In image: Lining this street of Chinatown in Singapore are a Hindu temple, Muslim mosque, and a Buddhist temple, each of which stands tall and proud.
This March, the Minister for Law Mr Shanmugam emphasized the need for non-Muslims to engage Muslims to protect the country’s national cohesion. While the Singapore government has championed the message of interfaith harmony time and again, this message has gained a particular significance against the backdrop of terorrist activity and the arrests of local Singaporean Muslims suspected of propogating extremist ideas.
With or without terrorist attacks though, interfaith harmony in any society should be a goal as understanding a different faith or a person of a different faith ideally leads to the forging of sincere bonds, irrespective of events that transpire outside our society. Singapore has a unique narrative of interfaith relations and this peculiarity can be explained both historically and contemporarily. I had the opportunity to interview two key figures in spearheading interfaith relations in Singapore, namely the Imam (religious leader) of Baalwi Mosque, and an ex-president of the Inter-Religious Organization. I asked them what they felt about the state of interfaith relations in Singapore and what future trajectory they saw in this area.
Baalwi Mosque is noteworthy in its active engagement in interfaith activities. This may be evidenced by the fact that many non-Muslims frequently visit the mosque, be it as religious leaders or just followers. The mosque has a keen interest in letting non-Muslims and even Muslims learn more about Islam. Artefacts and ornaments showcasing the historical and cultural developments of Islam (coupled with tours) are a testament to this. According to the Imam, the reason for not many mosques extending this kind of warmth to other religions has to be traced back to the 1950s. Back then, the common jurisprudential opinion was that non-Muslims could not enter mosques, or at least the mosques were advised not to permit this. This was to maintain the ‘sanctity’ of the religion. In 1952, when Baalwi Mosque was officially opened, its founder opened the mosque for non-Muslims nonetheless. Furthermore, the mosque was situated in a neighbourhood that consisted mostly of English-Christian expatriates.
Fast forward to the 21st century, the Imam of Baalwi Mosque notes that the other mosques in Singapore have found it difficult to break this mindset of not welcoming non-Muslims. The Sultan Mosque is a notable exception though. In the context of the mosques’ involvement in interfaith dialogue, or rather the lack thereof, I asked the Imam of Baalwi Mosque what he felt about interfaith relations in Singapore as a whole. He immediately noted that the depth of relations had to be analysed at to two levels – the religious elite level and the ground level. At the former level, he said that relations were very close. The religious leaders were very sincere and intent on creating not just tolerance for different religious beliefs but a love for it too.
The ground level painted a less rosy picture, unfortunately. On the surface, interfaith relations appear to be strong in terms of the absence of racial or religious riots in the last 5 decades, barring the Little India riots three years ago. Nevertheless, what lies beneath the surface is more troubling. The Imam of Baalwi Mosque noted that the terrorist attacks over the last eight months or so have only succeeded in casting Muslims in a negative light. This is due to media-propagated equations of Islam with terrorism. A clear manifestation of this was actually found in Singapore when in November 2015 after the Paris attacks, a Singaporean malay Muslim woman was verbally abused with bigoted comments by a male caucasian at a train station, yelling at her “f*** you” and how he hated Islam. Islamophobia in this case assumed an overt and malignant nature. Unfortunately, I myself have had the privilege of receiving a bigoted comment, although of a much more benign nature. During one of my university modules last November, I had to discuss some answers with a group about a specific assignment. Another member of the group and I coincidentally had the same answer and opinion. In her peculiar expresison of euphoria, she rejoiced “Yay Imad! You’re awesome! #goarab! #despiteparisattacks”. I was more amused than offended by this remark. I’m sure she said it in jest but such a remark again reflected the popular discourse of (supposedly all) Muslims advocating violence in the name of religion.
Seeking a solution for a more meaningful state of interfaith relations, I then conversed with an ex-president of the Inter-Religious Organization that was founded in 1949. He lamented that interfaith relations were not a pressing issue due to the fast pace of life in Singapore whereby economic achievements held paramount importance. Only in times of crises, such as the arrest of a local IS (Islamic State) suspect, Zulfikar Shariff, would Singaporeans be galvanized into stressing the importance of racial and religious harmony. The efficacy of social media today was also an issue highlighted by him. He noted that while individuals were becoming increasingly emboldened in voicing their views on matters to do with religion, airing views itself was not an issue unless they expressed views that may be characterized as incendiary, smacking of exclusivity and fanaticism. Maintaining interfaith harmony is not an uphill battle if views are expressed without malice.
Indeed, constructive dialogue between members of different faiths is a responsibility not just for the religious leaders but ordinary citizens. With or without terrorist threats, we need to be sensitive to each other’s understanding and interpretation of the different religions in Singapore. Having a dissensus in views in not problematic so long as it does not spill into claims of religious exclusivity whereby only one exclusive ‘truth’ must be adhered to. It is no doubt an imperative for any society to react to external threats to its interfaith harmony. Nevertheless, maintaining or strenghtening interfaith harmony should not just be a reactionary exercise but a basis of any society. It is this basis that can form a bulwark against destructive dialogue even in the advent of terorrist incidents.