Sectarianism, attacks fuelling fears among Muslims

2018-06-16 08:57
Outside the Malmesbury mosque where two people were stabbed to death. (Rodger Bosch/AFP)

Outside the Malmesbury mosque where two people were stabbed to death. (Rodger Bosch/AFP)

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Fears relating to sectarianism among Muslims have resurfaced following the attack on a mosque in the small Western Cape town of Malmesbury on Thursday in which two worshippers and an attacker were killed.

The motive for the attack has not yet been established.

Tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims are said to have been simmering in South Africa for years and to have peaked in Cape Town about seven months ago.

Theological differences between Shia and Sunni include that Shia Muslims believe that the successor of Prophet Muhammad is his son-in-law Ali, whereas Sunni Muslims do not believe he appointed a successor.

Earlier this month, the Cape Accord – a document meant to encourage peace and unity and eradicate extremism – was signed in Cape Town by several Islamic leaders.

Included in this accord is a section which appealed to communities "to be tolerant of the differences between Muslims and not escalate intra-faith hostilities".

It said this included Sunni and Shia.

However, the Cape Accord has not been welcomed by all, and differing opinions about it have caused divisions.

READ: Intense divisions among Muslim clerics in SA highlighted in wake of Malmesbury mosque attack

Among those who support the Cape Accord are former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool and several mosques in cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

But the faith-based organisation the South African National Zakáh Fund on Tuesday issued a statement saying it was withdrawing from the Cape Accord "for the very principles that we supported the document initially".

The United Ulama Council of South Africa on Monday also said it neither supported nor endorsed the accord.

'Growing threat of sectarianism'

At an event, Embracing the Cape Accord, in Cape Town earlier this month, Rashied Omar, the imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, said it had for five years been sounding the alarm "about the growing threat of sectarianism creeping into the Muslim community".

It was on this backdrop that the Cape Accord, which was founded by 17 Muslim clerics, was created at the end of last year.

Omar said anti-Shia tensions peaked in Cape Town in December 2017 with the reopening of the Ahlul Bait Islamic Centre in Ottery, a Shia mosque.

He said a warning had been issued for people to stay away from the reopening ceremony and prominent Muslim leaders who attended were "severely chastised".

'Dangerous hate speech'

"There is the toxic environment and dangerous hate speech and discourse that started permeating and infiltrating the local Muslim community late in 2017," he said.

"Very few people were willing to speak out against it fearing that they would be labelled as Shia sympathisers."

On Thursday the national coordinator for the Ahlul Bait Foundation of South Africa, Moulana Syed Aftab Haider, confirmed this to News24.

"These people with sectarian tendencies ran a campaign of hate against us," he said.

Early on Thursday, two worshippers were killed and others wounded in the attack on the mosque in Malmesbury.

The attacker was shot dead by police.

Worries after mosque attacks

Haider told News24 that following the December incident, tensions seemed to have calmed, but the attack in Malmesbury meant these could possibly flare again.

"We strongly believe places of worship should be kept sacred. We believe in interfaith, intrafaith, respect and tolerance," he said.

In a statement which Haider issued, he said: "We are all duty bound to protect the mosques and all places of worship and must unite to prevent the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad (saw), who is a Mercy unto all the world's, from very fast sliding down this slippery slope into an abyss."

Five weeks ago there was an attack at a Shia mosque in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, and during this incident one man was killed when his throat was slit. The motive for the attack has not been disclosed yet. 

After this incident, which police have established is not linked to the Malmesbury incident, Omar had issued a statement on behalf of the Claremont Main Road Mosque.

'Speak out against sectarianism'

"It is now most important and urgent for Muslims in South Africa to take a stand and speak out loudly against sectarianism, specifically anti-Shia sectarianism," it said.

"South African Muslims can in no way allow themselves to go down the path of hatred, intolerance, violence, and brutal attacks on Shia Muslims as has been the case in several other parts of the world.

"We must recognise that the fomenting of anti-Shia sectarianism has fuelled the many geo-political conflicts we see in the Middle East today. Let us stop this now, and never allow such sectarianism to blight our local community."

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