Muslims in Singapore, Multiculturalism and clapping hands


On the 14-16 July 2010, MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), in collaboration with Oxford University, University of Melbourne and the Department of Malay Studies at National University of Singapore, has organized the International Conference on Muslims in Multicultural Societies. According to the main organizer, the conference was aimed to

profile Singapore’s best practices in general and more specifically the Singapore Muslim community’s contribution to the state and in promoting Islamic values that embraces diversity. Additionally, this conference serves as a platform for other Muslim communities to share their experiences – models, systems and processes, and exchange ideas for further development of Muslims in multicultural societies.

I have not attended the conference personally (also because of the quite high registration fee, ranging form SGD$500 for international participants to SGD$100 for general students) Yet, while browsing the program, which displayed, among other prominent figures, the theologian and philosopher Prof. Tariq Ramadan, I had to notice some interesting patterns and revealing omissis. Starting from my observations, I take this occasion to discuss briefly some issues that communities may face when a certain approach to ‘managing’ Muslims is envisaged.

First of all, allow me to start from the conference. I was surprised–as an anthropologist who for eleven years has worked and published (see for instance) on multiculturalism and Muslims in various countries (including Singapore)–to notice that the above conference lacked among the speakers both sociologists and anthropologists. Indeed, if you browse the list of the honorable speakers, you can name–beyond the religious leaders, muftis, community leaders, and association representatives–several theologians, mediaevalists, Arabists, and one associate professor in Law.

Certainly, the academics selected are strong experts in their respective fields and have contributed greatly, regardless of whether or not one agrees with their personal positions, to the understanding of Islam, as a religion, and of Muslims as cultural representations. Notwithstanding, I cannot avoid noticing that the conference was intended to debate Muslims in multicultural societies, focusing both on the contribution they provide to multiculturalism as well as the challenges they may face from it.

I believe that academics are experts who observe their object of study through the lens (i.e. theories and methodologies) of their own disciplines. Hence, no differently to medicine, the humanities and the social sciences, each, although knowing something of agnate fields, have their own strengths and targets of enquiry. Few, I assume, would feel comfortable to have a panel of cardiologists and gastroenterologists discuss, for instance, epilepsy, while marginalizing neurologists, who are the relevant specialists in this case.

Likewise, surely all experts in attendance at the conference have much to contribute, but the total lack of sociological or anthropological expertise raises some unanswered questions. Scholars such as Tariq Modood, just to name one of the most prominent experts on multiculturalism, would have provided interesting thoughts on the debate. It is also interesting to notice that one of the first sociologists observing Muslims in different cultural contexts was actually a Muslim, Ibn Khaldun. Muslim scholars as well as scholars of the East have for a long time completely forgotten such pioneer of social studies.

I do not know the reasons for excluding the potential contribution of the specialists of societies and humanity from this event. Yet, in sooth, this conference may reflect how (consciously or unconsciously) the discussion of Islam and Muslims might have been framed. In other words, theologians, mediaevalists, Arabists and Islamic scholars were perceived to be the most relevant experts since what matters here is not Muslims, understood as human beings, but rather Islam, as a religion (i.e. a system of symbols), and Muslims as cultural objects.

Hence, theology, history of Arabic religious texts, mediaeval religious controversies, interpretations of fiqh, Islamic Law and so forth defined the arena in which to debate, to discuss and to resolve the issues Muslims face in today’s multicultural societies. In other words, the objective would be akin to finding the right Islamic methodology, the right Islamic discourse and the ‘correct’ Islamic doctrine that would enable Muslims not only to contribute correctly to the ‘multicultural society’, but also to resolve all the contradictions that often mark their minority status within a non-Muslim majority society. What is needed, if we follow this rationale, is simply good guidance of how Muslims have to believe.

Such a position, for sure, requires a top-down approach: the theologians, the Islamic scholars and other religious experts can try to find the necessary alchemy, perhaps through the example of Prophet Mohammed, and teach the community how to be “good Muslims.” Yet there are two serious problems with such an approach when used in isolation. The first, as I have explained in my book, The Anthropology of Islam (for the introduction see here), is that Muslims consider themselves Muslims because they ‘feel to be’ Muslim.

Therefore, anthropologically speaking, the most important aspect is neither what the Islamic texts read, nor what Muslims believe, nor how they act, but rather how they believe themselves to be Muslims, and here emotions play a very important role. Now, if I might be right, this means that a simple top-down approach can backfire and produce, in this case, two realities.

