|South African Muslims pray during the World Cup tournament [AFP]|
Police were on high alert last week as thousands of ticket-holders headed to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in South Africa’s North West Province for the World Cup match between England and the US.
The town of Rustenburg, where the 42,000 seater stadium is situated, was sealed off from all non-ticket holders as security forces were on high alert due to the political realities of the teams, and violent threats that had been made.
The threats date back to April this year, when media reports claimed a North African group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement saying that suicide bombers planned on attacking the tournament.
In a separate incident, South African investigators went to Iraq after security forces there announced they had arrested another alleged al-Qaeda fighter who had talked to friends about attacking Danish and Dutch teams.
On top of all of this, the US state department issued a travel alert warning its citizens to be aware of increased terrorism risks during the World Cup.
South African authorities have been saying all along that threats against the tournament, as well as the generally high rate of crime in the country, are all well prepared for.
Nathi Mthethwa, the South African police minister, said last month that if any violent threats were to emerge, his forces would be ready.
Mthethwa said preparations had been under way since 2004 and have included working closely with security and intelligence agents from the US, Britain and other countries.
He also dismissed reports of violent cells and training camps in the region, after a local paper claimed that Pakistani and Somali fighters were running camps in northern Mozambique and may have crossed into South Africa.
But these words of comfort have not only been coming from the authorities – South Africa’s Muslim community has also spoken out against violence and terrorism, by both organisations and states.
The community, making up only two per cent of the country’s population, have also organised a campaign to welcome guests into their country and homes, actively dispelling any perceived terrorism threats.
The campaign, labelled ‘SA Muslims 2010’,aims to showcase Islam and Muslims in South Africa through various exhibitions, reflecting some of the community’s 300-year history.
Muslims have been in the country since the mid-1600s and are well integrated.
Ahmed Shaikh, one of the co-ordinators of the project, said that the World Cup presented them with a unique opportunity to “share positive messages about Islam with diverse groups of people in a non-threatening and cordial way”.
“Many European countries are currently facing difficulties in regard to integration and assimilation of expatriate communities,” Shaikh said.
“I think South Africans share a proud history of a multi-cultural society post-1994 which has found a good balance between racial, cultural and religious differences.”
He said that the initiative would showcase the fact that South African Muslims peacefully co-exist with other communities in the country.
David Africa, an associate with Cape Town based Africa-Analysis, a security research institute, said: “We have heard of third or fourth generation Muslims in the UK, who have grown up there and yet they do not feel part of the society; they feel alienated, isolated, and subsequently turn to extremism and terrorism.”
Africa said that the evolution of Islam in South Africa has been a successful story in which the community at large has isolated those wishing to commit violence.
|The South African Muslim community has isolated terrorists and shunned violence [AFP]|
“Of course one cannot rule out the possibility of an attack,” Africa said.
His assessment was that while there may have been some talk about attacks, it was unlikely that any significant incident would take place.
“South Africa has enough of its own home-grown militant groups of both the right-wing and Islamist type,” he said.
“This makes any claim that an attack is impossible simply irresponsible, hence the preparations by the security agencies.”
The US state department has listed two South African organisations that is claims were international terrorist organisations: People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) and Qibla.
The Centre for Defence Information, an independent military research organisation, states that Qibla started in the 1980s, and Pagad in 1996.
It also cites the following as their respective anti-US activities: “Qibla protests US policies toward the Muslim world through its radio station 786. Pagad is suspected of conducting hundreds of bombings and other violent actions.”
Although it claims that both are not designated as Foreign Terrorist Organisations, they were listed as “active” in 2000.
Africa said that while Qibla and Pagad were active in violent activity in the past, he had no information that they continued to do so.
“They were last active in violent activities in 2001, but the arrest of almost their entire militant leadership and the disintegration of their terrorist infrastructure has meant a prolonged lull in their activities,” Africa said.
Most recently they have been involved in peaceful marches and protest actions, speaking out against war’s in Iraq, Gaza, Darfur and other regions across the world.
Africa added that there were certainly some members of these organisations who were involved in violent acts in the past and remain at large: “But I doubt whether they have the infrastructural and political cohesion to execute an attack of any import at this stage.”
Ashwin Pienaar, a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a think tank based in Johannesburg, said that based on their research they believe that none of the supposed threats are credible.
“Already in the tournament we have had two of the big games, which could be considered prime targets because of the countries involved – the US, England, Netherlands and Denmark – that have gone ahead without incident.”
He said that they continue to monitor the situation, but “the South African Muslim community is quite unique because of the anti-Apartheid struggle in this country”.
While this is not specific to the Muslim community – it applies to a whole spectrum of communities – the experience of the anti-Apartheid struggle has shown that there are ways that you can engage in dialogue, instead of resorting to violence.
Debate, not outrage
Pienaar cited the recent example of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad that was drawn by Zapiro, a local cartoonist, that infuriated the South African Muslim community.
“Immediately after the cartoon came out, Muslim leaders called for calm and we saw a lot of debate, rather than outrage,” he said.
“In my opinion, the South African Muslim community would not support any terrorist activities or harbour any foreign terrorists.”
“The South African Muslim community is quite unique because of the anti-Apartheid struggle in this country”
Ashwin Pienaar, researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre
Azhar Vadi, the head of news at South African based radio station, Channel Islam International, said that local Muslims completely reject and denounce all forms of violence.
He said that a group representing 15 Muslim organisations met this month with the South African State Security Agency.
“The group said that they wanted the intelligence community to be on the look out for what they called, local and foreign threats, and third force elements,” said Vadi.
He said that he believed that the chances of a violent act stemming from the within the Muslim community was very slim, but there was a possibility of other groups trying to sabotage the Muslims.
“No system is fool proof and with elements in society bent on creating a negative image of Muslims, authorities need to remain vigilant,” he said.
Muslims have a good relationship with the majority of South Africa’s population and government, and for decades have been part of the fight against apartheid and oppression.
“Muslims continue to have members of the community in parliament to this day and the ruling party enjoys strong support from the community,” Vadi said.
With little chance of any violent acts coming out of the country, and the Muslim community, together with broader South African society and the authorities, on the lookout for troublemakers from outside, it is hoped the tournament will remain untouched by violence.
Probably the biggest thing that South Africans of all races, religions and cultures need to worry about, is the national football team not making it through the first round of the World Cup.