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Imam Achmad Cassiem

Imam Achmad Cassiem is the National Chairperson of the Islamic Unity Convention (South Africa). At aged 15 he joined the armed struggle against the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa and at the age of 17 he was one of the youngest people to be imprisoned on Robben Island. Imam Achmad Cassiem is also an advisor to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, we caught up with him at a recent IHRC conference.

Interviewed on 24th February 2002

Q1: At age 15 you joined the armed struggle against apartheid. How at such a young age did you make this life changing decision?



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"... You cant go through primary school and secondary school without being influenced by political discussions in the class rooms. You read South African literature and there is reference to 'Bass' which means boss or the oppressive ruler and teachers will draw your attention to that, or words that were used to insult the Africans, the word 'Kaffa' and the teachers will tell us please delete that word and put the word man in there instead of referring to humans in the derogatory sense. All of that obviously helped us cope with this indoctrination which was in place of so called education...

I was fortunate enough to have grown up in an Islamic environment where the principles of truth, honesty and sincerity were the most important principles ...

The Africans, what are called the black indigenous Africans were carrying passes where as the so-called coloureds and indians and whites did not carry passes - so this was a badge of slavery. So when the Pan-Africanist Congress[PAC] called for an anti-pass campaign in 1960... the Africans came ... and marched on to the city, and a friend and I [aged 14] were standing on the main road observing this scene and all of a sudden we said to each other 'This is our march' - because we are opposed to this entire system, so although we were not pass carriers and our parents were not, we joined this anti-pass campaign, we had not been recruited, we were not signed up members but as a show of solidarity..."



Q2: Was there any distinction between armed struggle and other types of protest?



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"... South Africans had fought in the war against Nazism, and one of the stories told by our uncles and people who had fought in the war was when they asked their colonial masters - the British in this case who had control of South Africa since 1804 - 'Why is it that you are opposed to Hitler?' The colonialist replied 'Hitler wants to control the whole of Europe including Britian' So they said 'Whats wrong with that?' The reason for that question was that Britain was controlling South Africa, and Rhodesia and Botswana and Swaziland and Musutu...

The reply the colonial masters gave the soldiers gave was 'Germany for the Germans and England for the English' and then the question of course cropped up 'Why not Africa for the Africans?'.

So if they were sacrificing their lives to protect their colonial masters why shouldn't they sacrifice their lives in order to protect themselves and their own country? And that became an important argument from the soldiers who came back from the second world war..."


"it is immoral, irrational, it is obscene for an oppressor to tell the oppressed how they should respond to oppression"



Q3: You served a total of 11 years imprisoned on Robben Island. Can you tell us something about this period, what were the conditions like, and what effect those years of imprisonment had on you?



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"... I was 17 years old when I was arrested together with my school teacher, Sadiq Isaacs who was the maths and science teacher - he was the one who had the knowledge about bomb calimitory and manufacturing of explosives, and he was in charge of the explosives laboratory we had set up..

I was sentenced to 5 years hard labour, Sadiq Isaacs was seen as the mastermind - he received 12 years... When we arrived on Robben Island we discovered there were already 1800 prisoners on the island...


Prisoners breaking stone at the
Robben Island B-Section courtyard


Life on Devils Island:

"Robben Island was called Devils Island for a particular reason - because it was one of the worst prisons in the world.

The psychological tortures are numerous. The humiliation - stripping prisoners naked daily, they were strip searched, sometimes they were even 'felt up' with rubber gloves. this was just one of the many forms of humiliation that the prisoners suffered.

Then of course psychological tortures of the nature where Johnson Molumbo, who eventually became vice-president in the PAC [Pan African Congress], he was serving a 20 year sentence and on a very hot summers day he asked for water so they buried him on the beach front up to his neck in the sand and then urinated in to his mouth...

Then regards physical torture - compulsory hard labour was a form of physical torture -if you did not perform and do sufficient work they would punish you including corporal punishment but most times they would cut your meals until you produce satisfactorily.

