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Islam and Racism

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A group of Muslim students at a Koran school in Tete Mozambique pose for a picture( Photo Hassan Isilow) Special thanks to SANZAF who sponsored my trip.

By Hassan Isilow

Despite the belief that all Muslims belong to a single brother/sisterhood, some Black Muslims in South Africa are complaining that their Asian Muslim counterparts discriminate against them at both mosques and places of work.

“For a long time, I have felt very uncomfortable in the way Muslims of Asian origin treat me, both inside the prayer and the work place,” said Ali Musa, a Malawian national working at a farm in Johannesburg.

The Muslim migrant who is in his late 20’s said Asian Muslims always avoid standing next to him during congregation prayers at the farm’s Jamaat Khana (small mosque). As a result, Ali now prefers praying in the last row of the mosque. He asked Africawitness not to photograph him or mention the name of the company he works for, because he fears being victimized by his employer.

Hudu Mwinyi, a Black Muslim migrant from Tanzania, tells Africawitness that he is stunned by the racism he encounters within the multi-racial South African Muslim community. “Whenever I go to the mosque, Asian Muslims ask me which year I embraced Islam. This question is very disturbing, because I was born a Muslim,” Mwinyi related.

He further accuses Asian Muslims of not responding to his Muslim greetings, adding that whenever he greets them in Arabic, they never respond. Mwinyi thinks this might be because they assume he wants to beg for money. He is not alone in this view.

“Things are now improving, but when we first arrived in Mayfair in the late 90’s, some Asian Muslim brothers never wanted to stand next to us during salaah(prayers),” Adamou Okoca, a Nigerian businessman in Johannesburg revealed. He said during that time, black Muslims were known for “having smelly socks”, so Asian worshipers avoided standing next to them.

“Some black Muslim migrants were reported to have had smelly socks, so this news spread in all mosques in Gauteng, which lead to the stereotyping of all black Muslims, irrespective of whether your are South African or foreign,” Adamou said. However, things are now improving between Black Muslims and the Asian Muslim community who are now working together to build Islam and improve its image post 9/11.


Sikander Mohammed, an official with the Islamic Information Services of South Africa and an Indian himself, said he regularly receives such reports. “It’s true that incidents of racism do exist in our society, but it is minimal,” he explained, adding that most of those responsible for such behaviour were ignorant of the teachings of Islam.

Johannesburg-based academic, Na’eem Jeenah, said true African Muslims were at the receiving end of racist treatment.

“Are African Muslims at the receiving end of racist treatment as many allege? I would say they are. One of the most obvious examples is that of language. How many Muslims still use words like ‘kariah’, ‘kaffir’ or ‘darkies’ when talking about African people – Muslim and non-Muslim?” he asked in a column he wrote for Al-Qalam.

According to Jeenah, dependency was a cause for the ill treatment of some Black Muslims by their Asian counterparts. “One of the main faults, in my opinion, of many within the African Muslim community is dependence. As if African Muslims cannot survive unless Indian Muslims do something for them. Such a feeling of entitlement stems from a sense of dependency,” he wrote.

He noted that dependency was not only in terms of material things, but also relates to legitimacy. As such, he said, it was surprising that African Muslims wanted to be “recognised” by the Asians as being Muslims. “Recognised as Muslims??? Once a person takes shahadah and has faith in her/his heart, why does such a person need to be given ‘recognition’ by some group of Indian (or any other) Muslims? Why this dependence for legitimacy?” he questioned.

He related the case of the now defunct Voice radio in Johannesburg who organised mass iftaar (breaking of Muslim fast) in different mosques. One Saturday was reserved for the Soweto mosque, but to their surprise, the Imam of this mosque called to cancel the offer they had extended to his mosque. While the reason he provided was that the station’s music policy, the reality was that he had feared retribution from his Indian bosses whom he depended on for legitimacy.


Jeenah also mentions the lack of perseverance as another factor affecting the development of human resource among the Black South African Muslim community. He quotes the case a few years ago when a group of young Muslims went to Sudan to study Islam. Most of them were Africans and many returned home before they had finished even a year of their studies.

He said the Black SA Muslim students couldn’t live with the difficult conditions they found in Sudan. On the other hand, there was a student from a rich Indian family, who stuck it out and finished his studies. He said due to the luck of perseverance, the Black South African Muslim community had lost the opportunity for increasing the number of African ulama.

Jeenah suggested that in order to address some of the problems mentioned above there is a need to build bridges between the different Muslim communities. “Perhaps the simplest thing for individuals are to begin with social contact; visiting each other, sharing meals, time and space. And at a community level an idea could be for more well-off communities to ‘twin’ with those not as advantaged,” he advised.
He quotes the example where mosques twin, assist and learn from each other. On breaking the dependency syndrome Jeenah said zakah should not be used to provide handouts, but to assist in socio-economic development. To read his full column follow this link
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Written by africawitness

March 5, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Posted in Xenophobia

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