud offences. In Islam, hudud refers to punishments that under Sharia are mandated and fixed by God.

Al Jama-ah, the only Muslim political party in the country, has a single seat in Parliament, one member of the Western Cape legislature and two councillors in the Cape Town metro. In the 11 November municipal by-elections, it beat the competition, and won a single ward in Lenasia, on the farthest tip of southwestern townships of Johannesburg. All of that, and a 2,000-strong membership, makes Al Jama-ah a small party. Hendricks explained that it has nine PR council seats: five in KZN; one in Gauteng; one in the WC provincial legislature; two in Cape metro; and one in the national legislature.

There really is no conceivable possibility of it becoming the ruling party in South Africa. Very many things would have to go very wrong for that to happen. In the meantime, Hendricks explains, the party will focus on four actual areas where, he believes, it can make a contribution. 

The first is to get more Muslims to become more active in civic life – and “not go the other way”. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he was on a roll – notwithstanding his chesty heavy breathing because of the dreaded virus. But he placed a high value on “good governance” and said his party would continue to put pressure on whoever is in power on ethics and good governance. Before I left the interview, Hendricks explained that the coloured community, where most Muslims in South Africa reside, had lagged behind in political economic achievement. This, he said, was one of the things that Al Jama-ah would focus on. 

The interview ended, but I had many more questions, for which there would be a time and a place, and I imagine he had much more to say. What remains certain is that Al Jama-ah is a small party, with a narrow vision (which it wants to expand as far and wide as possible). What remains unclear is its commitment to Sharia as the law of the land and a host of other issues. DM

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  • It is unfortunate that the author had to deal with an interviewee who was unwell….in more ways than one ! If he has been in better fettle…the author may have even joined THE party ! However, what this article illustrates is the ‘tunnel vision’ that guides (or is it misguides ?) so-called leaders of many different faith. Be that the major ones of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or other smaller variants. The tragedy of all of these ‘leaders’, is their ability to distort or corrupt or misrepresent the essence of what are admirable philosophies … but more importantly … to attract and grow an uncritical following ! If one needed a gross example of this kind of cult… is the almost 72 million people in America who voted for Trump, despite an entire career built on lies and deception. That almost the entire community of ‘evangelicals’ backed him is ashtonishing. Cults come in many guises !

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