“The attackers were inspired by hate and were Isis copycats,” chairperson of the Imam Hussein mosque, Azad Seedat, told The Sunday Independent on Saturday.
“The attackers had come to the mosque on three previous occasions when it was quiet, prayed, and taken literature and books. They planned the attack, petrol-bombing not only the mosque’s library, but a room containing scaled-down models of shrines to our imams,” Seedat said.
“The attacks had all the hallmarks of Takfirism (declaring other Muslims as heretics) as the slitting of throats is how Takfiris execute their victims.”
The mosque’s prayer leader Ali Nchinyane has said publicly: “It was a terrorist attack. They definitely had a religious motive. These people were not robbers, they didn’t want phones, laptops, money or clothes, they strictly wanted to kill us. One attacker who entered the mosque under the guise of being a worshipper said to me: ‘You are brainwashing people; I will kill you’.”
Given this, the Hawks are investigating what they have called “an element of extremism”. Hawks spokesperson Simphiwe Mhlongo has said: “You can see elements of hatred, to a certain religion.”
As yet no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the incident should not be used to promote Islamaphobia.
The Imam Hussein mosque is one of only three Shia mosques in South Africa, the others being the Ahlulbait mosque in Cape Town and another in Edenvale, Johannesburg.
“The Shia community represents not more than 3% of the overall Muslim community in South Africa. In Cape Town alone there are at least 200 Sunni mosques,” national spokesperson of the Shia community in South Africa, Moulana Sayed Aftab Haider, told The Sunday Independent.
“The attack on the Hussein mosque was not at all an incident in isolation, but the fruit of what has been preached for years,” Haider said.
He maintains that sectarian language and hate speech have served as provocations in a large number of Sunni mosques and on social media for years.
The trend in hate speech against Shias escalated dramatically following the opening of the Grand Shia mosque in Cape Town in December last year, which allegedly led to a well-organised and sustained campaign which began by calling on people to boycott the mosque.
“The Ahlul Sunna Defence League in the Western Cape ran a full-scale hate campaign, although they did repeatedly emphasise they were not advocating violence but protecting their beliefs,” Haider said.
“Abusive and vulgar language were recorded and posted on Facebook and aired on radio stations quite openly.
“In the mosques it was openly announced that any business entity who deals with Shias will be boycotted,” Haider said, noting that this type of invective had escalated notably over the past seven to eight months.
According to Seedat, the hate speech in some mosques has included statements claiming that Shias are "non-believers” as well as comments like “if you kill a Shia you go straight to heaven”.
Seedat told Independent Media that the Shia community had documented evidence of hate speech and handed it to senior officials of the Ministry of State Security. However, he remained unaware if anything had been done about it.
“We never took the matter to the South African Human Rights Commission as we believed in resolving our differences internally, and never expected something violent like this to happen,” Seedat said.
Moulana Haider further alleged that Johannesburg-based Mufti Abdul Kader Hoosen had been spreading hate speech about Shias. Hoosen allegedly made a visit to Iran after which he organised national tours in which he spread propaganda.
Professor Farid Esack, professor in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg, told Independent Media: “For a considerable while now there has been an escalation of anti-Shia rhetoric in South Africa. In the main, this has stopped short of incitement to violence.
"One regular guest scholar from the UK, an engineer by the name of Mumtazul Haq, has been hosted in mainstream mosques and, in talks where I have been present, it was definitely hate speech that was being spouted.
“This kind of language easily finds fertile ground (among) dysfunctional and disturbed individuals. While these individuals remain ultimately responsible for the heinous crimes they commit, those who watered the gardens of hatred cannot walk away and simply say 'We had nothing to do with it',” Esack told Independent Media.
A prominent member of the Sunni community, who spoke to Independent Media on condition of anonymity, has said that much of the propagandising against Shias has been a reaction by a small core of the Ulama which is on a mission to combat the propagation of Shiism.
The perception is that Iranians are actively promoting Shiism in the townships and offering scholarships to South Africans to receive training in Iran in order to return and set up institutions to propagate Shiism.
Despite the underlying discord between the communities, the Muslim Judicial Council, the South African Muslim Network and a number of other Muslim organisations across the country and internationally have condemned the mosque attack.
The Muslim Judicial Council has said that the core teaching of Islam is “respect for all human beings,” and the South African Muslim Network has said “the community abhors such kind of violence”.
Former adviser on the Middle East to the South African government, Mohammed Dangor, has said: “This is lunacy, not faith. South African Muslims and other faith groups should go beyond tolerance and recognise each other’s right to be different.”
The ANC has also condemned the mosque attack, saying: “We wish to warn the perpetrators of this crime that this country will never bow to extremism - we call on the Hawks to prioritise this brutal crime and act swiftly in bringing these heartless savages to justice.”