A warning to 'tolerant' societies everywhere

South African Muslim organisations came out strongly against the August bombing of a US-franchised restaurant in Cape Town, asking that the country not automatically assume Muslims to be responsible for the outrage.

Fair enough. Fingering an entire group—whether ethnic or religious—for a crime can be precipitate and distasteful. There were more than a few red faces when it became clear the perpetrators of a 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, US were disgruntled right-wing Americans and not Islamists, as initially suspected.

Any fool with a fax machine can claim responsibility for an attack. In this instance, a telephone call to a local radio station did the job of planting the word "Islam" into the mind of every South African hearing the news.

But it is hard to feel sorry for Cape Town-based groups which have been outspoken in their support for radical organisations waging a self-proclaimed holy war against Israel and the United States. Muslims in South Africa who express support for Hamas, Hizb'Allah, Islamic Jihad and other Middle East factions using terror as a political tool cannot complain if they are dirtied by the association. (The same goes for Muslims in the US who are upset when Americans start to link Islam to terror—but who never are to be heard condemning acts of terror known to be perpetrated by Muslims.)

Neither too should the South African government be surprised that what appears to be Muslim terrorism has now reached its shores. Through its increasingly cosy relations with Iran, Libya and the Palestinian Authority (Yasser Arafat, recently awarded South Africa's top honour, has yet to apologise publicly for overseeing possibly the bloodiest campaign by a non-state party this century), Pretoria has opened a Pandora's box.

Reports of missile deals with Syria (a major state sponsor of terror) and arms-for-oil deals with Libya (ditto), coupled with harsh words for Israel and blustery rhetoric aimed at the US, have fostered a climate in which an ever more fashionable anti-American and anti-Israeli virus thrives.

Rather than make it clear from its election in 1994 that it would not tolerate the rise of religion-based conflict in South Africa, the Mandela government has allowed Muslim radicals to become increasingly vocal, and violent.

Under the guise of an anti-drug drive, activists have been trained in urban terror, with the symbols of the Middle East—the chequered kheffiyas, Arabic slogans, calls for jihad—increasingly evident. Thugs have practised their skills in gang-warfare situations, wrapping their activities in the moral dressing of a community anti-crime operation.

Not all the violence has been inward-looking. At least one Jewish businessman in Cape Town had his home firebombed shortly after an angry Muslim demonstration linked to a Middle East issue. The Israeli embassy has become a focal point for protests more at home in Tehran or Gaza City, with the burning of effigies and national flags, and highly offensive slogans ("One Zionist, one bullet", "The Holocaust is a persecution myth"), while the police stand idly by. How long will it be until the first home-grown suicide bombing?

It's a bit late to complain, as South African Safety and Security Minister Sydney Mufamadi has, that the country is being used as "a theatre for experiments in international terrorism".

Whether South Africans like it or not, their country is on the agenda for the world's Islamists. In October 1995, Muslim political, clerical and academic leaders from more than 80 countries met in Tripoli, Libya to discuss a plan to transform South Africa into an Islamic state. Muammar Gaddafi was reported by the Johannesburg Sunday Times to be among Arab leaders bankrolling the plan.

Plagued by violent crimes, white-collar corruption and a failing economy, the authorities in Pretoria have enough trouble on their hands without inviting more. It's way past time to get tough with the jihad mob, while assuring other South African Muslims that they, as a group, are not the enemy.

With one of the most liberal constitutions anywhere (the result of its history of entrenched prejudice) the new South Africa prides itself on being a super-tolerant society. Admirable this may be, but it is precisely the freedoms such a society espouses that are exploited by militant Muslims.

There are lessons here for other countries too. Just last month a British-based organisation which supports the use of violence in spreading Islam conceded that it and similar factions were able to raise support and finances in the UK because of the freedoms enjoyed in that society.

But too often forgotten in such countries is a freedom which all deserve, but few experience: The freedom to live without fear.

(Patrick Goodenough)

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