RIMA Brief – January 2022
Book Discussion On Islam In A Secular State: Muslim Activism In Singapore
Speaker: Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah
- Secularism should be placed in a continuum and not painted with the same brush. Singapore’s version of secularism can be regarded as a political system where the state is neutral towards all religions. This form of secularism is acceptable and desirable, particularly for minority Muslims.
2. Muslim activists have to strategically navigate the political system to maximise their cause and not face the risk of reprisal from the state. On the one hand, if Muslim activists cross the out-of-bound (OB) markers of the state, they are unlikely to push the state to revise a particular policy. On the other hand, the lack or absence of public lobbying would not incentivise the state to embark on a different path. Naturally, those who align closest to the state make the most gains in the system.
3. The existence of the different activists’ trajectories are necessary for the political system to work as they each serve a purpose. Thus, we have to be careful when making normative judgments on which type of activism is good and right or bad and wrong.
4. Interpretations of religious texts are never divorced from socio-political realities. For this reason, Muslim scholars would theoretically conceptualise a unique framework of jurisprudence (fiqh al-aqalliyyat) for Muslim minorities contingent on socio-political realities.
5. The state should not be evaluated as a monolith. In the context of Muslim activism, more often than not, the actions of its actors are complex and nuanced. Therefore, we should read these actions through a discursive lens rather than the traditional binary lens of resistance and subordination vis-à-vis state-society relations.
The discussion was part of RIMA’s attempt to explore the multifaceted nature of Islam in Singapore. To better understand these issues, RIMA will be conducting virtual seminars over three main themes: Religious Orientations of Muslims in Singapore, Intrafaith relations, and Muslim Identities and Society. These themes were chosen to reflect the everyday lived reality of diversity experienced by Muslims in Singapore. It will also look at how global trends and modernity affect Muslim diversity in Singapore. For our inaugural session, we were grateful to have with us Dr Walid Jumblatt to speak on his recent book Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore.
Muslim activists are not a monolith: there exists a multitude of political and theological differences amongst them. At the heart of Walid Abdullah’s Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore is a compelling narrative on state-society relations between Muslim activists and the secular state. This book analyses the following categories of Muslim activists: Islamic religious scholars (Ulama), liberal Muslims, and the more conservative-minded individuals. Against this backdrop, the discussion explored how Muslim activists have strategically navigated the secular system to maximise their cause and not face the risk of reprisal from the state.
Dr. Walid started the discussion by highlighting the need to place secularism on a spectrum. It allows us to precisely define and select the type of secularism to substantiate our arguments. Secularism generally can be categorised into two main components. On the one hand, secularism as a philosophy regards religion as a set of privately held beliefs that should be kept within the confines of our homes. According to Dr. Walid, this type of secularism is antithetical to Muslim life. Most Muslims regard Islam as a comprehensive ethical system that governs both private and public life. On the other hand, secularism can also be regarded as a political system where the state is neutral towards all religions. Dr. Walid believed that this form of secularism is acceptable and desirable, particularly for minority Muslims. He characterised Singapore’s secularism as interventionist in which the state is free of religious influences, but the religion is not exempt from state intervention. In short, the state does not side with any religions but will interfere in the religious affairs of a community if it is deemed to be of national interest. Thus, Muslims in Singapore have to contend that this form of secularism is an accepted political system in Singapore simply because it has worked to maintain the social fabric. However, it is not without its challenges.
Islam and Political Realities
According to Dr. Walid, one of the contentions of navigating through a secular system is to deal with the fact that secularism is an accepted political system in Singapore and recognise that the interpretations of religious texts are never divorced from socio-political realities. For this reason, Muslim scholars would theoretically conceptualise a unique framework of jurisprudence (fiqh al-aqalliyyat) for Muslim minorities contingent on socio-political realities. Against this backdrop, Muslim activists, regardless of their background, are rational actors who consider their socio-political environment when interpreting Islam to maximise their causes. Thus, no activism is purely ideological as a movement can only materialise provided that the political opportunities allow them to be. Nonetheless, Dr. Walid made an important disclaimer that this interdependence does not apply to the fundamentals of Islam that are absolute such as the belief in one God.
