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Islam in a Secular State

Religion and Society in Asia This series contributes cutting-edge and cross-disciplinary academic research on various forms and levels of engagement between religion and society that have developed in the regions of South Asia, East Asia, and South East Asia, in the modern period, that is, from the early 19th century until the present. The publications in this series should reflect studies of both religion in society and society in religion. This opens up a discursive horizon for a wide range of themes and phenomena: the politics of local, national and transnational religion; tension between private conviction and the institutional structures of religion; economical dimensions of religion as well as religious motives in business endeavours; issues of religion, law and legality; gender relations in religious thought and practice; representation of religion in popular culture, including the mediatisation of religion; the spatialisation and temporalisation of religion; religion, secularity, and secularism; colonial and post-colonial construction of religious identities; the politics of ritual; the sociological study of religion and the arts. Engaging these themes will involve explorations of the concepts of modernity and modernisation as well as analyses of how local traditions have been reshaped on the basis of both rejecting and accepting Western religious, philosophical, and political ideas. Series Editor Martin Ramstedt, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

Islam in a Secular State Muslim Activism in Singapore

Walid Jumblatt Abdullah

Amsterdam University Press

Cover illustration: Sultan Mosque and its surroundings at Muscat Street in Singapore Source: Wengang Zhai/Unsplash Cover design: Coördesign, Leiden Typesetting: Crius Group, Hulshout isbn 978 94 6372 401 2 e-isbn 978 90 4854 441 7 (pdf) doi 10.5117/9789463724012 nur 717 © Walid Jumblatt Abdullah / Amsterdam University Press B.V., Amsterdam 2021 All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the written permission of both the copyright owner and the author of the book.



Table of Contents

1 Introduction: The State, Islam, and Muslim Activism in Singapore 7 1.1 Background of Project and Wider Relevance 7 1.2 Singapore’s Political Context 12 1.3 Islam in Singapore 16 1.4 Arguments in Brief 24 1.5 Case Selection and Methodology 26 1.6 Outline of Book 30 2 Muslim Activism: A Survey across the World 2.1 Muslim Activism: Theological Positions 2.2 Brief Literature Review 2.3 Moving Forward: Understanding Activism in Singapore

37 38 44 61

3 Argument: Political Opportunities and Muslim Strategies 3.1 Ulama, Liberals and Conservatives 3.2 Agent versus Structure 3.3 Political Opportunities and Agency 3.4 Main Arguments

69 70 77 83 90

4 The Ulama: Pragmatism and Political Acquiescence 103 4.1 The Ulama: Roles and Responsibilities 104 4.2 Different Groups of Ulama in Singapore 109 4.3 Political Acquiescence of the Ulama: Between Cooperation and Ambivalence 120 4.4 Case Studies 134 4.4.1 Pre RRG: The Hijab Issue and the Madrasah Controversy 134 4.4.2 Post RRG: Moving towards Greater Cooperation with the State 137 4.4.3 The Ruptures 151 4.5 Conclusion 154 5 Liberal Activists: Playing by the System and Making Gains 161 5.1 ‘Liberal’ Muslims: Complexities of the Category 162 5.2 Liberal-Conservative Divide amongst Muslims 172 5.3 Choosing the Battles to Fight: Playing by the Rules of the Game 180 5.4 Gains Made in the Public Domain 203 5.5 Conclusion 207

6 The Conservative Dilemma: To Challenge or Accept State Proclamations? 6.1 Conservative Muslims: Understanding the Category 6.2 (Potential) Areas of Clashes with the State 6.3 Strategic Advance and Retreat of Conservatives: Pragmatism in Practice 6.4 Ceding the Public Space to Liberals 6.5 Conclusion

213 214 222 233 254 258

7 Conclusion 7.1 Revisiting the Argument 7.2 Relevance of Study beyond Singapore 7.3 Implications for Civil Society 7.4 Future Areas for Research

263 264 269 271 273

Combined Bibliography

277

Index

302

1

Introduction: The State, Islam, and Muslim Activism in Singapore Abstract This chapter introduces the research questions the book tries to answer, its main arguments, and the scope of discussion. These questions include the following. How do Muslim activists navigate their way through politics in a secular, authoritarian state to maximize their influence? What are the different methods by which the varied categories of activists work to further their causes? What accounts for the differences in these approaches? Briefly, I postulate that many activists attempt to strategically align themselves with the state, and call upon the state to be an arbiter in their disagreements with other factions. Though there are activists who challenge the state, these are by far in the minority, and are typically unable to assert their influence in a sustained manner. The dominating nature of the state has largely resulted in activists refusing to defy the state on fundamental issues, regardless of their orientations. The chapter discusses Singapore’s political context, and how Islam is managed. I further outline the case selection and methodology. Keywords: Introduction, Islam, Muslims in Singapore, activists, People’s Action Party, secular state

1.1 Background of Project and Wider Relevance Every community, when it presses for its own concerns, must bear in mind how that affects other communities and how others might see it. That is the reality of living in a multi-racial, multi-religious society that we all have to internalise.1 1 Kok Xing Hui, “Hijab Issue: Govt Must Balance Community Requirements,” Today, 6 November 2013. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/hijab-issue-govt-must-balance-communityrequirements. Accessed 29 August 2018.

Abdullah, Walid Jumblatt, Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press 2021 doi: 10.5117/9789463724012_ch01

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Such was Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s response to Muslim activists who requested that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in Singapore reconsider its stance on disallowing the hijab or tudung (headscarves for female Muslims) in certain frontline positions. Teo’s refrain was neither unexpected nor unfamiliar; it has been a recurrent trope for the government to invoke the importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony (Sinha, 2005) – and the possibility of upsetting the delicate amity which had painstakingly been achieved – when dealing with activism from religious groups. The subtle message which was communicated was that if Muslims were to press for their rights, not only would other communities do the same, and thus, national interests might be jeopardized at the expense of particular groups, but they would also be perceived less favourably by other communities for being too demanding. The hijab issue is then emblematic of the conundrum facing Muslim activists in Singapore. The secular, competitive authoritarian state in Singapore jealously protects its rule; while it is wary of any perceived challenges to its authority, it is particularly attentive to the potential of religion to be a source of mobilization. The self-avowed secular state does not take incursions into the public sphere by any religion lightly; but for historical, geo-political and practical reasons which will be elucidated later, the Muslim community and Islam is given special focus. Religious activists then have to make calculations on navigating the political system. On one hand, if Muslim activists make vociferous demands in the public arena, they are unlikely to induce the state to change course on a particular policy. The paternalistic state does not wish to be seen as capitulating to the demands of a particular community. On the other hand, if there is not enough public emphasis on the matter, there would be no incentive for the state to embark on a different path. An important point which needs to be emphasized is that this is a dilemma facing all activists in Singapore, regardless of their faiths or the causes they wish to pursue. Nevertheless, Muslims face additional complexities, due to the securitization of Muslim expressions of religiosity. This is a point which will be returned to later. The hijab issue in Singapore, though much discussed in academic writings and public discourse (Nasir, Pereira, & Turner, 2009; Abdullah, 2016c; Zainal & Wong, 2017; Osman, 2018), is only one facet of variegated Muslim activism. Though the issue was most visible and pronounced, it is by no means the only, or even most important, form of activism in Singapore. In fact, the hijab was championed by a particular group of Muslim activists, which I refer to as the conservatives. Other groups within the community exist. For instance, liberal Muslims assign greater importance to other

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causes. They are more interested in challenging existing norms within the Muslim community which they deem to be outdated, regressive and responsible for the community’s lack of progress. There is another group of actors which I deem to be extremely crucial in any endeavour to understand Muslim societies: the ulama (Islamic religious scholars or clerics). By virtue of their self-understanding as the ‘heirs of the Prophets’ (Chittick, 2005),2 and general deference to the authority of the ulama in interpreting scripture by Muslims – though it must be stated that this authority is by no means unchallenged – the ulama constitute a vital bloc in Muslim communities. The ulama are traditionally expected to act in the religion’s best interests, and in accordance with Prophetic duty, provide guidance to Muslims and at the same time, mount robust defences against threats to the integrity of Islam, regardless of whether the pressures exist from within or outside the faith (Zaman, 2002). Given the multi-faceted nature of Muslim activism, and the nature of the constricted political system in Singapore, this study attempts to provide answers to the following questions. How do Muslim activists navigate their way through politics in a secular, authoritarian state to maximize their influence? What are the different methods which the varied categories of activists undertake to further their causes? What accounts for the differences in these approaches? Briefly, I postulate that many activists attempt to strategically align themselves with the state, and call upon the state to be an arbiter in their disagreements with other factions. Though there are activists who challenge the state, these are by far in the minority, and are typically unable to assert their influence in a sustained manner. The dominant nature of the state has largely resulted in activists refusing to defy the state on fundamental issues, regardless of their orientations. A few points should be made clear from the outset. First, while this is a study about Singapore, the book draws on theories of comparative politics and sociology to make this project relevant to a broader audience. Scholars, students, and observers interested in authoritarian politics, the nature of civil society movements, and religious actors should find this book useful, even if they do not study Singapore. The book does not adopt a ‘Singapore exceptionalism’ approach whereby explanations which are 2 This understanding comes from a Prophetic tradition which states that ‘The ulama are the heirs of the Prophets.’ This saying is recorded in Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah, two of the six most authoritative books on hadith. See Sunnah.com, https://sunnah.com/search/?q=ulama+are+h eirs+of+the+prophet. Accessed 31 August 2018. Indeed, many of the ulama interviewed repeat this phrase when speaking on what the responsibilities of the ulama are.

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given are wholly Singapore-centric; it has been a common theme amongst observers of Singapore to attribute seemingly idiosyncratic occurrences in the country to its exceptionalism (Pei, 1994; Thompson, 2006). While there are obviously particularities in the Singapore case which will be explained throughout, the claim made here is that lessons from the Singapore example are applicable to the broader studies on Muslim activism, and to civil society movements in other competitive authoritarian regimes. Second, this is a study on politics. It is a central assumption – and claim – of this book that (almost) every phenomenon is ‘political’ in nature. Religion – and concomitantly, its interpretation, manifestation, contestation and application – are most definitely ‘political’. Thus, actions by religious actors (and others such as the state) are analyzed through the lens of politics. Politics is, at its core, about power and the distribution of resources. Power here, as Sartori argues, must be understood in a broad, encompassing sense, which includes military, coercive, economic, religious and other capacities (Sartori, 1973, p. 19). As a corollary, politics is also about the ‘making of collective decisions’ (Parsons, 2017, p. 3). The process of making collective decisions involves some form of bargaining between those who govern and the governed (Dahl, 1961). The decisions made by actors within a polity are ultimately to further the goals which they have, and pertain directly to how power is distributed in a system. Religious actors are no different in this regard. In attempting to maximize their influence (or power) within a polity, they would have to make decisions to pursue certain actions, and prioritize specific causes over others (Zald & Ash, 1966). Third, Muslims and activists can be categorized in an innumerable number of ways. They could be classified along ideological (Sufi-Salafi, Sunni-Shia), partisan (pro-government/anti-government), educational (school/place of study), socio-economic (lower-upper class), and many other lines. Any choice of classification would involve some arbitrariness. This book has decided to categorize Muslim activists under three groups: the ulama, conservatives, and liberals. The reasons behind this choice will be explained in Section 1.5. For now, it is important to note a few matters about these groups. The groups themselves are not monolithic; for instance, not all conservatives, liberals or ulama align themselves with the state, and some are in fact vehement critics of the state. Moreover, similar actors could behave differently under dissimilar circumstances: an activist who is largely associated with the state may still display disagreements with it on some issues. This book calls for an extremely nuanced understanding of these categories, and the actions of various sets of actors within those groupings. Finally, this study focuses on the actions of the Muslim activists themselves. There has been

