By Simon Vincent
It is often said that it is impolite to discuss religion with others.
Well, colour me rude then when I say that religion cannot be divorced from our discussions of the current Israel-Gaza conflict.
Attesting to this, Dr. Yacoob Ibrahim said the Muslim community in Singapore is especially affected by the conflict, since it had occurred during the month of Ramadan.
Of course, the crisis in Gaza is not a matter pertaining to Muslims alone. The conflict is a humanitarian one that has shocked the consciences of people of various races and religions all across the world.
When commenting on the humanitarian assistance given to MUIS for the Gaza crisis, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Singaporeans have donated generously, and not only Muslims.”
Implicit in the clause that mentions people other than Muslims, though, is an acknowledgement that Muslims are perceived to be more invested in the Gaza crisis than non-Muslims.
There is probably some truth to this. If you were to visit the Facebook page for From Singapore to Palestine, which organised a rally at the Speaker’s Corner for solidarity with Gaza, you will notice that quite a lot of the comments are framed in starkly religious terms.
Common Islam informs a significant part of the solidarity for Gaza.
This is not in any way unprecedented, since transnational religious ties often make up our identities. Local Christians are just as attuned to what happens to Christians in other parts of the world as local Muslims are to their international brethren.
However, because of the contemporaneous threat of Islamic terrorism, local Muslims tend to get a greater share of the spotlight.
The Radicalisation Narrative and Islamophobia
During his Aidilfitri sermon, Mufti Mohamed Fatris Bakram told Muslims to be “extremely careful and discerning” when reading reports calling for Muslims to kill people.
It seems a call for murder requires scrutiny before being outrightly condemned!
Bakram’s statement echoes the previous warning of Masagos Zulkiflii, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. He had asked Muslims not to be irrational and go to Gaza to help out, citing the case of Syria where “most of those who initially wanted to help eventually became radical and they came back home bringing terrorism to their soil”
If it is indeed impolite to discuss religion with others, surely a greater breach of decorum would be to presume that discussing religion would incite manic behaviour in the other party.
More pertinent than matters of decorum, though, is the troubling notion that people can simply become radicalised by following the Gaza crisis, be it on the news or social media.
The alarmism expressed by Zulkifli is probably due to the recent reports of Singaporean Muslims joining the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, we should be wary of using the rhetoric of radicalisation to explain away Islamic terrorism.
As Julian Baggini shows, radicalisation is not some brainwashing feat that renders people insipid and susceptible to religious extremism. The truth is more disquieting: Some people, out of their own free wills, decide to be murderers.
Let us not pass over this fact: Going to Gaza, Iraq or Syria to aid the resistance requires premeditation.
The radicalisation narrative averts placing due responsibility for extremism on the extremist’s part. At the same time, it unwittingly confirms Islamophobia by presenting Islamic extremism as something that could suddenly pervert Muslims.
A New Etiquette
In an incisive post on Facebook, Alfian Sa’at mentions the benefit of Muslims providing a “corrective to pro-Israeli media reports” that defend the callous aggression of Israel. Nevertheless, he is also aware of how convenient it is for Muslims to sympathise with the Palestinian victims and see Gaza as a microcosm of a global agenda against Islam, ignoring the atrocities committed by Muslims from other parts of the world.
The radicalisation narrative, I believe, makes it too easy for extremists to justify their atrocities through such a skewed lens.
We need to be honest about religion, religious affiliations and religious extremism, without turning alarmist.
We need to establish a new etiquette of religion.
I say: Discussing religion should only ever be impolite when it is done badly.