On the one hand, the most common situation, which I have witnessed in Singapore quite often, is a detachment between the Muslim intelligentsia and some parts, often the most vulnerable and young, of the community. Indeed, they often believe that the Muslim ‘intelligentsia’ want to teach them how to be ‘good Muslims’ and they perceive this effort as ‘paternalistic,’ if not antagonistic, to their feeling of ‘being Muslim’.

On the other hand, the most dangerous result of a simplistic top-down solution is a counter-reaction which pushes young vulnerable Muslims to look for ‘unofficial’ discourses of Islam. Recently, we had a good example of such a process, although thankfully still rare in Singapore, where the Internet becomes not the reason for radicalization, as some would assume, but rather a means of finding the counter-argument to the top-down doctrine, which is often too detached from the needs and visions of some parts of the community, or too silent about potentially sensitive issues (such as the war in Afghanistan or the Palestine conflicts, for example).

Although rarely expressed openly in public (in the case of Singapore), these topics sometimes have a strong appeal, at least at the level of information, to the younger generations.  Sometimes these unanswered questions remain at a level of curiosity or uneasy feelings; however, other times, they lead to cognitive opening and a path towards radicalization (see Introduction).

Herein lies the relevance of anthropology and sociology to the debates surrounding Muslims in multicultural societies. Theologians, Islamic scholars, mediaevalists and philosophers might suggest the way, the perfect utopia to reach, or for some the necessary theoretical and practical reforms of ‘good’ Islamic practice; yet who can ‘take the temperature’ of the Muslim community involved in the process? Who can perceive the creaking bonds of community cohesion as well as the different ideologies that form, some of which increase chances of a cognitive opening.

Since Muslims are not cultural objects, and are instead human beings who make culture (including interpretations of religion), it is not the theologians nor members of the disciplines represented at the conference who know how things are ‘on the ground’. Managing means understanding and having a clear ‘feeling’ of what one wants to manage.

This brings me to the wise opening speech offered at the conference by Senior Minister SM Goh. He has provided the audience with examples of how the non-Muslim majority and the Muslim minority have, under the vigilant eye of the Singaporean government, bridged their differences and found solutions to the challenges they faced. He has, however, correctly reminded us,

This does not mean we should ignore sources of tension in our pursuit to weave a cohesive society of diverse communities. Indeed, it suggests the opposite; we must face these tensions in open dialogue with an abundance of fairness, mutual respect and restraint.

This is the area where anthropology is most needed.As an anthropologist who has conducted two years of research in Singapore, I can affirm that there is, among Singaporean Muslim communities (and there are more than one), a tendency to hide those ‘tensions’. Of course, this is no limited to the Muslim communities. Hiding is not conducive to dialogue and instead fosters conspiracy theories and the development a ‘circle of panic’.

There is no ‘theological’ or ‘philosophical’ solution here.  Instead, there is need for a clear understanding of the issues, fears (including of multiculturalism itself) and problems that are still largely unspoken among the Muslim communities, as well as other communities forming multicultural Singapore. It is necessary to bring these issues  to the surface so that they may pragmatically be addressed.

My experience as an anthropologist suggests to me that there are growing grey areas slowly developing in Singapore, but it is not too late to find the reasons and bring them to light so that they may be framed within respectful, although critical, dialogue.

Senior Minister SM Goh has rightly observed in his speech, referring to the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Singapore, ‘It takes two hands to clap’. Yet the Muslim communities in Singapore have no single hand, but rather, like ‘Kali’, many hands, which often do not know what the others are doing.

Its here that more anthropological research and debate is needed to understand the changes, development and new challenges, but also contributions, to Singapore as a multicultural society. Failing in this, one day we may be forced to answer the old Zen Kōan that asks, ‘what is the sound of one hand (clapping)?’

2 thoughts on “Muslims in Singapore, Multiculturalism and clapping hands

  1. Pingback: Muslims in Singapore, Multiculturalism and clapping hands « Islam, Muslims, and an Anthropologist « Yahyasheikho786's Blog

  2. Good post. As certain aspects of the religion are basically being “institutionalized” (read: government), top-down approaches are being viewed with hints of skepticism, leading to certain religious activities being perceived as serving political goals.

    The state itself, while insistent on claiming a secular position, is instead widely seen the dictator of religious affairs in Singapore through such institutions.

    But it won’t turn Muslims away from Islam, instead it will distance them as they attempt to find independent and “unadulterated” religious opinions.

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