by Suhaile Md
MY CHINESE friend once told me that a practising Muslim will support ISIS. He hates ISIS with a passion. I consider myself a practising Muslim. I quietly wondered if he hated me.
If I really know my own religion, he continued, I would either support ISIS, or convert. It’s the western education that prevented me from becoming like them. There’s a reason why Muslims don’t get into sensitive roles in the army, or civil service, he said.
I did not know how to respond to that. It hit a sore point.
Muslim loyalty to Singapore has been in question for a long time. For years after National Service (NS) was instituted in 1967, Muslims were not called up for conscription. The policy was eventually reversed. But the feeling of being untrustworthy has remained among some people here.
When I attended my brother’s passing out parade at the Civil Defence Academy in 2015, all I saw was a sea of brown faces. I remember the Chinese uncle sitting with his family in front of me, looking around and noting: “Wah, we are a minority here.” Singapore is 74.3 per cent Chinese.
I guess I was lucky to have served in the Army instead. But while serving, the feeling that I was not trusted because of my religion intensified at times. Sometimes my NS job required me to drive to other military camps that had no halal food catered in the cookhouse because there weren’t any Muslims posted to that unit. In the cookhouse at my camp, the Muslim queue was about as long as the non-Muslim queue, even though less than 15 per cent of Singaporeans are Muslim.
Why? Security reasons, I heard.
I met national servicemen in the army who were Chinese nationals just a year or two before enlistment. They could not speak a word of English – I always needed a translator. I always wondered if they understood the pledge, the national anthem, or what they were defending? Yet they serve in the army when many of my Muslims friends who grew up here can’t.
Someone once told me Muslims shouldn’t complain. Go online and you’ll see similar sentiments: Look at other countries, they don’t treat their minorities as well as Singapore does, so be grateful.
So I should just shut up about how I feel here, in my own home? Swallow my words? Do they hate my voice? Such comments confound me, frustrate me. I am not from those countries, how is it even relevant here?
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I am not ISIS
In junior college, my class saw a documentary on violence against women in Pakistan. In a particular scene, a man used Islam to justify burning his wife. I was the only Muslim in the room. A few classmates glanced at me. I don’t think they could help it. Still, it was enough to get me tense.
But I understood their curiosity, and concern even. After all, supposedly non-violent-me based my life on the same Quran (holy book) as the violent man. So I marched into class the next day, notes filled with quotes and arguments, ready to defend myself. I told my classmates context matters. A violent man will find any justification. Hate the man, not my faith. Not me.
Hate the man, not my faith. Not me.
Not much has changed in the years since. Every time there’s a terror attack somewhere, it’s expected that as a Muslim, I take a moral stand against ISIS or its like.
A tall order, given that there have been at least 140 terrorist attacks by ISIS, or inspired by it, in 29 countries in the 30 months since the group declared its caliphate in June 2014. Most recently, one of its followers shot up a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve.
On average, that’s just over an attack a week. And it does not include other brutal groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al-Shabaab in Somalia. It’s hard to apologise so frequently, publicly, for something I have no hand in and do not believe in.
There were times I got fed up and remained silent, especially on social media. ISIS is evil. It burns people alive and blows out their brains. It should be obvious that like everyone else, I am just as disgusted by these. Why do I have to continually prove my humanity by repeatedly condemning the same acts over and over again? Every time I disassociate myself from them, I am clumped together again the next time they attack, guilty by association. It gets tiring.
Still that does not mean I do not own the problem of extremism (read more here). Many Muslims do so too (here’s a list) because our faith demands that we speak out against oppression, inhumanity and injustice.
Taking a moral stance against extremism also means we speak up against the oppression of Palestinians by the Israelis and the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Which is why we find it hard to quietly accept that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be warmly welcomed in Singapore next month. Or when Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has yet to condemn the atrocities being committed in her country, enjoyed a friendly tour here recently.
When I speak out on such issues, I’ve had non-Muslim acquaintances dismiss it saying it’s just politics, just business. Funnily enough, these are the same people who ask me why Muslims don’t speak out against violence. As if my conscience can be turned on or off at their convenience.
Sometimes it feels as if Muslim voices only matter when it suits an agenda. Sometimes, it even feels like Muslim suffering overseas does not matter at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I get it, there are economic and security considerations Singapore needs to make. I understand why the G does not officially speak up on these issues, why it has an official policy of non-interference, while quietly allowing non-governmental donations to help Palestinian and Rohingya victims. At times the G donates a small sum too. There are pragmatic, political considerations.
But where does that leave its citizens, who feel slighted? The pragmatic and the political can leave a bitter aftertaste. Extremists capitalise on this, blurring complexities, obliterating nuance, drawing thick lines in the sand between Muslims and the rest of the world.
This divide is made stronger every time someone asks me if I’m a Muslim first or a Singaporean first. The question stops short of asking outright: Where does my loyalty lie?
It’s a ridiculous question, like asking if I’m a son first or a brother. I can’t imagine life outside either role. I don’t know where one relationship ends and where the other begins.
It’s a ridiculous question, like asking if I’m a son first, or a brother. I don’t know where one relationship ends and where the other begins.
Likewise, I don’t know where the Singaporean part of me ends and where the Muslim part begins. Besides, I thought we are Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion.
So why the need to squeeze me into two categories – Singaporean and Muslim? It’s suffocating. I am Muslim Singaporean, Singaporean Muslim. I am both, at once. Don’t break me into two, please.
Thankfully, I have non-Muslim friends who get it.
Like Young-hwi, who in my absence, of his own accord, made sure the restaurant that the group booked was halal. Or the former classmate, Jianwei, who apologised to me for particular nasty racist comments on Facebook. The comments weren’t even directed at me personally and the commenters were online trolls in no way related to him. My friend had no obligation. Yet he apologised, to let me know that my concerns mattered to him, that he cared.
I wish more people around the world stand up for Muslims like my friends did. But the popular support and rise of anti-Islamic right wing figures like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands scare me. Most troubling was the recent successful presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States, in spite of his anti-Muslim prejudice.
At the end of the day though, do I think the world hates me? No, but sometimes it feels that way.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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