South Africa’s Muslims are an example to all

Although the small Muslim community is well-integrated in Cape Town, Isil recruiters are being dragged from the city. It shows that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to counter radicalism, writes HA Hellyer

An aerial view of  Cape Town, South Africa.  David Rogers / Getty Images
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As European countries grow more concerned about their Muslim communities, the discourse around radicalisation and extremism becomes more problematic. Only recently, Mak Chishty, a senior British police officer, declared that young Muslim Britons who stop shopping at Marks & Spencer stores could be victims of radicalisation. This is a very awkward line of argument.

Mr Chishty also noted that teenagers who stop drinking alcohol or wearing “western clothes” could be extremists. His comments appear to suggest that all observant Muslims are essentially radicals in waiting. As for “western clothes”, many British Muslims ethnically originate from other cultural contexts, and may feel more comfortable in those kinds of garb. In any case, it’s not particularly clear how this is connected to extremism.

This will not be the first or the last time that the loyalty and belonging of Muslim communities of the West is questioned. Some may assume that this is a natural situation for all minority communities – that, inevitably, Muslim communities being what they are and the direction of travel of world affairs being what it is, such tensions are liable to happen. But there are lessons to be learnt, perhaps, from lesser known Muslim communities, such as the one residing on the Western Cape of South Africa.

The history of that community dates back hundreds of years, so there is something of a long established precedent for Muslim South Africans, which serves to protect them against suggestions of being alien or disloyal.

But beyond that, there is a history of political activism from among South African Muslims during the apartheid struggle. While many among the South African Muslim religious establishment acquiesced to apartheid, there were many individuals who did not and they formed coalitions to struggle against that dominant force. When apartheid finally fell, Muslim South Africans had already, organically, derived social capital in South Africa and they converted that into political capital.

In democratic South Africa, this Muslim community is treated as an integral part of society. There are no doubts or suspicions in that regard. What is more, the Muslim community itself would have it no other way. But their sense of South African patriotism does not result in an unnatural type of assimilation either. They belong to South Africa and they see no contradiction between that belonging and their own specificities as Muslims.

Those particularities might strike the British police commander as somehow threatening, or evidence of radicalisation, but that would be far from the facts on the ground. Their sense of being South African is taken for granted – as it should be, even though how they might view themselves may differ from other communities in South Africa.

That is not to say that the threat of radicalism does not exist. Even in this extremely well-adjusted and socially incorporated community, the threat of ISIL exists. In April, a teenage Muslim girl was stopped at Cape Town airport, en route to joining ISIL. Her parents were unaware that she’d been radicalised online. As yet, it is unclear how a 15-year-old child could receive the relevant funds for a ticket overseas – and it is unknown precisely how many South Africans are already in Syria and Iraq fighting for the radical group.

But they certainly exist – showing that for at least some recruits to ISIL, there is a deeply ideological element to their membership. Certainly, there are no issues of social exclusion that could be said to make these Muslims vulnerable to radical recruitment – but extremist ideology can find its way almost anywhere if left unchecked. Less than two weeks after that teenager was stopped, another was intercepted, from the same community in Cape Town.

The threat of ISIL exists and should not be underestimated. However, any counter-radicalisation strategy cannot be successful if it attempts to create problems out of anything that is different from the norm.

Extremism can take root for a variety of reasons, and there won’t be a “one size fits all” model for radicalisation. At the same time, while making problems for Muslim communities unfairly ought not to lead any of them to extremism, it certainly makes the radical recruiter’s job that much easier. By the same token, ensuring the open inclusion of Muslim communities in a shared and open patriotism, as South Africans have accomplished, makes the radical’s job that much harder.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow in international security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer