The Appeal of the Islamic State

Yesterday The Middle Ground published an opinion piece titled A Young Muslim on ISIS. While it approaches the Islamic State (henceforth called Daesh here) from the perspective of a Muslim, the writer makes a few generalities that don’t hold up. Crucially, he says:

“My sense is, if you add a dash of ignorance and a sprinkle of mis-education to a person with violent traits, you get a self-radicalised individual. And if you add the zest of youth and thrill to the mixture, you get the most dangerous kind of self-radicalised individuals.”


ISIS’ version of Islam offends my senses, just based on the fundamental principles of ethics and morality. It just feels wrong, and I am certain that for many people, that feeling outweighs any other feeling of isolation or marginalisation they may face in their current communities. Religious differences aside, there is something inherently wrong about killing and torture. There is something inherently wrong about raping women and children. There is something inherently wrong about slavery. There is something inherently wrong about stripping someone of their dignity and worth on the account that they don’t share your religious beliefs. Everything about the tenets ISIS preaches goes against the natural order. Contrary to their mission, I don’t think ISIS is more concerned about ‘saving Islam’ than it is about its own political and personal agendas.

I am aware though, that there are many who genuinely believe they are ‘saving Islam’ and to that I would ask “from what exactly?” Islam does not need any more saving than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism does. If there is anything or anyone that Islam needs saving from, it is ISIS, because I don’t think any group has been more successful at tarnishing the image of the religion in this 21st century.

While the writer’s sentiments are understandable, they are sentiments. They are feelings and they do not necessarily offer any greater insight into Daesh, its appeal, and the phenomenon it embodies. Women have joined Daesh for the express purpose of being wives — not combatants. Yet they are self-radicalised individuals who learned about Daesh over the Internet. Further, while Daesh may feel wrong to the writer and offends his sense of morality, its ideas certainly do not feel wrong to its adherents.

Daesh cannot and must not be seen in isolation. It must be seen in the context of transitional violent non-state actors and civilisations.

Violent Non-State Actors in Transition

This is an invented term I will use to describe violent non-state actors that are in transition to becoming a state or something in between, by taking on the functions of a state in part or in whole. In modern times, there are multiple examples we can look at.

Mexico’s long and bitter drug war have left the federal government weakened and local government nonexistent. Drug cartels have moved in to occupy these territories. Some rule with an iron fist, bribing authority figures and assassinating the incorruptible. Others are more benevolent, establishing welfare programmes and donating regularly to charity. As John Robb argues in Brave New War, the cartels intend to hollow out the government but not to replace it. They are seeking a space where they can conduct their business in peace, using Mexican sovereignty as a shield against foreign (read: American) military intervention.

Since 1996, the Palestinian territories have held elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. The first election went to Fatah, which was riddled with corruption and caught in a conflict with its archrival Hamas. This led to widespread poverty and chronic underdevelopment. Hamas took on the functions of state, building schools and organising drought relief missions, in the place of Fatah. Hamas won the 2006 elections, transforming from a guerilla organisation into a legitimate political authority.

Even in the West, non-state actors are undermining the authority of the state. The Shariah Project deployed Shariah patrols to East London in 2013, confronting passers-by and demanding that they conform to Shariah law. Swedish police have ceded control of 55 zones to Muslim criminal gangs. Violence from Mexico’s cartel wars are spreading to the American border regions, moving illegal immigrants into America and embedding among these immigrants a network of spies, lieutenants and other facilitators.

Seen in this context, Daesh is no different. During the Syrian civil war, the secular nationalist forces battled the remnants of the loyalist military, while radical Islamic fighters shored up their power. The Americans destroyed the central governments of Iraq and Afghanistan during their invasions, and they have not created adequate replacements, leading to a void filled with insurgent groups. The Islamic radical groups banded together, forming Daesh and its allies. Now Daesh is seeking to expand into Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and are developing the infrastructure of a state: they are minting their own currency, enforcing laws, and building schools. Daesh is becoming a true Islamic State.

As Daesh expands into Kurdish lands, they have triggered a backlash. The Kurds are a people without a nation, but in modern history they have been pushing for a state of their own. Daesh’s invasion of Kurdish lands prompted many people of Kurdish descent to travel to Kurd territory to fight Daesh. Other non-Kurdish volunteers have also volunteered to join the fight. While there is no Kurdistan per se, one outgrowth of the war in Iraq was the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is pressing for independence from Iraq, but is endangered by Daesh, and the Iraqi military seems powerless to stop Daesh. A successful defence of Iraqi Kurdistan could be the impetus for a Kurdish nationalist movement — one that encompasses Kurdish lands in Turkey and Iran.

Common to these phenomenon is the failure or nonexistence of states. By failing to provide core services to the people — security, food and water, infrastructure — they lose the loyalty of their citizens. Disenfranchised, these people turn to different identity circles that would provide a sense of community and necessities.

Civilisation, the State and the Islamic State

Using Samuel Huntington’s definitions, a civilisation is the broadest possible grouping of people along linguistic, cultural, historical, genetic or other markers. A state, by contrast, is a political entity that exercises control over a given geographical region. Therefore, a civilisation can contain multiple states, a civilisation can be a single state, and large states (as in the case of empires) may encompass different civilisations. Daesh is that strange animal of a single-state civilisation, a distinction usually held only by Japan, India and China.

Daesh is based on ultra-fundamentalist views of the Qu’ran, effectively transposing the worldview of Qu’ranic times into the 21st century. Being in the Middle East, it has a heavy Arabic cultural influence, and as it happens many Muslims are either of Arabic descent or else are familiar with Arabic. The last great Islamic civilisation, the Ottoman Empire, dissolved in 1922. Through propaganda and deed, Daesh promises a return of a golden age of Islam and the formation of a new Islamic civilisation. Its numerous military successes give sympathisers and believers hope that this dream would come true, and Daesh’s efforts to build a statea long Qu’ranic lines signal that it is serious about building both a state and a civilisation.

Contrast this promise and hope with modern society. The lynchpins of the modern economy are under fire everywhere: the Euro faces the possibility of Greece exiting the monetary union, capitalism is seen to have led to ever-expanding wealth inequalities, jobs are perceived to go to foreigners who demand lower wages than locals. Police and military personnel face heavy scrutiny, and even the slightest hint of impropriety leads to accusations of racism/sexism/prejudice, which are inevitably followed by outrage, media circuses, apologies and resignations. Identity and gender politics threaten to divide people along arbitrary identity markers, taking states with them.

To impressionable minds, Daesh promises hope and society promises victimisation. China has long suppressed Islam in Xinjiang province, and consequently many Muslims are travelling to support Daesh. Malaysia and Indonesia are nominally Muslim states, but despite their racial and religious politicking they do not promise victory and a golden age like Daesh, leading idealists who seek a ‘true’ Islamic state to the Middle East. In the West, where immigration policies are liberal and integration is optional, entire communities see themselves as Muslims but not necessarily citizens of the state they live in. When they hear of Daesh’s victories, they feel more obliged to support their fellow Muslims than the state they do not feel loyalty to.

Daesh’s appeal lies in portraying themselves as Good People. And Good People can justify any number of atrocities to themselves because they believe they are in the right. This is further compounded by Daesh’s Arabic roots and cultural influence. Being tribal based, Arab societies are sometimes described as amoral familist in nature. In effect, morality is defined by the impact on the tribe: if something supports the tribe it is good, and if it harms the tribe it is evil. Amoral familism treats everybody outside the tribe as strangers at best and enemies at worst, and since terrifying the world will increase the standing of the tribe, atrocities like beheading captives and raping slaves are not only permissible but a moral imperative.

Now the question is: what can we do about Daesh?

Daesh brands itself as an Islamic state and the inheritor of Islamic civilisation. It is therefore incumbent on the Muslims of the world to reject the brand of Islam Daesh represents, and to actively participate in civic affairs. It is not enough to shout down distasteful ideologies; people need also to build societies along their preferred ones. In the First World, this means adopting the norms of racial and religious harmony and tolerance, rejecting prejudice and working in tandem with all peoples to build a society based on common values.

For everybody else, this is a call to unity. Violent non-state actors emerge where the state is weak or nonexistent. Daesh is merely the most high-profile VNSA at this time. As states crumble, other VNSAs and transitional NSAs will emerge. To prevent this, states and civilisations have to remain strong. This means rejecting the politics of division and identity, of isolating the extremists and working together with the reasonable people along the rest of the political spectrum. It means cohering as a nation, a people, a civilisation, and to build a better world.