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a tendency in political science to adopt statist approaches in explaining political phenomena (Almond, 1988; Geddes, 1990; Evans, 1995; Johnson, 1995; Doner, Ritchie, & Slater, 2005; Stepan, 2015). In Southeast Asia especially, where states are typically authoritarian and try to dictate outcomes in their favour as much as possible, this tendency is amplified (Slater, 2003; George, 2012; Rajah, 2012). Previous studies on Muslims in Singapore too have given much emphasis to the state (Rahim, 1998; Mutalib, 2012a). To be sure, this is not an invalid approach: the state indeed does have significant authority and influence in affecting political outcomes, especially in countries with (competitive) authoritarian regimes like Singapore. Yet, this study chooses to highlight the role of other actors. It is important to treat Muslim activists – as is the case with other non-state entities – as actors with agency. Migdal critiques the propensity of scholars to excessively concentrate on the state: not only is the ‘state’ itself not monolithic, but it is not always possible for state elites to execute their will and impose their beliefs on the people (Migdal, 2001). Similarly, Scott argues that even seemingly unimportant and disenfranchised actors like peasants display agency and resist a powerful state via minute acts of resistance such as foot-dragging, in what he terms as the ‘weapons of the weak’ (Scott, 1985). Bratton’s study of sub-Saharan Africa led him to conclude that the scholarly preoccupation with the state obfuscates more than it illuminates, since civil society actually plays a vital role in effecting political change (Bratton, 1989). This is not to say that the state is unimportant, or in the case of Singapore, the least important actor. Indeed, the reach of the state is far and wide in the small city-state, but the point to be made here is that no state, no matter how authoritarian, is completely insulated from society. Even if agents decide to cooperate with the state, that is still a conscious choice by those agents, since other alternatives, however costly, are still available (Abdullah, 2013). The very fact that there are divergent paths taken by the activists in Singapore demonstrates that these actors do possess agency. More broadly, this study can provide useful insights into the politics of Muslim societies, and the politics of civil society groups in general. Many of these Muslim activists proclaim theological motivations, if not justifications, behind their actions. Yet, in spite of claiming inspiration from the same (Islamic) sources, they act in a myriad of ways. It is thus abundantly clear that ‘Islam’ itself cannot account for these divergent outcomes. The quietist activist may invoke Prophetic traditions (hadith) which call for obedience to the ruler, and passages from the Quran which point toward the importance of maintaining public order above all else. A liberal Muslim could discuss the need for reform and interpret the same scripture in a radically different

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way from how a conservative would understand that very passage. As such, the practice and manifestation of Islam are dependent on a particular individual’s orientation and inclination (Waardenburg, 1985). Scripture by itself is not always uncontentious or explicit, and its interpretation depends on who is doing the interpreting. This is a straightforward, uncontroversial proposition. What is more interesting is the following claim: I postulate that the practice of Islam itself is dependent on political realities. Theology and jurisprudence do not exist, and have never existed, in a vacuum, separate from realpolitik. Political realities do affect theological positions. Actors often take into account the socio-political situation before embarking on a course which considers, if not appropriates, religion. This is not to say that every single religious actor adopts a Machiavellian approach toward faith, and uses it insofar as it achieves a particular goal. That is not the claim here. Rather, what is being put forth is that theological understandings are themselves affected by politics. Political opportunities could determine how a religion is manifested in the real world, as will be discussed later.

1.2 Singapore’s Political Context Singapore can best be described as a ‘competitive authoritarian’ regime. Competitive authoritarian regimes are not fully authoritarian, yet at the same time, they fall short of the standard requirements to be classified as democracies. In such regimes, violations of democratic standards such as free and fair elections and the guarantee of individual freedoms such as freedom of speech occur so often to the point that they create an ‘uneven playing field between government and opposition’ (Levitsky & Way, 2002, p. 53). At the same time, there exist opportunities for the presence of genuine contestations for power by the opposition, such that even if the playing field is not level, the opposition can and does win in certain electoral contests. Levitsky and Way classified Singapore as a fully authoritarian regime, even though they admitted that it is a borderline case which could have been included in the sample of competitive authoritarian regimes (Levitsky & Way, 2010, p. 34). Such a view is not uncommon amongst Western scholars who study the city-state. Singapore has been referred to as a ‘dictatorship’ which has remained wealthy by other scholars (Przeworski, Alvarez, Cheibub, & Limongi, 2000, p. 94; Slater, 2012, p. 19). To be sure, the views of these scholars are not without any basis: there exist severe restrictions to individual freedoms in Singapore. Singapore has only been governed by one party in its history. The state has maintained an interventionist

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approach toward managing affairs in the country, and personal liberties are required to be sacrificed in the pursuit of the greater good (Chua, 2017). The justification given by PAP leaders is that Singapore is a small country with a diverse, multiracial population, and if freedoms of speech and assembly were not curbed, communal tensions or even riots could ensue from the insensitivities of one’s careless remarks, or from the sinister intentions of political entrepreneurs (Thio, 2017). Furthermore, even though elections are free, regular and not fraudulent, they are not entirely fair either. Numerous obstacles exist to impede opposition growth. These include the introduction of the Party Block Vote or Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system – ostensibly created to ensure ethnic minority representation – which increases the barriers to entry for the opposition since the system favours parties with enormous resources (Tan & Grofman, 2018), the implementation of electoral engineering measures such as the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) which could produce the effect of discouraging voters from electing opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) (Rodan, 2009; Abdullah, 2016b), short campaigning periods, gerrymandering (which is made possible by the placement of the Electoral Department of Singapore under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office), the absence of a free press and hence the lack of positive coverage given to opposition candidates (Mutalib, 2003), defamation suits against opposition politicians such as JB Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan in the past which have resulted in their bankruptcy (Rodan, 2003), the public chiding of intellectuals who challenge the state (Tan K. P., 2009), and so on. The first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, who practically shaped Singapore in his image, was forthright in this regard. He declared that there ‘is no level playing-field of any government helping opposition to win votes.’3 Thus, the opposition is severely disadvantaged in Singapore. At the same time, it would not be true to suggest that the opposition does not have any space to operate in Singapore. For almost two decades, two opposition MPs, Low Thia Khiang and Chiam See Tong, defeated PAP candidates in the Hougang and Potong Pasir electoral wards in successive elections, proving that opposition candidates do stand a chance to win. Criticisms of the state are tolerated as long as they do not cross the Out-of-Bounds (OB) markers set by the state. These include criticisms towards the integrity of PAP leaders, especially on allegations of corruption; racial and religious matters; and questioning the independence of the judiciary. For the government, these 3 “Late Singapore Leader Lee Kuan Yew Had Opinions on Everything,” Time, 22 March 2015. http://time.com/3748654/singapore-lee-kuan-yews-opinions/. Accessed 6 September 2018.

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are matters which would affect the very functioning of key institutions and the societal fabric upon which the country is built. Elections, as stated earlier, are free and not fraudulent. Singapore is definitely not the Soviet Union, and when it is characterized as a dictatorship together with other autocratic regimes, one may lose sight of these realities. Hussin Mutalib, a reputable political scientist in Singapore, regards Singapore as an ‘illiberal democracy’ (Mutalib, 2000). Ortmann argues that following the 2011 elections, during which PAP’s vote share reduced to 60% and it lost a GRC to the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) team led by Low Thia Khiang, Singapore could be regarded as a competitive authoritarian state (Ortmann, 2011). I concur with such an assessment. Understanding Singapore as a competitive authoritarian regime is vital toward comprehending the argument I make about Muslim activism in Singapore. Activists have far more space to operate under a competitive authoritarian regime than a dictatorship, even though that room is still constricted as compared to a democracy. Additionally, in competitive authoritarian regimes, not all forms of opposition are met with the full force of the law: the state employs a defter array of strategies, ranging from persuasion to co-optation – without fully dispensing with draconian measures of course – to achieve its goals. Singapore achieved independence under unceremonious circumstances. After having been a British colony since 1819, Singapore merged with Malaya (to become Malaysia) in 1963. The union was short-lived as ideological and personal differences became too magnified to be ignored, and Singapore was asked to leave the Malaysian Federation in 1965 (Lau, 1998). Apart from Lee Kuan Yew’s personal clashes with Tunku Abdul Rahman, the then-Prime Minister of Malaysia, the two entities disagreed on a fundamental ideological basis. Malaysia practised Malay-led multiracialism, whereby Malays were given preferential treatment in certain areas whereas Lee wanted a form of multiracialism which did not discriminate between the different ethnicities, or in Lee’s words, a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ (Josey, 2012, p. 84). Upon separation, Lee became the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore and quickly moved to consolidate his party’s power. The powers of trade unions and students’ associations were curbed, strikes were banned, the Internal Security Act (ISA) – a law which allows detention without trial – was used on individuals who were deemed to be threats to national security, and intra-party dissent was stifled (Barr, 2000). Lee and the PAP managed to facilitate remarkable levels of economic growth, turning Singapore into one of the Asian tigers whose success was admired by developing countries (Low, 2001). When Lee stepped down in 1990, his successor Goh Chok Tong promised a more consultative approach toward governance where the

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voices of citizens were heard more. Lee Hsien Loong, son of Kuan Yew, succeeded Goh in 2004, and promised even more openness, and is still the premier today. Modern Singapore is one of the most remarkable stories of financial and material success, and this spectacular growth has been one of the main reasons for the durability of PAP rule (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2006). In 2017, Singapore’s GDP per capita stood at US$57 714.30, easily falling under the World Bank’s classification of a high-income country.4 The PAP has capitalized on this success and has perpetuated a narrative that it was the PAP – and its ruling style and foundational ideologies – which led Singapore from the ‘third world to first’ (Lee, 2000). While it is true that both Goh and Hsien Loong did adopt more open attitudes toward criticisms, in general, the core ideologies and mode of governance remained the same for PAP throughout the tenures of the three Prime Ministers. The PAP still considers its core ideologies – survival, meritocracy, multiracialism, and (economic) pragmatism – sacred and immutable. Survival is the defining feature of the PAP psyche: in the eyes of PAP leaders, Singapore is a vulnerable city-state whose existence is never secure. Externally, its existence is threatened by its geo-political environment. Being a ‘Chinese nut in a Malay nutcracker’, which means that it is a Chinese-majority nation surrounded by its larger Malay-Muslim neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, connotes a perennial sense of insecurity (Chan, 1971). Internally, its racial make-up is potentially problematic since in the event of communal tensions, the social fabric of the nation may be hurt beyond repair (Chua, 2009). No other theme dominates Singapore politics more than survival and vulnerability, encapsulated in the maxim ‘no one owes us a living’ (Abdullah, 2018c). Meritocracy, multiracialism and economic pragmatism are core ideologies precisely because they are attendant with the ideology of survival. Meritocracy, where every individual is able to succeed as long as he/she works hard, is necessary because the best talents would be the ones leading the country, ensuring that leaders are not mediocre; while multiracialism, where no one is given different treatment because of his/her race, is the only feasible ideology that would ensure racial harmony (Moore, 2000; Tan K. P., 2008). Economically, a small country cannot afford to be ideological if it wishes to survive, and should do ‘what works’ (Kausikan, 1997). The PAP also adopts a paternalistic and technocratic approach to governance, believing that the state knows best: a good government is one which does not bow down to populist appeals, and is willing to do the ‘right’ thing (Mauzy & Milne, 2002). 4

World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/ny.gdp.pcap.cd. Accessed 7 September 2018.

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The state has always been interventionist, and unapologetically so. Consider the following quote by Lee Kuan Yew: I say without the slightest remorse that we would not be here, would not have made the economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit (or where you spit), or what language you use. It was fundamental social and cultural changes that brought us here. (Lee Kuan Yew, as quoted in (Mutalib, 2000, p. 321).

In spite of the apparent varying styles of leadership of the three Prime Ministers, the PAP has not been significantly altered. In the midst of clamour from certain quarters of society to allow greater individual freedoms, and global pressures for more democratization, the party has held firmly to its belief that Singapore cannot afford to leave societal affairs to market forces, and that the state needs to actively and perpetually intervene, even at the expense of personal liberties, to ensure a functioning and cohesive society. Nowhere, however, is the state’s interventionist streak as stark as in the realm of race and religion, as will be detailed in the following section.

1.3 Islam in Singapore The government will not interfere in doctrinal matters within each religion, but the Government has to step in to protect our racial, religious harmony. We cannot allow someone to preach values which are contrary to our multiracial, multi-ethnic harmony. We take a firm, clear stand on that and make no apologies.5

Those were the words of Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam. The senior leader captured the essence of the PAP’s philosophy in managing race and religion in the above-quoted paragraph. While the state professes to be secular, its brand of secularism needs to be unpacked. Secularism does not entail a complete separation of church and state; rather, consistent with the PAP’s paternalistic governance style, secularism means that the state will intervene as and when necessary to prod, alter or even discourage certain 5 K. Shanmugam, “Religion, Terrorism and Threats to Singapore, the Region,” The Straits Times, 20 January 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/religion-terrorism-and-threatsto-singapore-the-region. Accessed 7 September 2018.

