Islam spreading in Christian South Africa

Sun 14 November, 2004 09:22 
By Gordon Bell§ion=news

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Black South Africans, drawn to
the Islam practised by African immigrants, are
converting in growing numbers and slowly changing the
face of religious affiliation in the overwhelmingly
Christian country.

"The numbers have gone up dramatically if you look at
the census figures ... there is massive growth
especially in the (black) townships," said Dr Shamil
Jeppie, an expert on Islamic history in Africa at the
University of Cape Town.

Immigrants from Central and West Africa, escaping
poverty at home for life in the continent's economic
powerhouse, have brought with them a new "Africanised
Islam" more in line with black South Africans'
identities than the religion practiced by followers
with closer links to Asia.

"In the townships people see the confidence they
bring. The confidence of the African Muslim," Jeppie
said. "There is going to be a different texture, (the
balance of followers) is definitely going to change."

Currently, some 650,000 South Africans or less than 2
percent, are Muslim. They are mostly members of the
country's Indian and Coloured (mixed-race)
communities, the descendents of slaves and cheap
labour shipped to South Africa by the former Dutch and
British colonial rulers.

Christianity -- practised by 80 percent of the
country's 45 million population -- is still the
dominant religion amongst black South Africans.

But an estimated 75,000 Africans are now Muslim
compared to fewer than 12,000 in 1991 during apartheid
white rule, according to research by the Human
Sciences Research Council, a government-funded

Of those, 11 percent are black Africans and that group
is expected to become the largest segment of the
Muslim faithful within the next two decades.

"The gap is closing and we are finding each other,"
Sheik Thafir Najjar, head of Cape Town-based Islamic
Council of South Africa, says of reconciliation since
the end of apartheid in 1994.

"Under apartheid we were not allowed to share our
cultures," Najjar told Reuters. But in the end there
were "a lot of similarities between African and Muslim
cultures," he added.

Najjar said the war on terrorism, led by the United
States, had heightened curiosity among Africans about

"What the policy of America has done has been to make
people more aware and to show a greater interest in
Islam," he said.

Despite their growing numbers, Muslims in South Africa
have generally maintained a low profile and operate
within the political mainstream.

One notable exception was in the late 1990s when an
Islamic group known as Pagad (People Against
Gangsterism and Drugs) embarked on a campaign that
included bombings in Cape Town.

Their campaign came to a halt when leaders of the
group were rounded up by police in 2000 and many


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