RiseRise of Religious and Ethnic Nationalism: A Singaporean Muslim Perspective

by Muhammad Faris Alfiq Mohd Afandi

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by AMP, April 2020, Volume 15, Issue 2

A simple scroll on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can generate mixed reactions within a few seconds. You can see a cute GIF image of cats, and in the next post, a disheartening article shared by one of your friends.

Such articles include Muslims being victimised. An ongoing example is the violence in Delhi ahead of the US President’s visit to India. Pictures and videos of the riots, which an expert opined as being a pogrom [1], started to circulate on social media to ‘raise awareness’ of the crisis in India.

Only recently too, it was reported that about a million Muslim Uighurs were sent to re-education camps in Xinjiang province as the Chinese central government claimed that the group held extremist and separatist intentions[2]. Not too long ago, the Rohingya crisis dominated news headlines all around the world on the violence that was committed against the Muslim minority there, which caused thousands to flee to neighbouring countries seeking asylum[3].

These are only some of the instances of Muslim communities abroad being victimised. However, if we were to look at the other side of the coin, there have also been incidents of Muslims asserting their dominance over other religious (and racial) groups. One can see this form of intolerant dominance in the case of Indonesia during the Ahok controversy[4].

As a Singaporean who enjoys a comfortable level of interreligious harmony with little to no conflict, a dilemma then arises – how does one respond to the plight of Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world?

How does one react to the development of what seems like an increasing sense of ethno-religious nationalistic sentiment in the region?

GLOBAL UMMATIC EXPERIENCE
The reason why a Muslim like myself might be facing this dilemma can be traced back to one of the core concepts of the Islamic faith: ummah. This concept of ummah can be loosely defined as a “community”[5]. This “community” of Muslims transcends territorial boundaries or nation-states, yet there exists an emotional connection within the ummah. An attack against a Muslim community somewhere in the world is felt by millions of other Muslims on all sides of the globe.

While the ummah can be regarded as a community, in reality, it is not always as straightforward. Professors James Piscatori and Amin Saikal from the Australian National University, in their book Islam Beyond Borders: The Umma in World Politics, outlined the nuances of the notion of ummah[6]. These include the different opinions of who constitutes an ummah, questioning whether political leadership is needed for an ummah, or the question of what makes up the ummah.

Even with a nuanced understanding of this oneness of the Muslim community or the pan-Islamic community, which transcends other identity markers, the response of Muslims towards the tragedies that are happening in Muslim communities around the world is the central focus of this commentary.

However, in the course of this article, we will see that these issues faced by the global Muslim community are not inherently religious in nature, which may then require a different set of response.

A CENTRAL PROBLEM
While on the surface it may look as though the issues presented are religious in nature, in reality they are not. It is often easier for one to come to the conclusion that violence caused by a particular religious (or non-religious) group towards Muslims is religious violence but it is usually not the case.

The world is nuanced and complex, and often in times of conflict, there are two or more religious groups committing acts of violence against one another.

With these acts widely covered on the news and disseminated on social media through sharing of sensationalised articles and videos, it requires an in-depth analysis in understanding the issues presented at hand.

While religious affiliation  may  seem to be the common identifier of these violence incidents, if we were to study the issue deeper, we might find other underlying causes. These include unresolved historical issues, the formation of nation-states and even the rise of ethnic or religious nationalism.

In the case of India, the communal violence that erupted there was not entirely because of inherent hatred or ill feelings towards Muslims, but instead, a political rhetoric, Hindutva, ramped up by President Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. India is a diverse country which is made up of more than a hundred ethnic and religious groups. India too prides itself as a very diverse, secular nation. However, of late, there is a growing intolerance towards the Muslims and other religious communities in the country.

To read this incident simplistically, it may seem that India is not tolerant towards their Muslim citizens. However, if we study the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India, such communal  violence is long-standing. The religious- nationalist sentiment, Hindutva, believes that India should be a Hindu state. This sentiment grew from the anxieties of Hindus towards the growing number of non-Hindus in the country[7].

