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Islamic extremists stifle dialogue in S. Africa

A world religion summit focuses on - and is targeted by - religious

Four South African clerics chosen to speak at a religion conference here this week backed out after armed thugs stood up and threatened them in their mosques.

And Farid Essack, an outspoken Muslim theologian who argues for a "progressive Islam," can no longer make a move without bodyguards. "My name has been found on several [hit] lists," says Mr. Essack, as two burly men stand watch nearby. "I've written out my will."

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These men are victims of religious fanatics within their own ranks. It's ironic, because the conference they were to speak at this week - The World Parliament of Religions - includes lectures and workshops to address this very problem.

Some 7,000 religious followers from around the globe have gathered here at only the third such East-meets-West religion conference in more than 100 years. The first was in Chicago in 1893. From Bosnia and Kosovo to Israel, India, and Pakistan, people "all over the world are making war in the name of religion," says Iftekhar Hai, director of interfaith relations with the San Francisco-based Un

At the conference, hundreds of questions will be thrown out for discussion like: What role does religion play in fomenting intolerance, fanaticism, and violence? How can religions help curb terrorism? These particular questions took on new urgency after a bomb exploded in a crowded seaside restaurant here last week.

Close to 50 people were rushed to the hospital after a pipe bomb exploded on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Amid the panic and fear, people from all quarters pointed to the usual suspects: Muslim extremists.

Police have made no arrests for the bombing yet. But privately, investigators, politicians, and many local residents milling outside the boarded-up St. Elmo's restaurant this week blame a Muslim-based group, PAGAD, that operates here.

People Against Gangsterism and Drugs originally started up a few years ago to fight gangsters and drug dealers in Cape Flats - a sprawling, poverty-stricken township on the outskirts of this famous harbor city that is home to more than half of South Africa's 2 million Muslims. But the group has become infamous for its viciousness. It is now more feared than the criminals it initially sought to eliminate.

"In our book, there is no one else to look for but the PAGAD crowd," one intelligence source told the leading daily, Johannesburg Star, after the bombing in a quiet beach suburb called Camps Bay. "They are dangerous and callous and have no respect for lives."

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Critics warn that investigators may be jumping to conclusions too quickly. Yet key activists from the local Islamic community frankly acknowledge that violence perpetrated by a minority of extremists - whether guilty of this latest crime or not - is feeding negative stereotypes.

"This kind of violence makes people think all Muslims are terrorists," says Adil Jacobs of the moderate Call for Islam in Cape Town. "We are not. But as Muslims, we must take responsibility for the madness that is rearing its head. We must sharpen our arguments against Islamic extremists who believe only their version of Islam is correct."

In South Africa, PAGAD was once hailed as a savior. Criminal gangs such as the Americans, the Hard Livings, and Sexy Boys made life so miserable in the mixed-race Coloured townships that residents welcomed the vigilante force to the scene in 1994.

PAGAD could easily rally thousands of people at midnight to march from one drug dealer's house to the next, chanting "Death to the gangsters!"

A masked PAGAD leader would rouse a suspect from bed and issue a public warning: Confess at the mosque - or die.

In August 1996, hooded PAGAD members shot a hated gang leader named Rashaad Staggie and set his body on fire.

"That was the height of their popularity," says Abdul Ahmed, a youth from Cape Flats. Today he wonders why people - himself included - did not do more to protest the violence.

Respect turned to fear when PAGAD targets widened to include progressive Muslim clerics, politicians, and police.

Among hundreds killed in drive-by shootings over the past two years - 529 in 1998 alone - were the lead police investigator on the PAGAD trail and witnesses scheduled to testify against the group in court.

Since an explosion at Planet Hollywood killed two people in August last year, police have investigated the group in connection with a dozen other brazen pipe-bomb attacks on everything from a synagogue and police headquarters to a gay bar.

"Throwing PAGAD out for the public to chew on is a highly irresponsible move aimed at satisfying public need for answers and to let police off the hook," says the group's spokesman, Cassiem Parker, noting a costly urban terrorism unit has been unable to link it to the bombing campaign.

But local newspapers are now calling Cape Town the Cape of Fear. It may be a sensational tag, but the emotional toll levied on this city by the latest spate of urban terrorism is very real.

This week, bouncers armed with metal detectors scanned patrons of the bars and restaurants on the palm-lined streets of Camps Bay. Some eateries were near empty on Saturday night. "This place would normally be jam packed," says a faithful patron.

And nervous waiters checked under tables, asking "Is that your bag?"

Reuters TV, an international agency that captured footage of Mr. Staggie's public burning, recently closed its Cape Town operation because staff members received repeated death threats from people claiming to be PAGAD.

Essack, the theologian with body guards, insists that he will not be frightened off. He and other intellectuals explain that apartheid is at the root of the problem. Muslims in the mixed-race Coloured community were deeply traumatized - oppressed like the majority Africans but with no sense of belonging to that community - and readily joined in armed struggle.

But, says Mr. Jacobs, the Cape Town activist, "when the struggle came to an end, there were a whole host of extremist Muslims that just didn't have a place to go."

PAGAD left itself outside the realm of politics, openly rejecting new black leaders and calling on people not to vote in South Africa's first two all-race elections.

It also started a sister organization last year called Muslims Against Global Oppression (MAGO), which is agitating for an Islamic state and protested at the opening of the World Parliament of Religions.

Muslims who came to the conference spent much time analyzing how they can help curb such intolerance.

At one session, a diverse crowd of Muslims debated interpretations of the Koran and the definition of "progressive Islam."

"Somewhere, these bombers have friends, mothers, and brothers who know what they are doing - we must expose them," says Jacobs. "We fought for our rainbow nation in South Africa. We prayed for this. To squander it, that is a waste."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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