Moving beyond the secular
Some scholars have argued for a need to move beyond the secular language in managing religious freedom as the world has shifted to a post-secular reality. However, Dr. Walid maintained that it is challenging to see Singapore imagining an alternative as secularism is the governing philosophy of the People’s Action Party (PAP), including its main opposition, the Workers’ Party (WP). He added that the government takes an extremely interventionist stance when protecting secularism. It is because the PAP’s legitimacy, apart from material welfare and incorruptibility, is built on maintaining racial and religious harmony. Thus, the government is unwilling to take a backseat and allow unfettered freedom of speech as it has grave implications on racial and religious harmony. Dr. Walid interestingly pointed out that we are at a crossroads regarding conversations on race, not religion. Many younger people want a more open space to be created for them and for the state to discuss race openly. The state, however, is more reluctant to allow this to happen. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.
Navigating the political terrain
It is essential to understand that limited opportunities do not mean zero opportunities. Dr. Walid highlighted three strategies available to activists when navigating the political terrain. First, activists could choose to cooperate with the state as much as possible and openly support its causes and ideologies. According to Dr. Walid, the closer you are to the state, the more opportunities would be given to you. However, activists have to contend with the possibility that close affiliation with the state can affect their credibility. The second option is for activists to pursue activism in areas ambivalent to the state and not crucial to its legitimacy. Dr. Walid gave the example of criticising the state on plastic straws or even on LGBT issues. The state is willing to be criticised in such areas as it does not directly affect its legitimacy.
We have even seen state leaders talking about this openly. Thus, it is a misconception that the state is inherently conservative on the LGBT issue. The third approach is done by a minority of activists who take on the state overtly in areas where the state’s legitimacy can be questioned. Activists in this group risk severe reprisals by the state. However, Dr. Walid highlighted that their presence is vital in the activism ecosystem as it moves the discourse in specific ways on some occasions.
In fact, the existence of all three groups is necessary for the political system to work as they each serve a purpose. Hence, it is unjustified to take the moral high ground regarding activism. Dr. Walid further argued that good and bad activists are relative terms. For example, in the absence of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the WP would be a more significant threat to the PAP. Then again, in the SDP’s presence, the WP is more palatable for the PAP. Thus, we have to be careful when making normative judgments on which type of activism is good and right or bad and wrong. It entails looking at activism from multiple vantage points.
Identifying OB Markers
According to Dr. Walid, there are two things for an activist to note when activism becomes unacceptable. One is the nature of the tactics. It can be a safe issue, but the tactic is not safe. For example, by conducting demonstrations on the street for plastic straws, it may become less acceptable to the state. Second is the nature of the issue. Dr. Walid underlined that the nature of OB markers is amorphous and unclear. Often, we can only identify it when the OB markers are crossed, and at times, the line is different for different people. Due to these uncertainties, it is natural for people to play safe, but it does not mean it is not commendable. Dr. Walid mentioned the example of interfaith dialogues, which is highly commendable but is regarded as safe as it does not push the boundaries. However, if the nature of the issue involves impugning the integrity of state leaders, then one must be prepared to defend it in court. For example, if we proclaim that the judiciary is not independent and corrupted. That is a line that the state would not accept as there are huge ramifications. Race and religion are the most apparent boundaries, so people are usually wary when talking about it.
Future areas of research
For researchers who are interested in studying Islam and the State in Singapore, Dr. Walid recommended an in-depth study of the different minority groups within the Muslim community in Singapore, such as the Shias and the Ahmadis, who are not regarded as part of the mainstream Muslim community in Singapore. A comparative analysis of the liberal-conservative divide regionally is also an interesting area to explore as Dr. Walid does not regard Singapore’s issues as purely exceptional as they are also shaped by trends in the region. Dr. Walid also pointed out a weakness of his book in which he was fixated on traditional forms of activists and ignored the impact of social media, particularly Twitter. He hopes that others, including himself, can address this gap moving forward.
About the Speaker
Dr. Walid Jumblatt Abdullah is an Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Program, Nanyang Technological University. He works on relationships between Islam and the state, political Islam, and political parties and elections. He has published in journals such as Democratization, International Political Science Review, Government and Opposition, Asian Survey, and Asian Studies Review, among others. He has an Instagram Live series called Teh Tarik With Walid, where he has discussions with politicians, policymakers and influencers, in a bid to make politics more accessible.
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