I like to think that I’m somewhat of an adaptable guy, but, six weeks in, there are still things that I haven’t gotten used to.
I still haven’t gotten used to living in the shadow of Table Mountain. I still haven’t gotten used to living in winter again. And I still haven’t gotten used to hearing the melodic muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer in the Dutch colonial neighborhood where we live.
That has been, and remains, one of the most striking things for me about my time in Cape Town thus far. The demographics of Cape Town include a large minority Muslim population but it seems like their presence can be seen and felt on a much greater level. From our readings of Cape Town history, I understood that a large proportion of the slaves the Dutch East India Company brought to the cape came from the Indian subcontinent and predominantly Muslim Southeast Asia. In fact, District Six, the multi-ethnic district destroyed by the apartheid government had a large Muslim population itself (fitting I work in the museum dedicated to its memory I suppose). But it is not just that there are Muslims here that is so impressive to me.
What I am impressed with is the amazing level of tolerance and understanding extended toward people of different faiths here, Muslims included. The Muslim population in Cape Town is little more than 10% by some estimates, a number around or even lower than the amount of Muslims in the US and yet the population here is not nearly as suspicious of or prejudiced toward their Muslim conationals.
In Tamboerskloof, the Cape Town neighborhood in which I live, I’ve heard the call to prayer more clearly than in some of the Middle Eastern capitals I’ve been in and yet in Dearborn, Michigan, where there is a very large Muslim community, there is an incredible amount of public backlash from the non-Muslim, “American” minority toward playing the call to prayer there. In France, there was a large public outcry when a fast food store offered a halaal option on their menu because the French felt it encroached on their cultural values, but, here in Cape Town, it seems as though restaurants and grocery stores offer halaal options as a default even though Muslims may not make up the majority of their customers. Here, a woman walking down the street wearing a headscarf (hijab) will not draw nearly the same amount of suspicious looks, if any, as a similarly dressed woman in the US would. And here, the name Ibrahim does not arouse the dubious response it does in the US.
Speaking with people here, I’ve found that this level of tolerance does not exist simply because their constitution says it should (as ours incidentally does), it is largely a result of the apartheid era. As is well known, people in South Africa were classified according to their race, not so much their religion and so people of different religions often lived and worked in close quarters. Even further still, the struggle against apartheid saw Muslims working side-by-side with their fellow South Africans and so it was not uncommon for Christians to share a Ramadan feast with their Muslim neighbors or to even intermarry the faiths. Many people I’ve spoken with here and who I work with have told me that they have Muslim cousins, uncles and aunts and so they too are familiar with the practices.
And yet there are countless stories of prejudice toward Muslims in the US. In my congressional district, there is a conservative candidate named Dan Fanelli who has run public campaign commercials openly advocating racial and religious profiling. My family as well, underwent incredible trauma post-9/11. The stories of this trauma are heavy and many, but a “lighter” example of our adjustment to this prejudice is that my aunt, who used to wear a headscarf, now wears a special hat instead because of the looks she received in public.
And while many people here look toward the US as a bastion of democracy and freedom, I think the US has many things to learn from Cape Town and South Africa about how to live in a pluralistic society.