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Posted on December 7, 2007
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In an interview with BIJURAJ, South African poet and activist Shabbir Banoobhai on religion, writing and freedom of speech

Your poems seem deeply rooted in Sufism...

Most people who read my work make the same observation about it that you have just made. Therefore there must be some truth in it. Personally I never consider my writing as being rooted in Sufism, though in some way it might be. The reason for my reluctance to do so is that I do not consider myself worthy of being considered in the same company as those who have true closeness to the divine. My own love for the divine is still weak and fallible. I see myself simply as a very fortunate human being with a gift for understanding the spiritual, but my own spiritual development has far to go!

Again, your writing has a soft touch. You are a writer who speaks to the heart, with the heart. Is this an influence of your religious outlook?

I suppose since the over-riding theme of my writing is love (the essence of every spiritual belief), it is understandable that you would make such a comment. I once wrote that the journey of love is a “journey of the heart, in the heart, from the heart to the heart”. My formal religious belief is Islamic – I am a Muslim – and I try to be a good one – but my understanding, not only of Islam but of all religions, is that their source is one and their goal is the same - to help us see the divine everywhere (both within and outside us); to love the divine always; to be compassionate towards all; and to serve all of creation - men, women, children, animals and trees.

Can a writer change social thinking? Or have the ability to lead social change towards God and Love. Where would you want society to move in this respect?

I have already commented on the place of love and the divine in my life and in my writing. A writer can certainly cause social change. How effectively depends on the visibility his or her writing is given. Initially when this visibility is low the impact the writer makes is generally limited to a small circle of readers. But given time (and the building of a critical mass of writing) it is possible to influence many people, especially in this technological age. This is the reason why so many writers have their own websites. You have, I know, seen my own website: www.veilsoflight.com

As for where I would like to see society moving, I would like to see greater understanding amongst communities and nations. But this can only happen if there is meaningful communication based on respect for one another; so it is essential that we make the effort to know others and their deepest values and furthermore have the humility to learn from the values and wisdom of others.

You are a Sufi-like poet. But Sufism has faced attacks from some quarters among Muslims themselves from very ancient times, including from the Mughal King Aurangazeb. Do you think Sufism can bring people together? How would you respond to its attackers?

I think all ethical behaviour is good. Having a deep and profound understanding of who we essentially are, and why we are on this earth, is good. Translating that understanding into compassion (into active transformational love), is good. Being good, without even totally understanding why it is good to be good, is good. But understanding why (it is good to be good) is better, as it can help us to sustain our goodness when we are tested (in a crisis).

The name (‘Sufism’, or any other) we use to identify this process of inner transformation is immaterial. What matters is the outcome of the transformation – does it make us truly enlightened, more caring, non violent, more respectful of others, able to resolve differences peacefully (as well as able to see the blessings in some of our differences) – this is what would make Sufism or any other spiritual practice good – not its name.

If a spiritual practice leads to an inner transformation, to an inner goodness, that itself is good; but if it helps us to lead a life of active caring for others, that is better. If it does neither, then our practice is deficient. If our practice is deficient we should become critical of it ourselves, before others criticise us! If our practice leads us to both inner and outer goodness, to active caring, we should not worry about who is criticising us, even if that person is the most powerful person in the world.

Intolerance seems to be the defining quality of the present age. Taslima Nasreen and MF Hussein, amongst others, are facing attacks by ‘fundamentalists’. What do you say about this kind of intolerance?

Very often, the adherents of a religious community are faced with the challenge of having to respond to those who they believe (rightly or wrongly) are denigrating their culture, or beliefs, or revered books and personalities. Sometimes the criticism is indeed simply malicious, or vindictive. At other times it is the result of ignorance, or the result of some genuine misunderstanding of another’s beliefs. Sometimes, some perceived criticism is simply the expression of a scholarly difference, with no malice intended. Often, it reveals cultural differences – where, in some cultures, there is nothing truly sacred - (in the sense that a believer in another culture might understand the sacred) – where the right to ridicule the sacred itself (perhaps) is sacred.