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outcomes. The PAP has no qualms interfering in the religious affairs of a community, if it is deemed to be of national interest to do so. Thus, while the state in Singapore is supposed to be free of religious influences, religion is not exempt from state intrusion. Although Muslims comprise a minority of the population – in 2010, Muslims constituted 14.7% of the population6 – politically, it is not an insignificant bloc. History accounts for this salience. The experience Singapore, and Lee Kuan Yew, had during the merger with Malaysia, though ephemeral, was formative for the nation. For Lee, Malaysia’s insistence on maintaining a Malay-dominated system, and the racial riots which occurred in 1964 between the Malays and Chinese against the backdrop of strains between the PAP and the Malaysian leadership, cemented his beliefs about the dangers of diversity (Milne, 1966). Tensions were rife between the ethnic Malays and Chinese during the period of merger, as the issue of race became a sore point of contention between Malaysian leaders and Lee Kuan Yew. Undoubtedly, sentiments were stoked on both sides of the aisle. Leaders in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) vilified Lee for undermining the social contract between the various ethnic groups in Malaysia, while Lee’s ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ rhetoric was not well-received by some quarters in the Malay community (Milne, 1966). Violence broke out between Malays and Chinese in the Peninsula, and on 21st July 1964, during a procession commemorating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, the riots spread to Singapore (Low A. H., 2001). Race and religion, therefore, had to be consciously and consistently managed, since they were potential sources of conflict, as the Malaysian experience had shown. More importantly, religious fervour could lead to split loyalties for citizens: when an individual identifies with his/her faith more than with citizens of other religious beliefs, it can be a major cause for concern. The riots further exposed the realities of Singaporeans being affected by developments in the region, which is why the state devotes particular attention to the phenomenon of rising conservatism or Islamization in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Minister Shanmugam warned in 2015 that Islamization in Malaysia had ‘gone beyond the tipping point’, and that Singapore would be affected by trends in Malaysia and Indonesia.7 Prime Minister Lee has warned of a similar danger, expressing 6 98.7% of Malays and 21.7% of Indians are Muslims. See Singapore Department of Statistics, Census of Population 2010, https://www.singstat.gov.sg/-/media/f iles/publications/cop2010/ census_2010_release1/cop2010sr1.pdf., p. 11. 7 Charissa Yong, “Singapore Cannot Exist in a Cocoon: Minister,” The Straits Times, 28 August 2015. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-cannot-exist-in-a-cocoon-minister. Accessed 10 September 2018.

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concerns over the politicization of Islam in the region.8 The wariness over split loyalties has been present since independence, and is a recurring theme in the relationship between the state and Singapore Malays. Lee Kuan Yew once candidly remarked that it would be a ‘tricky business for the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) to put a Malay officer who was very religious and who had family ties in Malaysia, in charge of a machine-gun unit’ (Chua, 2003, p. 65). Here, the senior Lee draws an explicit link between a Malay-Muslim’s religiosity and the potential lack of loyalty to the nation. This is a point which will be returned to later. As discussed in the previous section, the state maintains a paternalistic approach to governance, especially in the realm of race and religion. The PAP has been categorical about its apprehension at the influence of any faith in politics. PM Lee Hsien Loong said: In such an environment, to maintain harmony in our multiracial and multi-religious society, the Government must take a watchful, prudent and hands-on approach. It has got to be neutral, secular in its approach, and pragmatic in solving problems. We cannot afford to take purist positions on freedom of expression, or the right to be offensive to others. We will not hesitate to act firmly when necessary, because if conflict erupts, it will cause grave damage to our social fabric. Our limits may be stricter than some other societies, but we make no apology for that […] We should not change fundamental policies that have served Singapore well in our unique situation.9

Indeed, firm action has been taken against individuals who purport to act in the name of faith. On 21 May 1987, sixteen people were arrested under the ISA for an alleged ‘Marxist Conspiracy’. These individuals were activists and workers from the Catholic Church. The charge from the PAP government was that these individuals were using the Church to engage in subversive activities against the state. Although there was some initial pushback from the Archbishop, he conceded the validity of the arrests after a meeting with 8 Prime Minister’s Off ice, “Opening Remarks by PM Lee Hsien Loong at a Dialogue with Community and Religious Leaders on 24 July 2017,” 24 July 2017. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/ newsroom/pm-lee-hsien-loongs-opening-remarks-dialogue-community-and-religious-leaders. Accessed 10 September 2018. 9 Prime Minister’s Office, “Transcript of Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at 66th Anniversary of Inter-Religious Organisation on 12th May 2015 at Istana,” 12 May 2015. https://www. pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/transcript-speech-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong-66th-anniversaryinter-religious. Accessed 10 September 2018.

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Lee Kuan Yew (Goh, 2010, pp. 69-70). The arrests emphasized a few things: one, the state was willing to utilize the draconian laws at its disposal when deemed necessary; and two, no faith is spared from the state’s monitoring. The Marxist Conspiracy arrests (otherwise known as Operation Spectrum) precipitated the introduction of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), a law designed to ensure that religion is kept separate from politics (Tey, 2008). Apart from the ISA and MRHA, the Penal Code further gives the state authority to strengthen its grip on religious matters: Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalizes the act of ‘uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person’, an offence which is punishable with imprisonment.10 While the state is suspicious toward any forays by religion into the public sphere, greater caution is applied in the case of Islam. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, as already explicated, historical and geo-political factors matter considerably. Singapore’s history with the merger and racial riots, coupled with its location in the middle of Muslim Southeast Asia, immediately casts attention on Islam. Secondly, Malays, the majority of whom are Muslim, are constitutionally acknowledged as the indigenous people of Singapore, and it is the duty of the government of the day to ‘protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.’11 Islam too is given special provisions in the constitution as parliament is mandated to ‘make provisions for regulating Muslim affairs and for constituting a Council to advise the President in matters relating to the Muslim religion.’12 Third, Islam, like Christianity, is a religion with a comprehensive worldview and value-system, and makes certain exclusive claims about itself. Islam purports to be more than a religion and is ad-din or a complete way of life (Al-Attas, 1978). This is something which the nation-state may find problematic and has to contend with. Finally, the threat of terrorism and its links with Islam and religiosity have heightened the state’s circumspection when it comes to dealing with the faith. In a particularly revealing interview with Tom Plate, Lee Kuan Yew recalled a conversation he had with Samuel Huntington on the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis. Lee told Huntington that the Eastern 10 Singapore Statutes Online, https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/PC1871?ValidDate=20171001&ProvId s=pr298-. Accessed 10 September 2018. 11 Article 152, Constitution of Singapore. https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CONS1963. Accessed 10 September 2018. 12 Article 153, Constitution of Singapore. https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CONS1963. Accessed 10 September 2018.

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religions were mostly ‘secular’ and posed no existential threat to the West. On Islam though, he remarked: But the Muslims believe that if they mastered the Quran and they are prepared to do all that Muhammad has prescribed, they will succeed. So, we can expect trouble from them and so, it happened (Plate, 2010, p. 118).

Lee’s comments may have reflected his personal opinions and not that of the current PAP leadership. Nevertheless, it is evident that the terrorist menace has contributed to the state exercising even more caution when it comes to Islam. The government has repeated the mantra ‘not if, but when’, highlighting the inevitability, and perhaps imminence, of a terrorist attack. The state has attempted to manage Islam in a variety of ways. Islam has been bureaucratized in Singapore, as is the case in many other former British colonies. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, MUIS), was established as a manifestation of the constitutional guarantee that the state would regulate Muslim affairs. The organization is formally an arm of the state, under the purview of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY). Since its inception, MUIS has acquired tremendous importance in the daily lives of Muslims. It is responsible for managing the most basic and salient aspects of Islamic practice in Singapore, including regulating hajj services,13 issuing halal certificates for food outlets,14 calculating and determining the timings for the daily prayers in Singapore, writing the sermons for Friday prayers,15 and collecting and distributing zakat, inter alia. Perhaps most significantly, MUIS is the only body in Singapore which issues fatwas or religious edicts. A fatwa is an answer to a query by Muslims on matters pertaining to the faith. In Singapore, fatwas are issued by the fatwa committee of MUIS, which is headed by the Mufti, the highest religious authority in the land, who is appointed by the President of Singapore (Abdullah, 2013). Since MUIS and the Mufti are officially working for the state, there have been suggestions that the fatwas or religious opinions issued in certain cases, such as the hijab saga which will be discussed later, are politically expedient. Former Mufti, Shaykh Isa Semait, who served in the role for 38 years from 1972-2010, 13 Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca which is obligatory for every Muslim who can afford it. It is the fifth pillar of Islam after the declaration that God is one and Muhammad is His Messenger, prayers, zakat (alms-giving) and fasting in the month of Ramadhan. 14 Halal refers to anything (not limited to food) which is Islamically permissible. 15 All Muslim males are required to attend weekly Friday prayers in congregation. This is usually done at the mosques, though it does not have to be limited to mosques.

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wrote in his memoirs that he was often accused of being a stooge of the government, though he obviously rebuffed the claim (Hussain, 2012). Semait has repeatedly declared that there has never been government interference in his official duties (Nasir, Pereira, & Turner, 2009). Nevertheless, in spite of his denials, many members of the Muslim community have expressed their apprehensions toward the institution of the Mufti, and concomitantly, the fatwas issued (Abdullah, 2013). A respondent notes: It cannot be coincidental that fatwas issued by MUIS are always either in favour of, or do not oppose, the government.16

The perception some Muslims have toward MUIS being an instrument of the state proves to be a recurring theme in the history of state-Islam relations in Singapore. For some Muslims, religious institutions should be independent of political interference. For others though, MUIS has done a tremendous job in catering to the spiritual needs of the community, and it is precisely because of its relationship with the state that it is able to perform its duties – such as the issuance of halal certificates for food outlets and the management of mosques – diligently.17 Thus, while the authority of MUIS has been questioned by members of the community, this criticism is by no means universal, and many Muslims, in fact, do display a lot of trust in the organization. The former Mufti, Dr. Fatris Bakaram, has been a rather popular figure within the community since he replaced Isa Semait, even though he too has not escaped accusations of pandering to the state. Fatris has been particularly adroit at utilizing social media to connect with Muslims. The positions the ulama in MUIS have taken will be discussed in Chapter 4, together with other ulama. The establishment of MUIS was part of the PAP’s ‘politics of survival’ necessitated by the circumstances of separation from Malaysia (Chan, 1971). Being a small Chinese-majority nation in the middle of the Malay Archipelago, the PAP saw it as crucial to assure its Malay neighbours that the Malay minority would not be side-lined in Singapore. The Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) was enshrined in the constitution, as a manifestation of the government’s guarantee to ensure provisions for the regulation of Muslim affairs required by Article 153. Apart from MUIS, the other institution explicitly recognized under AMLA is the Syariah court. It is common for former British colonies to have dual legal systems for the 16 Interview with conservative activist, 15 September 2019. 17 This sentiment was communicated to me by some respondents.

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Muslims in their countries, inheriting such a system from their colonial masters (Kugle, 2001). The case is similar in Singapore. The Syariah court has limited jurisdiction, and its authority is limited to matters pertaining to family law, marriage and divorce (Steiner, 2015). The state has further relied on co-optation as a strategy to manage the Muslim community. Organizations such as the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Persatuan Ulama dan Guru-guru Agama Singapura, Pergas) have been informally co-opted, a point which will be investigated further in Chapter 4. Prominent Muslims such as Zainul Abidin Rasheed, former Associate Editor of The Straits Times, Alami Musa and Ahmad Magad, two of the founding members of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) – an organization which was at its formation critical of the state – have been recruited to either join the PAP or the civil service. The PAP is quick to bring Muslims who are successful in their respective fields into the party machinery: a cursory look at the list of current Malay/ Muslim MPs would demonstrate this. Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, a former Minister, was an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore, and had attained his Ph.D. in Engineering from Stanford University; Masagos Zulkifli, the current Minister in-charge of Muslim Affairs, was the Chief Executive Officer of Global Officers for Singapore Telecommunications, the country’s largest telco; Fatimah Lateef, is an Associate Professor in medicine and senior consultant at the Singapore General Hospital; the other MPs boast similar credentials.18 Co-optation represents a deft stratagem of the state, via which it is able to give persons who may otherwise be critical of the government, a stake in the system. Recently, the state has added another powerful tool to its repertoire, the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS). Under Section 87 of AMLA which is the statute concerning ARS, any religious teacher or provider of Islamic education must be registered and regulated. Any person who was not certified by the Asatizah Recognition Board (ARB), a committee under the jurisdiction of MUIS, was not allowed to teach Islam in the country. Thus, Islam became even more regulated. Though the ARS was introduced in 2004, it was only made compulsory in January 2017. To qualify for certification, a person must not only have the requisite educational training and/or qualif ications, but he/she must also be deemed to be a ‘f it and proper’ individual. To be considered ‘fit and proper’, one must ‘meet the standard of behaviour generally expected of a teacher’ at an Islamic institution. 18 See the list of MPs and their profiles at the Parliament of Singapore website, https://www. parliament.gov.sg/mps/list-of-current-mps. Accessed 19 September 2018.

