What about efforts at counter-radicalisation in societies with a prevailing commitment to managing social, ethnic and religious diversity? This should involve operationalising pluralist ideas so as to address sources of alienation. Singapore’s mosque-based educational policy program is examined here by Rizwana Abdul Azeez. She argues this program falls short, serving to minoritise Islam and the country’s Muslims with potential unintended consequences. Shamit Saggar
The management of social diversity can be an effective counter-radicalisation strategy –good news for multicultural and multireligious societies like Australia and Singapore. Pluralism, properly managed, can redress alienation and perceived injustices minority communities may feel, rendering radicalisation pathways less attractive. ‘Pluralism’ put into practice, i.e. operationalising the concept, however, may diverge from ‘pluralism’ existing solely as a concept. This is because society’s other foundational norms and accompanying institutions can influence and reshape values that ‘pluralism’ embodies, such as respect for difference and equality. The ‘Being a Muslim in Singapore’ (BMS) educational programme delivered in mosques over 12 hours of lectures illustrates this. With counter-radicalisation intent, BMS educates Muslims on their proper relationship with non-Muslims, inter-faith dialogues and other topics.
Instead of illustrating an appropriate counter-radicalisation strategy, the BMS programme, overall, minoritises Singapore Muslims. Modernity’s penchant for fragmented styles of thinking – hiving off frames of meaning from society’s larger social and religious contexts – facilitates the hierarchisation of available concepts and consequently, Othering. Indeed, ‘pluralism’ as discussed in BMS classes is minoritised because in Singapore’s reading of ‘secularism’, common identities shared by all Singaporeans disseminated in common spaces take precedence over values operating out of communal and religious spaces. The BMS programme exists not in common but religious space. Despite carrying content on pluralism, a foundational Singapore value and so, theoretically belonging in common space, the BMS lectures were held in mosques. Mosques are not regarded as common spaces for being religious institutions catering specifically to Singapore’s 14 percent of Muslims. So Islam’s emphasis on equitable pluralism, discussed in BMS classes through the Mardin Declaration, for example, remained in second-tier religious space. The Declaration, emerging from the context of Islam-linked terrorism, disallows Muslims from misreading jihad and declaring war on non-Muslims, hence neutralising terrorist ideology. Singapore’s reading of secularism minoritises Islam, the BMS programme and consequently, Singapore Muslims.
Entrenched existing power relations in society can also lead curriculum writers to read ‘pluralism’ in ways that subvert the concept’s promise of equality. Existing power relations in Singapore favour the non-Muslim (ethnic Chinese) community, who are politically and economically more powerful overall. Indeed, the Malays, constituting Singapore’s majority Muslim population, have been described as a ‘problematic’ community from even before 2001, when government officials discovered a Muslim terrorist cell. The discovery added further strains to relations. Compounded by officials’ strong belief misreadings of Islam rather than social factors fuel terrorism, the BMS curriculum directs towards Muslims a plethora of duties to observe as citizens living in a plural society. Singapore’s non-Muslims are not assigned similar duties. BMS classes teach that Muslims should not have a ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards non-Muslims. Muslims also need to learn ‘positive values in fostering good relations with non-Muslims’. For example, students are taught the story of Ali ibn Abi Talib. The future fourth caliph of Islam had objected to the presiding caliph’s discourteous treatment of a Jew when he, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, had been asked to settle a dispute between Ali and the non-Muslim. The story served to underscore how Ali upheld the dignified treatment of everyone irrespective of faith. The BMS programme does not discuss how discrimination against Muslims, for example, women wearing the headscarf being denied employment in certain sectors of the job market, continue to be ignored. The list of duties imposed on Muslims evidences a program discussing pluralism, like the BMS, in effect, minoritising Singapore Muslims.
Officials implementing counter-radicalisation programmes in multicultural societies, like Singapore and Australia and others, need an understanding of how contexts of meaning operate. Social life is notoriously complex and difficult to direct according to intended aims. The programs officials implement are very likely to carry in-built assumptions and biases that reside as implicit knowledge. These need to be made apparent in order to deliver societies safer than those we have today.
Rizwana Abdul Azeez
Rizwana Abdul Azeez is an anthropologist/sociologist. She obtained her PhD from Flinders University in Australia (2012). Her latest work, a United Nations-State Islamic University of Jakarta (UIN Jakarta) project on Southeast Asian radicalisation interrogates citizenship education in Singapore. She is also the author of Negotiating Malay Identities in Singapore: the role of modern Islam (Sussex Academic Press, 2016), The Islamization of Science in Singapore’s Madrasahs (Asian Muslim Action Network, 2011) and various articles on Singapore Malays and Muslims.