When responding (particularly to a deliberate, provocative, or malicious insult, or act of defamation) we should bear in mind that we cannot protect a loved one’s honour by becoming dishonourable in the process of protecting the loved one’s honour; and cannot become undignified in the process of protecting the dignity of our faith! Any response that is violent or designed to hurt another is therefore simply unacceptable.

What is your attitude towards poetry? How much can you expose of yourself in it? What is writing for you?

I love poetry because it is such a wonderful combination of art and music. In any art that expresses deep truths, the writer often bares his own intimate self to others. In such instances the language the writer uses itself reflects the state of his or her soul. This may, indeed, apply not only to writers but to all of us. There is always risk associated with every kind of communication but writers (knowingly or unknowingly) often both reveal and conceal simultaneously – the deepest and most sensitive things are effectively only revealed to the most sensitive reader – this itself affords the writer some protection as the sensitive reader has a spiritual kinship with the writer – while the less sensitive reader effectively only accesses that part of what the writer is saying that the writer is comfortable sharing with someone with such sensitivity.

While studying in college you were a revolutionary. What were your political beliefs? Have you changed your political views later on?

My political beliefs mirror my spiritual beliefs. I believe that we are all essentially divine. I believe therefore that we should not discriminate against people because of their race, religion or gender. I believe moreover that we have a duty to be compassionate towards every living creature and a duty to take care of others. I believe that God has given us the earth to live on as a trust that we have to respect and protect; and the earth’s resources are not to be abused or used selfishly. My political beliefs have not changed over the years because these spiritual beliefs have never wavered.

South Africa was notoriously racist. What is the current situation there? Does racism still exist? How much 'Black Consciousness' is there now?

Racism, thankfully, is no longer promoted legally – and consequently racism has decreased considerably since we gained our freedom in the first democratic elections of 1994. However racism has not been completely eradicated. This will take at least a generation as the older generation still lapses into racist practices from time to time. However we in South Africa are very fortunate as we have been dealing with our differences for centuries and there is a strong desire for the new South Africa to succeed; and there is great pride in South Africa’s new constitution which protects individual and group rights better than do many countries in the Western world.

The black consciousness movement arose during the era of apartheid when it was necessary to uplift the spirit of, and offer hope to, Black people who were almost regarded as non-people in many ways. The Black consciousness movement (and especially its most charismatic leader Steve Biko, who was ultimately murdered by the security police of the apartheid era, made Black people proud of their blackness and mobilised Black people to rise against the apartheid regime. Of course all South Africans are now equal before the law so Black Consciousness is not needed as a mass movement any longer. The pride of all South Africans now mostly comes from being South African and no longer from being black, white or brown.

Black power in South Africa is being seen as rotten as its predecessor. For example there have been many allegations against Winnie Mandela and other rulers. How do you react to this?

Abuse of power is inevitable wherever people exercise power. But this abuse is presently concentrated around specific individuals (sometimes well-known and in high places!) but it is nothing like the systematic abuse of power practised by the apartheid state and backed by its military might. Of course all abuse has to be exposed ad stopped.

What about South African literature? What are the new trends? How do you compare South African literature to international literature?

South African literature is currently flourishing at every level; both old and new writers are writing new stories; many of the new black writers are telling the stories of their lives and the history of their communities. And most other writers are also finding something new to say. Some writers are still searching for something as powerful to write about as apartheid - the system that has just been dismantled; some of the new writing celebrates our new freedom, some of the new writing is critical of the new elite for forgetting the less fortunate too soon. A South African writer J.M. Coetzee recently won the Nobel Prize for literature so South African writing is taking its rightful place internationally.

Recently there have been many attacks against and a great deal of criticism towards Islam. What do you have to say about religious fundamentalism? Is that also happening in South Africa? How do people react to this?

