The NI Interview
Nikki van der Gaag meets Farid Eysack, a gracious
but determined Muslim who uses Islam to fight for the poor.
Farid Eysack walks with the spring of a teenager and speaks with the passion of a true believer. But he by no means fits the media cliché of the Islamic fundamentalist. Far from it. In fact he is a radical, politically-active Muslim who argues strongly in favour of women’s emancipation and speaks out forcefully on behalf of the poor. In his recent book he explains that Islam can be a tool for liberation and that the Qur’an can be interpreted as a kind of Islamic ‘liberation theology’.
Eysack is a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Yet despite his elevated position with his woolly hat and ready smile he seems younger than his 38 years.
Last November South African President Nelson Mandela appointed Farid Eysack as one of only two men on the ten-person Gender Equality Commission (GEC). The Commission has wide-ranging powers and will review all South Africa’s laws with the goal of wiping out gender discrimination wherever it’s found.
Farid is both proud and moved to have been appointed. ‘I come from a religious background that is often seen (quite rightly) as the personification of the militant marginalization of women. And yet I was nominated to the GEC by a wide range of interest groups – from the Communist Party and the ANC Women’s League to the Human Rights Commission and the Africa Women’s Development Bank.’
Eysack’s personal history under apartheid largely helped shape his attitude to gender equality. ‘My father left when I was three weeks old,’ he recalls. ‘My mother struggled to bring up six sons on her own. So she had a triple burden: oppressed by her gender and by apartheid and by being a single parent. We were poor and sometimes hungry.’
When Farid was five his family was forcibly relocated to Bonteheuwel, a ‘coloured’ township in the Cape area. He smiles wryly as the memories flood back.
‘We lived in a two-bedroom house, all of us. The only private space I had was the toilet. So I prayed in the toilet. I prayed in the toilet often.’
Farid first became serious about Islam while still a child. ‘At the age of nine I joined the Tablighi Jama’ah, an organization which goes and knocks on people’s doors and invites them to come to the mosque. But I was also an activist opposing apartheid, despite the fact that the Tablighi Jama’ah is completely opposed to political activism.’
He was still at school when he was detained by the security police for associating with the radical students’ group, National Youth Action. ‘In detention,’ he says, ‘the presence of God meant an enormous amount to me’. And it was then that he began to seek actively a bridge between his religious beliefs and his political concerns.
‘I knew that I had to find a way of marrying my theology with my activism. You see, I’ve always carried seemingly contradictory tendencies within myself.’ He grins. ‘There was not one, but two Farids. I knew that I couldn’t abandon the liberation struggle in South Africa. Nor was I going to abandon my religion. It gave me meaning at a personal and unfathomable level. I knew too that religion is a powerful weapon, one which I believed should be used in favour of the poor. I didn’t want to leave it in the hands of obscurantists, fundamentalists and chauvinists.’
The ‘Call of Islam’, a radical Muslim organization that Farid helped found, is based on equality between men and women and he acknowledges that men can never ‘usurp’ the struggle of women for equality. ‘But we should be there to support and encourage,’ he says. ‘In the same way that the struggle in South Africa was that of black people though not a black struggle, the struggle for gender equality is that of women though not a women’s struggle.’ Today in Cape Town Farid attends the only mosque in the world where women are allowed to preach at Friday service.
He admits that his beliefs are all the more surprising because he trained at a traditional Muslim seminary in Pakistan. His fellow students went on to join the Taliban, the fundamentalist sect in Afghanistan which preaches a brand of Islam at polar opposites to his own. ‘I met some Christians in Pakistan who helped me see the relationship and the contradictions between my theology and the way I put my beliefs into practice. If this meant going against the trend, I thought, “so be it”. My religion was on the side of the poor.’
But why then are millions of poor Muslims drawn to an intolerant, fundamentalist Islam rather than the Islam of liberation which he advocates?
‘Fundamentalism is a response to the growing stranglehold of technology and a reaction against the West. People are angry and alienated and feel they have lost control. They see fundamentalism as a way of regaining that control and asserting themselves against what they see as “Western values”.’
But Farid also believes that opposition to those values can be found in a broader understanding of shared humanity. ‘If I look at the direction the world is headed, uncontrolled industrialisation and so on, I see only two ways out – the complete destruction of humankind or finding more humane ways of conducting our business here on earth. And I am not alone in this. Many others – whatever their religion – are realizing the need for change.’ He sweeps his arms in a wide circle as if to include all those searching for justice and equality. ‘In the end there are only two choices: between a false “McDonalds” culture or a new, truly international and pluralist world.’
Farid Eysack’s book, Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: an Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression has just been published by OneWorld Publications.