(source: Voice of the Cape fm Online)

A blog by activist Zackie Achmat claiming that the Palestinian solidarity movement in South Africa has been hijacked by “Islamists” has been cause for much debate. 66% of those who participated in a VOC snap online poll on Monday joined the Muslim Judicial Council, Media Review Network and Anti War Coalition in disagreeing vigorously with Achmat. However, 20% thought he was right to some extent while 10% agreed with him completely. 2% was uninterested and another 2% held their own view.

Achmat threw down the challenge when he wrote that he left the Cape Town march – held on Thursday 3 June against the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza – feeling both moved and disturbed. The latter was due to the role of ulema who dominated the march, sprouting support for groups like Hamas which he found “morally repugnant”. He also claimed that their “Islamist” approach had urged the crowd on to violence.

Instead he called for a secular movement to lead the charge against apartheid Israel that should include “people of all faiths and no faith”. “In the end, the march on Thursday 3 June was another manifestation of the clergy and Islamist ideologues misleading Muslims and refusing to organise all sections of South African society. They appropriate the struggle of the Palestinian people as if it is the ‘property’ of the clergy. Just as we stand firm against the South African Zionist Federation, we must stand firm against religious extremism in the Muslim community.”

Achmat said he left the march because he felt it had little to offer the Palestinians or South Africa. “In fact, hardly any of the leaders who marched under their religious banners have ever led their followers on marches with organisations such as the Treatment Action Campiagn, the Social Justice Coalition, The Coalition to End Hate Crimes. Unlike the Anglican Bishops, none of the Muslim leaders condemned the homophobia in Malawi, Kenya or Uganda. They have never spoken out against the rape and murder of black working class lesbians in South Africa.

“A secular movement led by our trade unions and civil society organisations must ensure that apartheid Israel is isolated through sanctions, boycotts and disinvestment. One day, I will march with the Muslim community in Salt River, the Jewish community of Sea Point and the people of my adopted hometown Khayelitsha to free Palestine and ensure real democracy and security for the people of Israel,” he wrote.


Iqbal Jassat of the Media Review Network (MRN) disagreed with Achmat, saying while the Palestinian issue has historically been very close to the heart of Muslims, it has never been exclusive to people of the Muslim faith. “While it is true that Muslims have had a historic connection with the Palestinian issue, I don’t think it is true to suggest that the solidarity movement has been hijacked by Islamic workers. Where I am in Gauteng, for instance, the solidarity movement has been embraced by a range of different role players from civil society to political organizations.”

Jassat said Palestinian marches have always drawn a predominantly Muslim crowd. “But there has also been a sprinkling of other people. What is needed is a formidable solidarity movement, built across ideological divides. Since 2001 we have seen tremendous transformation in the movement. It has become a global (intifada) and has been for a while, which is very significant for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.”

According to Jassat, the SA Muslim leadership was keenly aware of the need to build the solidarity movement into one that has broad-based support. As such, there is ample space for people within the movement to differ on the finer points such as whether a two state solution was viable and support for Hamas vs Fatah. “People are able to display their political biases and we have seen this in marches across the globe. These marches have enough space for people of different persuasions to display their own political allegiances.”


Sheik Ebrahim Abrahams of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) said Achmat’s comments reflected a lack of knowledge about the historical basis of the Palestinian struggle and was both unfair and narrow-minded. He said as much as the Palestinian struggle was a human rights issue today, religion was at the root of the issue because Palestine was the basis of three religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism. So it was wholly unfair to only blame the Muslim clergy for taking the lead when the spotlight was not cast on clergy of other faiths.

“What we are calling for are human rights, not Muslim rights. So it is completely unfair for Zackie Achmat to focus only on the Muslim clergy. What about the non-Muslim clergy who fail to show up at these marches? Whenever a march is called, the interfaith community is invited, but they seldom respond to the same degree as the ulema do. If Zackie had the guts to pen these comments on paper, then he should have the same guts to approach them and throw the challenge out to them as well and not just focus on the ulema.”

The alim also took strong exception to the following quote from Achmat: “My objections to the leadership of the Islamist parties can be expressed as follows: first, their credo will destroy any human rights basis to the countries they govern because they want to force every person Muslim or not to accept their version of Shariah and politics. They are prepared to enforce this with violence. Second, their identification with the people of Palestine is based on religious extremism not the human rights of all people.”

In response, Abrahams said this was an outright lie. He said local ulema leading the pro-Palestinian marches had never urged violence. In fact, they have taken pains to urge restraint among marchers with constant public awareness. This includes guidance on their conduct and slogans. As a result, he said slogans seen at these marches had been far less anti-Semitic than it had been in the past.

However, the alim conceded that Achmat was right in saying that Muslims often were the first to express concern about Palestine when they were slower on other issues. But he pointed out that Muslims should show concern whenever any human being was being injured by another “because we don’t believe that any human being should be harmed by another”.


Shaheed Mohamed of the Anti-War Coalition (AWC) and Workers International Vanguard League (WIVL) also differed with Achmat. He said the right question that needed to be asked was not if Islamists had hijacked the movement, but rather why workers movements failed to prioritise the Palestinian agenda instead of merely issuing statements.  

According to Mohamed, because the issue has its base in the Middle East which is largely Muslim, it is natural that Muslims would have taken the lead on this battle. “There is a long history in SA of Muslims taking up the Palestinian cause, so where is this notion coming from? The question should rather be: why is it that the workers movement such as Cosatu, are not placing the fight to free Palestine on the centre, instead of just issuing statements? They are the ones who really have the power.”

He said there is documentary proof that whenever solidarity action was planned, letters of invitation were written to churches, but they “have deliberately not mobilized their people and have in this way indirectly supported Zionism. As such, churches have played a treacherous role, as they did during Apartheid. It is a misnomer that they played a progressive role during the struggle. They held back the masses and only succeeded in clouding the issue of who was really in power.”

The only way to move away from a religious-based support for the Palestinian struggle was for individuals to assess the matter based on the issue, Mohamed said. “This is a situation where human rights atrocities were being committed since before 1948. People need to ask where they stand on this, regardless of their religion. So it is a matter of more education and discussion in the labour movements.”

He said an initiative was now being planned to organise taking worker brigades to Rafah where they could dismantle the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Israel. This, Mohamed said was something concrete workers can do, in as much as they are able to refuse to offload exports to Israel which are moved through SA ports.

Asked why workers should be interested in the Palestinian issue amid tough working conditions at home, he said: “But who keeps us unemployed? The same monopolies who own the world – including our Reserve Bank are sustaining Israel. So we are fighting the same enemy, therefore it is necessary for us to take up this issue in our worker movements.”

Author: MRN NetworkThe aspiration of the Media Review Network is to dispel the myths and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims and to foster bridges of understanding among the diverse people of our country. The Media Review Network believes that Muslim perspectives on issues impacting on South Africans are a prerequisite to a better appreciation of Islam.