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The ambiguity of the clause is apparent: what does ‘fit and proper’ entail? Indeed, this amorphousness could very well contribute to Muslim ulama withholding their opinions on socio-political matters, or even religious issues, out of fear of censure. Cherian George, a prominent Singaporean academic, writes that many in the media industry self-censor themselves, even when there is no official directive to do so. This is due to the presence of OB markers, and the occasional chastisement which critics of the state receive; in order to avoid such precarious situations, journalists end up practising self-censorship (George, 2012). In the same vein, ARS could have deterrent effects for the ulama, as the state’s disapproval could result in their livelihoods being affected (Abdullah, 2018a). It must be noted that the government does not directly administer the ARS; however, the very presence of the scheme, and the fact that it is managed by MUIS, an organ of the state, can and does have restraining effects on the ulama, as will be discussed in Chapter 3. The ARS is similar to the MRHA, ISA and Section 298 of the Penal Code in this regard; all of these legal instruments are designed to not only punish behaviour deemed to be detrimental to the multi-religious social fabric, but to prevent it in the first place. Interestingly, in Malaysia, a similar scheme known as tauliah exists, but has at times been overtly used in politically partisan ways, especially under the previously ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) regime (Liow, 2009b). In Singapore, the ARS has not been invoked in a similarly political way: the point here is that its mere existence may cause the ulama to be extra cautious in speaking, and may even result in self-censorship. At present, there are only 2 opposition Muslim MPs, Faisal Manap and Raeesah Khan, who are from the WP, while the other Muslim parliamentarians belong to the PAP. Faisal has raised issues of interest to the Muslims in parliament on a few occasions. More often than not, the reception by PAP leaders has been confrontational. Two incidents are most relevant. The first occurred in 2016 when Faisal called for the navy to be more inclusive and have halal kitchens on ships to ensure that Muslims would not be deterred from joining the organization. PAP leaders took issue with Faisal: Dr. Maliki Osman reminded Faisal that Singapore is a ‘secular state’, stating that the navy’s ‘operational priorities come before individual needs’ while Defence Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen claimed that Faisal was “only championing” for Muslims.19 Both insinuated that Faisal was not upholding the values of 19 Adrian Lim, “Halal Ship Kitchens Difficult but SAF Offers Food Options,” The Straits Times, 8 April 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/halal-ship-kitchens-difficult-but-saf-offersfood-options. Accessed 20 September 2018.

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multiracialism and secularism, which Singapore considers sacrosanct. The second incident was even starker. In 2017, Faisal raised the aforementioned hijab issue and called for women to be allowed to don the hijab in professions such as nursing and the uniformed groups. Minister Masagos chided Faisal in no uncertain terms, arguing that Faisal had a propensity to raise ‘discordant’ issues in parliament which were meant to ‘injure or hurt the feelings of the community rather than inspire them.’20 The revulsion displayed by Masagos, Maliki and Ng seemed rather bizarre. Faisal was elected via the GRC precisely because the system guaranteed minority representation: if minority MPs could not raise matters which were pertinent to their respective communities, the GRC system would not serve much purpose then. Moreover, if Parliament is not the appropriate avenue for the enunciation of such concerns, which other platforms would be appropriate? Nevertheless, these incidents are instructive in underlining the PAP’s approach toward Islam in Singapore. As far as possible, ‘sensitive’ issues are not to be discussed or championed publicly. Rather, a ‘behind-closed-doors’ approach is what is preferred by the government. Such is the conundrum facing activists as well. The management of Islam can thus be described as interventionist, paternalistic, and intrusive, consistent with the state’s overall approach toward governance.

1.4 Arguments in Brief This book draws upon the concept of political opportunity structures to explicate the argument on Muslim activism in Singapore. I argue that political opportunity structures are limited for Muslims actors to influence political outcomes. The constricting political opportunities are due to the nature of the political system (competitive authoritarian state) and the state’s approach toward religion and Islam especially. Therefore, Muslim activists carefully navigate the travails of political activism. Nevertheless, limited political opportunities do not mean no political opportunities. It is important to not discount the agency of Muslim actors. Essentially, they have the following options: 1) cooperate with the state as much as possible; 2) conduct activism in the spheres which the state is ambivalent toward or is 20 Charissa Yong, “Parliament: Masagos Questions Faisal Manap’s Motives for Raising Divisive Issues,” The Straits Times, 4 April 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ parliament-masagos-questions-faisal-manaps-motives-for-raising-divisive-issues. Accessed 20 September 2018.

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willing to tolerate dissent; and 3) challenge the state in fundamental areas and risk reprisal from the state. Not surprisingly, most activists, regardless of their orientations, choose options 1 or 2. While there are some who do embark on the more perilous third option, these are by far in the minority, and their cases will be discussed later too. For the majority of activists who choose 1 or 2, they have to be content with not fully pursuing causes which are in line with their ideological orientations: liberals and conservatives may not champion liberal/conservative causes when the political opportunities are not in their favour. Activists presciently navigate the political system to maximize their benefits within this framework. As a result, the activists who make the most gains in the system are those who align themselves with the state, even when such an alliance would cost them some credibility. These activists are able to push specific agendas which they find germane when they have accepted the state’s rules and do not challenge the state publicly. However, in the process, these activists may have to accept that by not challenging the state, they end up strengthening authoritarianism. Two points need to be emphasized. In spite of having limited options, due to Singapore being a competitive authoritarian state, choices still do exist. Activists still have some room to manoeuvre, even if the space is far more limited than in liberal democracies. Secondly, these activists are ‘rational’. They attempt to maximize benefits and minimize costs via their activism. However, these benefits and costs are not necessarily material. Ideological considerations matter for a person too. The concept of rationality will be problematized and explained further in Chapter 3, when the argument will be developed. A note on the term ‘activists’ is due. An activist can be defined as a person who is involved in efforts for political and/or social reform. While an activist is typically understood as someone who does advocacy work, I call for a more holistic understanding of the term. Activists do not necessarily have to be part of social movements, or partake in overt political action. At times, activists could choose to be ‘apolitical’, if it serves the ultimate purpose of effecting social reform. The point to be made here is that in realpolitik, often, difficult choices have to be made. Some of these choices include not being directly involved in politics or political discourse, so as to be able to embark on particular courses which the actor finds to be beneficial for his/her constituents. I contend that activism should be understood in broader terms, to comprise such ‘apolitical’ action as well. It should be noted that being apolitical is a political choice itself (Mostarom, 2014). This understanding of activism differs from other definitions. Baumgardner and Richards aver that activism refers to engaging in ‘everyday acts of defiance’ (Baumgardner

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& Richards, 2000, p. 283). Their definition, however, is restrictive as it limits activism to acts of opposition against the establishment. Such an understanding of activism is not useful, as it ignores the multi-faceted manner in which activism can take place, especially under authoritarian regimes. The actions of societal actors who desire reform are far more multi-faceted than just resistance. Saba Mahmood’s seminal work on female grassroots movements in Egypt is instructive here. Not all actions should be viewed via the binary lens of resistance and subordination. Often, the actions of actors are more complex and nuanced (Mahmood, 2011). Other scholars of social movements and collective action have tied activism to identities (Taylor & Raeburn, 1995; Rupp & Taylor, 1999; Bobel, 2007). According to these scholars, activism is not only reflective of one’s identity, but contributes toward shaping it as well. When an actor contributes to social movements, his/her identity is affected by the very act of participation. This line of analysis proves to be useful for my study: self-understood identities play a role in determining a person’s course of action, as I will show later. Activists thus decide on a specif ic action based on his/her rational calculations, deciding to maximize benef its and minimize costs. The decision-making calculus includes one’s ideological preferences or identity. More often than not, these actors are cognizant of the benefits to be derived and the potentially pernicious consequences of respective options.

1.5 Case Selection and Methodology Singapore has been chosen for this study for a number of reasons. First, Singapore has been described as one of the most conspicuous anomalies when it comes to modernization theory and democratization: in spite of attaining high levels of economic development, Singapore has not experienced agitations for democratic reform at the same levels as other countries (Geddes, 1999, p. 119; Tan K. P., 2018). As such, the city-state has been the subject of much analysis by scholars. Various explanations have been put forth for PAP’s longevity, from those focusing on Singapore’s economic and material success, to the regime’s ability to institute authoritarian features which quell dissent and discourage political participation (Mutalib, 2003; Acemoglu & Robinson, 2006; George, 2012; Slater, 2012; Ortmann & Thompson, 2014). These explanations are all valid, and this book builds on them. Singapore continues to be a fascinating case study in the field of ‘transitology’, which attempts to understand why and when authoritarian regimes democratize (Moller, 2009). Thus, in spite of its small size, Singapore is a potentially

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useful case study in comparative politics and sociology. Second, in spite of the academic focus devoted to Singapore, much of the research has centred on statist explanations. Many of these writings will be discussed in later chapters. For now, it suffices to say that because of the state’s dominating nature, studies on Singapore have tended to be state-centric. To be sure, there is much justification in focusing on the state: the state in Singapore has been overwhelmingly powerful, and as documented already, has adopted an interventionist stance in virtually every sphere of life. However, this study chooses to investigate the role of non-state actors since it will bring a different dimension to debates on state authority, religion, and civil society. The dearth of studies on other actors in Singapore leaves some room for academic innovation in this regard. The actions, and even inactions, of nonstate actors could prove instructive in putting forth a particular postulation. Understanding the stratagem of civil society activists in Singapore could assist in comprehending social movements under authoritarian regimes. Third, Singapore is a secular state with a Muslim minority, and its experience with Islam could be relevant for other states. In his book entitled Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Tariq Ramadan considers Singapore to be a country with ‘very Western circumstances’ when it comes to the position of Muslims (Ramadan, 2004, p. 3). While Singapore has its unique geo-political and historical conditions which set it apart from its Western counterparts, Ramadan does have a point in recognizing that Singapore mirrors the West in some areas. Lessons from the city-state therefore have relevance beyond Southeast Asia. Three categories of activists have been identified: liberals, conservatives, and the ulama. As already mentioned, Muslims can be categorized in a number of ways, and the choice of classification would involve some discretionary decision-making on the part of the author. I have chosen to typecast activists into these three groups for the following reasons. For the ulama, they are arguably the most important collection of actors in any Muslim society. In spite of the absence of a centralized religious authority equivalent to the papacy in Islam, the diffusion of authority does not result in the absolute absence of hierarchy. Wael Hallaq points out that since the early days of Islam, religious authority has resided in the ulama, and not among the political elites: this authority does not belong to a particular jurist, but rather, in the entire scholarly enterprise (Hallaq, 2004). Both authoritarian and democratic states have had to contend with the religious scholars in modern times. In the Middle East, successive secular and authoritarian regimes have had to devise a multitude of ways to interact with the religious scholars, ranging from outright repression to co-optation

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(Ayubi, 1995; Hafez, 2003). In societies where Islam plays a paramount role in the personal lives of citizens, even the most secular of regimes cannot ignore its potential to influence outcomes in the public sphere. President Soeharto of Indonesia, who ruled with an iron fist from 1966 to1998, had to appease the ulama and occasionally pay lip service to Islam, in spite of his aversion to religious influence in policy-making (Hefner, 2000). In Malaysia, the Malay-nationalist and previously secular United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – which was the main ruling party in the coalition which governed Malaysia from its independence in 1957 right up to 2018 – began embarking on a state-initiated Islamization project from 1982 onwards, enlisting the help of the ulama; this was in a bid to ensure that Islam was an important partner in the state-building agenda, and to out-Islamize the main Islamist opposition party (Nasr, 2001; Wain, 2009). Even democratic states have had to solicit the assistance of the ulama: after 9-11, the Bush regime worked in tandem with Sufi ulama such as Hisham Kabbani, in an attempt to soften its image and demonstrate that the war on terror was not a war on Islam (Leonard, 2005). Politicians in Western Europe regularly engage with the ulama for practical and electoral purposes (Fetzer & Soper, 2005). The ulama is a bloc which simply cannot be ignored. As ‘custodians of the faith’, Muslims do look to the ulama for guidance, and for better or for worse, the actions of the ulama have been consequential. For instance, fatwas issued by ulama in the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere have contributed to the oppression faced by religious minorities such as the Ahmadis (Rahman, 2014). Simultaneously, the ulama have also been crucial allies in the campaigns against terrorism; delivering sermons, issuing edicts and publishing writings which condemn extremism from the theological and jurisprudential viewpoints (Ansary, 2008; Febrica, 2010; Abdullah, 2017c). Whether the influence of the ulama has been pernicious or constructive, it cannot be denied that they are an important group which warrants serious investigation. It must be noted that the ulama are not a monolithic group. The ulama differ along political, theological and jurisprudential lines. The heterogeneity of the ulama is another salient matter that will be explored. The other two categories are perhaps more contentious. The terms ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ are highly disputed, and their usage is often accompanied by polemical intent: the term ‘liberal Muslim’ for instance is often used in a pejorative manner by its detractors.21 Nevertheless, I postulate that the terms do have utility and should be employed, albeit with a few caveats. Firstly, they are employed in this book in a value-neutral manner; 21 This will be explained further in Chapter 5.