I was one of the victims of corporal punishment for trying to expose conditions in prison by trying to smuggle out letters to Amnesty International as well as the International Red Cross .. unfortunately the warder who was to take the letters off the island to our contacts was a double agent and he handed all the correspondence to the security police. So we were stripped naked and tied to a contraction that looks like a horse at an incline, then they tie your wrists and ankles and they put a cushion on your kidneys and on your thighs, then they whip you. The flesh splits open, this is in front of the entire prison staff including the district surgeon of the area, and when the flesh splits open and they are finished delivering the six cuts then they pour iodine in to the wound on the pretext that it prevents infection. Then you get dressed and immediately go back to work in that condition...

Other prisoners who received corporal punishment included Johnson Molumbo for spilling a cup of minimum drink on a wardens uniform when the warden pulled him... So you can see the arbitrary treatment in trying to break prisoners resistance and to humiliate them.

Solitary confinement is one of the worst tortures that you can impose on a human being - solitary confinement does not lead to torture - it IS torture because there is sensory depravation, humiliation, you suffer from hallucinations, etc.

The other torture was of course the fact that you were imprisoned on an island and you only received one visitor every six months and that visit was for half an hour, it was monitored and you were not allowed to discuss anything except family matters. You were only allowed to write one letter every six months and that was censored, and you were allowed to receive only one letter every six months. So you can imagine the sense of isolation and literally the destruction of the bonding of the family which was part of the psychological torture.

You asked me what effect this had on my life, I can only say that because I was so young it tempered me like fire tempers steel and made me more determined that the apartheid regime must be destroyed."


"Unjust laws cannot be Justly applied - whether in South Africa or anywhere else in the world"


Banning Orders:

"Banning orders are terrible things - it prohibits you from being quoted, from working in a factory, working in an office with more than five workers, you are house arrested from 6pm in the evening to 6am in the morning and on the weekends and public holidays you are house arrested for 24 hours a day, you had to sign at the local police station at least once a week between specific times, you could not teach anybody except your own children, I was unmarried and didn't have children so the only person I could teach was myself, you could not speak to more than one person even outside your home because that would constitute a social gathering, and you were not allowed to receive any visitors at your home, you were not allowed to enter any educational institute - private or public, your mail was monitored, your telephone conversations were intercepted - now that means total control of you - this basically is what the government did at the time. I was unfortunate enough to have been banned continuously for 11 years and I was one of the last people to remain banned.

I was arrested for breaking my banning order because I had attended Jummah [Friday congregational prayers] which is a social gathering...


... In 1980 whilst under the banning order I was arrested for insighting opposition to racist education in South Africa - obviously I couldn't remain idle whilst being banned and I was unemployed so I had lots of time on my hands to organise teachers and students. I was held in detention at prison together with 65 others in single cells, and I was held for 243 days without being charged. On one occasion I was punished for speaking to prisoners who had been brought down from the Transvaal. The commanding officer of the prison had asked us not to speak to them, not even to greet them. My Islamic principles said that if I'm not allowed to greet a fellow oppressed person then I should not be greeting the oppressor which I'd done up to that time. As a form of punishment they confiscated all our newspapers and books including the Qur'ans we had...


... freedom didn't last very long - on the 2nd of May 1981 I was arrested under the terrorism act because ten of our guerrillas had been intercepted at Athens airport on their way from Libya, where they had received training, on their way to Harare in order to infiltrate South Africa from there. Unfortunately one of the guerrillas belonging to the PAC[Pan African Congress] had my telephone number on him and when he was caught they traced that telephone number to me and I was taken in to detention again. The trial started mid 1987, and we were only sentenced Oct 1988 - so we had already been in detention for almost two and a half years. It was then that the six year sentence [back to Robben Island] was imposed - I was sentenced strictly on the basis of Quranic ayas because the Quran was seen as being a subversive document..."


"We may not become adjusted to maladjustment - this is what psychologists and psychiatrists are trying to do, instead of changing the social order they want to change the individuals adjustment to the unjust order - there is no mass psychotherapy - we must deal with the question of oppression, exploitation and injustice at the level where it must be dealt with"


Q4: During the long struggle against apartheid there must have been some low points when victory seemed unattainable, what kept you going?



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"Fortunately I did not believe in the slogan 'freedom in our life time' and that was on purely rational grounds because nobody in the world knows how long a life time is - some children are born dead, others die a few days after they are born, some people live till they are 124 years... so 'freedom in our life time' did not attract me as a slogan. I only knew that on the bases of my Islamic principles I had rights which Allah has ordained for us and He had also ordained obligations, and that was the perfect balance - that whilst we carried out our obligations the struggle continues and we hand over this baton to the next generation and that is all that I was concerned with at the time.

