Why should Singaporeans be seriously concerned with Islamic radicalism and Islamophobia?
By Mohamed Fayyaz (Book Prize Participant, 1st Runner-Up)
In 2016, a man attacked three female students of Madrasah Al Ma’arif Al Islamiah in three separate incidents. Earlier this year, a 40-year old radicalized Singaporean was detained under the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) for “harbouring the intention of traveling to Syria” after being radicalized by online lectures by foreign preachers. Islamophobia and Islamic radicalism are on the rise all over the globe. While these two issues might ostensibly seem dichotomous, they are in fact, two sides of the same coin. Collectively, they pose grave risks to Singapore society. In this essay, I establish how Islamophobia and Islamic radicalism can threaten the well-being of Singaporean society and offer a possible solution to how we can ameliorate these threats.
Transnational Nature of Islamic Radicalism
ISIS is losing a foothold in Syria and Iraq. With “porous borders, the existence of logistical bases, weak regimes, poor enforcement measures, and disenchantment among marginalised Muslims” forming the perfect hotspot of ISIS, they have turned to maritime Southeast Asia. Singapore is situated between two predominantly Muslim states—Malaysia and Indonesia.
With Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines struggling to deal with Islamic insurgents and homegrown terrorists who draw influence from abroad, it would not be difficult to imagine the threat it poses to the cohesiveness of Singapore. Muslims Singaporeans might also fall prey to radical Islamic ideologies. Threats to homeland security are serious and real. In 2016, an ISIS-inspired plot to launch rockets to Marina Bay from Batam island was foiled. Radical groups abroad thus pose a real threat to our national security as they are ready to give-up their lives and/or compromise the deaths of many innocents just to fulfil their misguided visions of an Islamic theocracy. Therefore, if such threats were not detected and intercepted swiftly, the Indonesian militants abroad would have wreaked havoc on our tiny island.
The prevalence and accessibility of ISIS propaganda online makes it easier for the vulnerable to fall prey to these twisted ideologies. In 2018, a radicalized Singaporean engineer was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) after investigations revealed that he was radicalized by foreign religious preachers online. Thus, the threat Islamic radicalism poses to Singapore is gravely concerning and if left unchecked, could bring about catastrophic effects.
Threat to Singapore’s Multi-religious and Cosmopolitan Identity
Singapore projects its cosmopolitan identity globally by celebrating its racial and religious diversity. While we celebrate this unique trait of Singapore, we often forget the fragility of our racial and religious cohesion. In other words, Singapore’s diversity, while enduring, remains extremely delicate. Although Muslims in Singapore account for a small percentage of its population, Islamophobia and Islamic radicalism can quickly snowball out of control. Heightened mistrust and suspicion between Muslims and non-Muslims can inexorably fuel higher incidences of conflict between communities. In 2016, Amos Yee published videos wounding religious feelings of Muslims in Singapore. His condescending remarks were offensive to the Muslims and the public. As a result, Yee was arrested and tried by relevant authorities. Singapore’s multi-religious social fabric can be easily torn apart by Singaporeans themselves, be it in the form of misguided self-radicalized Muslims or by insensitive individuals who take our intercommunal harmony for granted.
A Step Forward: Dichotomizing Radical Islam from Moderate Islam
Much has been said about how islamophobia and Islamic radicalism poses a threat to Singapore, but what can we do to tackle these pressing issues?
In many ways, both Islamic radicalism and islamophobia can damage social cohesion. Appreciating the difference between the two directs us to how these issues take root: namely, the fallacious conflation of radical-fundamentalist Islam with the forward-looking, law-abiding and practical Islam practiced in Singapore.
Unfortunately, and up till today, the portrayal of radical Islam has remained problematic. This then facilitates the development of prejudice and misconceptions about Muslims locally. According to a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), 15% of Singaporeans found Muslims threatening. While this represents a small fraction of our population, it does not rule out the lack of trust between other communities and the Muslims in Singapore.
Therefore, to address this issue at its core, we should recognize that radical Islam is starkly different from moderate Islam. This can certainly be done by accentuating their distinctions in an accessible manner to the public. Public seminars and conferences provide platforms for these ideas to be disseminated to the public. The joint seminar between MUIS and RSIS in 2016 is an excellent example of how the distinctions between moderate and radical Islam were fleshed out in an accessible manner. More of such seminars in the future would not only engage more citizens, but also underscore the differences between moderate and radical Islam.
Seminars like these serve two purposes. Firstly, the distinction allows Singaporeans to disassociate the general Muslim community with Islamic radicalists, thus allowing Singaporeans to embrace the former while denouncing the latter. Secondly, this distinction and the denigration of Islamic radicalism delegitimizes it further. This delegitimization both by the public and government entrenches a culture that abhors Islamic radicalism. In short, dichotomizing radical from moderate Islam suffocates islamophobia and the espousal of radical Islam in Singapore. Therefore, while the government can do its part in distinguishing the two, the success of this prescription heavily relies on Singaporeans to direct and enact this change from the very roots of our society.
Ultimately, the future of Singapore’s national security remains uncertain and it is important to note that a panacea for this issue does not exist. However, this does not mean that we should be in a state of despair. Rather, Singaporeans should remain very concerned about Islamophobia and Islamic radicalism because they threaten the very foundations of our society. While the government has taken a step in the right direction with initiatives such as SGSecure and the recent amendment to the religious harmony law in Singapore, citizens also play a salient role in denouncing radical Islam by recognising the difference between radical Islam and moderate Islam. That way, we can ensure that threats arising from rampant islamophobia and Islamic radicalism can be managed effectively not just by our security agencies, but also by our fellow Singaporeans.
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Fayyaz is a sophomore at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Social Science (NUS FASS), pursuing a major in Political Science. His research interests include terrorism, contemporary social issues in Singapore and public policy analysis.
Views expressed here are strictly those of the author(s) and not of the organization.