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it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ to be liberal or conservative. Secondly, they are to describe a particular orientation towards religious and socio-political stances. Liberals refer to individuals who are more comfortable with challenging established norms and standards held by the Muslim community, whereas conservatives tend to adhere to these values more stringently. Liberal Muslims tend to be on the left side of the political spectrum, cherishing individual freedoms and personal liberties; conservative Muslims, on the other hand, value societal stability over those individual rights. More thorough definitions will be provided in Chapters 5 and 6. Thirdly, it must be acknowledged that the lines delineating ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ are not always acerbic. There will always be individuals who do not fit neatly into either category. Nevertheless, as general categories, the terms are still useful. This is because, I postulate, the fault-line between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ has not been adequately examined in the literature on modern Muslim societies. Much of the research on cleavages within Islam has revolved around ideological divisions – between Sunnis and Shias (Nasr, 2006; Abdo, 2017), and Sufis/traditionalists and Salafis/Wahhabis (Knysh, 2007; Brown, 2011; Khemissi, Laremont, & Eddine, 2012) –, or political differences, between those who are pro-state and those who are against the establishment (Sakallioğlu, 1996; Wiktorowicz, 2001; Zollner, 2008). These ideological and political differences, though useful, are not reflective of the entire picture. Furthermore, conservatives are often conflated with extremists, when in reality, the nexus between the two is spurious at best (Abdullah, 2017b). It thus becomes imperative to properly identify and investigate ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Muslims. This study utilizes a qualitative approach. Around 100 activists, professionals and ordinary Muslims were interviewed or talked to throughout the course of this research.22 The views and thoughts of these individuals were crucial in developing and honing the arguments made in this book. The interviews provide first-hand material, as activists outline the methods via which they navigate the political terrain. The empirical findings further provide originality to this book, as there has not been a monograph which has utilized ethnographic data from Muslim activists in this manner. The statements, publications, actions and inactions of these activists were also studied as much as possible, in addition to academic works which have been written on the subject. Local newspapers, especially The Straits Times and Berita Harian, the only Malay-language daily in Singapore, proved to 22 Considering the religious and political sensitivities associated with the topic, many interviewees wish to remain anonymous, though some were willing to be identified.

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be valuable. Perhaps more importantly, social media postings were looked at: online material is especially pertinent in the context of a competitive authoritarian state like Singapore where self-censorship is prevalent. To complement these, the actions and speeches of state elites too were investigated: even if the state is not the main protagonist in this study, its ubiquity in the Singapore context prohibits it from being ignored. Interviews were also conducted with observers of Singapore politics in general, and civil society activists who are not from the Muslim community. The thoughts of these individuals were used to triangulate the findings and arguments made in the book.

1.6 Outline of Book This book will now proceed as follows. Chapter 2 provides a literature review of Muslim activism throughout the world. The purpose of this chapter is to tease out the various strategies and responses of Muslim activists in different political systems and under various regime types, and thus situate this book within the larger body of literature. Chapter 3 lays out the main arguments made in this book. Essentially, the actions of Muslim activists are based on political opportunities. The main theoretical framework will be expounded, and the concomitant arguments, explained. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 detail the empirical findings based on the interview data and research. Chapter 4 will be on the ulama, and argues that by and large, the ulama ostensibly promote a quietist position, when in actuality, they are politically acquiescent. Although there are some ulama who disagree with the state on occasion, two points are noteworthy: first, these ulama are in the minority; and second, their criticisms are rarely overtly robust or sustained. These dissenting scholars too will be discussed. Chapter 5 investigates liberal Muslim activists, and contends that liberals have largely been astute in manoeuvring within the system, and have managed to make some gains in the political system. Chapter 6 discusses conservative activists, and avers that unlike liberals, they have not made too much gain in the public sphere, and much of conservative activism is relegated to the online space. In most cases, their activism does not result in substantive outcomes. I will then conclude with Chapter 7 detailing the over-arching themes discussed in the book, their relevance to the wider Muslim world, and some suggestions for areas for future research that would be relevant for scholars of politics and Islam.

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Bibliography Abdo, G. (2017). The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide. New York: Oxford University Press. Abdullah, W. J. (2013). ‘Religious Representation in Secular Singapore: A Case Study of MUIS and Pergas.’ Asian Survey, 53(6), 1182-1204. Abdullah, W. J. (2016b). ‘Electoral Innovation in Competitive Authoritarian States: A Case for the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) in Singapore.’ Japanese Journal of Political Science, 17(2), 190-207. Abdullah, W. J. (2016c). ‘Managing Minorities in Competitive Authoritarian states: Multiracialism and the Hijab Issue in Singapore.’ Indonesia and the Malay World, 44(129), 211-228. Abdullah, W. J. (2017b). ‘Conflating Muslim “Conservatism” with “Extremism”: Examining the “Merry Christmas” Saga in Singapore.’ Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 37(3), 344-356. Abdullah, W. J. (2017c). ‘Merits and Limits of Counter-ideological Work Against Terrorism: A Critical Appraisal.’ Small Wars & Insurgencies, 28(2), 291-308. Abdullah, W. J. (2018a). ‘Bureaucratising Islam: State Strategies and Muslim Responses in Singapore.’ Journal of Religious and Political Practice, 4(3), 297-313. Abdullah, W. J. (2018c). ‘Selective History and Hegemony-Making: The Case of Singapore.’ International Political Science Review, 39(4), 473-486. Acemoglu, D. A., & Robinson, J. A. (2006). Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. Al-Attas, S. M. N. (1978). Islam and Secularism. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Art Printing Works Sdn. Bhd. Almond, G. A. (1988). ‘The Return to the State.’ American Political Science Review, 82(3), 853-874. Ansary, A. F. (2008). ‘Combating Extremism: A Brief Overview of Saudi Arabia’s Approach.’ Middle East Policy, 15(2), 111-142. Ayubi, N. N. (1995). Over-Stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris. Barr, M. D. (2000). ‘Lee Kuan Yew and the “Asian Values” Debate.’ Asian Studies Review, 24(3), 309-334. Baumgardner, J., & Richards, A. (2000). Mainfesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bobel, C. (2007). ‘“I’m Not an Activist, Though I’ve Done a Lot of It”: Doing Activism, Being Activist and the “Perfect Standard” in a Contemporary Movement.’ Social Movement Studies, 6(2), 147-159. Bratton, M. (1989). ‘Beyond the State: Civil Society and Associational Life in Africa.’ World Politics, 41(3), 407-430. Brown, J. (2011). Salafis and Sufis in Egypt. Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Chan, H. C. (1971). Singapore: The Politics of Survival, 1965-1967. Singapore: Oxford University Press. Chittick, W. C. (2005). ‘Ibn Arabi: Heir to the Prophets. London: OneWorld. Chua, B. H. (2003). ‘Multiculturalism in Singapore: An Instrument of Social Control.’ Race & Class, 44(3), 58-77. Chua, B. H. (2017). Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press. Dahl, R. A. (1961). Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

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Doner, R. F., Ritchie, B. K., & Slater, D. (2005). ‘Systemic Vulnerability and the Origins of Developmental States: Northeast and Southeast Asia in Comparative Perspective.’ International Organization, 59(2), 327-361. Evans, P. B. (1995). Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Febrica, S. (2010). ‘Securitizing Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Accounting for the Varying Responses of Singapore and Indonesia.’ Asian Survey, 50(3), 569-590. Fetzer, J. S., & Soper, J. C. (2005). Muslims and the State in Britain, France, and Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press. Geddes, B. (1990). ‘Building “State” Autonomy in Brazil, 1930-1964.’ Comparative Politics, 22(2), 217-235. Geddes, B. (1999). ‘What Do We Know about Democratization After Twenty Years?’ Annual Review of Political Science, 2, 115-144. George, C. (2012). Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press. Goh, D. P. (2010). ‘State and Social Christianity in Post-Colonial Singapore.’ Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 25(1), 54-89. Hafez, M. M. (2003). Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. London: Lynne Rienner. Hallaq, W. B. (2004). ‘Juristic Authority vs. State Power: The Legal Crises of Modern Islam.’ Journal of Law and Religion, 19(2), 243-258. Hefner, R. W. (2000). Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Hussain, S. Z. (2012). Keeping the Faith: Syed Isa Semait: Mufti of Singapore 1972-2010. Singapore: Straits Times Press. Johnson, C. (1995). Japan: Who Governs? The Rise of the Developmental State. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. Josey, A. (2012). Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. Kausikan, B. (1997). Governance that Works. Journal of Democracy, 8(2), 24-34. Khemissi, H., Laremont, R. R., & Eddine, T. T. (2012). ‘Sufism, Salafism and State Policy towards Religion in Algeria: A Survey of Algerian Youth.’ The Journal of North African Studies, 17(3), 547-558. Knysh, A. (2007). ‘Contextualizing the Salafi – Sufi Conflict (From the Northern Caucasus to Hadramawt).’ Middle Eastern Studies, 43(4), 503-530. Kok, X. H. “Hijab Issue: Govt Must Balance Community Requirements,” Today, 6 November 2013. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/hijab-issue-govt-must-balance-communityrequirements. Accessed 29 August 2018. Kugle, S. A. (2001). ‘Framed, Blamed and Renamed: The Recasting of Islamic Jurisprudence in Colonial South Asia.’ Modern Asian Studies, 35(2), 257-313. “Late Singapore Leader Lee Kuan Yew Had Opinions on Everything,” Time, 22 March 2015. http://time.com/3748654/singapore-lee-kuan-yews-opinions/. Accessed 6 September 2018. Lau, A. (1998). A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. Lee, K. Y. (2000). From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings. Leonard, K. (2005). ‘American Muslims and Authority: Competing Discourses in a Non-Muslim State.’ Journal of American Ethnic History, 25(1), 5-30. Levitsky, S., & Way, L. A. (2002). ‘The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism.’ Journal of Democracy, 13(2), 51-65.