For people in Singapore, this means rejecting the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other model. We cannot define ourselves primarily as Buddhist, Indian, Malay-Muslim, Christian, whatever. We must define ourselves as Singaporeans. In effect, to be one people, one Singapore. Most of all, it means participating in the community of nations, rejecting the extremists and the rogue states, and to be ready to defend ourselves against those who would do us violence with as much violence as we can muster.

Lawrence Khong's performance is not Lawrence Khong

The recent brouhaha about IKEA’s continued promotion of Lawrence Khong’s magic show is focused entirely on Khong’s identity as a pastor. He has made no secret that his interpretation of the faith has no room for acceptance of LGBT people so long as they remain non-heterosexual. LGBT groups, individuals and allies have pressured IKEA to drop their promotion of the show; with IKEA’s refusal to bend, outrage is once again sweeping the Internet.

IKEA’s rationale for continuing to promote Khong’s work is that it offers “high family entertainment value”. Khong himself has acknowledged that he uses his magic shows to evangelise to the audience. The natural assumption is that the performance is somehow tainted by his beliefs.

But to mangle the Bible, shall the clay say to the potter, “Am I thou?”

A person does not have to agree with the ideology of an artist to enjoy a work of art. A person does not have to buy into the underlying ideas that inform a work of art to appreciate it on its own merits. The created is not the creator, and what a person does in one capacity need not spill over into another.

John C Wright is a Catholic and his religion informs his latest stories, but I don’t have to be a Catholic to be in awe of the breadth and depth of his imagination and his ability to ignite literary fireworks as casually and naturally as breathing. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon who has spoken out against gay marriage in the context of his faith, yet his work Ender’s Game is at heart a treatise on leadership and military innovation with nothing about his faith or politics. Larry Correia and Michael Z Williamson inject libertarian ideas into the Grimnoir and Freehold series respectively, but for them the story came before the message. I care not a whit about John Scalzi or his ideology, but I felt his Old Man’s War series and Fuzzy Nation were pretty good stories in their own right (being derivatives notwithstanding). I thought L Ron Hubbard founded a religion of nutjobs, but his novel Battlefield Earth set me on the path to writing science fiction. I don’t have to like Tom Clancy’s politics to study and adapt his craft.

It is one thing to slam a show because the show in itself promotes anti-LGTQ messages. It is quite another to slam it because the creator holds those same ideologies. The idea is not the man, the art is not the artist, the clay is not the potter. A person does not have to agree with someone to appreciate his work, and similarly does not have to like that person’s work to have a profound relationship with that person. A person who believes that he can only enjoy a work of art so long as he agrees with the artist’s ideology is not interested in art; he is only interested in keeping his mind closed.

I’m of the opinion that if you disagree with a person’s stated ideology the best approach is honest open debate. Attacking a person’s livelihood or art just because that person does not hold the same beliefs you do is not productive. The former approach opens up everybody’s ideas and assumptions for examination, and ideally all sides understand where they are coming from and open the door to reconciliation or changing beliefs. The latter is simple punishment, and it does not one thing about pre-existing beliefs. It merely says, “We do not like you because you do not think like us, and if you want to be accepted you must be like us”, It is bullying, plain and simple. It punishes someone simply for committing thoughtcrime, or holding doubleplusungood ideas. This approach only works on the weak and those who cannot defend themselves.

Against people so strong-willed that they rise and retain positions of prominence amidst controversy, it merely confirms their beliefs that everyone is out to get them. They and their supporters will circle the wagons and redouble their efforts, cling ever so strongly to their ideas and redouble their efforts to broadcast them. This strategy cannot work on those as strong-willed, connected, and rich as Lawrence Khong. They simply do not respond to such tactics.

IKEA values tolerance, and so does Singapore. Tolerance must include tolerating works of art whose creators may hold intolerant views, and indeed to treat such people fairly regardless of what beliefs they may hold. Tolerance, it must be remembered, is about being fair and objective, to hold a permissive attitude and to be free from bigotry. In this context, it means judging Khong’s performance on its own merits, and him as a performer in the context of the show. His identity as a pastor is relevant only so far as his ideas permeate his show and no further. For instance, his show may hold elements of Christianity, but it is unfair to say that the show promotes anti-LGBT messages if there is nothing in the show that does that.

By using pressure tactics against a work or art because the artist holds ideologies a group disagrees with, the organisers signal approval of those same methods. In so doing, the means become the end. It means that it becomes socially acceptable to coerce people into conformance by targeting their creations. Which means that Christian groups may urge organisations to boycott a play by a gay playwright simply because he is gay, the government may order additional red tape to strangle a website just because the owner happens to disagree with the ruling party, that corporations are free to turn down sponsorship and advertising deals from a local entrepreneur because she is also a political activist. And the ones who approve of pressuring IKEA to cease promoting Khong’s show have no moral right to decry any of the above scenarios.

By using pressure, the nags and the bullies say that they don’t mind it; they just want to be the ones wielding it. On that road lies the way to civil intolerance, and for the dominance of larger and more powerful groups. Judge Khong’s works by its merit, not by who he is: the clay is not the potter, the art is not the artist.

Looking Beyond Terror

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles

-Sun Tzu, Art of War

This letter on the TODAY newspaper forum reflects an understandable, but naive, sentiment about terrorism. The writer argues that terrorism has no religion, and that all terrorists should simply be called terrorists without ascribing them a religion. To modern sensibilities and paradigms, terrorism must clearly fall outside the peaceful practices of conventional religion. But it is a mistake to say religiously-motivated terrorists are not religious.

If a terrorist keeps a long beard, prays five times a day, demands his friends and family live by the strictures of the Koran, enters battle chanting “Allahu Akhbar!”, fights to establish a Caliphate governed by shariah law as codified in the Koran, judges himself and others by principles laid down in the Koran, beheads innocents in the name of God, and dies believing that he will be served by 72 virgins, what motivates him? If a group of terrorists act in a similar way, what unites them and motivates them, and what do they use to recruit others to their cause?

The answer is religion. In their case, their version of Islam. If one does not, or will not, understand an enemy’s motivation, it is impossible to defeat him. The purpose of war is to break the enemy’s resistance and to force him to submit to your will; if one refuses to attack the source of the enemy’s motivation, the enemy will continue to resist, and there will be no way to end the war without shedding oceans of blood.

The author of the letter claimed that “Like all other extremists, they do not care who they kill as long as they continue to instil fear in people.”

This is a shallow interpretation of extremism. Groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram do in fact care about whom they kill. They perpetuate genocides, target minorities, and launch attacks on soft targets to instil terror and inspire fellow travellers. They target government forces wherever they can to undermine the state, utilising unconventional warfare strategems to undermine the power of the state to resist them.

Terror is not merely a goal. Terror is a tool, and to understand it you need to look beyond terror, to its effects. Terror frightens enemies into fleeing, intimidates fence-sitters and civilians into submission, and inspires fellow believers to greater violence. By carefully picking soft targets, terrorists ensure maximum shock value for minimum cost in lives and munitions. While it is a blunt instrument, terror is a very effective tool so long as no other party is willing to perpetuate ever-greater terrors on the original actors. Witness IS’ rapid gains, or Boko Haram’s ability to command global media attention through a relatively small cost in time and effort

Terror is a tool, but it is not necessarily a motivation. While I believe there will be no end of wolves in human skin, whose greatest pleasure in life is to prey on others as sadistically as possible, such psychopaths are historically a minority of the human race. Most people require a great deal of motivation before they can inflict violence on others, even more so when talking about lethal violence against non-resisting targets.

As described in On Killing by David Grossman, this usually requires a combination of factors: a higher cause, a respected superior giving the order to kill, peer pressure, and a dehumanisation of the target. Religion offers a quick and easy means to fulfil these requirements: Islam, a mullah, the presence of fellow believers, and by viewing the victim as non-Muslim and therefore a worthy target. Participation in such an atrocity, combined with religious indoctrination, provides a heady psychological cocktail that encourages unit bonding, making it harder to sway terrorists from the cause and encouraging them to fight harder for the organisation. In this case, religion is as much a weapon as it is a motivation.