Of course there were times when you felt disappointed especially when the revolution is capitulated or oppressed people started compromising with the oppressor - that did not interest us because we believed for us it was all or nothing - it didn't makes sense to make maximum sacrifices for minimum gains...

I would advise that to any oppressed people - Don't make maximum sacrifices for minimum gains - if you are going to make maximum sacrifices demand maximum gains - our maximum demand was for a just social order - something which we have still not achieved..."


Q5: What was your lowest point during the struggle?



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"I think the lowest point is to see a prisoner die next to you in a prison cell, because he is there for a cause. He might not even have a visit during his entire term of imprisonment because his family stays up in the Transvaal - more than a 1000 km away and are too poor. He had contributed his maximum to the struggle and he dies and they don't even remember him afterwards - I think that was the low watermark."


Q6: How did your society react to your participation in the struggle, both before your arrest, during your imprisonment and after your release?



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"Our biggest disappointment was that many of the ulema did not take active steps to combat apartheid... many of them openly collaborated with apartheid in exchange for favours - but that was to be expected because the British had used this tactic all over the world ... Sudan, Egypt, Malaysia... and we were no exception.

... the leadership in the community left much to be desired. Because if you are going to form part of the leadership in any community, but especially in the Muslim community, there are three characteristics which are absolutely necessary:

1. You must be sincere - you must be the most sincere of us if you are to lead us.

2. You must be knowledgeable about what you stand for, your principles, your values, your ideals and especially your methods of struggle.

3. You must be utterly and totally fearless. When we recite the ayahs in Quran like 'Fear not for Allah is with us' - Muslims sloganize some of these but they don't understand what must be done with it. 'We fear no one except Allah' which is the slogan most Muslims know, but that has to be practiced in real life so when the enemy knows that you don't fear death then the enemy fears you..."


Q7: When you came out of prison did you find support in the community?



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"...the Muslim community was completely traumatised by the killing of Shaheed Imam Abdullah Haroon, and they became more fearful because if they could kill the leader in your community what chance did the ordinary persons have. This had exactly the opposite effect on me - we believe that the tree of freedom is nourished by the blood of martyrs and that became the inspiration...

When I was banned many Muslims didn't even want to greet me for fear of being contaminated ... but others on the other hand made it their point to send messages of support and support us financially..."


Q8: You have lived an extraordinary life, can you tell us who are the great influences in your life?



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"The greatest influence in my life is definitely Islam - the Quran itself... and here my father, my aunts and my mother... the works of al Shaheeds Syed Qutb, Imam Hasan-al Bana, and the last great influence of my life was that of Imam Khomeini - I had to listen to him and I had to respect him because this was a revolutionary who had succeeded where as the others had attempted revolutions, so being the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and being the leader of this great revolutionary force everything he has to say must be treated with respect and everything he has said fortunately is based strictly on Quranic principles - even in a press interview you could go back to the Quran and extract the principles he based his reply on!"


Q9: What parallels do you see between the struggle in South Africa against apartheid and the struggle against zionism in Palestine?



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Similarities between apartheid & the zionist regime:

"... we know that they were both established in 1948, and a Spanish socialist revolutionary in a work which has not yet been translated in to english actually says that the zionist regime in could not be established before the Jews got hold of the economy in South Africa - now thats a very interesting observation.

We also know that the first foreign head of government to visit the zionist state of israel was Dr D.F.Malan - the first apartheid Prime Minister, so here are two indications of what is happening.

Thirdly the israeli air force was established by a pilot from South Africa. Uri Oren, a former ambassador from israel to South Africa had boasted on the 50th anniversary of the state of israel that 28% of the soldiers that fought for the establishment of israel came from South Africa - that's almost a third of the forces, now obviously this indicates the cooperation.

In a book called 'The Unnatural Alliance' written by James Adams he tabulates the particular relationships between the apartheid regime and the zionist regime including nuclear co-operation, etc.