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Levitsky, S., & Way, L. A. (2010). Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press. Lim, A. “Halal Ship Kitchens Difficult but SAF Offers Food Options,” The Straits Times, 8 April 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/halal-ship-kitchens-difficult-but-saf-offers-foodoptions. Accessed 20 September 2018. Liow, J. C. (2009b). Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia. New York: Oxford University Press. Low, A. H. (2001). ‘The Past in the Present: Memories of the 1964 “Racial Riots” in Singapore.’ Asian Journal of Social Sciences, 29(3), 431-455. Mahmood, S. (2011). Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Mauzy, D. K., & Milne, R. (2002). Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party. London: Routledge. Migdal, J. S. (2001). State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Milne, R. (1966). ‘Singapore’s Exit from Malaysia; the Consequences of Ambiguity.’ Asian Survey, 6(3), 175-184. Moller, J. (2009). Post-Communist Regime Change: A Comparative Study. London: Routledge. Moore, R. Q. (2000). ‘Multiracialism and Meritocracy: Singapore’s Approach to Race and Inequality.’ Reviw of Social Economy, 58(3), 339-360. Mostarom, T. R. (2014). ‘The Singapore Ulama.’ Asian Journal of Social Science, 42(5), 561-583. Mutalib, H. (2000). ‘Illiberal Democracy and the Future of Opposition in Singapore.’ Third World Quarterly, 21(2), 313-342. Mutalib, H. (2003). Parties and Politics: a Study of Opposition Parties and PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press. Mutalib, H. (2012). Singapore Malays: Being Ethnic Minority And Muslim In A Global City-State. Abingdon; Oxon: Routledge. Mutalib, H. (2012). ‘Singapore’s Ethnic Relations’ Scorecard.’ Journal of Developing Societies, 28(1), 31-55. Nasir, K. M., Pereira, A. A., & Turner, B. S. (2009). Muslims in Singapore: Piety, Politics and Policies. London: Routledge. Nasr, V. (2001). Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power. New York: Oxford University Press. Nasr, V. (2006). The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Ortmann, S. (2011). ‘Singapore: Authoritarian but Newly Competitive.’ Journal of Democracy, 22(4), 153-164. Ortmann, S., & Thompson, M. R. (2014). ‘China’s Obsession with Singapore: Learning Authoritarian Modernity.’ The Pacific Review, 27(3), 433-455. Osman, M. N. (2018). ‘The Secular and the Religious in the Management of Islam in Singapore.’ Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 38(2), 246-262. Parliament of Singapore, https://www.parliament.gov.sg/mps/list-of-current-mps. Accessed 19 September 2018. Parsons, C. (2017). Introduction to Political Science: How to Think for Yourself About Politics. Boston: Pearson. Pei, M. (1994). ‘The Puzzle of East Asian Exceptionalism.’ Journal of Democracy, 5(4), 94-103. Plate, T. (2010). Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish.

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Prime Minister’s Office Singapore. “Opening Remarks by PM Lee Hsien Loong at a Dialogue with Community and Religious Leaders on 24 July 2017,” 24 July 2017. https://www.pmo.gov. sg/newsroom/pm-lee-hsien-loongs-opening-remarks-dialogue-community-and-religiousleaders. Accessed 10 September 2018. Prime Minister’s Office Singapore. “Transcript of Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at 66th Anniversary of Inter-Religious Organisation on 12th May 2015 at Istana,” 12 May 2015. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/transcript-speech-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong66th-anniversary-inter-religious. Accessed 10 September 2018. Przeworski, A., Alvarez, M. E., Cheibub, J. A., & Limongi, F. (2000). Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press. Rahman, F. Z. (2014). ‘State Restrictions on the Ahmadiyya sect in Indonesia and Pakistan: Islam or Political Survival?’ Australian Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 408-422. Rajah, J. (2012). Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore. New York: Cambridge University Press. Ramadan, T. (2004). Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press. Rodan, G. (2003). ‘Embracing Electronic Media but Suppressing Civil Society: Authoritarian Consolidation in Singapore.’ The Pacific Review, 16(4), 503-524. Rodan, G. (2009). ‘New Modes of Political Participation and Singapore’s Nominated Members of Parliament.’ Government & Opposition, 44(4), 438-462. Sartori, G. (1973). ‘What is “Politics”.’ Political Theory, 1(1), 5-26. Scott, J. C. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press. Shanmugam, K. “Religion, Terrorism and Threats to Singapore, the Region,” The Straits Times, 20 January 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/religion-terrorism-and-threats-tosingapore-the-region. Accessed 7 September 2018. Singapore Department of Statistics. Census of Population 2010, https://www.singstat.gov.sg/-/ media/files/publications/cop2010/census_2010_release1/cop2010sr1.pdf. Singapore Statutes Online. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/ CONS1963. Accessed 10 September 2018. Singapore Statutes Online. Penal Code, https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/PC1871?ValidDate=20171001 &ProvIds=pr298-. Accessed 10 September 2018. Sinha, V. (2005). Theorising ‘Talk’ about ‘Religious Pluralism’ and ‘Religious Harmony’ in Singapore. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 20(1), 25-40. Slater, D. (2003). ‘Iron Cage in an Iron Fist: Authoritarian Institutions and the Personalization of Power in Malaysia.’ Comparative Politics, 36(1), 81-101. Slater, D. (2012). ‘Strong-State Democratization in Malaysia and Singapore.’ Journal of Democracy, 23(2), 19-33. Steiner, K. (2015). ‘Governing Islam: The State, the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) and Islam in Singapore.’ Australian Journal of Asian Law, 16(1), 1-16. Stepan, A. C. (2015). The State and Society: Peru in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Sunnah.com. https://sunnah.com/. Accessed 8 August 2019. Tan, K. P. (2008). ‘Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore. ‘International Political Science Review, 29(1), 7-27. Tan, K. P. (2009). ‘Who’s Afraid of Catherine Lim? The State in Patriarchal Singapore.’ Asian Studies Review, 33(1), 43-62. Tan, K. P. (2018). Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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2

Muslim Activism: A Survey across the World Abstract The second chapter is a literature review. The first section tackles the different theological positions Muslim scholars have posited with regard to activism. This is important as we find that some of these stances guide, or are used to justify, the various forms of activism. I further discuss the types of Muslim activists, and the social movement literature, in order to ground the findings of this book within a field of study. The idea is that the book should be relevant beyond Singapore or even Islamic studies, and locating the book within the literature of social movements serves this purpose. Keywords: Theological justif ications, social movements, activism, co-optation.

As protesters were gathering in Tahrir Square in Egypt in early 2011, the calls for the resignation of the autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, gradually displayed religious undertones. Placards with Quranic phrases were commonplace, for instance, the verse which states ‘Now such were their houses – in utter ruin – because they practised wrongdoing’ (Aboelezz, 2014, p. 606). That scripture and faith are invoked should not be surprising; Egypt is a deeply spiritual society, and furthermore, Islam confers a form of legitimacy to a cause in a way which few other notions could. Equally unsurprisingly, defenders of the Mubarak regime were appealing to faith to discredit the mass uprising (Lee, 2018). Anwar Ibrahim, one of the most prominent modern Muslim politicians and thinkers of Islam in Malaysia, described the fatwas issued by the ulama in Malaysia against demonstrations led by the opposition in the country as imitating the tactics of Mubarak’s Egypt,

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where edicts were issued in support of his rule.1 The dialectic between proponents and opponents of activism against state repression has been a recurring theme in the history of Islam. Soon after the death of Prophet Muhammad, Muslim scholars and theologians attempted to grapple with the idea of the permissibility of disobeying tyrannical rulers. Companions of the Prophet held different positions on the matter. Abdullah ibn Umar, son of the second Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab, was willing to accept the authority of the despotic Umayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiyah (d. 683) since he prioritized the preservation of the unity of the Muslim community and social stability; others such as Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet, and Abdullah ibn Zubayr, son of the cousin of the Prophet, revolted against Yazid as they deemed him to be morally unfit to be the vanguard of the faith (Madelung, 1981; Hakim, 2016). Since then, Muslim scholars have had variegated opinions on appropriate forms of activism. This chapter serves two purposes. First, I appraise the various theological positions held by Muslims on activism. Much of the scholarly debate has revolved around the acceptability of peaceful activism. I do this to set the foundations for understanding the actions of various Muslim activists in Singapore, who raise similar theological justifications for their political posturing. Second, the chapter reviews the literature on social movements and activism in the Muslim world. This is done to situate this book within this broader literature, to extrapolate lessons that can be useful for grasping the situation in Singapore.

2.1 Muslim Activism: Theological Positions Classical Muslim scholars have tended to favour a cautious approach toward Muslim activism. Scarred by the Muslim civil wars which happened in the early years after the demise of the Prophet, namely the Battle of the Camel, which occurred 26 years after the Prophet’s death and the Battle of Siffin, which took place barely a year after that, traditional Muslim ulama have prioritized order and stability of the Islamic polity above all else. These two wars were particularly jarring for a couple of reasons: first, they happened just a few years after the Prophet’s passing; and second, the battles transpired between Companions of the Prophet, who were regarded as belonging to 1 “Fatwa haramkan demo ikut buku Umno, ulangi taktik Hosni Mubarak (Fatwa Prohibiting Demonstration is Out of Umno’s Playbook, Imitating Hosni Mubarak’s Tactics),” Keadilan Daily, 8 May 2012. http://www.keadilandaily.com/fatwa-haramkan-perhimpunan-ikut-buku-umnoulangi-taktik-hosni-mubarak/. Accessed 28 September 2018.

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the best generation of Islam (Graham, 1993; Waines, 1995). The knowledgeable men and women who lived through those times were extremely keen to ensure that the Muslim ummah, or community of believers, was not to undergo such tumult again. Hence, almost from the outset, Muslim scholars interpreted religious texts in a way which promoted pacifistic attitudes toward Muslim rulers. The justification given was that order under repression would be better than disorder accompanied with freedom, as encapsulated in the adage ‘a day of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.’ (Warburg, 2003, p. 25) These scholars gave various theological rationalizations for their quietist position, for instance, the following hadith: It is obligatory for you to listen to the ruler and obey him in adversity and prosperity, in pleasure and displeasure, and even when another person is given preference over you.2

The justification for this theological stance thus seems clear: even when the ruler may not act in accordance with the principles espoused by Islam such as justice and equality, obedience to the ruler is required. Even more explicit traditions are quoted to vindicate quietist positions. Salama b. Yazid al-ju’afi asked the Messenger of Allah: Prophet of Allah, what do you think if we have rulers who rule over us and demand that we discharge our obligations towards them, but they (themselves) do not discharge their own responsibilities towards us? What do you order us to do? The Messenger of Allah avoided giving any answer. Salama asked him again. He (again) avoided giving any answer. Then he asked again – it was the second time or the third time – when Ash’ath b. Qais (finding that the Prophet was unnecessarily being pressed for answer) pulled him aside and said: Listen to them and obey them, for on them shall be their burden and on you shall be your burden.3

In this hadith, the context is apparent. Citizens are obliged to remain patient in the face of perceived unfairness, and God will eventually hold the rulers accountable for their behaviour. Many other similar hadith are present in the corpus of Islamic literature. 2 Sahih Muslim, Book 20, Hadith 4524. https://sunnah.com/muslim/33/52. Accessed 12 October 2018. 3 Sahih Muslim, Book 20, Hadith 4551. https://sunnah.com/muslim/33/79. Accessed 12 October 2018.

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Muhammad Haniff Hassan’s study on Islamic attitudes toward civil disobedience is instructive here. Hassan outlines the various arguments put forth by both proponents and opponents of civil disobedience amongst the Islamic scholarly community. He details that intellectual giants such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), Al-Bukhari (d. 870), An-Nawawi (d. 1277) and Ibn Taimiyyah (d. 1328) propound the impermissibility of disobeying the legitimately elected leaders (Hassan, 2017, pp. 29-30). 4 Many contemporary scholars too agree with such an approach toward political activism. Many establishment-linked ulama in the Middle East, rather unsurprisingly, have openly advocated such a stance. Saudi ulama have been upfront about their support for the Saudi regime, for instance, arguing that even speaking against the government could result in catastrophic consequences. Sheikh Salih Al-Fawzan, a notable alim in Saudi Arabia, says: Khuruj (the act of breaking away from rulers) is not restricted to carrying arms. Speaking against, or insulting a ruler, is considered khuruj […] instigating against ruler also […] Indeed, a word can lead to a devastating war. Khuruj can involve arms, speech or beliefs. (Hassan, 2017, p. 26)

Fawzan’s exposition, hyperbole aside, points toward an extremely constricting approach toward activism. Any word of dissent toward the state is eschewed, as it has the potential to lead to something more detrimental. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the former Mufti of Egypt, openly declared his support for the autocratic Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, invoking similar theological justifications.5 Beyond the Middle East, the American scholar, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, who has a worldwide following including in Southeast Asia, urged Malaysians to be grateful to the then-Barisan Nasional government in spite of the shortcomings of the coalition, because it is ‘still better than anarchy’.6 Hamza’s plea bore a resemblance to the ulama who were aligned to the Malaysian state: the Mufti of Perak, Dato’ Harussani Zakaria, who stated 4 Ahmad ibn Hanbal is the founder of one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, the Hanbali school; Al-Bukhari is the compiler of what is accepted as the most authentic book of hadith; An-Nawawi is a medieval scholar who is the most important within Shaf ii thought, another school of jurisprudence within the Sunni school; whereas Ibn Taimiyyah is an important Hanbali medieval jurist who is respected by many modern Salafis. 5 David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh, “Egypt Military Enlists Religion to Quell Ranks,” The New York Times, 25 August 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/26/world/middleeast/ egypt.html. Accessed 12 October 2018. 6 See the interview Hamza Yusuf did with the Radio Channel, IKIM FM, https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=_MHPc5wIE48&t=2573s, Accessed 12 October 2018.