The author is afraid that ascribing terrorist violence to religion “may create wrong impressions of certain religious groups, which may then lead to rifts in our multicultural, pluralist society.”

This may be so, but the creation of rifts is exactly the kind of strategy needed to defeat religiously-motivated terrorism. The key is to be targeted, separating the terrorists from civilisation while still giving individual members a means and motivation to rejoin society.

The Islamic State calls itself that to appeal to the Muslim diaspora. Especially the disillusioned Muslims living in secular states, seeking a higher calling or spirituality in their life. By portraying themselves as part of a religion, terrorists are preying upon believers to sway them to their cause, arguing that their deeds are in line with religion and that it is the duty of fellow believers to fight for their religion — and what better way than to sign up with the group?

It is easy to say that terrorist groups like these are not religious. But this approach only works if one’s target audience is the rest of civilisation, who are already inclined to believe that or else view terrorism as beyond the pale. If the goal is to end terrorism, to neutralise their propaganda and defang their doctrine, it is nowhere near enough. It will not reach to the people who need this message the most. If anything, this approach is self-defeating.

Should the civilised world claim that groups like the Islamic State are not religious and leave it at that, terrorist propagandists will seize upon it as proof of oppression. They will cherry pick their personal practices and claim that they are in line with religious practice, and use it to circle the wagons and draw their members even tighter. People like these have decades of experience in the dark arts of propaganda, and can justify almost anything they do by referring to the holy book of choice. The rank-and-file, those who feel they are fighting for a religion, would likely feel abandoned by the civilised world, and cling ever tighter to their parent organisation. Or defect to another terrorist group that promises a truer practice of faith. Or self-radicalise and work out their frustrations in a final act of martyrdom.

This is, needless to say, counterproductive.

The better approach is to engage terrorist propaganda head-on. It is no longer enough to say ‘these are not religious people’, not if the goal is to defeat terrorism. What is necessary is to draw a distinction between civilisation and barbarism. To whit, people must be able to say, “this is what a good believer does, and this is why these terrorists are not good believers” — and they have to be convincing. This requires a propaganda campaign for the cause of civilisation, with theologians and academics able to make religious arguments based on actual studies of the holy book(s) terrorists are perverting. Since the majority of high-profile terrorist groups in the world today claim to be Muslims, it is imperative for the Muslim community to step up and police themselves, to drive a schism between civilisation and the barbarians who would pervert their faith. Nobody else has the moral ability to do this.

The ultimate question here is, what makes a religion? It is not merely a holy book or the teachings within it. A religion is not merely the name of a god or gods and their properties. A religion is a human phenomenon, and as such it is defined by how humans interpret and practice religion, not just in worship but in everyday life. There are as many ways to interpret and practice religion as there are people on Earth.

The barbarians wish to use religion to justify wanton cruelty and terror, paving the road to Hell with promises of Heaven. To defeat them, believers of the civilised world must be able to show why the barbarians’ interpretation and practice are not merely mistaken or irreligious, but goes against the spirit of their faith, and to show people a better way to live. This is the harder way, much harder than simply claiming the opposition is not religious and be done with it.

Shades of Offence in Multireligious Singapore

Religion, the government reminds us, is a very sensitive issue in Singapore. My Social Studies textbooks imply that religious harmony is necessary to prevent the race/religious riots of the early and mid-twentieth century. The unspoken implication is that religion is necessarily placed in some sacrosanct place in the public sphere, immune to offense or criticism under pain of the Sedition Act or other laws. An important corollary is that faith is so important that it must be protected at all costs against any perceived threat.

But Singapore is a multireligious society. It is impossible to avoid doing something that contravenes some religious doctrine or other: eating meat, having pre-marital sex, drinking alcohol, refusing to have children, working on Sabbath. It is impossible to avoid offending believers in some faith or other at some point. Singapore’s doctrine of religious harmony virtually guarantees that believers will always get their way. They need merely raise a big enough outcry to garner official attention. And the people who prefer using this tactic in recent times seem to be inflexible, close-minded dogmatists who wish to impose their beliefs on everybody else.

The Escape Chapel Party is its latest victim. The party was publicised using images of women dressed in modified nun’s habits and party dresses, and was held in a former chapel, in a compound long used for secular activities. As Chemical Generation Singapore points out, Singapore is not a Catholic-majority nation, but the Catholics managed to shut the party down. Archbishop Nicholas Chia (no relation) himself called for the party to be cancelled.

To be sure, the timing of the party could have been more tactful. The party was slated to be held on 7 April, the day after Good Friday. It is natural for Christians (and, by extension, Catholics) to be more sensitive about their religion during the run-up to this event. The use of Catholic imagery in advertising and the location of the party could not have escaped notice by the wider community. It is inevitable that there will be some Christians who will take offense at the party’s fusion of the sacred and the secular.

But the party is a secular event — the Asian leg of a music festival. The chapel has been deconsecrated; it is now a secular space. The advertising is probably a nod to the chapel’s former purpose. The party is a secular event in a secular space. While the promotional and marketing material did contain images of models wearing high heels sexualised nun’s habits, there was nothing in that material, as far as I know, that criticises the religion or desecrates any holy symbols or sites.  This is the event’s only direct connection to Catholicism.

It is not the place of the Church to dictate secular events. Its role is, and should remain, limited to matters of faith within the community of believers. Shutting down the party deprives would-be party-goers of that event, and these people do not all follow the Church’s philosophies. It is also discouraging multinational companies from setting foot in Singapore or embarking on bold campaigns, for fear of antagonising the Church. As described in the news article, Escape Swansea and Escape Recordings was looking to expand into Singapore. This event would make the executives think twice, and other companies think thrice.

To be clear, I’m not saying that people should not feel offended. I’m not offended by the party, its organisers, or its marketing and promotional campaign, but I can see why some people would. But professing belief in any religion does not automatically bestow moral superiority. It does not grant believers the moral imperative, authority or legitimacy to shut down anything that does not please them. Feelings were hurt, but hurt feelings is not an excuse to cancel a public event. The only reason to do that is actual or potential harm. This means violence, threat thereof, or incitement towards violence. This event has done no harm and will do no harm. All it has done is to hurt the feelings of a minority of Singaporeans.

There are many other ways to register offense: open letters, meetings, blogs, videos on YouTube. If the believers are so offended by the event, they don’t even have to attend the party. Actions like these communicate emotions and offense just as clearly as a pressure campaign to cancel the party. They allow offended people to air their grievances, and the organisers a chance to make amends and make things better the next time around. By influencing the organisers to cancel the party, the Church is saying that it is okay to sacrifice revenue, cultural exposure, tourist income and good publicity for Singapore just so a minority of people can feel good about themselves — and, along the way, force everybody else to live by their beliefs.

The main problem with Singapore’s policy of religious harmony is that there is no threshold of permissible offence, no room for shades of offence. In the local narrative, all it takes to disrupt religious harmony is to make a statement that involves religion and makes believers angry. And yet it is impossible to avoid conflict and offense in a culture and country as diverse as ours. Adherence to this policy leaves no room for acceptance of constructive criticism or edgy artistic expression. Arguably, a strict interpretation of this policy leaves no room for a blog post like this one.

The threshold of offence should be set at the level of harm: the state will only step in if life and property is at stake. Otherwise, the state will not intervene, and the parties in conflict would sort things out themselves. Without thresholds of offence, current policy demands the State to throw its weight behind any organised group of outraged believers. High-profile organisations and companies, such as the landlord of the chapel, will follow the State’s example to avoid legal problems. If outraged dogmatists will not get their way, they will turn to the government as the ultimate arbiter to get their way — and the State is bound to seriously consider and rule in favour of their demands because there are no thresholds of offence and therefore no matter too small.

Dogmatists will be emboldened by the cancellation of the party, taking it as a precedent for future campaigns. Singapore has seen this in campaigns to keep homosexuality criminalised, and the condemnation and prevention of casinos on moral grounds. I think it is only a matter of time before dogmatists move into wider areas in the public sphere. Only a matter of time before similar incidents occur.

We live in a diverse and multireligious society. We cannot sweep religious issues under the carpet, and we cannot not offend someone sometime. But hurt feelings are just that; there is no need to apply blunt instruments against the wider society when more precise tools are available. It is not the place of any church of any creed to interfere in secular life. Only universal principles apply when considering deeds that touch on many groups and communities, not the teachings of a singular faith.