So my observation is that

1. Both the zionist regime and the apartheid regime were racist based on statutory racism - they use the police, the courts of law, the judiciary and the army to impose racism on its inhabitants,

2. Both are chauvinistic - they believe that they are above all others, they are the superior group

3. Both are expansionist in their political concepts - they wanted to conquer the surrounding territories...

4. Both are colonialist entities - these are not indigenous people who are controlling the territories and the government

5. Both are imperialist outposts and up to this date they remain imperialist outposts - South Africa as well as israel, because they are implementing the policies of the super powers...

But my submission is that the zionist regime is worse than the apartheid regime because the zionist regime claims that Jews are superior on the basis of Biblical scripture and they claim the land of Palestine on the basis of scripture - that makes it a more serious issue...

At the moment people are trying to buy in to this idea that israel is an apartheid state... I think we must avoid saying that because I know what the intention is, if we accept that idea then it means that israel - the zionists and the Palestinians can resolve their differences like the differences in South Africa were resolved - through talks and reconciliation... we have been short changed in South Africa because the revolution was aborted... I would advise the Palestinian people please understand if you make maximum sacrifices - make maximum demands."

"My advise to any oppressed people -

Don't make Maximum Sacrifices for Minimum Gains - if you are going to make Maximum Sacrifices demand Maximum Gains!"


Q10: As a front-line veteran of the war against apartheid in South Africa can you advice those who are not on the front-line in the war against Israeli oppression, as to how they can best support those who are on the front-line?



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On Unity:

"You must have the unity of the oppressed people, because if they are disunited they are going to be disseminated and massacred, and we have already seen this taking place all over the world. But if you are united - not on the basis of emotionalism, not on the basis of a cult, not on the basis of a personality, but if you are united on the basis of your ideology which means on the basis of principles so that you have a principled unity no body can destroy you and if the leadership that emerges from that principles unity is sincere and fearless then you have a revolutionary force that must be reckoned with."


Methods of struggle:

"... Armed struggle is of course essential because in the Quran armed resistance, armed struggle is ordained by Allah - the first time armed struggle is made permissible for Muslims is in Surah Hajj -surah 22 ayat 39, Allah says 'permission is given to you to fight because you have been wronged' - that principle essentially means that the only people in the world who have the sole justification for resorting to armed struggle, to violence, to force are the oppressed people - nobody else has that right or justification.

But more importantly it is immoral, irrational, it is obscene for an oppressor to tell the oppressed how they should respond to oppression, so if there are two principles that we should teach all oppressed people then it is those two principles"


Q11: You come from a country with a very small minority Muslim population, and yet you have helped shape that country's future. In the west the Muslims are a minority in every country, What advise do you have for them?



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"... it has always been an argument in South Africa by those who did not have the guts for armed struggle and to resist the oppressive regime to say 'we are only a minority, what can we do?' - now that is capitulation. So we say that this message [Al-Quran] is revealed to al-Nas the whole of mankind. Mahatma Gandhi has this potent saying that 'if one person is in possession of the truth, he or she will always be a majority of one' - Muslims must not think of themselves as a minority.

Our methods of struggle for those who live as numerical minorities in any part of the world is very simple, the Quran says 'use the best of arguments and set the best of examples' ..."


Q12: Every Muslim understands the importance of Unity of the Ummah, and yet we have none. What has gone wrong and how can it be fixed?



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On Leadership:

"My experience tells me that first and foremost the leadership must be sincere. There must be a leadership and not merely leaders because when you chop of the head of a leader the movement collapses, when you have a leadership they at least consolidate and continue the struggle. They must have ideological clarity which first and foremost means that they must have conceptual clarity and I find that it is conceptual illiteracy that that is a great problem in the general community but conceptual confusion and conceptual illiteracy at the level of the leadership is unforgivable - they must know what they are talking about and they must commit themselves. So they must make themselves aware conceptually, they must choose a direction and they must commit themselves to that direction so that we can actually deliver what needs to be delivered on the basis of that unity, that leadership and that sincerity and that fearlessness."

© Innovative Minds



Related Resources

"Reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed is not possible because oppressed and oppressor are not brothers, they are enemies."

Lecture by Imam Cassiem: Muslims in South Africa


"Even if the Zionist State were the size of a postage stamp it has no right to exist"

Article by Imam Cassiem: Zionist Israel - Hypocrisy Has No Limits


"Islam minus Jihad is Islam minus Islam"

News Article quoting Imam Cassiem: South African Muslims warned against secularising religion