secretarian
Sectarianism and Muslim Diversity:
Lessons for the Malay/Muslim Community

by Dr Nuraliah Norasid

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim  Professionals (AMP), April 2017, Volume 12, Issue 2.

The early decades of the 21st century will be distinctly marked by inter- and intra-religious conflicts that almost invariably see at their centres Muslims and the Islamic faith they profess. The world is becoming increasingly   diverse  as the relative ease of travel, growing human populations and uneven economic developments see major cities take on more multicultural and transnational populations. This is made more complex by peoples and communities adopting multiple layers of identities, all of which are calling for greater socio-political recognition. As different groups seek to carve out spaces and niches for themselves in the larger fabric of society, government authorities are faced with the ever-growing challenge of maintaining harmony between them and at the same time work to prevent the propagation of discord—an increasingly difficult task in this age of wide internet penetration, mushrooming forum and website contents, and social media, all of which help see views publicised, garner attention and spread at speeds faster than the relevant authorities can take them down. Given the global state of affairs, it is imperative that Singapore work at not only maintaining relations between the different inter- and intra-groups, but also at understanding the dynamics and areas of contention.

Conflict and Expression

In Singapore, the diversity of views and opinions have, thankfully, not manifested in outright conflict and dissonance. However, they are no less contentious particularly when it directly concerns the integrity of intercultural relationships in Singapore. There has been concern expressed early last year over the growing “distance” of the local Muslim population and the worrying trend among the community, both here and abroad, of being overly concerned about the particularities that constitute an Islamic way of life[1]: Is serving National Service to a secular state or sending over greetings on other religious festivals at odds with Islam? Are halal hotdogs still halal if there is the word ‘dog’ in them? Is Peppa Pig teaching Muslim children to be snobbish and precocious?[2] These rather irrational concerns have led some to view the community as wanting to set themselves apart from ‘mainstream’ society.

Local conflict, while not expressed outright, is more often than not expressed through the platform of social media, which has become one of the leading platforms for exposing and later aiding in apprehending those harbouring or disseminating views that threaten the integrity of our social fabric. The recent incident involving the imam whose sermons allegedly justified the persecution of Jews and Christians [3] and the snowball of reactionary comments condemning the imam’s views and at the same time problematising the user’s decision in posting the incriminating video show that Singapore still has a ways to go in managing the differences between its citizens and communities. Spaces for dialogue are present but limited in their outreach and scope, and where tolerance and neighbourliness are the adages preached, there in various corners of society whispers the voices that say otherwise. It goes from managers shaking their heads and saying to another in private, “Malays always have poor work ethics”, to the everyday solidarity of disliking foreigners among the average native Singaporean, to the verbally violent reprimand of ‘uncovered’ women seeking to pray in the mosques, to the presence of Facebook pages that are openly antagonistic towards the Shi’ite community in Singapore. Singapore and, in microcosmic mimesis, the Muslim community here has to continue developing the intellectual and social logistics to manage the present diversity. As we see more alliances being made within groups holding opposing ideological views and opinions on moral and social values rather than between them, issues of differences within the community need to be addressed.

Sectarian Conflict Abroad

In Islamic history, the schism between the religion’s two largest sects is founded on differing theological and historical views, which in turn fuels more modern day concerns of power and authority, freedom and equality, the distribution of resources and matters of territory.[4],[5] As such, this divide has far-reaching bearings that are intertwined with the issues of religious extremism, social integrity and global security. Across the Arab world, sectarian conflict has the effect of bolstering the numbers of extremist groups on both sides of the Sunni-Shi’a divide as the hopes of secular reformation are lost to social regression and people began to identify themselves along more “tribal or confessional” lines. In a classic case of ‘othering’, Sunni preachers adopt exclusivist positions in labelling Shi’as as “idol-worshippers” and jihadis draw on the doctrine of takfir, or accusation of apostasy, to justify their persecution. Public outcry towards the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shi’ite religious leader, for charges of sedition in 2015 in Saudi Arabia[6] and this year’s execution of three Shi’ite men following alleged torture and an unfair trial[7], further cements negative sentiments between the two groups.

Sectarian conflict that has divided the Arab world sees further reach with the support from some quarters of Saudi Arabia for sectarian and ultra-conservative groups in Pakistan. Group-affiliated political leaders make efforts to institutionalise anti-Shi’ite sentiments, effectively “repackaging” sectarian policies into shifting the country away from becoming a more tolerant and inclusive society[8]. Sanctioned violence against one group has the dangerous ripple effect of sanctioning violence against others. Reports noted the extension of violence towards moderate Sunnis who are not viewed to be “sufficiently orthodox”[9] and those of the arts, literature and media fraternities that, apart from being an enriching entity to social consciousness, is often associated with anti-establishment movements. Pakistan has also seen an increase in honour killings as the dominant religious education promotes misogyny as a social norm, further affecting the country’s civil society[10].