Bridging Worlds

What does it take to bridge two separate worlds? What does it take to cross a decades-old ideological divide? Compassion, love, respect, and dignity. A recognition of shared humanity. This was the premise of a dialogue session I attended and helped to organise on the 30th of July.

In May, Mathia Lee, myself, and a group of individuals came together to organise a dialogue between the faith and LBGT communities. We felt that there was a schism between both communities. We wanted to bridge this divide, to connect the members of both communities at the level of individuals and to allow both groups to understand each others’ perspectives. We wanted to show that both communities can converse peacefully and constructively, without fear of conflict, in spite of perceived sensitivities. After months of discussion, we finalised our plans.

Called ‘Deepening & Widening Interfaith’, it was a closed-door film screening followed by a discussion. The participants were granted the option of anonymity; they did not have to introduce themselves if they chose not to, and all audio and film recordings were expressly prohibited without prior consent. There were about ninety participants invited from a cross-section of society, with faith leaders and atheists, straight and non-heterosexual people.

The film was Ngiam Su-Lin’s ‘Women who Love Women: Conversations in Singapore‘. It is a documentary about three Singaporean lesbians, their lives, and the challenges they have faced. The film was intended to be the basis for discussion, allowing the audience to observe up close the problems faced by members of the LBGT community.

The discussion was an unconference run along a modified form of dotmocracy, guided by concepts from Open Space Technology and World Cafe. Prior to the film screening, participants were encouraged to post questions on a sheet of paper on a wall. Other participants who liked the questions and wanted to explore them would paste a sticker — a dot — on the question. The eight most popular questions were chosen for the discussion, and facilitated by the moderators, who established different discussion groups around the room. The participants headed to the discussion group of their choice, and conversation started to flow.

Two formal discussion periods followed the film. During each session, I circulated around the room, taking notes and talking to a few of the participants, before being swept into an informal discussion group. I felt that the discussions in the conversation spaces were held in the zone between intimate and distant, lively and subdued. Strangers told other strangers their life stories, their aspirations, their setbacks, their ideas, their frustrations, their thoughts, their ideas, their hopes, their dreams, in an environment of respect without fear. A participant I interviewed felt ‘encouraged to see so many people’ participating in the dialogue. Another thought that this event showed that ‘people genuinely want to talk about’ faith and LBGT-related issues.

When the second discussion period ended, the moderators gave a summary of the discussions of their answers. They are reproduced below, edited for clarity.

1. Why do people want to get married?

Marriage is important as a demonstration of commitment. This is especially pertinent in the LBGT community, as there is a perception that homosexual people cannot hold down a relationship. Marriage in a same-sex environment proves commitment in the face of intolerance, providing proof against the stereotype.

2. How do state laws affect the way you live?

State laws define safety and the rights and privileges of citizens. Laws associated with security grant the security agencies powers to protect the people and punish criminals. These laws allow people to feel safe, or might cause them to feel worried over perceived threats. Laws governing rights and responsibilities define what citizens and other inhabitants can do, most famously the application for flats in Singapore.

(Author’s note: Singaporeans need to form a family nucleus before they can apply for a flat. A ‘family nucleus’ is defined by parents with children, orphans with siblings, husband and wife, or an engaged couple.)

3. Why is societal acceptance important?

Social acceptance increases diversity. From the perspective of the LBGT community, a lack of social acceptance may lead to discrimination if and when members decide to come out. In a society without acceptance, minorities will be marginalised and experience pressure from society. Minority members of society will need critical mass and solidarity to stand up to this pressure, and society needs to recognise that all people are their own persons.

4. How do you know you’re in love?

It is difficult to pin down love. It could be a chemical reaction, a biological function, romantic feelings, or a combination. But fundamentally, it is a feeling that you want to be close to a person, and it is this feeling that ultimately defines love for the individual.

5. How do you feel if you’re asked to change?

It feels threatening. This is especially so in the case of evangelism. Some evangelists give the impression that they are not as interested as the ideas behind the religion so much as the emotions associated with the practice of that religion, and approach others on that basis. This increases the sense of threat, as it feels that the evangelist is trying to directly change the person.

6. How do you relate to someone in your family who is different from you?

There are many challenges here. The individual should decide how important acceptance and reconciliation is for herself. The heart of the question is whether people seen as different have the sanity and integrity to be themselves, and how the family will act at important social events. But if the family can accept its members, it will provide support against societal pressures.

7. How do your religious beliefs affect the way you live and vice versa?

A person’s beliefs tend to influence how they live more than the other way round. Beliefs can be interpreted as a positive perception of the world, and people live their lives based on how they see the world and what they believe is right and wrong.

8. How do you love the sinner but hate the sin?

This is an important Christian concept relating to sexual morality. It entails respecting and understanding the person who may have committed a sin, while abstaining from and dissuading others from sin. This is further complicated by Christian notions of love, which include restraining a person from sinning and therefore harming himself. However, notions of ‘sin’ and permissible actions have been changing throughout the years, such as interracial marriage and alcohol consumption, and what may be seen as sinful now may not be so in the future.

After the event, the participants dispersed. Some of them went on to continue their discussions elsewhere in nearby cafeterias and food courts.

Initial feedback suggested that the discussion was a success. Several participants said that they had gained insights into how people struggle with their faiths and sexualities. Some mentioned that they were able to freely share their personal experiences with others, and they would continue to share their insights with people from other communities. A few parents who attended said that they learned how other people live their lives and express their sexuality.

I wish I could say the event was a complete success. Other feedback indicated that there was insufficient time for a fuller and deeper discussion, with some participants not having the chance to speak. Also, organisation and logistics could have been tightened and clarified before and during the event.

Selene Cheng, one of the participants who agreed to be named, felt that this film screening was essentially preaching to the converted. She believed that most of the participants were either members of the LBGT community or people with liberal religious inclinations, or both, which means a lack of diversity of opinion. She also felt that the discussion was too mild. She participated in the discussion on loving the sinner and hating the sin, and felt that it did not adequately address the issue at hand.

I felt that she had a valid point about preaching to the converted. Virtually all of the people whom I spoke to fell into the LBGT or liberal believer categories. I also felt that the discussion should have covered more controversial issues that lie at the heart of the tension between the faith and LBGT communities. I would have liked to see questions about why certain religions view non-heterosexuality as contrary to doctrine, how regular members of the LBGT community truly sees the religious community and vice versa, and why there is perceived tension between groups. Most of all, I wanted to see a question about how to reconcile faith and sexuality, which is the pink elephant in the room everyone can see but is not talking about.

Still, an event like this is participant-driven. Statistically speaking, the people most likely to attend an event like this are members of the LBGT community, liberal theists, open-minded liberals, or a combination. Since the questions have to come from the participants, it’s not anybody’s fault that nobody came up with a question I had wanted to see, or that not enough approved of that question to make it on the top eight questions. In addition, our main objective was to enable people from different segments of society to come together and discuss a matter of national importance, and to connect at the personal level. I think the organisers succeeded on this count, though they could have done better.

I hope this is not a one-off event. The mainstream media probably would not drive a discussion on faith and LBGT issues for the time being — reporters from the press unanimously rejected invitations to cover this particular film screening. People are not asking the questions that need to be answered. People are still afraid to speak out and be and present themselves. While this film screening is a step forward, it is but a single step.

I hope that this is the start of a trend towards dialogue and engagement, that other people will this idea and go forward with it. I would like to see similar events in the future, with the faith communities engaging with the LBGT community in a respectful dialogue to address common concerns. I would like to see ordinary people unafraid to air their views, knowing that they will not be judged for their faiths, their politics, or their loves. One day, I hope to see a bridge between both worlds, a bridge built on faith, on respect, on equality, and on love, built by the hands of those who live in both and all worlds.

One day.

Our Daily Sacrilege

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day has faced criticism by the usual hardliners, and in the Western media. The issue at hand, apparently, is this divide between freedom of speech and religion, and religious tolerance/harmony.

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day is slammed because, among other things, it violates one of the beliefs of Islam, specifically a prohibition against producing representations of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah, and other major religious figures. The idea was doing so would defeat the idea of idolatry. By drawing a picture of Muhammad, one would violate this principle, and so commit blasphemy and disrespect Islam.

Very well. But let me draw your attention to a little-known fact. Every day, someone, somewhere, deliberately commits sacrilege.