The Rohingya crisis too was not born out of Buddhist-Muslim hatred but of a deep-rooted historical and territorial conflict during the post-colonial period. This is worsened by the rising religious nationalism by the majority Buddhist Burmese who were already in power.

Just by examining these two crises, one may already see the similarities. First, the crisis or violence did not originate from religious text or authority. Both, and I believe many more of such instances, were an indirect result of policies, historical claims and human factors.

Secondly, when it comes to religious conflict itself, the justifications used were not scriptural nor textual in nature. It is the ideologies of believers, rather than the belief systems, which initiated the violence committed.

RESPONDING TO THE PROBLEM
As such, violence that are seemingly religious in nature are often not actually religious at all. It is then important to know what the appropriate response is to the problem. Any form of bigotry towards any religious groups ought to be condemned as it affects the lives of others.

To simply link the violence in Delhi as a Hindu attack against Muslims would foster hatred and enmity towards other religions when in fact, the violence was due to religio-nationalist sentiments. The same goes to the case of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. It is not a problem with Buddhism but a problem with religiously charged, nationalist tendencies.

It would then be incorrect for Muslims to simplify the situation and regard these attacks as rooted in religious identity; rather, it warrants a deeper investigation and looking at the whole issue from a broader perspective. The way Muslims respond too needs to be rechecked. Now that the main problems have been identified, it is best to then focus on the dangers of the core issues at hand.

At the same time, Muslims too need to understand that their reaction may mirror what others do unto Muslims. Showing Muslim dominance over other religions within a particular nation too reflects a sense of religious nationalism. It fosters a sense of arrogance over other religions and, if left unchecked, could result in distrust among the different religious groups.

Thus, rather than to respond using religious justifications to these issues, the socio-religious conditions need to be understood. Only then can Muslims focus on the crux of the issue, rather than to be distracted by the religious elements of the conflict. This can be done by various means. An infringement of human rights warrants a call of action and solution from human rights groups. Economic rifts borne out of religious discrimination need to be addressed.

Every time we encounter news of Muslims being victimised, naturally, an immediate response will be filled with anger. Muslims, or any other religious groups who are being victimised, need to pause, step back, look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves whether there are any other issues at play.

What can Muslims do then? First is to stop spreading hate and enmity. All acts of discrimination and violence should never be condoned. Secondly, building a strong interreligious social capital through dialogue and everyday encounters. This is so that everyone is on the same page – no religion spreads hate towards another religion.

1 Agrawal, R. Why India’s Muslims Are In Grave Danger. Foreign Policy, March 2, 2020. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/02/india-muslims-delhi-riots-danger/.
2 China Putting Minority Muslims in ‘Concentration Camps,’ US Says. Channel Newsasia, May 4, 2019. Available at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/china-putting-minority-muslims-in–concentration-camps—us-says-11502840.
3 600,000 Rohingya Still in Myanmar at ‘Serious Risk of Genocide’: UN. Channel NewsAsia, September 16, 2019. Available at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/600-000-rohingya-still-in-myanmar-at-serious-risk-of-genocide-un-11910582.
4 Wijaya, C. A. FPI Head Urges Judges To Detain Ahok. The Jakarta Post, February 28, 2017. Available at: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/02/28/fpi-head-urges-judges-to-detain-ahok.html.
5 “Ummah” in The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, edited by Esposito, J. L. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Available at: http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e2427.
6 Piscatori, J., and Amin, S. Islam Beyond Borders: The Umma in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
7 Hindutva is an Assault on Hinduism: Shashi Tharoor. Economic Times, September 29, 2019. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/hindutva-is-an-assault-on-hinduism-shashi-tharoor/articleshow/71358702.cms.

 

Muhammad Faris Alfiq is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He specializes in the discourse on Islam in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, sociology of Islamic law and political Islam. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Malay Studies from National University of Singapore (NUS).

 

Photo Source: The Karyawan

 
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