The world was shocked with the gruesome terror attacks in recent weeks. They included the killing of four individuals in France in two separate attacks. Two of them were brutally beheaded. Meanwhile, ISIS claimed attacks in the city of Vienna and at the University of Kabul in Afghanistan. More than twenty-five lives have been lost in both attacks.
In addition to violent attacks, the world also witnesses how the ideology of hatred has far-reaching consequences. It has led to violent acts and destruction of social fabric and religious harmony.
From one angle, we observe that principle of freedom of speech which contains elements of hate ideology towards a specific group as held by President Emmanuel Macron has enraged Muslims worldwide.
From another, we continue to witness Muslim extremist groups such as ISIS that hold dear to hate ideology carry out violent and inhumane violent attacks due to the sense of hatred in their souls.
These violent incidents that took place in France, Vienna, Kabul and other places are all evidence of how resentment and hate ideology can lead to violence and destruction. These incidents are evidence that world community today is facing the threat of extremist and exclusivist ideologies as well as segregation practices that can affect religious harmony and social unity. Singapore is no exception.
Religious Harmony in Singapore
Singapore is a country with a unique community landscape. The uniqueness of its society lies in the diversity of religious and racial groups to live as a Singaporean society under a secular system of government. However, the understanding and implementation of the secular system in this country is different from what is commonly understood and practiced in western countries.
The term secular refers to the separation between states and religion (separation between states and religion). This is the essence of secular meaning in general. Although the system of government in Singapore is secular, the government has a role to play in formulating policies related to the issues of religious and racial harmony. This is so that the stability of the country can be maintained by orderly rules and laws.
However, this does not mean that the practice of religion here is predetermined and restricted. In matters of religious practices and rituals, the government does not intervene. What is the concern of the government is that each religious group can carry out their respective religious practices without any conflict and tension between religious groups.
Many initiatives have been produced to raise awareness of the importance of religious harmony and social unity. In fact, efforts towards building a harmonious society have begun in the early years of the country’s independence and it continues to this day. There is no way we can ensure that this harmony lasts except with continuous effort.
Society should not feel bored with the amount of emphasis and focus given to efforts to strengthen racial and religious harmony. We must not be complacent in any endeavor that leads to national stability and social harmony.
In June last year, Singapore hosted the International Conference on Unified Society (ICCS), organized by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY). At the conference, religious leaders representing various faiths here affirmed commitment to safeguard religious harmony. This commitment was made following several discussions among local religious leaders with support from the Singapore government.
The Key to Harmony
With this Commitment, religious organizsations here affirm the values and way of life of Singaporeans which is the basis of the religious harmony of Singapore’s plural society. Religious leaders here agree that strong inter-religious relations are the key to religious harmony.
In the Commitment, it explained “Although our beliefs may be different, we have the same values, such as charity work, love, respect and kindness. This is in line with our values which aim to encourage frequent interaction”.
Such efforts emphasise the need for every religious group to protect, appreciate and even promote religious harmony here. It also emphasises the many positive ways Singaporeans can do to interact with other communities better. The importance of this Commitment apart from building a more integrated society enables Singaporeans to prevent segregation and exclusivist practices from being ingrained in society.
In order to preserve and strengthen religious harmony in a plural society, three key foundations are necessary; equality, opportunities and resilience.
Equality is an important value in a society. A just and fair society will ensure peace and prosperity. It all begins with creating awareness to all walks of life to render assistance to those who are in need regardless of race and religion.
Opportunities for community interaction transcend beyond visiting places of worships of other faiths. Society must shift from just acknowledging differences to creating daily interactive opportunities built on common interests.
The stability of the country depends a lot on the integrity of its people. In a multi-racial and multi-religious society, religious harmony and social unity are the pillars that strengthen society. This stability and integrity must be well maintained. We must ensure that nothing can undermine religious harmony. Threats such as extremism, exclusivism, segregation and even anti-religious sentiments must be strongly opposed.
There are many lessons we can learn from the dangers of hate speech. For example, the incident in France has taught the world a very important lesson – the value of love, compassion, forgiveness and respect for everyone.
This is important to build a culture of mutual respect and ensure hatred and violence do not spread in society. In today’s challenging world, there is an urgent need to promote love, respect and tolerance and to reject hatred, especially among the young.
The value of equality and rejecting the ideology that divides society continuously is fundamental in a cohesive society. Given the importance of the value of religious harmony and social unity today, we must continue to strive to ensure that it continues in the generations to come.
A new and fresh approach is also needed. As members of a plural society, we ought to play a more proactive and robust role in ensuring that religious harmony and social unity will not only be protected, but also become more intact and flourish at all time
*Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor and Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Both studies Islamic law at Al-Azhar University, Cairo and are counsellors with the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).