Islam, Democracy, and Public Life in South Africa and in France

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Muhammed Haron



During 3-5 September 2007, scholars associated with University of Witwatersrand’s
Department of Anthropology and key members of the Johannesburg-
based Institute of French Studies in South Africa explored ways to
engage South African and French scholars in forms of cooperation. To
address this event’s focus, “Muslim Cultures in South Africa and France,”
the organizers brought along the School of Social Sciences and Humanities
(University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) and the Institut d’Etudes
de l’Islam et des Societes du Monde Musulman (Ecole des Hautes en
Sciences Sociales [EHESS]) to partner with them.
The theme, “Islam, Democracy, and Public Life in South Africa and in
France,” identified three basic objectives: to re-imagine Islam as an object
of academic enquiry, explore the epistemological dimensions of the study of
Islam, and foster scientific networks. The organizers highlighted a key question:
“How do Muslims employ their religion to explain and clarify their
position and role in public life in South Africa and France?” and identified
three focus areas: The Status ofMinority Religions: The Case of Islam; Religious
Identity - Political Identity; and Trans-nationalism/regionalism.
The “Southern Africa” panel, chaired by Aurelia Wa Kabwe-Segatti
(French Institute of South Africa [IFAS]), consisted of Alan Thorold’s (University
of Melbourne) “Malawi and the Revival of Sufism,” Samadia
Sadouni’s (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research [WISER])
“Muslim Communities in South Africa,” Liazzat Bonate’s (Eduardo Mondlane
University) “Leadership of Islam in Mozambique,” and Eric Germain’s
(EHESS) “Inter-ethnic Muslim Dialogue in South Africa.” Sadouni examined
such crucial concepts as religious minorities and extracted examples
from both countries. Thorold, who analyzed Sufism’s revival in Malawi,
relied on the work of ErnestGellner. Some participants, however, argued that
his ideas have been surpassed by more informed theoretical scholarship.
Bonate reflected upon the differences that played out within northern
Mozambique’s Muslim communities vis-à-vis the government. Germain,
who explored early Cape Muslim social history, provocatively argued that
much could be learned from this community’s make-up and attitude. As
expected, he was criticized for sketching a romantic picture.
The “Media and Power” panel, chaired by Eric Worby, featured Gabeba
Baderoon’s (post-doctoral fellow, Penn StateUniversity’sAfricana Research
Center) “Islam and the Media in South Africa.” She traced how Islam ...

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