If you eat meat, you violate the Mahayana Buddhist belief of abstaining from harming sentient beings and cultivation of compassion.

If you eat pork, you violate Jewish and Muslim dietary regulations.

If you worship multiple gods, you violate one of God’s commandments.

If you worship a Creator deity, you violate Buddhist philosophy.

If you worship no gods…things get interesting.

Perhaps the one activity that does not contravene any religious philosophy is the act of breathing. Maybe sticking to a vegan diet, too. Every religion is so fundamentally incompatible that it is probably impossible to live without violating a religious rule or other — even and especially if that rule belongs to a religion you don’t believe in. The only sane way forward is to keep to the beliefs you believe in. Just you, mind, not anybody else.

Islam may prohibit idolatry. Very well — but this prohibition is only for believers. If I am not a Muslim, why should I concern myself with this, and other, rules? Conversely, if I were not Buddhist/Christian/Jewish/any other religion, I have no need to live my life by the beliefs of other faiths.

Respect for other religions cannot be refraining from actions that their doctrines call deplorable. It is simply impossible for everybody to do so all the time. Respect for other religions is simply the acknowledgement that their followers are on a different spiritual path, no less than one’s own. To demand that someone refrain from doing something offensive to your religion is to impose your religious belief on that person, and thereby take away his ability to choose his religious belief.

This is, of course, not to say that voluntarily acting in accordance with someone else’s faith is wrong, such as an atheist giving thanks in the presence of her Christian friends. These actions, while commendable, should be voluntary gestures of respect, to preserve the free will of individuals — this makes the gesture even more significant than it already is. This is also not to say that deliberately preventing someone from following his religion is acceptable, like serving non-halal food to Muslims. It is akin to imposing your belief or lack thereof on that person or persons.

In the same vein, I would think it’s unacceptable to do anything that deliberately provokes a person or persons on the basis of religion. Placing a pig’s head on the doorstep of a Muslim family falls under this category, because it implies that their choice of religion is invalid or otherwise wrong.

This does not, however, mean that criticism of certain religious philosophies or beliefs is wrong. For instance, one can argue that the Catholic Church’s position on abortion is right or wrong on various grounds. The difference between an insult and criticism is that insults are primarily designed to provoke anger or other negative emotions, while criticism (as I use the term here) is an analysed response that is grounded in the real world.

It is also unacceptable to resort to threats of or actual violence against people who do insult religions accidentally or otherwise — religious ideas are just ideas, and have no actual basis in the physical world. Hence the reference to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, but not the South Park episode that started it all.

I really don’t understand why people are so sensitive about religion. A religion, at its heart, is a series of beliefs and practices. You belong to a particular religion for as long as you perform the required rituals (praying, going to church, etc.) and profess belief in necessary doctrine (there is but one God, the Four Noble Truths, the existence of the Sephirot). A religious belief has little if any material substance; it is an idea in your head. It is neurons firing in your brain — nothing more than that can be proven as yet. A religious practice exists exactly as long as people practice it; when people stop doing it, it ceases to exist. You may believe that a particular doctrine is true, but belief does not make something true, in the same way the Earth will always be a sphere no matter how hard I believe it is a two-dimensional rectangle.

A belief, in short, is merely a series of thoughts in your head, some of which may be shared by others.

Everyday sacrilege does not erode a religious belief. Neither does deliberate, apparently blasphemous, action. These things are physical actions, but beliefs exist in the realm of ideas. Ideas, especially religious ideas, are a step removed from the real world.

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day is not a statement against Islam. It is a statement against people who would threaten to kill, or have already killed, innocents in the name of religion. Even if it were disrespectful towards Islam, can the event harm Islam in any way? It cannot, for Islam, like all religions, is an idea in the minds of humans, and ideas cannot be wounded or injured. Ideas cannot bleed, cannot die, cannot erode.

Ideas either exist, or not exist, in the minds of people. It is the believers who will do the most ‘harm’ to any religion, for is it they who have an idea to lose — they may stop believing in their faiths, forever drop the ideas from their minds, or twist the mainstream beliefs into something else for temporal ends. Non-believers cannot possibly harm an idea, or cease to believe in something they do not believe in. It matters not if someone else criticises or mocks your faith, for if you continue to believe in your faith, it is not harmed. If someone else you know decides to leave your faith, it is her choice, not yours. Your belief is shaken not one bit.

(This is not to say that your belief in your belief may not be shaken — but a discussion of that is irrelevant here.)

Don’t worry about others violating your religious beliefs; someone, most likely a non-believer, most surely is, somewhere in the world, even if that person does not know it. The real question should be, what does it matter to you? And why?

As for me, give me this day my daily dose of new beliefs, and forgive me my own beliefs in perfect faith that to the god/s or ideas I believe in it is right to pray and that it is not right to pray to any being besides him/her/it/them, for I testify that there is no God to me but the god/s and ideas I choose to have faith in, in recognition that all god/s I may accept are aspects of a divine Unity I may choose to believe in, to attain cessation of suffering and enlightenment for all sentient beings. Blessed be, even if I or others do not believe or believe in something else.

See what happens when you try to pay respect to all faiths you think are important at once?

Going beyond faith and harmony

Religion is belief, and belief is the mental acceptance that something is true. However, it does not necessarily mean that that something is definitely true, as verified by objective standards. The existence of the Christian God, for instance, has not been conclusively proven by science as of the time of writing — and neither has science definitively proven that God does not exist. In the absence of scientific proof, religion is and must be a question of personal choice. That is, only you can choose to believe and/or disbelieve in something, and nobody else can make that decision. Only you can choose whether to continue believing in that something, or to believe in something else, or disbelieve something — and nobody else can make that decision for you. All people can do is influence you towards a particular choice they believe you should take, be it joining a church, leaving a religion, or indeed anything at all.

The case of Pastor Rony Tan and his derogatory comments towards Taoists and Buddhists (and now homosexuals) throws the question of criticising faith into perspective. The Government’s stance is very clear: thou shalt not trivialise nor ridicule nor insult the religion of someone else, or thou shall face the full weight of the law. General opinion says that insulting someone’s religion goes against the principles of religious harmony. It is quite easy to end the debate here by concluding that it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion — if only because one may be invited for a discreet chat with certain nameless officials.

But I’m not content with that. It does not explain why it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion. It does not show a clear if any demarcation between insult and criticism of religion. It does not say why religious harmony is so important, and why criticising someone else’s religion is bad. Bringing up the spectre of religious riots in the 1960s, the default argument I was raised on, is no longer a good enough explanation: there were no riots after the discovery of and complaints against Tan’s remarks.

In the absence of other answers, I shall investigate this. Bear in mind this article covers insults only; it does not deal with the topic of hate crime, where actual physical harm is caused. Neither does this article cover criticism of religious practices, the stance of certain religions on issues like homosexuality and abortion, or indeed of the precepts of a religion. An ‘insult’ is a rude remark designed to be offensive; that is focus of this essay.

Going back to the first paragraph, religion is belief. People believe in their respective religions to varying degrees: some are lapsed, some only go through the pro forma rituals and little more, some volunteer at the church/mosque/temple, some are true believers. The greater the strength of belief, the more intertwined that religion is with a person’s identity. The Dalai Lama, for example, is seen and defined as the head religious teacher of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. A lapsed Catholic may see himself as something other than a Catholic. When one crosses a threshold of strength of belief, a person’s religion is seen by him as a fundamental aspect of what and who he or she is. At this point, the person’s faith is now a part of his identity, or how he chooses to define himself. If you insult that person’s religion, he sees it as an attack on himself.

But that is not just it. Religion may be a personal choice, but many people prescribe to that same belief and practice it in roughly the same ways. There are approximately 2 billion Christians, about 1.57 billion Muslims, and maybe 364 million Buddhists. By insulting a person’s faith, you are attacking him — and he sees it as an attack on the rest of his fellow believers. By heaping insults upon the teachings of the Koran, you will be seen as attempting to anger every fifth person in the world. Believers will see it as their duty to rise up and condemn the attacks, press for jail sentences and harsh punishment, and perhaps even lead counterattacks on non-believers and perceived threats. The world has seen this during the events proceeding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

One question: can you insult a belief until it dies?

