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17 May 2019
Tolerating the Religious Rainbow

(Published - 17 May 2019)

For about one hundred years the Islamic call to prayer has sounded from the Zeenatul Islam Mosque - in Muir Street, District Six - five times a day. This past week, for the first time in its history, the mosque was issued with an official complaint that characterised the sacred sound as a noise nuisance.

South Africa has been widely lauded for the plurality of its religious landscape and the peaceful co-existence associated with this diversity. For the most part, people of different religious traditions live side by side in varying degrees of harmony. However, these master narratives of peaceful religious co-existence both within and between religious groups, the state, and other actors that have dictated the image of religious diversity in South Africa obscure the very real and rising tensions and conflicts between and toward religious communities.

For the most part the expiration date of the myth of the rainbow nation has been noted and accepted. Rainbowism has been thanked for its strategic utility at a crucial juncture in this country’s history, critiqued at length, and in the fervor of the decolonial turn in scholarship, abandoned in favour of a more nuanced exploration of the politics, poetics, meaning, and management of difference in this still ever-new South Africa. However, in matters relating to religion, the myth of the rainbow nation persists, concealing dangerous and increasing intolerance towards religious differences.

Within the context of the mythical rainbow nation, where the constitutional precept of freedom of religion is wielded like a trident enforcing justice and peace, the noise complaints against the call to prayer from the Zeenatul Islam Mosque in the historical neighborhood of District Six have been met with shock. Some members of the public have characterised the complaints as ridiculous and others have called for greater tolerance to be shown to religious and cultural expressions. In one news report the complaint was minimised as “one grumble” in the hundred-year history of the mosque. However, we would be gravely remiss to underplay the seriousness of one complaint. Without first critically engaging with what appears to be a subtle yet sustained increase in the presence of thinly veiled anti-Islamic sentiments in South African public life, it would be reckless to allow the attention it is receiving to fade into the social media abyss, or to assign the responsibility of this passive-aggressive act of intolerance to the hubris of a lone individual.

Allow me to offer but one example of what I argue is becoming a disturbing tendency. A few years ago Christian consumers complained about the halaal symbol on hot cross buns. In response citizens of various religious and non-religious persuasions expressed shock; others called it ridiculous; there is nothing inherently Christian or Biblical about this pastry. In the end, Woolworths still offered a non-halaal option and every year around Easter time, we revive the story and share it like an urban legend - just slightly too ridiculous to be true and therefore nothing to be concerned about. Today, there is an organised campaign which advocates against the ubiquity of the halaal symbol on food goods in South Africa. The Christian Friendly Products movement has also developed its own counter halaal food symbol and claims that it cannot be displayed side by side with the halaal symbol. This separatist food policy is echoed in the group’s views on Islam and the place of Muslims in South Africa. Even more chilling are the numerous, overtly Islamaphobic and explicitly hateful claims that are being made. As one piece of campaign material, easily downloaded from the internet reads, “It may not be too far-fetched to assume that some of the South African ‘halaal money’ has already been used to finance terrorist organisations such as Hamas and ISIS’ unholy war against Christians and Jews. Using halaal money for terrorising and persecuting Christians in our own country may even become a reality much sooner than we may expect.” These are worrisome accusations, not only because of their unsubstantiated, outlandish veracity, but even more so because of the fear mongering they imbue. By no means does the Christian Friendly Products campaign represent all Christians, or even large numbers of Christians. However, as history has repeatedly taught us, numerical strength is a crude indicator of support for a cause.

Riding the back of the Zeentul Islam Mosque issue are calls for greater tolerance, a return to the honeymoon phase of democracy and an invitation to follow the rainbow once more. 25 years ago it was easier to be optimistic. The monster was slain, we were free, and the possibilities were endless. A quarter of a century later and these calls for tolerance seem trite and futile. In committing to an attitude of tolerance, we commit to exercising our ability and displaying our willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviours that we don’t necessarily like or agree with. Tolerance is but the public face of intolerance. It is worn in polite company but can be disregarded at a whim and frazzled by a perceived infraction or convenience, however minor. Tolerance requires little engagement with or understanding of that which one has decided or been instructed to tolerate. Tolerance extends only so far as that which is tolerated does not offend my sensibilities and sensitivities too much. Tolerance, particularly when exercised by the powerful and the wealthy, carries the stench of unearned privilege. Whereas intolerance is traditionally accepted as tolerance’s antonym, I would argue that concepts such as understanding, appreciation and respect more accurately define the attitudes we need to cultivate in response to religious diversity.

In the midst of a crisis, hope springs eternal, and the defence of the Zeentual Islam Mosque from individuals and communities across the religious spectrum have been heartening - a clear and unconditional display of inter-religious solidarity. I am certain that in this case justice will prevail and that the city will ensure that the mosque is able to carry out its activities without restriction. To consider a law-based intervention a victory would be to tolerate the rainbow until the arrival of the next, perhaps even greater storm. The call to prayer has ironically and patronisingly elicited a call for tolerance. The storm over the azaan calls us to consider the precariousness of the religious rainbow.

By Dr Lee-Shae Salma Scharnick-Udemans (pronouns she and her). Dr Scharnick-Udemans is the senior researcher in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape. She researches, teaches, and supervises in the area of religious diversity, pluralism, and the media.