Winter School
Winter School

The politics of being Muslim

Submitted by Julie Posetti

“Our Muslims are well behaved and respected … they aren’t like yours.” This was the patronising response I received from one South African when I outlined my research into media coverage of Muslim women in Australia. And, it’s a theme that’s been echoed in conversations with more informed South Africans, with the role of the Muslim middle-class in the South African economy and the anti-apartheid struggle highlighted as underpinnings for the comparatively high status of Muslims in this country.

In Australia, Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants are the focus of intense religious bigotry, xenophobia and racism. Driven by the politics of fear, fanned by the conservative Bush-aligned Howard government in the aftermath of 9/11, mainstream Australia has ostracised and vilified Muslims. Female adherents — many of whom are recognisable by their religious head covering — have become the brunt of much negative exposure and Muslims generally are treated by the media and the public with suspicion. There is a constant association between Islam, crime and terrorism in my country, which makes being a Muslim shorthand for being threatening, non-conforming and untrustworthy.

So, it was with great interest that I attended Professor Abdulkader Tayob’s (NRF chair in Islam, African publics and religious values at the University of Cape Town) Winter School address in Grahamstown. Titled Islamic Politics: Between Identity and Utopia, Tayob took a fresh look at Muslim and Islamic politics.

He was careful to distinguish between Muslim politics, which he defined as the role of Muslims in mainstream politics — often associated with the left — and the concept of Islamic politics, which he described as religiously derived and generally conservative.

Rooted in post-Iranian Revolution (1979) radical Islamic ideology, Islamic politics in South Africa, he said, is largely conservative. Tayob highlighted the impact of global Islamic struggles on South African Muslim causes and pointed to pre-9/11 mobilisation on issues such as Palestine as evidence of conservative and militant characteristics of Islamic politics in South Africa. And, he said, 9/11 set the tone for perceptions of closer associations between radical global Islamic movements such as al-Qaeda and South African groups such as Qiblah and Pagad.

But Tayob argued that such narrow characterisations of Islamic politics, seen through a global filter, “do a great injustice to South African Islam”. He believes a different analytical approach is required — to delve behind the headlines, “not to deny the threat of Islam or show Islamic politics as identical to liberal politics but to appreciate real concerns and prospects”.

In a case study of a key debate among progressives and conservatives within Islamic politics in South Africa, Tayob pointed to an unexpected openness to liberal rights and a willingness, even by conservative Islamic scholars and religious leaders, to engage with the South African Constitution.

Julie Posetti teaches journalism at the University of Canberra. She is a visiting teacher at Rhodes University during the National Arts Festival