It happens so casually one has to do a double-take: did that really just happen? It is, of course, the nature of prejudice in societies like South Africa that the behaviour it gives rise to is almost second-nature to many people. Also, there is a belief among many that their specific prejudices are universal: it’s like this the world over, such people will insist, having never left their specific suburb. But of course it is not. There may be various prejudices around the world, but none of them is universal, or timeless. And even if they were, that does not make them acceptable.
All forms of prejudice arise in specific historical contexts, and when they are no longer useful, or when the material conditions that gave rise to them change, those beliefs either have to adapt to the changed environment, or disappear. Beliefs are not universal, nor are they immanent. Even a cursory glance through history will demonstrate that all forms of human belief change as forms of organisation change across time, and vary across space.
Racism is a specific form of prejudice, in which phenotypical features such a skin tone and hair texture, shape of nose and lips, among many other elements, became the basis for an elaborate set of beliefs about difference and its significance. It arose in a specific context half a millennium ago. And this was no accident.
The origins and roots of beliefs which would become modern racism are inextricable from the European expansion project, and that project is inseparable from internal changes in the societies of that collection of peninsulas at the western edge of the Asian landmass. The five centuries since the end of Europe’s Middle Ages have had (and continue to have) far-reaching and devastating consequences for not only the societies in the rest of the world, but for the planet itself.
One instance of racist prejudice which has been a feature of political life in the West is Islamophobia. It is not a new phenomenon, but has new articulations in relation to current political dynamics. Edward Said traced some of the manifestations of Islamophobia in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1981), tracing the ways in which stereotypes and racist tropes about the Orient and its people, about which he first wrote in the seminal Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), feature in the popular culture and politics of the West.
Gabeba Baderoon’s Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-apartheid (2014) traces the specific South African articulation of Islam in representation here. In many respects, among those spaces where Muslims are not the demographic majority, South Africa is a place where it is relatively easy to be a follower of Islam. Many people, among them even non-Muslims, who grew up or lived in apartheid’s segregated neighbourhoods where the call to prayer rang out simultaneously from different mosques, still report missing those markers in the day. It is fairly easy to access halaal food in local supermarkets.
However, casual Islamophobia persists, in this place, at this time. We hear its ugly tones in the vulgar complaint against the building of a mosque by a resident of Pinelands, Cape Town; she thinks of the call to prayer as an imposition on her life, and conflates belief and terrorism in ways not unlike the views expressed by many people in the United States of America. We can detect it as the foundations of the professions of anxiety and fear people make about fellow citizens wearing a head scarf or donning a beard in schools. Despite centuries of being grounded in South Africa, Islam remains something foreign for many, and Muslims continue to be seen as strangers (when they are not erased from view altogether).
But Islam has a centuries-long history in this part of the world, as Baderron demonstrates. Muslims were among the first speakers of the language which we now know as Afrikaans, and among the first texts written in Afrikaans were translations of the Quran and Muslim religious commentary. The processes by which the country we now know as South Africa cannot be extricated from the presence of Islam in South Africa, and the story of Muslims in Africa. Slavery is one such element. But Muslims have served in the movements against apartheid, and in the post-1994 period, have served in government. They are among the comedians we all laugh with, and the actors who move us across stages and screens.
Muslims are integral to the fabric of this society; they have been here for centuries, and they aren’t going anywhere, and they do not need to change their customs to accommodate bigots. There is no need to fear the religion they practise, or the varieties of customs they invest in. A teenager with a beard is not a source of fear; many of us know this intimately, because these boys are our cousins and brothers, our sons and their friends. Girls wearing the hijab are not anomalies, or aberrations: many of us have grown up with aunts and mothers, sisters and friends, grandmothers and teachers who have chosen to cover their heads.
Islam is therefore not an aberration, and Muslims are not departures from some unarticulated norm of life. And it may be time for those who think their habits of being and dress are the norm from which everyone else’s ways depart or differ to accept that they live in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa. We are varied here, and it makes for a richer life. The suburbs belong to all of us, and so do the public schools. The Constitution guides our assertion; the Constitutional Court affirmed this view.
It is 2017, after all. Prejudices of the past must be abolished and unlearned in the conditions of the present. And more importantly, there is no need to import the prejudices of politically regressive folks from elsewhere into the local political economy. It is not enough to tolerate Muslims and their religion and customs (or anyone and their religious beliefs and customs); we are compelled by the Constitution to respect and embrace people’s differences in public life. Those who insist on behaving as if the intolerance they learned under apartheid can still be used to police the lives of the rest of us must be taught that their casual Islamophobia is fedala.