Celebrating and Embracing Youth Activism

`Id al-Fitr is truly a day of great joy and celebration, but it is also a day of reflection and introspection. It is, therefore, fortuitous that this year our `Id al-Fitr celebration takes place on the eve of National Youth Day celebrations and reflections. The 16th of June 1976 represents a watershed moment in the history of the struggle against the racist and unjust system of apartheid and left an indelible impact on the lives of those who experienced and lived through it.

In this `Id al-Fitr khutbah, I would like to challenge the often-repeated lament of elders, which is that most of our contemporary youth, who were reared in post-apartheid South Africa, lack the spirit of activism that animated and energized their parents and are therefore not as committed to social justice struggles as their parents were during the anti-apartheid struggle. My contention is that there are scores of talented, innovative and committed young social justice activists emerging in our country who provide us with great hope for a more humane, just and compassionate future.

It might be expedient to begin by briefly mining our Islamic sources for inspiration on the role of youth in engendering social change.


Islam, Youth and Social Change

I have proposed in some of my previous khutbahs and writing that student and youth led movements for social change is not alien, strange or incompatible with Islam but is in fact celebrated by the Glorious Qur’an (See: Al-Mizan, 2014, Volume 3 Number 4, newsletter of the Claremont Main Road Masjid). In Surah al-Kahf, Chapter 18, verses 13 and 14, Allah, the Sublime, edifies us by not only apprising us of the legendary story of the Companions of the Cave (Ashab al-Kahf), but more significantly revealing their identity, namely that they were youth.

We shall narrate to you their story:

Behold they were youth who believed in their Lord:

And so we deepened their consciousness of the Right Way.

And We strengthened their hearts so that they stood up and proclaimed:

“Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth.

We shall invoke no god beside Him,

for (if we do so) we shall have uttered a blasphemy.


It is my considered view that through these verses the Qur’an is exhorting its readers to be attentive to the fact that young people are more likely to challenge the status quo and become the drivers and levers for social change as they live at the cutting-edge of the real and rapidly changing world. Surah al-Kahf’s unequivocal message acknowledges youth led social movements for change within our communities.

The life of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) also offers great inspiration and guidance for recognizing youth.  It is instructive to note that the condescending attitude towards younger people also afflicted the first generation of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) appointed a young seventeen-year-old by the name of Usama ibn Zayd to lead a major expedition to Syria, which included some of the most illustrious companions, such as Abubakr and `Umar, many raised their objections due to Usama ibn Zayd’s age. The Prophet (pbuh) rebuked them and Usama’s mission was successful. Still not convinced by the prophetic foresight and wisdom of youth empowerment, and stubbornly persisting in their patronizing attitudes, immediately after the Prophet’s passing, some of the companions tried to persuade the newly appointed Caliph Abubakr to replace the young Usama ibn Zayd as leader of the army with `Umar ibn al-Khattab. Abubakr, however, did not relent to their pressure, since he understood the Prophet’s foresight, wisdom, and confidence in the promise of youth leadership.

The Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) example in appointing a young seventeen-year-old, Usama ibn Zayd as a leader over the elders such as Abubakr and `Umar is yet another eminent source of inspiration from our Islamic tradition. If all of these encouraging messages remain unheeded then we squander our greatest potential for social progress. Ultimately, the verses from Surah al-Kahf of the Glorious Qur’an as well as the Prophet’s (pbuh) example is advising us that our hope for social progress and our future lies in the youth.


Youth and Social Change in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Over the past four years in South Africa we have witnessed a number of key moments that were inspired by young people who have called for radical social change. In March 2015, the #RhodesMustFall campaign which began at the University of Cape Town (UCT), called for the decolonisation of South African university spaces by showing us the ugly faces of institutional racism, capitalist greed and patriarchal attitudes within places of higher education, as a microcosm of our societies. The #RhodesMustFall protest reverberated across the country and even made links to student movements across the world, but with particular links to students in the Global South.  This was followed by the #FeesMustFall student movement which began in October 2015 at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits). The #FeesMustFall movement connected the struggle for free decolonised education with that of outsourced workers and strategically allowed for links to be created at universities across the nation. This was an unprecedented move not seen since the days of the anti-apartheid struggle. The #FeesMustFall movement shook many out of their comfort zones and complacency towards neo-liberal policies that have seen the commodification of education and the widening of inequality in our country. It is through the pressure created by these young students that the State continues to be challenged to accede to all of its demands of free decolonised education within our lifetime. The #FeesMustFall movement has left an indelible mark on the terrain of Higher Education in South Africa where institutions are now being forced to grapple more meaningfully with issues of transformation and decolonisation.  (For a useful perspective on student protests in South Africa, both past and present See: Students Must Rise: Youth Struggle in South Africa Before and Beyond Soweto ’76, by Noor Nieftagodien and Anne Heffemen. Wits University Press, 2016).

Even more recently, during this past Ramadan, the #BoKaapRise movement inspired by Bo-Kaap youth have been playing a leading role in protests against gentrification. Starting on Friday 25 May 2018, Bo-Kaap residents held innovative “boeka protests” in Wale Street, Cape Town. The protest action saw hundreds of residents and their supporters break their fast with a shared meal in the middle of Cape Town. The “boeka protest” was the culmination of weeks of protest action intended to raise concerns about the virulent nature of gentrification of the Bo-Kaap area. Through exorbitant property rates that the City of Cape Town is imposing on Bo-Kaap residents, they are forcing many working-class residents and pensioners to sell their ancestral homes to greedy Capitalist developers who plan to replace these homes with high rise buildings for foreign direct investment. After years of seeing their parents and neighbours struggling against the creep of gentrification, it is the youth of Bo-Kaap who are now raising their voices and galvanizing their community to take back their streets and say, ‘Enough is Enough’. (For my views on the Bo-Kaap protests See: “The Battle, the Bo-Kaap Protests and Affordable Housing”, Khutbah delivered at Masjid al-Quds, Gatesville, 1 June 2018).


In conclusion, as we celebrate National Youth Day it is critical that we remain attentive to the potential role of our youth in driving social change. However, we need to liberate ourselves from attitudes of paternalism and begin to listen more carefully to our youth so that we may be able to appreciate and learn new and creative ways of advancing our common struggle for social justice and human dignity.

On this great day of `Id al-Fitr which coincides with National Youth Day, we celebrate all those who purposefully live their lives in the cause of social justice and lovingly spend of their time and resources in helping to make the world a more just and humane place. We call to mind and pray for the liberation of all people who are oppressed and exploited wherever they may find themselves and from whatever creed, ethnicity or nationality they come from. We pray that Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice assist us in understanding and being patient with our youth and we pray that Allah, the Lord of Wisdom, will guide those in our country and the world’s leadership to fashion a more compassionate, just and peaceful world. Let us use June 16th as the starting point for a new consciousness and appreciation of the role of young people in securing the future of our community and our country.

May you all have a festive ‘Id and may you live well in the Grace and Mercy of the Lord of Compassionate Justice. May your entire year be filled with Goodness, Peace and Health

‘Id al-Fitr Khutbah Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar

Dr. A. Rashied Omar is the Imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town and Research Scholar of  Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame in the United States of America.

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