‘Difference’ plays itself out in ways that produce individual, community, national, continental and global heartbreak, writes DR YUNUS OMAR.
AS the world hurtles towards a series of ever-deepening crises, we all have a lot of thinking to do. Depending on many sets of circumstances, the way we view the world may or may not be the same. This is true for countries, communities of all descriptions, families and individuals.
There are important outcomes that result because of our different ways of understanding the world. For example, it is common to see social media discussions after (even during!) the Hajj about leaving Muzdalifa during the night or after Fajr. These discussions normally reflect the differing opinions and interpretations of Muslims who would identify as Shaafi’i or Hanafi. The issue is that these differences become extremely heated, and very often descend into discussions of ‘them’ and ‘us’. We see the same kinds of discussions during Ramadaan, also in relation to Shaafi’i and Hanafi approaches to how we perform the Witr salaah as part of the Esha prayers.
The article does not wish these differences away. On the contrary, we need to try and work through how best we manage ourselves when we are faced with matters of difference.
The matter of the time to leave Muzdalifa or whether we perform the Witr salaah behind an imam who performs the Witr salaah in a way that is different to the way we were taught, shows that even naming ourselves as ‘Muslim’ becomes differentiated. This is a very important thing we need to be working through, as the implications are huge.
As with the very small set of examples above, ‘difference’ plays itself out in ways that produce individual, community, national, continental and global heartbreak. In India, right now, there exists the very real threat that Muslims will become fully organised victims of what is called ‘Hindu nationalism’. Basically, the argument by the ruling party has it that to be ‘Indian’ is to be ‘Hindu’. This has not always been the case in India but it is an increasing reality for Muslims. The case of India is one such case in the world.
Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, published in 1983, helps us think about this and other related matters in helpful ways. In this article, the focus will be on Anderson’s idea of the nation as ‘imagined’.
Anderson uses the word ‘imagined’ to help us think about this: a ‘nation’ or country consists of millions of people. In South Africa, with its over 60 million people who live in cities and towns, in urban and rural areas, and consider themselves ‘South Africans’, the reality is that we will never, ever, meet every person in the country during our lifetimes. At best, those who are fortunate enough to be able to travel in the country regularly will meet more people than those who cannot afford to travel in the country. In other words, while we identify as ‘South African’, Anderson shows that this is an idea. We think of ourselves as South African, and that idea produces things like full stadia of people waving South African flags at rugby, netball, soccer or cricket World Cup occasions.
Outside of these sporting occasions, though, the idea of being a ‘South African’ is hotly debated. Even though we have been born in South Africa, and are legal South African citizens, what we think about South Africa and being South African is not something we can take for granted.
During apartheid we were officially classified as various ‘types’ of South Africans: Africans, ‘coloureds’, ‘indians’, ‘malays’ and various other racialised descriptions that were meant to be ‘not-white’. ‘Whiteness’ was declared to be the universal human standard of what it meant to be fully human. Anyone not ‘white’ was less-than-fully-human. This is critical for the present and future of our beloved country.
The new, post-apartheid nation that came into being in 1994 was swept up with excellent ideas around justice, freedom and equality, amid slogans like ‘jobs for all’ and houses for all’. ‘All’ here meant that there was to be a direct addressing of the injustices of the past, during which ‘all’ meant the minority classified ‘white’.
We were not able to deliver on these ideals and promises, for a variety of reasons: global structures of inequality, as well as timid and non-distributive political and economic policies adopted by the ruling party and its supporters.
South Africa holds the dubious title of ‘the most unequal society on earth’. As we try to work out how best to undo the nightmares our people face: unemployment, homelessness, malnutrition, death from diseases we should easily be able to stop, and many other social disasters, we need to re-imagine what it means to be South African.
We ought to live by principles such as equality, justice, homes for all, food for all and security for all. Yet, we do not even care properly for those we know.
How can we imagine a new and better society if we do not make a deliberate effort to embrace difference, and find ways of dealing with the challenges that come along with this reality?
Yunus Omar (PhD) lectures in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.