OPINION | Quraysha Ismail Sooliman: Islam, the Fifa World Cup and university prayer facilities

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Palestinians perform Eid al-Fitr prayer at Masjid al-Aqsa Compound in East Jerusalem.
Palestinians perform Eid al-Fitr prayer at Masjid al-Aqsa Compound in East Jerusalem.
Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The World Cup in Qatar reveals that Muslims and Islam are often put on trial by the West. Quraysha Ismail Sooliman reflects on two developments in South Africa and whether orchestrated effort to nurture Islamophobia in South Africa have been unsuccessful.

We are living in an age of disinformation, extreme anger and injustice. It is a phase of modern life that contains within it the 'us vs them' narratives in order to make alternate choices or reasoning impossible.

Too often Muslims and Islam are put on trial through the words and images used.

In news snippets, it happens through the headlines or 'Breaking News’ clips. It is what the masses are made to hear/read first. The Fifa World Cup in Qatar is a case in point.

Although the Qataris have unapologetically stated that their culture, religion and laws need to be respected, they have also welcomed everyone to their country. Respect for your host's traditions and values is something intrinsic and ethical in African and Muslim societies. I believe that western liberalism has eroded these courtesies from the global North considering the noise that has emanated from anti-Muslim mouthpieces.

READ | Boris Johnson refuses to apologise for racist 'burka' comments

Much is said about how Qatar views women, but it is quickly forgotten how Boris Johnson called Muslim women 'letter boxes' or how in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that Africa was held back by civilisational problems and that poverty was exacerbated by women having many children. Furthermore, as a woman, I have never felt safer when walking in the streets of Doha and its surrounds at any time of the day or night, compared to most women’s palpable fear when alone in the street in most western cities. There is a respect for women and their safety in Qatar that few can understand, unless you travel there.


The global North's antagonism towards Muslims and black people has a long and brutal history.

In the South African context, efforts have been made to be inclusive and to oppose dominant western-centric narratives and impositions that try to generate a false consensus about Muslims and black people. The 24 November judgment by the Supreme Court of Appeal, which overturned an order to mute the call to prayer at a madrasah in Isipingo, south of Durban, is a poignant example of this resistance.

Judge Nambitha Dambuza, called it as it is. She stated that the neighbour, Chandra Gigi Ellaurie, who secured the interdict, had been motivated by his dislike of Islam. In April 2017, the Western Cape High Court ruled in favour of the Knysna Muslim Council's project to build Knysna's first mosque. In his judgment on the case, Judge Dlodlo wrote that: 

The founding papers make it appear that the stance adopted by the applicants (the opposition to the mosque project) is somehow ascribed to their almost obvious opposition to the coming into existence of the Islamic Centre, in this particular town. The applicants need to bear in mind that the advent of democracy brought along rights to every sector of the community. These rights are enshrined in the Constitution.

Judge Dambuza also stated that the Constitution guaranteed citizens the freedom to observe different religious beliefs on an understanding of mutual tolerance as a civic value.

The legal response in South Africa, with some exceptions, to cases that have Islamophobic resonance is to shun Islamophobia. It is telling that in academic spaces, there is also a tug-o-war between the values espoused by African leaders and remnants of the old order. I refer here to the fact that the Muslim prayer facility at the University of Pretoria's Princehof campus was forcibly closed in April, without any alternate arrangements being made for the students to pray nor was any consideration given to the spiritual health and needs of the Muslim students.

WATCH | Women speak out after battle over prayer space at mosque

If the venue targeted had been a church, one can reasonably imagine how the university's authorities would have responded. When the body of students and academics confronted the university's relevant authorities, a mock show of 'good faith' was set in play. Seven months later, and there has been no effort to finalise a site for the Muslim students. This has been exacerbated by ridiculous requirements imposed on the students just to install a prayer mat in the prayer facility on the Groenkloof campus. Such acts of aggression against Muslims and Muslim prayer facilities smack of Islamophobia and a profound dislike for Islam and are found in pockets throughout our society. 

Fortunately, most official responses to the orchestrated effort to nurture Islamophobia in South Africa have been unsuccessful, largely due to the realisation that discrimination against Muslims is not acceptable because "religious diversity should be celebrated and protected to avoid the injustices of the past." This is something the global North and the University of Pretoria have yet to learn. 

- Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman is Programme Director at the Centre for Mediation in Africa at the University of Pretoria.

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