Police at the Verulam mosque where worshippers came under attack.

DURBAN - The bloody attack on the Shia Imam Hussain mosque in Verulam, north of Durban, on Thursday came in the wake of hate speech against the Shia community that has continued for years, and escalated to unparalleled levels recently.

The attack in which an imam had his throat slit and two others were stabbed repeatedly was allegedly the work of men who had been surveying the mosque with the intention of killing its religious leaders.

“The attackers were inspired by hate and were Isis (Islamic State) copycats,” chairperson of the mosque, Azad Seedat, told the Sunday Tribune. “The attackers had come to the mosque on three 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 Muslim heretics) as the slitting of throats is how Takfiris execute their victims.”

The only Shia mosque in KwaZulu-Natal also features in an inflammatory open letter that calls for action to be taken against Shia worshippers. The letter was published on the Jamiatul Ulama and other websites. Jamiatul Ulama is a council of South African Muslim theologians.

The mosque’s prayer leader, Ali Nchinyane, has said publicly that the attackers had a religious motive. “It was a terrorist attack. These people were not robbers, they didn’t want phones, laptops, money or clothes. They strictly wanted to kill us. One attacker who entered under the guise of being a worshipper said to me: ‘You are brainwashing people; I will kill you’.”

The Hawks are investigating “an element of extremism”, said spokesperson Simphiwe Mhlongo.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

Mholongo warned the incident should not be used to promote Islamaphobia.

Imam Hussain 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, Moulana Sayed Aftab Haider, told the Sunday Tribune.

“The attack on the Hussain mosque was not at all an incident in isolation, but the fruit of what has been preached for years,” he said.

Haider 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, 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 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 the Sunday Tribune that the Shia community had taken recordings and documentation of such hate speech over the years to senior officials of the State Security Ministry but did not know if anything had been done about it.

“We never took the matter to the SA Human Rights Commission as we believed in resolving our differences internally, and never expected something violent like this to happen in South Africa,” he said.

Moulana Haider has highlighted the fact that a Johannesburg-based mufti has been on speaking tours of mosques in South Africa spreading hate speech about Shias.

The man allegedly visited Iran, after which he organised national tours in which he spread anti-Iranian propaganda.

Farid Esack, professor in the study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg, said: “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, 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 in 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’,” said Esack.

A prominent member of the Sunni community, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has said that much of the propagandising against Shias has been a reaction by a small core of the ulema which is on a mission to combat the propagation of Shi’ism.

The perception is that Iranians are actively promoting Shi’ism in the townships and offering scholarships to South Africans to receive training in Iran to return and set up institutions to propagate Shi’ism.

Despite the underlying discord between the communities, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), the SA Muslim Network and a number of other Muslim organisations across the country and internationally have condemned the attack.

The MJC has said that the core teaching of Islam is “respect for all human beings,” and Samnet has said “the community abhors such kinds of violence”.

Former adviser on the Middle East to the South African government, Mohammed Dangor, 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 savage, merciless and barbaric perpetrators of this crime that this country will never bow down to extremism.

“We call on the Hawks, who are heading this investigation, to prioritise this brutal crime and act swiftly in bringing these heartless savages to justice.”