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that it is impermissible to overthrow the government.7 The overwhelming concern of these ulama is that order must be the paramount, overriding objective for any society. Civil disobedience not only harms the stability of the polity, but has the potential to escalate into something worse, and therefore must be avoided. The example of the aforementioned Abdullah ibn Umar sheds further light toward this approach: ibn Umar was a far more pious Muslim than Yazid, yet he was willing to accept Yazid’s authority as the political leader, not because he believed in Yazid’s Islamic credentials, but because he desired order; that is, he was willing to accept tyranny to avoid the risk of anarchy. There exists another strand of thought within the Islamic tradition which argues for civil disobedience, in the face of injustice and oppression. These ulama accept the soundness of the above-quoted hadiths, but provide qualifications to them. Furthermore, they argue that those hadiths must be understood in light of other traditions, and the fundamental principles which Islam espouses, promotes and seeks to protect. When the rulers are not able to enact justice, the legitimacy of their rule is adversely affected. Civil disobedience thus becomes permissible, and at times, even recommended. These scholars draw upon the following hadith, amongst others: The best of jihad (struggle) is a just word spoken to an unjust ruler.8

This hadith has been cited by many scholars to justify their actions in disobeying the state. Jihad, which is considered obligatory for Muslims, is invoked in this following hadith; but instead of the conventional understanding of jihad as armed struggle or the internal battle to subdue one’s soul in obedience to God, the narration speaks of the importance of speaking truth to power. Another hadith that is used to justify this stance concerns an incident in which the Prophet chided members of an army for not defying their commander when he was committing oppression. Consider the following narration: The Prophet sent an army unit (for some campaign) and appointed a man from the Ansar as its commander and ordered them (the soldiers) to obey 7 “Tindakan guling kerajaan haram – Mufti Perak (Act of Overthrowing Government is Impermissible – Perak Mufti),” Berita Harian Online, 20 August 2015. https://www.bharian.com. my/node/76106. Accessed 12 October 2018. 8 Sunan Ibn Majah, Book 36, Hadith 86. https://sunnah.com/ibnmajah/36/86. Accessed 12 October 2018.

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him. (During the campaign) he became angry with them and said, “Didn’t the Prophet order you to obey me?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “I order you to collect wood and make a fire and then throw yourselves into it.” So they collected wood and made a fire, but when they were about to throw themselves into it, they started looking at each other, and some of them said, “We followed the Prophet to escape from the fire. How should we enter it now?” So while they were in that state, the fire extinguished and their commander’s anger abated. The event was mentioned to the Prophet and he said, “If they had entered it (the fire) they would never have come out of it, for obedience is required only in what is good.”9

Here, the Prophet explicitly mentioned that obedience is not required in matters which are unjust. Abu Hanifah (d. 767), another founder of one of the Sunni schools of jurisprudence, opined that it was permissible to go against rulers who were overtly oppressive, as did Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), the founder of the Maliki school (Hassan, 2017, pp. 55-56). Tariq Ramadan, an influential thinker in contemporary Islam, advocates that Muslims should openly disagree and challenge rulers when they engage in despotic and authoritarian practices. Ramadan invoked the hadith quoted above on the best jihad being a word of truth.10 Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who has been critical of the Hosni Mubarak and Sisi regimes for their human rights violations and repressive rule, openly supported many of the Arab revolutions which occurred in 2011 (Nakissa, 2015). Qaradawi’s opinions are particularly salient, as he is one of the leading ulama in the Muslim world today who has a worldwide appeal (Warren & Gilmore, 2014)11. As much as the anti-activism ulama draw upon early Muslim history to make their case, so too does this group of scholars. In arguing for activism and civil disobedience, these ulama referred to the examples of Companions of the Prophets such as Talha ibn Ubaidillah and Zubayr ibn Al-Awwam, and the Prophet’s beloved wife, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, who challenged the fourth Caliph, Ali, resulting in the Battle of the Camel (Hassan, 2017). The examples of Zubayr’s son, Abdullah, and the Prophet’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, in attempting to revolt against Yazid ibn Muawiyah are further used to bolster the case for the permissibility of civil disobedience. In Southeast Asia, ulama such as Dr. Asri, the current Mufti of Perlis, a state in Northern 9 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 93, Hadith 9. https://sunnah.com/bukhari/93/9. Accessed 12 October 2018. 10 Interview with Tariq Ramadan, 9 February 2016. 11 Qaradawi has been described as the ‘Global Mufti’ due to his international appeal.

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Malaysia, stated that it becomes the duty of citizens to advise the government when they behave in ways that are un-Islamic, such as engaging in corrupt practices, and lent their support to demonstrations against the then-Malaysian government.12 Evidently, as in many matters pertaining to Islamic jurisprudence, there is a myriad of views concerning civil disobedience. On one hand, there are scholars who favour a Hobbesian approach, and in preferring to shut the door on any potential of civil unrest, they declare civil disobedience to be unlawful and frowned upon in the religion. On the other, there exists a group of ulama who permit, if not actively promote, civil disobedience in the pursuit of justice and goodness. Two points must be noted. First, there are different types of civil disobedience which have been discussed by even the scholars who have made it permissible. Some of these ulama allow non-violent civil disobedience but do not permit taking up arms against the rulers, while others do not make such distinctions between violent and non-violent forms of activism. Second, most of these scholars, especially the classical ones, were speaking in the context of Muslim rulers and empires. No doubt, the justifications for these arguments have been used by modern ulama living in the era of nation-states, even those who operate within secular and Muslim-minority states such as Singapore, but it is important to understand the genesis of the theological debate. Modern scholars such as Abdullah Saeed and Tariq Ramadan have dealt with this subject at great length. Ramadan, for instance argues that European Muslims should participate in the democratic processes in their own countries as full citizens, and are entitled to rights accorded to other citizens in a democratic polity (Ramadan, 1999). These rights form the basis for which Muslim activism should be understood, if not developed. Similarly, Saeed contends that many Muslim scholars today have accepted the permissibility of living and participating in polities under non-Muslim rule (Saeed, 2007). At the same time, other contemporary scholars such as Hamza Yusuf have been critical of some forms of activism which, according to them, have resulted in greater harms such as the Syrian refugee crisis.13

12 “For Speaking Up on Najib, Rosmah? Now Perlis Mufti Probed for Sedition over Bersih 4 Comment,” Malaysia Chronicle, 18 September 2015. http://www.malaysia-chronicle.com/index.php?option%3Dcom_k2%26view%3Ditem%26i d%3D597392:for-speaking-up-on-najib-rosmah?-now-perlis-mufti-probed-for-sedition-overbersih-4-comment%26Itemid%3D2#axzz48puLpRHX. Accessed 12 October 2016. 13 See the interview Hamza Yusuf did with the Radio Channel IKIM FM, https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=_MHPc5wIE48&t=2573s, Accessed 12 October 2018.

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Considering the theological differences of opinion on the matter, it is not at all surprising that states have attempted to exploit this chasm. Some states have actively courted the support of ulama, not only to legitimize their rule, but to pre-empt opposition which may arise from religious grounds. The Assad regime in Syria has been particularly adept at this. Ulama such as the conservative Sheikh Ramadan Al-Bouti, a highly respected figure within the Muslim world, lent their support to Assad during the wave of protests against his regime and the subsequent civil war; in return, these ulama were given free rein to propagate their beliefs as long as state authority was not directly challenged (Pierret, 2013). This is an important exposition which is relevant to the Singapore context and will be returned to in subsequent chapters.

2.2 Brief Literature Review Types of Muslim Activists Now that the various theological and jurisprudential positions on Muslim activism have been elucidated, it is timely to survey the literature on Muslim social movements and activism. The different understandings of the permissibility of activism have resulted in practical differences in Muslim social movements. The Jama’at Tabligh (Organization for Proselytization), for instance, abjure any direct involvement in political affairs, preferring its members to focus on individual piety and direct their concerns on the hereafter (Noor, 2012; Janson, 2014). The organization, which has its roots in the Indian sub-continent, has been successful in the Muslim world, and is estimated to have 70-80 million followers and/or members (Janson, 2014, p. 4). Yet, it bears repeating that being apolitical is a political stance in itself: by choosing to not participate in politics or overt forms of activism, the Jama’at has essentially made a political choice to leave the matters of governance and administration to others. It is natural then that in some cases, for instance in Southern Thailand, the state has a symbiotic relationship with the Jama’at, since if Muslims are apolitical, there would be one less potential threat to its authority (Liow, 2009a). Individual expressions of religiosity are tolerated as long as they do not threaten the overall stability of society, or the authority of the ruling elites. Other groups, however, have differed markedly with the Jama’at. Perhaps the most conspicuous Muslim activist group of the modern era is the Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwanul Muslimin. Founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan Al-Banna, the organization was critical of imperial rule and the secular

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governments which succeeded colonial administrators (Kramer, 2010). For the Ikhwan, the humiliation Muslim countries faced from the West, as embodied in colonialism, was due to the decadence of Muslim societies themselves; the solution was thus to not only purify individual selves, as the Jama’at would advocate, but rather, to ensure that Islamic values and ethics would be practised at all levels of society, including and especially government. In Al-Banna’s own words: Our duty as Muslim Brothers is to work for the reform of selves (nufus), of hearts and souls by joining them to God the all-high; then to organize our society to be fit for the virtuous community which commands the good and forbids evil-doing, then from the community will arise the good state. (Zubaida, 2009, p. xvii)

Here, one can witness a palpable difference between the approaches of the Ikhwan and the Tabligh; the latter would agree with the first part of Al-Banna’s exhortation, but the second half, which involves the organization of society via commanding good and forbidding evil, would invariably involve some level of political participation. The concept of ‘commanding good, forbidding evil’ (amr maaruf nahi munkar) is generally accepted by Muslims to be an important maxim in the faith; however, the interpretation of what precisely constitutes it and what are the limits of the axiom differ across Muslim communities (Cook, 2001). Inevitably, the Ikhwan embarked on a collision course with the Egyptian state, and successive presidents, up until today, have had to contend with the organization. In 2012, after the Arab revolutions which shook the foundations of Middle Eastern politics and challenged the dictatorships, a leader of the Ikhwan, Mohamed Morsi, became the country’s democratically elected President. Barely a year later, however, the military staged a coup and overthrew Morsi (Tabaar, 2013). Even though the Ikhwan has only helmed the political leadership in the country for a year in its entire history, its significance cannot be understated. In spite of attempts by presidents such as Hosni Mubarak, whose rule ended after mass protests in 2011 as part of the Arab Revolutions, to ban and dismantle the organization, the Ikhwan has proven to be remarkably resilient. Its grassroots activities have penetrated many aspects of Egyptian society; many of its members are part of the ulama, and some work at the prestigious Al-Azhar University, which is generally considered to be the bastion of Sunni thought; and it has been supported by influential figures such as Yusuf Qaradawi (Wickham, 2013). Moreover, the organization’s influence is not limited to Egyptian shores. Offshoots of the

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organization exist in many countries in the Middle East and North African region, and even in Southeast Asia, many Muslims have been influenced by the activities, ideas and organizational structure of the Brotherhood. In Indonesia, for example, the Islamist group Masyumi was clearly influenced by the writings and teaching materials of the Ikhwan (Van Bruinessen, 2002). Within the myriad of organizations which have their origins in the Ikhwan, there exists a great diversity in approaches and methodologies. Some, such as Hamas in Palestine, have no qualms resorting to violence to fulfil their political and religious goals; whereas others, such as the branch in Jordan, participate in local elections and champion democratic reform (Lust-Okar, 2006). Often, jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda frown upon the Ikhwan for the latter’s participation in a ‘secular’ system such as democracy (Leiken & Brooke, 2007). For the terrorists, the only acceptable form of activism should entail jihad and violence. Thus, in spite of the Ikhwan’s problems with the secular Egyptian state and authoritarian rule, it did not make them natural allies with groups like Al-Qaeda or Daesh. In fact, one could make the argument that the Ikhwan and terrorist groups are natural competitors, since they vie for the same crowd: Muslims who are frustrated with the status quo. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh represent the most extreme form of activism in the Muslim world: one which not only condones violence, but makes it obligatory upon every Muslim. This form of activism is undoubtedly the recourse of a small minority of activists: most prefer to either work within the confines of their particular states, or when they challenge their respective governments, do not resort to violence; or like the Tabligh, prefer to shun political involvement and just focus on bettering their individual conditions. Nevertheless, violent activism is a reality in the modern world. In Singapore, even though there have been cases of terrorist plots being uncovered and individuals being arrested for extremism, these cases are few and far between, and thus will not be the subject of inquiry in this monograph. The peculiar case of terrorism further warrants studies by themselves, and there is no shortage of authors who have endeavoured to elucidate the causes and impact of terrorism in the city-state (Tan, 2002; Abuza, 2003; Hassan & Pereire, 2006; Febrica, 2010; Low, 2013; Gunaratna, 2017). Hence, this study will focus on non-violent forms of Muslim activism. Muslim activists can further be understood in terms of their choices to partake in social movements or to act as individuals. Many activists form networks, formal or informal, to propagate certain ideas or champion particular causes. The social movement literature is replete with examples of Muslim activists being part of formal organizations and networks, and these will be discussed in a while. Apart from Islamist organizations like

