Becoming aware of Religious Privilege


Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya believes that it is helpful, as the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan begins this week and amidst the context of the much-talked-about existence of “white privilege,” to look at other categories of privilege, for example “religious privilege”. He suggests that we specifically notice the privilege that Christianity possesses in society. He looks at how various faiths have suffered discrimination and abuse and argues that “[r]eligious tolerance and understanding must be part of the understanding of the commandment to love our neighbour.”

The recently reported fallout between some DA leaders and their boss Mmusi Maimane over “white privilege” has rightfully captured the public imagination.

It seems bizarre that a political party, especially one that claims to be the most diverse in South Africa, would even have to debate the place of white privilege in the country.

It is an objective fact that political life in South Africa was for several hundred years, formally and informally, organised around dispensing privileges to whites at the exclusion of blacks.

Yet without diluting the effects of white privilege it is useful to look at other categories of privilege within our society particularly religious community privilege.

From the outset, let it be very clear that this article is not an attempt to downplay the historical fact of white privilege. Nor is it trying to say that all other forms of privilege are equal in the effect they have on those outside their embrace.

In a society organised around the idea of white privilege there can be no such thing as “black privilege”, as some quarters call the use (or even abuse) of the black race card. If white privilege and racism did not exist or if black people were not victimised, marginalised or unfairly suspected of being criminal for no other reason than their skin colour then there would be no need to invoke the race card.

Whereas, race is the most glaring and obvious form of privilege in South Africa; sex, specifically being male of any race, comes with its own privileges. These can be as significant as the chances of becoming head of state, to the banality of running around the block in gym attire without enduring wolf-whistles from perverts.

With the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan having started this week, it could be useful for Christians to reflect on their own privileged position in society relative to that of other faith communities.

Just a few weeks ago, all South Africans enjoyed a three day weekend, were allowed to rest and were able to travel long distances to see loved ones because Christianity was commemorating its holiest and most solemn feast: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Sowetan newspaper reported this week that Muslim students at the University of Cape Town were frustrated that, for the second successive year, they would have to contend with exams while celebrating Eid in June.

“When you have to choose between religious obligations and academic workload‚ it’s not a decision which you’re supposed to make‚” said Daiyaan Samaai‚ a fourth-year student involved in the Muslim Students' Association (MSA).

Samaai’s difficulty, real as it is, is virtually unheard of among Christian students in SA. Their religious affiliation places them in a privileged space.

Many Christians are indifferent to the circumstances of the less privileged or even the totally marginalised.

The Acts of the Apostles records that there was a time when the followers of Christ were seen as an irrational and irritating group, unworthy of any serious attention.

“His accusers stood around him, but did not charge him with any of the crimes I suspected. Instead they had some issues with him about their own superstitions and about a certain Jesus who had died but who Paul claimed was alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate this controversy, I asked if he were willing to go to Jerusalem and there stand trial on these charges” writes Luke (Acts 23:19-20), of the dismissive attitude Festus displays as he chats to the visiting King, Agrippa, about what is today the central theme of Christian faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There may very well be a criminal charge called “walking while Rastafarian”. Members of this community are randomly stopped and body-searched by police,  expecting that they must have dagga in their possession.

They are low-hanging fruit for police eager to make an arrest or take a bribe to make the matter go away. Rastafarians, I believe, could rightfully petition to be regarded as a persecuted religious minority.

They are not the only ones at the receiving end of bigotry and discrimination.

Last year, the Durban Magistrate’s Court made an example of an anti-Diwali bigot, Johannes David “Dawie” Kriel, who had taken to Facebook to unleash racist vitriol against Indians and Hindus.

“Zuma still gives the Guptas and company license to import that… container load…” he said. He went on: “those idol worshippers and devil disciples who buy them in the name of religion… must [go] back to their dark hole in [the] backwoods of India. I could strangle you morons with [my] bare hands and derive great pleasure in watching your face turn blue and your tongue pop out”.

Considering that the Hindu festival of Diwali signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair, had Kriel given himself a moment to find out what the holy day actually celebrates, he probably would not have made such a fool of himself.

Religious tolerance and understanding must be understood to be part of the commandment: love your neighbour.

Fortunately for the Church, Pope Francis has become a chief proponent of this mission.

Speaking during a meeting at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Sri Lanka in January 2015, he said: “…we are to know, understand and respect one another. But, as experience has shown, for such dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions.”

“Certainly, such dialogue will accentuate how varied our beliefs, traditions and practices are. But if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common. New avenues will be opened for mutual esteem, cooperation and indeed friendship.”

Image: WCCM

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Becoming aware of Religious Privilege