Issue 120 | Jan-Mar 2020

Beyond Us vs Them

After tackling education as a social leveller in its first installment, the latest U@live panel discussion took on an even more contentious subject.

When the word “Islamophobia” is part of a discussion, there is always a chance that sparks will fly, as NUS Department of Malay Studies Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad discovered. Introducing the NUS U@live forum topic “Islamophobia — Do Two Wrongs Make a Right?” Assoc Prof Maznah related the fire and fury she faced in soliciting essays from the public on the subject. The word Islamophobia itself became contentious, showcasing what she called backlash against this admittedly commonly-used word.

The forum panel on 30 October before a 300-strong audience consisted of Mr Edwin Tong (Law ’94), Senior Minister of State for Law and Health; Assoc Prof Maznah; former US Government Special Representative to Muslim Communities Ms Farah Pandith; and Singapore Management University student and U@live essay competition runner-up Ms Victoria Ivory Birrell. Despite the implications of Assoc Prof Maznah’s introduction, the panel discussion was cordial; the panellists spoke candidly, offering fact-based responses even during the rancorous Q&A session. This was entirely in-line with moderator and U@live Chairman Mr Viswa Sadasivan’s (Arts and Social Sciences ’83) opening remarks, suggesting that despite the sensitivity of the topic, the panellists would power through and arrive at “a confluence of ideas.”

The discussion opened with Mr Tong, who went on to address what he saw as the main problem with Islamophobia, which he characterised as an irrational fear of ‘the other’. “Because a Muslim is the only tangible representation of (Islam), I think a lot of fear, anger and distrust is directed at that person.” Ms Pandith added that the world is “reeling from an ‘us versus them’ set of ideologies,” that complicates dialogue. As far as the choice of words went, Ms Pandith was firmly against the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’. “When I was Special Representative to Muslim Communities, I never used the term ‘Islamophobia’, because no matter where in the world I went, it meant a different thing to different people,” she said.

The consequences of Rhetoric

Ms Birrell offered her own take on the potential consequences of the phenomenon, which built on her opening remarks. “Western structural Islamophobia fuels Islamic radicalism’s cause. Acts of Islamic radicalism also increase Islamophobia, revealing the vicious cycle of this divisive problem. Both labels thrive on fearmongering and rely on grossly unsubstantiated mistruths about the other.” Assoc Prof Maznah noted that Islamophobia has become a tool to “justify the irrational hate towards certain groups. Taking the Rohingya example (that was raised by Mr Viswa), she explained that the enmity had been there for a long time, “so why is it that we now say that it is Islamophobia?” 

Taking the conversation in a different direction, Mr Tong addressed a question about what happens when leaders adopt the rhetoric of Islamophobia, or any other generalised hatred. “It doesn’t help when world leaders come up with speeches that fan (Islamophobic) sentiments. What are the people of the US and the UK to think and do, with their leaders making such statements…and getting away with it?” Mr Tong was pointing out there are real dangers associated with such rhetoric, and Ms Pandith backed this up. She noted that such public statements by world, or even community, leaders are a part of the permanent record, thanks to the Internet, and can be used by extremists to serve their own ends.
Addressing a related question from the audience, Assoc Prof Maznah said that we must be responsible even when addressing perpetrators of violent acts in the name of a religion. She highlighted that terrorists who happened to be Muslim were not Islamic but Islamist, meaning that they were motivated by ideology rather than religious teachings. 

Mr Tong brought the discussion back home, relating the matter of three domestic workers who were detained by Singapore security forces because they had been radicalised online. While broadly agreeing with Assoc Prof Maznah, he noted that these types of incidents raise concerns among citizens about the supposed profile of extremists, and who could be identified as a potential extremist. On the other hand, Ms Pandith cautioned that extremist acts are related to one another, drawing a connection to Ms Birrell’s earlier remarks. “Whether (the extremists) are white supremacists in Christchurch or Oslo (versus the Sri Lankan terrorists who struck on Easter Sunday), these groups are learning from one another, in terms of impact.”
As the conversation progressed, Mr Viswa added that he hoped such open discussions would lead to a “process that heals,” even if it did occasionally raise negative sentiments. “The fact that we can sit here and talk, openly, shows that there is a certain level of trust.”

When the discussion opened up for Q&A, the panel took a question from Singapore’s Ambassador to Kuwait Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed (Arts and Social Sciences ’71), who wondered where local Muslims might look to find models of inclusive societies, and to speak out against extreme ideologies. Mr Tong responded that Singapore, as one of the most diverse societies in the world, had to find its own models. “We have had to create our own rules. We have been doing that since we became independent… We have legislation that sets out the outer parameters. We have the Sedition Act, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. We have laws that govern what we can say.” On this same point, Assoc Prof Maznah said that Muslims have to do more than defend themselves against discrimination. “As far as explaining what Islam is about, about gender relationships, racial relationships, I don’t think Muslims have done much. (Having said that) it is important to realise that Islam is not monolithic; there are plenty of discussions within Islam. The moderate voice is one of the voices contesting within Islam.” She concluded that moderate voices in Islam — if that is what society overall wants to engage with — need resources to compete with more extreme and radical voices.

Of awareness and Understanding

Besides Ms Birrell, another participant of the student essay competition was also present, as an audience member. Mr Brandon Yip (Arts and Social Sciences ’18) — and fellow runner-up — echoed Mr Viswa and Mr Tong’s sentiments that having an open discussion was itself a positive sign. He noted that he was one of the essayists Assoc Prof Maznah was referring to in her remarks about the backlash against the use of the word “Islamophobia”. “I wanted to problematise the word Islamophobia because it is too (easy) to dismiss. Because if we dismiss so-called Islamophobes as purely irrational we don’t learn anything about the underlying reasons behind their convictions.”

Mr Yip’s thoughts about the forum echoed those of many other attendees that night. Mr Abdul Hakeem (Science ’87) and currently a religious teacher, was most concerned about the state of Muslims themselves, and felt that focusing on being a part of humanity itself was the right way forward. He noted that he felt that his own children and their peers in Singapore felt themselves to be human beings, first and foremost, which is also something the Quran emphasises. 

Feeding on Fear

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Source: UC Berkeley/FBI

Text by Ashok Soman.
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