Religious fundamentalism whether espoused by Muslims, or by any other person of any other faith is ultimately destructive – not only does it adversely affect the image of that religion but unfortunately taints its adherents as a whole; and yet these adherents on the whole may be as good as (or better than) than their counterparts belonging to other faiths. Negative publicity is understandable if anyone commits an atrocity in the name of his or her religion; but not understandable where the publicity is relentlessly negative towards an entire community based on the misguided actions of a few of its adherents. When this happens it calls into question the bona fide nature of the criticism.

Presently Muslims in South Africa do not have to contend the same kind of negative perceptions of Muslims or Islam affecting Muslims in mainly Western countries. South African Muslims, like people of all faiths, contributed to the downfall of apartheid. People of faiths are treated equally before the law. South African are relatively well educated and this lessens emotional responses to problems relating to religious differences. Within the Muslim community there are many strong activists who respond strongly but peacefully to unfair criticism. South African society has learnt to encourage and protect the right of all its members to protest peacefully against unfairness and injustice. South Africans have been living with their differences for hundreds of years unlike the citizens of European countries facing waves of new immigrants they have not learnt to relate to; so South Africans no longer feel threatened by some of the minor issues that trouble the West – such as schoolgirls wearing Hijab or scarves!

We hear that an anti-imperialist struggle is emerging in different parts of South Africa. Is this correct? What is the position of mass struggle?

South African activists are starting to intensify the struggle against imperialism, global exploitation, and AIDS. It is interesting to note that even the South African government supports a number of causes that Western countries and many white South Africans still find difficulty accepting – such as support for the Palestinians - though many Muslims feel the South African government is still not doing enough. However South Africa’s quiet diplomacy regarding Zimbabwe is causing concern to many people who feel South Africa should be taking a tougher stance against Robert Mugabe’s government. The public activism cannot yet, though, be regarded as mass struggle in the same way as the mass struggle that developed against apartheid.

Since your family hails from Gujarat, you are probably aware of the happenings in Gujarat. How do you react to the violence, destruction and massacre?

What happened in Gujurat was a great tragedy; as was the bombing of commuter trains in Mumbai. To avoid this in future there is much that needs to be done:

– by religious leaders, who should promote the highest ethical behaviour in all their constituents towards every living thing, not just towards those who have different beliefs - a behaviour that does justice to the Divine essence in all of us;

– by politicians, who should be vigorously restrained from using communal and religious differences to achieve narrow political goals – goals that are short-sighted, divisive, and (often) essentially immoral;
– by the legislature, ensuring that the historic injustices of the past towards minorities are pro-actively, consciously, and conscientiously reversed at every level – social, economic, political and educational;

– by an education that not only focuses on teaching us how to achieve material prosperity but how to become refined and compassionate human beings, caring for others, honouring those of other faiths, and protecting the weak or the helpless: especially women and children, the newly born, and the not-yet-born.

How much has Indian culture influenced you?

I am also proud of my Indian heritage. Our broader family’s culture is still very Indian in many ways. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the language we speak to our elders are all strongly influenced by our Indian heritage. We keep in touch with events in India by reading and following the news. Naturally we listen to Indian music and watch Indian movies, which have a strong following in South Africa!

What were your feelings when you were here? Have you any plan to visit India again?

I have visited India only once, in 1980. I loved it. At that time my uncle (my father’s brother) was still alive. He has since passed away. But I would like to visit his family again. When my wife and I were in Delhi on our last visit, one of our abiding memories was meeting India’s Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi. I had just had my first book published and decided I would like to present her with a copy. She was not in her office so we were directed to her home. When I explained to her staff who we were and what I wanted to do (present her with a copy of my book) they went to ask her if she would meet us and she did! So my book gained me a meeting with India’s Prime Minister. I think it is almost impossible, considering the security-conscious world we are living in today, that something like this can ever happen again!

Posted on December 7, 2007

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