The Christian Church tried this during the Early Middle Ages. This culminated in the witch-hunts of the 14th to 17th centuries. Witches and sorcerers were painted as fearful, dangerous criminals who sold their souls to the devil for profit and power, and routinely engaged in Satanic ritual parties that included orgies, cannibalism, naked dancing, and cavorting with the devil. Convicted witches were burned to death.

Today, neopagan movements, most notably Wicca, are emerging from obscurity. These religions are the spiritual, if not direct, descendants of the folk religions the Church painted as ‘heresy’, ‘Satanism’, and ‘withcraft’. These religions were constantly derided and insulted and trivialised by the Church, and their believers prosecuted to the full extent of the law, in the days when the Church had power to hold trials, torture suspects legally, and the rights of the accused were next to nil. Yet the pagan religions refused to die. Their practitioners merely went underground until the era it was safe to practice their faith in the open. Even today, fundamentalist Christians and other moralists still insult and deny Wicca and neopagan religions, calling them witchcraft and Satanism — even though they are now recognised religions. Unlike practitioners of mainstream faiths in the modern era, they had no rights and had no notion of people’s power. They did not fight for the right to practice their faith openly, either with arms or words. They did press for the right to be recognised, but only after the concept of freedom of religion was commonplace. They simply went with the flow and practiced in secret — and survived.

That is the first example of an organised attempt to wipe out a religion — not just by insulting it, but by rounding up and executing its followers. It failed. The Soviet Union attempted to enforce atheism and later secularism, decrying religion as the ‘opium of the masses, but the official policy on religion varied over the years, eventually watering down into official freedom of religion in the Constitution. China tried to do the same, most notably during the Cultural Revolution, before relenting and allowing freedom of religion — if and only if one subscribes to acceptable behaviour. Religions in those country may be restricted, but they exist.

So you cannot harm a religion by insulting it. You cannot destroy a religion even if you systematically prosecute its believers, even in a time and place where a particular religion was painted as the embodiment of evil on Earth. In the same way, you cannot kill an idea no matter how many insults you lay on it.

Insulting a religion attacks the body of believers and the individual believer. To the group, you are denying the essence of the group identity, the tenants of the group’s belief, and declare that the group’s strength of belief is unjustified and worthless. To the individual, you deny the person’s character, deny that he is an equal human being, and deny his emotional investment in his faith. This is the essential harm caused by insulting that religion.

Now, replace the word ‘religion’ with ‘political affiliation’, ‘sexual identity’, ‘culture’, ‘sex’, ‘age’, ‘income’, ‘social status’, and ‘hobby’.

What is the essential difference?

Sure, there are plenty of answers. Number of believers, social status of concept, government policy, international opinion, etc. But no matter the target, an insult is an attack on an identity. Your identity, and the group identity of fellow believers.

Really, the only essential difference between a personal insult and an insult aimed at a religion is the number of targets.

The objective of an insult, no matter the target (religion, sexual orientation, person, etc.), is to attack a person’s identity, to make the insulter feel better or superior to the target. That is all.

How do you handle someone insulting your religion, then? The same way you handle someone insulting your weight, height, choice of friends, family members, etc. You handle that person with assertiveness.

Let the person know that that kind of behaviour is neither encouraged nor tolerated. If the person is deliberately spreading misinformation, correct that misinformation and invite that person for a discussion on the topic at hand, be it religion or whatever. If that person continues to insult you, call out his behaviour to everybody else. Ignore him until he realises the error of his ways, or goes away. You do not let his comments affect you, you do not get upset, you do not insult him back. You do not forget that he, like you, is human.

This is also called ‘community moderation’.

As for legal involvement, I am hesitant to argue for judicial punishment. A person who insults someone’s religion has the same objective (not method) as someone who insults some else’s friends: to feel better. The harm done may be different — but by how much? Insulting Anglicanism would mean less to a lapsed Anglican than to an Anglican priest, and their individual reactions might be different. When you insult a religion, you are insulting a group of persons: how do you objectively judge the harm done to over a billion individuals? This is important because the amount of harm done directly influences the punishment; this is the principle of proportionality, which is a pillar of modern day justice. It is far easier to pass a sentence on a terrorist who has killed hundreds of innocents than a man who insulted the group identity of a third of the whole world. A modern-day judiciary will be hard-pressed to interview so many people to determine the impact of a billion bruised egos. And even if harm were done, this harm done tends to be little more than sore egos, and unlike an arm or heart, egos can grow back, with the right support, environment, and time.

Because of a lack of standards to determine harm done, and a relative lack of physical harm done by insult, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle people who insult others. Let the police handle the rapists, the robbers, the murderers — the people can handle someone with a misused tongue.

Let’s look beyond the narrative of religious harmony and protection of faith. An insult is designed to attack his identity and provoke an emotional reaction to make the insulter feel better. Its target, be it religion or sexuality, differs only in the number and type of people caught up in the insult. Insults aimed at religion do not harm the religion. The best way to handle an insult is assertiveness and community moderation, without forgetting that the insulter, too, is human. The courts do not have the ability to accurately assess the harm done by insult, making it difficult for judicial punishment to be fairly meted out. What we need, in the end, is a human response to a human failing whose harm is felt only when interpreted by humans.

Apples and oranges are fruit

“Malays here are different,” Datuk Seri Mahmood said. Thus, only Malays — who must be Muslim as per the Malaysian constitution — may use ‘Allah’ in Malaysia.

This is lame.

The good Datuk has set apart Malays from other Muslims around the world, saying that people ‘have to compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges’, because Malays are somehow so fundamentally different from Muslims that only Malays may use ‘Allah’ and deny their neighbours the ability to use the same.

From a high enough perspective, everything looks the same. Apples and oranges may be different fruit, but they are fruit nonetheless. In this issue, people are looking at Malays through the prism of religion. The world media has framed this as a religious, not racial, conflict. Malays are Muslims, and so are plenty of people around the world. They are not particularly concerned about political or cultural factors, rather religious ones. And Muslims around the world have no issues with their Christian neighbours using ‘Allah’. So, why do Malays have a problem? What is the difference the Malaysian government is alluding to?

Here’s my two cents. This difference is one of entrenched racial-religious superiority. The Malaysian constitution explicitly defines Islam as the religion of Malaysia and Malays as the people of Malaysia. Entrenching the special position of Malays, the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant political party, passed laws and policies collectively known as bumiputra, which provides affirmative action for Malays via discounts on housing, preferential admission for schools, and other socio-economic policies. These policies enforce the notion that Malays have a superior position in society, versus other minority races. UMNO has also sought to incorporate Islam into the Malay racial identity, most significantly in the Constitution.

Because a Malay is defined as a Muslim, and most Muslims are Malays, a perceived threat to one is seen as a threat to both. In this case, allowing non-Muslims to use ‘Allah’ is seen as a threat to the superiority of the Malay race, and the primacy of Islam. But the Muslim conservatives behind the church attacks and anti-Allah campaign have played up the religion card, making it seem to be a religious conflict. This, I believe, is the root of the church attacks in recent days: a perceived threat to the Malay-Muslim identity.

What can be done? The Malaysian government through Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom urged Christians to give up the use of the word ‘Allah’ to drop tensions. This is a very short-sighted move: it does not take away the simple fact that Arab-speaking non-Muslims around the world have used ‘Allah’ without interference from Muslims. If this measure were adopted, then in the very near future other, more outspoken, Christians will point this out to the federal government, and we will see a repeat of this dispute. Perhaps even on a larger scale. This strategy merely buries the issue, very much like ignoring an open wound. And open wounds fester in time, leading to greater harm.

The best strategy must be for the Malaysian government to drop its claim on the monopoly of the word ‘Allah’. Then it should seek to disentangle the Malay-Muslim identity and eliminate the special position of Malays in Malaysia. The bumiputra policy has already come under fire; indeed, Prime Minister Najib Razak, President of UMNO, exempted 27 sub-sectors of the Malaysian economy from bumiputra equity in April 2009, a tacit sign that bumiputra is failing. By removing the special position of Malays, the government would be acknowledging that all races are equal, and all religious may be practiced freely. Disengaging Islam from the Malay identity would reduce the magnitude tensions and conflicts. A perceived threat to Islam will not be seen as a perceived threat to Malays, so only Muslims, as opposed to Muslims and Malays, would have cause for offence if at all. As an added bonus, such artificial conflicts like the dispute over ‘Allah’ would have a decreased chance of occurrence, because fewer people will see a threat and act on that perception. Apples and oranges are fruit; a Malaysian Malay and a Malaysian Chinese are Malaysians, and ought to be treated as Malaysians, regardless of race or religion.

