The recent terror attack in Christchurch, which left 50 dead and 50 others injured, highlighted just how Islamophobia across the globe is spiralling out of control.
Across Europe and the United States, anti-Muslim sentiment is growing. Singapore’s Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, said in the aftermath of the Christchurch attack that “societies have to face squarely the reality that Islamophobia is rising”.
Even in Singapore, where we emphasise plenty on multi-racial, multi-religious harmony, it is a contentious issue. The Straits Times reported last Friday that a survey from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that 15 per cent of respondents find Muslims threatening.
IPS senior research fellow Mathew Mathews, who helped write the IPS report, told The Straits Times: “There is little question that global terror and how it has often been associated with Muslims has fed into the minds of a small group of Singaporeans, who thus feel that Muslims are threatening.
Facebook comments reacting to the story were largely criticising The Straits Times for running the report, accusing the national paper of creating disharmony.
One commenter wrote: “Inspired hate speech content. Please remove. We don’t need such divided news at this moment.” Another added: “Fake news… this is a very serious issue and may sow discord among races. How could such news be posted on social media? Don’t you have any better news to post?”
The vast majority of commenters appeared to deny the existence of Islamophobia in Singapore, however, with some sharing that they get along with their Muslim friends perfectly fine.
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Yet, at a vigil for the Christchurch victims held at The Red Box in Orchard Road last Saturday, Muslims The Pride spoke to revealed that they have felt hints of Islamophobia in Singapore.
Munirah Sultan, a 22-year-old undergraduate, shared that there had been instances where people wouldn’t sit beside her on the train.
Abdullah, a 19-year-old full-time national serviceman who wanted to be known by only his first name, expressed his surprise at the survey results, and explained that while 15 per cent may seem like a small amount of people, when put in numbers, it is “actually quite high”.
“It means that when you go to a room of 100 people, 15 of them find you a threat. That’s 15 people who are against me,” Abdullah told The Pride. “Honestly, you can’t blame them. Maybe they don’t know the whole story, or may have experienced some things.
“It’s not their fault for being ignorant. Maybe they were just born in an environment where they were just taught this,” he said.
For Salini, a 23-year-old Hindu, it is all about the views each individual holds. She explained that while she treats Muslims like any others, she would get questioned by her family for having plenty of Muslim friends.
“I think it’s about how you are as a person and I can’t speak for their experiences. If you are asking for my opinion, I feel that they are all the same,” she added.
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When asked why people might feel threatened by Muslims, Munirah answered: “I think the media plays a role, especially with the emergence of ISIS. The way the media portrays it, I think it is creating stereotypes about Muslims.”
She added that casual racism might be a contributing factor too. “I’m a Pakistani Indian, and I’ve gotten remarks like ‘Where are you going to bomb next?’. We can close one eye to immaturity, but in poly and university, can we still close one eye? It’s down to how people view Muslims. Do they regard Muslims as ‘us’, or do they regard Muslims as ‘others’?”
A friend of Munirah’s, who also attended the vigil but wanted to remain anonymous, pointed out: “They are fine with casual racism, they are fine with jokes. It is dangerous because such things will get internalised somewhat. If left unchecked, such issues will create trouble.
“We always pride ourselves as a very multicultural, very multi-racial, multi-religious kind of society but you still see this kind of issue… It’s how you portray to others – you portray that you care about this group of people, but once you get home, you still stick to your own bias. Then you are not really creating a better society. You are just creating a better image of yourself.
“That, I think, is a bigger issue in Singapore.”
Abdullah held a similar view. He felt that while a large majority indicated that they do not view Muslims as a threat in the survey, there’s a possibility that some might perceive them as a threat deep down, but refrained from voicing it out.
“But I do feel that youths are more open-minded and more understanding of what’s happening… As of now, I don’t think it’s a major concern. I’m confident if an attack were to happen, we can still stand together.”
Part of his confidence stems from the fact that his non-Muslim friends try to accommodate him as much as they can, even though he is the only Muslim in the group.
“A good way my friends try to accommodate me is that sometimes they are very mindful of where we are going for our meals, and what they eat with us. If we are going out to a place to eat and there’s no halal food, they would say that they won’t eat there.
“Or, sometimes, they will just wait for me when I go for Friday prayers, and head out only after I’m done,” he said.
For Republic Polytechnic student Law Zheng Yuan, it’s also about trying to understand the different religions as well.
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“Generally, I treat them as fellow Singaporeans. I view them as normal citizens. While there’s a distinction to make when it comes to their religion, it’s mostly about things they have to observe and things the rest as non-Muslims have to look out for, such as them not being able to consume pork or touch dogs,” the 18-year-old said.
“For me, we have to try to understand why they can’t do it as well, instead of just staying ignorant about it.”
Singapore marathoner Soh Rui Yong, who works full-time in sales and was present at the vigil as well, added that everyone has to learn to respect each other’s religion, too.
“Every time there’s a team outing, we would discuss and limit it to the halal choices because there’s a Muslim in the team. Obviously, it’s a big restriction, but we would check with her on the places she can dine at as a form of respect,” said Soh, who isn’t religious.
“What’s important is that the whole team gets to eat together, and it’s about making a conscious effort to accommodate each other’s preferences.”
Abdullah added that he would be interested in finding out more on why the 15 per cent felt threatened, and to address the fear they have.
“Maybe we need to listen to them to find out why they feel (threatened). Then we could educate them, and help them realise the exact situation compared to what they’ve been reading or experiencing,” he said.
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