While aspects and evidence of Shi’ite practice has existed in Southeast Asia from as early as the 7th century[11], it is not until the time of contemporary identity politics and its confluence with statehood that Shi’as began to face similar institutionalised discrimination. They are subjected to social and legal restrictions which prevents them from spreading their views and distributing resources that espouse their beliefs[12]. Reports also indicate that they are greatly limited from, even persecuted, for observing their festivals and holding congregations. These restrictions stem from government legislation and religious decree, which is given legitimacy by a fatwa, or religious opinion, released by the Fatwa Committee for Religious Affairs, which branded Shi’ism as deviant while effectively upholding Sunnism as the only authorised sectarian identity[13]. Effectively, sectarianism becomes part of a larger political play that works to ensure the legitimacy of a dominant political party of which religious identity is closely tied to the Sunni faith, a faith which is practised also by the voting majority.

Intrafaith Affairs in Singapore

As the above examples illustrate, sectarian conflict goes beyond a matter of holding differing theological and historical views. Rather, these very differences are roped in to gather allies for political causes that prove socially, even economically, damaging in the long run.

While Singapore has not seen violent and outright sectarian conflict, Shi’as reportedly face discrimination in different sectors of local Islamic society. Common issues cited are those involving marriage where solemnisation by Shi’ite clerics lacks legitimacy unless also carried out by a Sunni cleric, and the difficulty in acquiring spaces for religious events and congregations. At the mosque level, complaints have been made about the presence of Shi’a practitioners in predominantly Sunni prayer spaces and the division is, of course, far worse online where a certain degree of anonymity allows users to freely voice their opinions with the intention of sowing discord.

However, there has been a public call to respect and embrace intra-faith religious diversity within the community[14],[15], bolstered by dialogue and sharing sessions that are taking place in smaller circles to foster better relations between the different groups. In light of a conflict-ridden 21st century, Dr Syed Farid Alatas referred to the Amman Message, which was first issued on 9 November 2004 that calls for tolerance and unity among Muslims through three fundamental points, which are issued by 24 senior scholars from around the world and branches and schools of Islam. The points specifically recognised eight legal schools and precisely defined who is a Muslim, forbade takfir among Muslims and placed preconditions for the issuing of fatwas. The message attempts to be as broad in its coverage while being specific enough to discourage illegitimate, divisive interpretations[16]. Nevertheless, Dr Alatas feels that the message cannot translate into practice “without a certain degree of political will”[17], and, to add to that point, a larger degree of structural changes affecting education, social mobility and people’s economic conditions.


[1] Siau Ming En. “Muslims here growing ‘somewhat more distant’: Shanmugam”. Today. 20 Jan 2016.

[2] “Peppa Pig a corrupting influence for Muslim children, says leader”. Australian Business Review. 8 Dec 2016.

[3] Yuen Sin. “Imam being probed over comments on Christians and Jews”. The Straits Times. 2 Mar 2017.

[4] Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will shape the future. Reprinted 2016.

[5] Black, Ian. “Sunni v Shia: why the conflict is more political than religious”. The Guardian. 5 Apr 2015.

[6] Black, Ian. “Saudi Arabia faces outcry over death sentence for Shia religious leader”. The Guardian. C. 2015.

[7] Wintour, Patrick. “Bahrain executes three Shia men in first death sentences since 2010”. The Guardian. 15 Jan 2017.

[8] Dorsey, James. “Political Violence and Sectarianism in Pakistan”. The Huffington Post. ND. Accessed: 20 Mar 2017.

[9] Mahadevan, Prem. “Sectarianism in Pakistan”. CSS Analyses in Security Policy. No. 205, March 2017.

[10] C.f. Dorsey.

[11] Marcinkowski, Christoph. “Selected Historical Facets of the Presence of Shi’ism in Southeast Asia”. The Muslim World. Volume 99. April 2009.

[12] Shanahan, Roger. “Malaysia and its Shi’a ‘Problem’”. Middle East Institute. 25 Jul 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Policies in place to manage diversity, intra-faith differences: Yaacob Ibrahim”. Channel News Asia. 26 Jan 2016.

[15] Toh Yong Chuan. “Call to embrace diversity in Islam”. The Straits Times. 8 Mar 2017.

[16] Stable URL: ammanmessage.com

[17] Alatas, Syed Farid. “The way forward for intra-Muslim peace”. The Straits Times. 29 Jan 2016.

Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research in Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Doctor of Philosophy, with a specialisation in Creative Writing and Contemporary Mythopoesis from Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed in the article are her own.

Photo Source: Karyawan

 
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