In the short term, this would definitely be painful. Expect demonstrations and protests by the conservatives and reactionaries, and more than a few attacks by extremists. Politically, the government stands to lose the support of the conservatives, especially Malays who believe in Malay superiority. In turn, however, the government stands to win the support of minority groups, liberals, and quite possibly a few opposition members. In the long term, however, the seeds of widespread racial and religious conflict would be erased. This, in turn, would mean a more harmonious society at the very least. While I do not have the necessary knowledge to comment on the impact on the economy, I suspect that a more liberal market system — at least not one artificially slanted towards the majority of the population — would be more stable, dynamic, and provide greater prosperity to more people than the current system. This is because a freer market system would introduce greater competition, forcing people to rely more on innovation and good practices than government policy, which sharpens efficiency and increases the drive to succeed in business.

That being said, I  do not think the government will take this stance. UMNO’s reason for existence is the protection of Malay culture and rights — which translates into the special position of Malays. To acknowledge that all Malaysians are truly equal would force UMNO to re-define itself, and lose the support of conservative Muslims and Malays. UMNO, I suspect, would see this as an unacceptable cost, and strive to protect an artificial distinction in order to protect itself and its perception of itself. It seems to me that this is the root cause of the government’s insistence on keeping ‘Allah’ for Malays. But when the concept of Malay superiority is finally disproven, an UMNO that clings on to these ideas will fade into the dusty annals of history.

The politics of choice, faith and inclusiveness

I am truly puzzled over recent events. In Malaysia, unknown attackers have firebombed four churches as the row over the word ‘Allah’ escalates. In France, Parliament will consider passing a law that bans the burqa or niqab later this month. I’ll look at both cases in this post.


Let’s look at Malaysia. Conservative Muslims have argued that ‘Allah’ may only be used by Muslims; allowing other religions to use this word would lead to confusion and people converting from Islam. The very inconvenient fact that Arab-speaking Jews and Christians have and still use ‘Allah’ has been ignored thus far. The fundamentalists have framed this issue as defending Islam against…some kind of undefined, unspecified, possible intangible, yet somehow real aggressor.

How, exactly, do you ‘defend’ a religion? Can you build a suit of armour around a set of practices and beliefs? Perhaps mount weapons while you’re at it, and take potshots at threatening non-believers. Will shouting yourself hoarse  to drown out infidels work? The whole notion, frankly, is as absurd as measuring sanity with a ruler. You can’t quantify the unquantifiable, and that is exactly what they fundamentalists are proposing.

What is religion? Every religion is a series of practices based on a core of ideas. Christianity involves worship at a church and understanding the supremacy of God and the message of Jesus. Islam involves more regular worship at a mosque and understanding the supremacy of Allah and the message of the prophet Mohammad. What is ‘practice’? Something you do. The imperative word being ‘do’. And the precursor to action is a thought, an idea, that you need to do something. In this light, a religion is a collection of ideas bundled together for practice.

Now, how do you harm an idea? Do you poke it with a pencil until it comes apart? Do you shoot it until it exsanguinates? Do you blow it up with a bomb? Again, it’s like measuring sanity with a ruler — you can’t. Ideas can only be proven or disproven, credited or discredited. When disproven or discredited, ideas fade away — eventually. Let’s look at white supremacy. It is younger than Islam, has been disproven and universally condemned, is in fact implicitly illegal in anti-hate and anti-prejudice laws — and it is still around. Can Islam lose any of its character when it has been around for centuries, has not been disproven, is a mainstream religion, over a non-issue involving the use of a word that Arab-speaking Abrahamic believers everywhere outside Malaysia have used since pre-Islamic times?

The answer is no.

Do the fundamentalists see this? The answer is no. As it stands, they seem to embrace the notion that they are a majority group locked in an eternal conflict with other races, always on the defensive against perceived acts of aggression, ready to strike back at anything that threatens their sense of identity. Hence this. Frankly, if the collective body of fundamentalists could be seen as a human being, it would be diagnosed as paranoid.

Worse, they will spark self-fulfilling prophecies. See my previous post for a more in-depth explanation. Suffice to say, their actions will anger and provoke fundamentalists and extremists from other races and religions, or whomever their perceived antagonist of the day is. Those extremists would then be pushed towards hate crimes, justifying them as necessary actions ‘in defence of’ the Cause. The fundamentalists would decry these attacks from the opposing side, the extremists will perform other attacks, and a spiral of violence is born.

The only permanent solution is inclusiveness. Again, read my previous post. Yes, there will be short-term costs. Yes, there will be resistance. But to quote Arthur Schopenhauer, all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident. I’m hoping the Malaysian High Court is willing to facilitate this process. But I’m not holding my breath.


France is also very concerned about Islam. So concerned that the French Parliament is moving to consider an outright ban on burqas and niqabs. This is done in the name of sexual equality and secularism, in the face of a growing number of Frenchwomen wearing the apparently formerly rare garment — so many, in fact, that the proponents of the law cannot give an actual figure (source).

This article is the one of the most insightful ones I have seen on this issue. Let me see this in a different light: will the law achieve its intended effect?

The answer, I think, is ‘partially, at high long-term cost’. Muslim women with a rather liberal interpretation of the faith may stop wearing the burqa — such a thing does not really inconvenience her. Devout Muslim women would either take off their burqas — and remember the government as one that rejects an aspect of the Muslim identity — or put up with a never-ending series of fines. Women who are ‘forced’ to wear the burqa will be caught between a rock and a hard place: put up with fines, or put up with a disapproving family. And they, too, will resent the State for putting them in such a position.

And then there’s the Muslims who will interpret the law as an attack on the faith, misguided or intentional. And devout Muslim males (and females) who will be offended at the sight of Muslim women not wearing the burqa or niqab.  Should the law pass, they will have a very convenient target to vent their anger: the French government. The result: hate crimes, for starters.

Islam, by the way, is France’s second-largest religion. You can imagine the hue and cry that would follow by appearing to oppress a large minority group.

The French approach is very similar to pointing a gun at a man and ordering him to do something for you. He may comply, but it doesn’t mean that he won’t resent you after the fact, or find ways and means to get back at you. Or he might not comply, and instead lash out at you. You achieve short-term compliance, but you are setting yourself up for long-term hostility.

What can be done? Again, the answer seems to come down to the principle of inclusiveness. The first step is to abandon the religion of secularism (not to mention the law to be passed in Parliament). This ‘principle’, interpreted in France, basically forbids anyone from practicing his or her faith in public — and seems to be squarely aimed at Muslims. The second is to introduce measures to integrate people of all religions into society: hold inter-religious conferences, visit ghettos, improve the lives of the less well-off regardless of faith, teaching children about other faiths, and so on. The third is to host dialogues within Islam regarding the niqab; Muslim scholars are divided on this issue, and by airing their arguments and beliefs, the people will be better informed, and choose accordingly. Discussing the actual policies is outside the scope of this post, but the key here would be information, choice, and inclusiveness.


In the above two cases, the private intersects with the public. The practices of the individual is apparently at odds with societal norms. In both, I have argued for maximising the choice and right of the individual. This is because the nature of the individual influences society more than society influences the individual.

Here’s an analogy. Take a pencil, a ruler, and an eraser. You can do plenty with these things: write, do homework, draw, correct mistakes, and so on. Now insert a pen. You have thus put together a basic stationery set for the student who may only work with pens, not pencils; and the student or person who may use pencils has an additional option. Add a brush and some paints and now you have everything you need to produce a painting and sign it with your name. Throw in a pair of scissors and you can do basic craft work.

Take each item as an individual, and each group of items as society. The addition of people with different skills — or are just different — changes the nature of the group, and therefore society. A social group is thus a very fluid concept, dependent entirely on the properties of the people within. At the same time, how the people act may be influenced by the group, but not necessarily be a direct function of that group. For example, with my art and craft kit as described above, I can use the scissors to cut out a piece of paper for a work of art, cut open some paper packaging, or stab someone.

