UPDATED — It is Christian to defend the rights of all

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This article was updated on 23 July 2019. See update.

Be it culture, tradition or religion, we should respect one another’s differences and we should all stand up for one another. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya provides an update on the case of a Muslim military officer who faces disciplinary action for refusing to remove her headscarf.

In what may be seen as a victory for religious rights in South Africa, the country’s National Defence Force (SANDF) has backed down from disciplining a Muslim officer for refusing an instruction to remove her headscarf.

The military court case is still set to proceed on 7 August, ensuring that due process is followed. The SANDF further plans to update its dress code policies.

The defence force’s decision comes after it met with representatives of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) to discuss a dress code for Muslim members of the armed forces.

According to TimesLive, the SANDF chaplain-general, Brig-General Monwabisi Jamangile, stated that the SANDF-MJC talks were “amicable and constructive,” and the SANDF declared that “Islamophobia and discrimination have no place in the SANDF.”

Jamangile said that in the interim, the SANDF will allow Muslim women to wear a headscarf below their beret “wear an under-scarf in conformity with the SANDF dress code.”

A Muslim member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is facing charges of insubordination for refusing to remove her headscarf.

Major Fatima Isaacs, who works as a clinical forensic pathologist at 2 Military Hospital in Cape Town, has been charged with “willful defiance, and disobeying a lawful command”.

She is expected to appear before a disciplinary hearing on 7 August, and faces possible dismissal if found guilty.

Nazeema Mohamed, a social justice advocate and consultant who is advising Isaacs on her case, told Independent Online (IOL): “The issue is not so much about the headscarf, but more about discrimination and we are prepared to take it to the highest court if we have to.”

Interestingly, Isaacs has been working in the military for nearly 10 years and her headscarf has never really been a problem before. She has worn the headscarf underneath the standard-issue army beret.

According to Mohamed, it became so only when a certain colonel took over as her line manager and harassed her about wearing the scarf, even though it does not get in the way of any military rankings or insignia.

This incident does not only affect the Muslim community. It points to a worrying intolerance to religion in public life. It also calls to mind a chilling poem by Martin Niemöller.

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Martin Niemöller

In an increasingly secularised world, religious rights are often seen to have no place in public life. It is in the interest of the people of faith to see such use of official state power to contain religious expression as potentially precedent setting.

It is in the interest of the people of faith to see such use of official state power to contain religious expression as potentially precedent-setting.

Being part of a religious majority places Christians in a greater obligatory position to defend the rights of religious minorities because “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me” (Matt. 25:40).

Commitment to religious rights insofar as it affects one’s own religious beliefs, but is otherwise indifferent to others having the same rights violated, is the same as loving only those who love us. It makes us no different to other religious bigots.

Chillingly, this wave of thinking is gaining momentum.

Countries like France, Denmark and parts of Canada have banned the wearing of all conspicuous symbols in public schools. This means that students and teachers may not be seen wearing a crucifix, a Muslim hijab or a Jewish kippah.

There is a growing call by activists in Europe to lobby lawmakers in their countries to join Iceland in proposing penalties of up to six years’ imprisonment for anyone performing circumcision for non-medical reasons.

Secular fundamentalism is on the rise. Like its theist flipside, it thrives on the belief that there is only one way of being human. South Africa is not there yet, but there already are signs of how things can easily and quickly change.

Secular fundamentalism is on the rise. Like its theist flipside, it thrives on the belief that there is only one way of being human.

In 2007 the Constitutional Court heard the matter relating to Sunali Pillay, a Hindu high school learner who faced expulsion from school because she wore a nose stud, arguing it was part of her cultural and religious tradition.

The school replied that they would have made an exception if the wearing of a nose stud was a compulsory and not an optional religious practice. If allowed, it would open the floodgates, for other learners claiming exceptions, to wear cultural adornments and one will be stuck with a “parade of horribles”.

The late Chief Justice Pius Langa dismissed the school’s “slippery-slope” argument.

As a general rule, the more learners feel free to express their religions and cultures in school, the closer we will come to the society envisaged in the South African Constitution. The display of religion and culture in public is not a “parade of horribles”, but a pageant of diversity that will enrich our schools and, in turn, our country.

The display of religion and culture in public is not a “parade of horribles”, but a pageant of diversity that will enrich our schools and, in turn, our country.

South Africa already has a bitter history of artificially dividing people and assuming a false hierarchy of what is acceptable culture and/or tradition.

If we choose to be indifferent to cases such as these, on the basis that we are not Muslim, or insert any other descriptor that speaks to differences between peoles, we don’t learn to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper. It will only be a matter of time before there is nobody left when they come for us.

It is up to us to ensure no poet ever gets to write:

First they came for the hijab
and I did not speak out
because I did not wear a hijab.

Then they came for the isphandla
and I did not speak out
because I did wear isphandla
.

Then they came for the kippa
and I did not speak out
because I did not wear a kippa
.

Then they came for the cross
and there was no one left
to speak out for me. 


* News update — 23 July 2019

In what may be seen as a victory for religious rights in South Africa, the country’s National Defence Force (SANDF) has backed down from disciplining a Muslim officer for refusing an instruction to remove her headscarf.

The military court case is still set to proceed on 7 August, ensuring that due process is followed. The SANDF further plans to update its dress code policies.

The defence force’s decision comes after it met with representatives of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) to discuss a dress code for Muslim members of the armed forces.

According to TimesLive, the SANDF chaplain-general, Brig-General Monwabisi Jamangile, stated that the SANDF-MJC talks were “amicable and constructive,” and the SANDF declared that “Islamophobia and discrimination have no place in the SANDF.” Jamangile said that in the interim, the SANDF will allow Muslim women to wear a headscarf below their beret “wear an under-scarf in conformity with the SANDF dress code.”

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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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UPDATED — It is Christian to defend the rights of all

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