Why would I want to stab someone? The most likely explanation is that he or she seems to pose a clear and present danger to myself or someone else, is armed, and does not seem to be listening to my attempts at negotiation. Substitute ‘I’ for ‘extremist’, ‘stab’ for ‘attack’ and ‘someone’ for a social group of your choice (blacks, Americans, Muslims, etc.), and ‘someone else’ as the extremist’s identified in-group (white, Muslim, American, etc.). That right there is the driving factor behind many ideologically driven acts of hate and terror.

How do you prevent this? You remove the notion that there is a threat. You make yourself look less threatening and more friendly and tolerant. You listen to the views of someone else, no matter how contradictory to your personal beliefs, without judgment. In short, you be inclusive. Substitute ‘you’ for ‘society’ and ‘majority social group’ — this is how to prevent conflict. By removing a cause for conflict, and by building good relations, the individual will not feel threatened, and would be more willing to use his or her skills for the greater good. I can go back to using my scissors for my work, and I wouldn’t be afraid to lend it to you if you need them, so to speak.

Society is inherently fluid. It is temporary. The only real differences between a nation and a group of friends are capabilities, population, scale, reproductive capability and life expectancy. By empowering the individual with choices — be it by allowing him to use the word ‘Allah’ or ensuring that she may choose whether to wear her burqa — and by accepting that individual for who and what he is, society tends to benefit because that person’s skills can be harnessed willingly for the greater good of society. That, I think, is the final objective of politics.

The triumph of unreason

The Malaysian High Court has suspended a ruling that allows Catholic weekly newspaper The Herald to use ‘Allah’ in its publications. This occurred after the federal government argued that allowing non-Muslims to use the word ‘Allah’ would spark racial conflict. While it might in the short term, in the long term the consequences would be more dramatic than if non-Muslims used ‘Allah’.

Suppose that the High Court decides to rule against The Herald during the hearing on the paper’s appeal. The government has re-affirmed the Malay Muslim identity — at the expense of the Abrahamic minorities. Keep in mind that the Constitution defines a Malay as a Muslim, and Malays generally face extreme difficulties in converting out of Islam. Minority faith leaders would urge for calm and acceptance publicly. But their congregation would see such a ruling as unreasonable and oppressive. The government has effectively said that it will only allow people to practice their faith as the State sees fit, and the government will intervene if it offends the State’s sensibilities. The government would have effectively denied an aspect of their identity, by forbidding he use of the word ‘Allah’ via the courts. The politically inclined would read Articles 3 and 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia, and call the court’s behaviour unconstitutional — it could be argued that such a ruling infringes on the right to practice religion. Peoples of minority faiths might turn to different political parties to express their displeasure. And all it takes is for a reactionary or conservative to act out of hand for conflict to break out.

By ruling against the use of Islam, the state is rejecting an aspect of a minority faith’s identity (the out-group) in favour of an in-group. Worse, it is doing so for a false reason. For as long as the ruling remains, the state will continue to reject that aspect of identity. Now, take a moment to imagine how you would feel if you cannot practice your religion because you’re using the ‘wrong’ word — never mind that that word has been used for centuries, around the world. As long as you continue to use words proscribed by the State to describe your supreme being, you are a quasi-criminal. For most people, the answer would be anger, anger at an absurd notion. And anger, caused by a perceived threat to identity, is a very common cause of conflict. I would think it is safe to say that there exist people who do not, as yet, have the emotional skills training to effectively cope with anger, especially repressed anger caused by a legitimate grievance, in a healthy way. With the state affirming the in-group at the expense of the out-group, the out-group may decide that it is under siege, and circle the wagons against the out-group. Such things would be subtle: changing perceptions of Malay Muslims for the worse, or perhaps viewing the Malay Muslim-dominated government in a negative light. But how a person sees a world defines how he acts. If a Christian starts seeing a Muslim as a legitimate target for his anger, you have a recipe for violence. The probabilities only increase if there is a legitimate grievance underlying this anger, which in this case is a perception that a minority faith, your faith, is being oppressed. So long as a minority group (non-Muslims) sees the majority (Muslims) and the powerful (the government) as oppressive, the cause for anger exists and remains. It will remain until the ruling is struck down in the indeterminate, unforeseeable future. The result: a long-term, slow-boil, conflict. Maybe political, maybe limited only to court rooms and occasional scuffles and fights, but conflict nonetheless. Unnecessary conflict.

What if the High Court were to rule in favour of the Herald? I would imagine a hue and cry by conservative Muslims, tempered with a sigh of relied by minority faiths. Such a ruling, at its heart, is an affirmation of a minority group’s identity, bringing it under the umbrella of a larger group, in this case the Malaysian nation. The out-group is now part of the in-group. As any skilled negotiator will tell you, by affirming the other party’s self-image, you’ll build excellent relations with him — which is a prerequisite for delicate negotiations. This affirmation is not at the expense of Muslims. The word ‘Allah’ predates Islam. There is no real justification to oppose the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims. Any racial conflict, caused by Muslims attacking non-Muslims based on the use of the word ‘Allah’ or other religiously-motivated causes, would be nothing more than hate crimes. Hate crimes that could and should be persecuted to the full extent of the law, that could, should and would be condemned by authority figures that have taken the high moral ground of affirming, not rejecting, a minority group — and thus prevented from reaching the flashpoint of a race riot, or at least mitigate one in the extremely unlikely event that it occurs. In the former scenario, a non-Muslim attacking a Muslim would be a hate crime too — but with a legitimate grievance. It is this grievance that makes all the difference.

One needs to take a long view for this to make sense. Unfortunately, it is also rather abstract, and might be best explained as an analogy.

Take two organic blobs, one larger than the other, and place them next to each other. Each blob is very much like the human body. Every day, it grows new cells from the centre. At the same time, it discards the old, dead, outer layer of cells to make room for the new cells. As the rate of cell growth is the same as the rate of cell death, the blobs are more or less stationary and do not grow. Now, graft a thorn in the side of the larger blob, and pierce the smaller blob with it. Now the smaller blob is wounded by the larger one, courtesy of the thorn. Eventually the thorn integrates into the larger blob, effectively becoming part of it.

The smaller blob, sensing the foreign object, grows scar tissue around the thorn. The healing mechanism goes into overdrive to make up for the thorn, and the blob grows along the thorn towards the larger blob, steadily encroaching upon its space. Eventually both blobs come into contact with each other, and soon realise that they have no space to grow. Then their immune systems kick in, and engage each other in a war of attrition. Alas, neither side can overpower the other, and this conflict continues into eternity.

Suppose, before the conflict starts, you remove the thorn from the larger blob. The thorn slides off from the smaller blob, and falls away out of sight and interest. The patch that the thorn used to occupy is irritated and scarred, and possibly cannot heal completely. Over time, that layer of skin is shed, and the blob is whole again. Meanwhile, the smaller blob, recognising that the thorn is gone, accelerates the healing process. The hole in its side fills up with fresh cells. Over time, the scar tissue drops away. The result: the same two blobs, whole and healthy.

Now, take the smaller blob as representative of Malaysia’s Malay- and Arab-speaking Catholics, and the larger one as symbolic of Malay Muslims in Malaysia. The thorn here is the prohibition against the use of ‘Allah’, and other such artificial prohibitions and laws and regulations that discriminate against minorities. By removing the thorn, you may irritate Malaysia’s conservative Muslims — but not all of Malaysia’s Muslims are that conservative. And the generations that proceed the conservatives will wonder what all the fuss about discriminatory practices against non-Muslims was about, for they no longer exist and do not really matter anyway. For the other group, however, removing discriminatory practices would work towards healing wounded hearts and feelings and preventing conflict. It would also foster good will towards Malay Muslims, especially if they spearhead action against discrimination.

In the same vein, removing the ban on the word ‘Allah’ would work towards racial harmony in the long term. For two hundred years, blacks in America were treated as slaves at worst and second-class citizens at best. People justified this by many ways: religious prerogative, white man’s burden, natural order. But fifty years after the black civil rights movement, a black man is now President of the United States. And black autonomy and white supremacist organisations, once feared and violent groups, are now just fringe movements.

The Malaysian government is being short-sighted here. Retaining the ban is an expression of rejection of an out-group. It would sabotage efforts towards racial harmony. Minority faith Malaysians may turn to other political parties that promise religious freedom. Making an issue out this non-issue might anger more conservative and reactionary non-Muslims, sowing the seeds for racial conflict. The government’s approach towards this non-issue will backfire on itself. Such is the triumph of unreason.