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the Ikhwan, many Non-Governmental Organizations exist throughout Muslim societies. These NGOs serve a myriad of purposes. Some like Perkasa in Malaysia and the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) in Indonesia display more extreme tendencies and are forceful in their opposition to the influence of non-Muslims in the public arena (Jones, 2011; Milner, 2018). Others, such as IKRAM in Malaysia, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in Indonesia, and AK-Der in Turkey promote a more inclusive version of an Islamic vision of politics, which includes democratic reform, gender parity and anti-discrimination measures (Kadioglu, 2005; Bush, 2009; Malik, 2017). Organizations which are ostensibly apolitical, such as charity groups, are also prevalent. Groups such as Islamic Relief, which is based in the UK, draw upon their worldwide appeal cultivated through the internet, to collect funds for Muslims in distress throughout the world; Islamic Relief’s website solicits funds for Muslims in troubled areas or facing calamities such as natural disasters in Gaza (Palestine), Myanmar (Rohingyas), Yemen, Syria, Indonesia, inter alia.14 Muslims have also formed political parties to contest elections and participate in democratic processes. In Turkey, the now Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) has been the most prominent example of Islamists attaining power through legitimate democratic means, such that Turkey has become a ‘model’ for other aspiring democratic movements in the Muslim world (Marks, 2017). In Tunisia, the Ennahdah party has undergone an evolution from a party with exclusivist leanings to one which is more moderate, even if it is conservative (Cavatorta & Merone, 2013). The Islamic Party of Malaysia (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS) has been a crucial player in the Malaysian electoral scene, and its political leanings have oscillated between conservativism and openness depending on the political opportunities available (Abdullah, 2018b). The participation of Islamist political parties in democratic systems has sparked a fresh debate on the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, with scholars debating whether the mere act of participating in such processes would result in these parties moving to the centre (Schwedler, 2011; Driessen, 2012; Buehler, 2013; Cavatorta & Merone, 2013; Gurses, 2014). Regardless, it is increasingly common to see Muslims banding together under the banner of Islam – as interpreted by their respective constituents – and exercising their activism through formal electoral participation. Muslim activism, however, must not be understood purely in terms of involvement in formal organizations, or as part of groups. It is this book’s 14 See Islamic Relief, https://www.islamic-relief.org.uk/. Accessed 17 October 2018.

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contention that Muslim individuals are often activists in their own right. When a Muslim attempts to influence socio-political outcomes via writing letters to their Members of Parliament, posting their political opinions on social media, or urging others, directly or indirectly, to support particular political parties, entities, or causes, he/she should be considered to be engaging in activism too. In countries like Singapore, where formalized groupings based on ethnicity and religion are either discouraged or overtly prohibited, it becomes even more imperative to study and understand individual modes of activism. Even a simple act of putting on the veil can at times be an act of activism, although it must be noted that it does not necessarily have to be and could just be an expression of individual piety. We can thus see Muslim activism manifesting itself in various forms: some activists choose to attempt to enact change via being part of and/ or forming groups, whereas others work individually; some choose to be apparently apolitical, while others view political involvement as not only vital, but necessary for their cause; some operate outside the ambit of the formal electoral arena and prefer to be NGOs or lobbyists, while others participate in political contests through parties. Ideological Slants of Activists One of the most salient fault-lines between Muslims today, or so it has been argued, is the division along ideological parameters. Specifically, two major divisions have become the focus of scholars and observers alike: the Sunni-Shia and Salafi-traditionalist/Sufi divides. The Sunni-Shia fault-line has existed almost from the inception of Islam itself, and is the major division within the Muslim ummah. After the death of the Prophet, some Muslims disagreed on the appointment of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman – who were his senior Companions – as the first three Caliphs, and felt that Ali – his cousin, son-in-law and another prominent Companion – should have assumed the mantle of leadership of the polity (Rogerson, 2006). What was initially a political divide over the Caliphate slowly transformed into a theological divide: the group which accepted the validity of the Caliphate of the first three Companions came to be known as the Ahlussunnah wal Jamaah (The People of the Sunnah and Community), or Sunnis, while those who believed in special status derived from being part of the Prophet’s family and affirmed Ali’s right to the Caliphate were known as Shias (or partisans, short for partisans of Ali). This divide became a central feature in the political realities of Muslim societies, from the Umayyad Empire to this day. Wars and smaller-scale conflicts have erupted between Sunnis

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and Shias. No doubt, these battles are rarely solely theological: political motivations are always intertwined with theological considerations, and these two can never be decoupled. Nevertheless, theology does matter too. Today, in the Middle East, especially since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the lines between Sunnis and Shias have hardened, and more incidences of sectarian violence have been reported throughout the region. Even before the invasion, however, Sunni-Shia sectarianism has always existed. As asserted by Vali Nasr, conflicts within Islam, specifically the Sunni-Shia divide, has the potential to shape international affairs and the future of the world (Nasr, 2006). Outside the Middle East too, polemics between Sunnis and Shias are not infrequent. In Pakistan, mob attacks against Shias have become increasingly routine (Zaman, 1998; Murphy, 2019); in Malaysia and Indonesia, there have been campaigns to ban Shias or at the very least, restrict their influence in the public sphere (Musa & Tan, 2017). Although some Sunni activists have sought to curtail the rights of Shias, others have promoted a more inclusive approach toward comprehending Islamic theology, jurisprudence and civilization. In Malaysia, groups such as Sisters in Islam, which is considered to be more ‘liberal’, argue for a more all-encompassing view of Islam which does not denigrate non-Sunni expressions of faith, including Shi’ism.15 Syed Farid Alatas, a prominent Malaysian sociologist who is based in Singapore, similarly champions for the acceptance of Shiism as ‘valid creed’ within Islam.16 Jaringan Islam Liberal (Islamic Liberal Network) in Indonesia too adopts such a position (Hashim, 2015). Thus, the Sunni-Shia cleavage, while pertinent, should not be seen as a catch-all explanation for all types of Muslim activism: evidently, there are cross-cutting cleavages, as evinced by Sunnis who promote the inclusion Shi’ism in the wider Muslim identity, and in fact, activities which completely fall outside this ideological divide, as will be expounded later. Issues of poverty, freedoms of expression, and gender, often do not correspond to the Sunni-Shia divide. The other major ideological chasm between Muslims, which lately has become increasingly significant, is the Salafi-traditionalist/Sufi divide. This divide, which is an intra-Sunni divide, has dominated much of the recent discourse on Islam, especially in the post-September 11 era. Salafism, often 15 “State Religion Status Leaves Many ‘Outside the Box’,” Free Malaysia Today, 29 December 2017. https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/12/29/state-religion-status-leavesmany-outside-the-box/. Accessed 24 October 2018. 16 Syed Farid Alatas, “Singapore Muslim Leaders Must Tackle Rise of Anti-Shi’ism Hate Speech,” The Straits Times, 26 August 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/spore-muslim-leadersmust-tackle-rise-of-anti-shiism-hate-speech. Accessed 24 October 2018.

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derogatorily referred to as Wahhabism by its detractors, has been described as the ‘driving force behind global terrorism’.17 Salafism is a broad-based ideology within Islam which implores Muslims to go back to the roots of the original teachings of the faith, utilizing the slogan ‘Go back to the Quran and Sunnah’, in a bid to urge Muslims to not place too much emphasis on the jurisprudential and theological opinions of the ulama, and instead, take knowledge from the original sources of Islam. This is not to say that Salafis do not assign any importance to the ulama; indeed, the idea that the ulama are most qualified to interpret scripture is one that is consistent amongst Sufis/traditionalists and Salafis. Comparatively, however, Salafis tend to be more accepting of criticisms toward the ulama and do not staunchly adhere to any of the schools of jurisprudence. Salafis also favour a more literal approach to scripture, especially in the field of theology. A subset of Salafism is Wahhabism, a puritanical version of Islam which appeared in Central Arabia in the 18th century. Wahhabism rejected the allegedly corrupt Islamic practices of the Arabs at the time, claiming that they betrayed the purity of the Prophet’s teachings (DeLong-Bas, 2004; Valentine, 2015). Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (d. 1792) founded this ultra-conservative movement, which still defines the religious orientation of Saudi Arabia today (Al-Rasheed, 2015). A key facet of Salafism and Wahhabism is their opposition to innovations or bida’ah in Islamic practice. The multi-faceted types of Salafism will be further expounded in Chapter 4. The Salafis/Wahhabis are often at odds with their traditionalist/Sufi counterparts. Traditionalists refer to Muslims who follow one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, practices rituals such as the Mawlid (celebration of the Prophet’s birthday) which were not introduced by the Prophet but are considered to be beneficial for one’s spirituality, and in theology, do not accept literal interpretations of the Quran which anthropomorphize God (Brown, 2014b; Lauzière, 2016). Sufis, who are also traditionalists, consider the mystical aspects of Islam as essential, and often belong to Sufi orders known as tareqahs (Knysh, 2016). Naturally, Salafis are often at odds with traditionalists/Sufis as the former deem many of the latters’ practices to be innovations, while the latter consider the Salafis to be disrespectful of centuries of Islamic tradition (Hamid, 2016). In recent years, the divide has gained more attention as Salafism/Wahhabism has been blamed for the rise of terrorism amongst Muslim societies; and some traditionalists/Sufis 17 Simon Ross Valentine, “What is Wahhabism? The Puritanical Code of Islam Thought to be a Driving Force behind Global Terrorism,” The Mirror, 5 June 2017. https://www.mirror.co.uk/ news/uk-news/what-wahhabism-puritanical-code-islam-10564342. Accessed 25 October 2018.

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have chosen to portray their ideology as the only bastion against Muslim extremism (Abdullah, 2017c). While it is true that many modern Muslim terrorists subscribe to some form of Wahhabi ideology, not all of them do (and most Wahhabis are in fact, not terrorists or extremists, even if they are ultra-conservative) (Wagemakers, 2016; Abdullah, 2017c). Regardless, the equivalence between Salafism-Wahhabism and terrorism has been assumed far too often (Rakic & Juricic, 2012). A couple of points need to be emphasized. First, the excessive focus on the Salafi-traditionalist divide obscures some other pertinent cleavages. In the first place, both Salafis and traditionalists draw upon the same corpus of Sunni sources and knowledge to come to their respective jurisprudential and theological positions; in many matters, their positions converge and are indistinguishable from each other’s. While the cleavage is important, other schisms such as the liberal-conservative divide are also salient, and could better elucidate certain trends within the Muslim world than conventional, simplistic Salafi-traditionalist explanations. Secondly, even though Salafis and traditionalists hold many similar positions, ultimately, the self-identities of these categories do matter to their adherents; often, Salafis and traditionalists clash over the minutiae. Tariq Ramadan offers a useful typology of major tendencies within the ummah: the six major categories he identifies are 1) Scholastic Traditionalism, 2) Salafi Literalism, 3) Salafi Reformism, 4) Political Literalist Salafism, 5) ‘Liberal’ or ‘Rationalist’ Reformism and 6) Sufism (Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, 2004). Of course, these categories are not always mutually exclusive; many ‘liberal’ reformers, for instance, claim some relationship with Sufism as well. Broadly, however, this typology is useful since it provides a more nuanced view of reality than the simplistic Salafi-traditionalist/Sufi binary. Salafism itself is multi-faceted: some Salafis are reform-minded and wish to uplift the ummah via returning to the original sources; others are literal and apolitical; additionally, some Salafis participate in politics by adopting exclusionary and/or confrontational stances. Moreover, the typology includes ‘liberal’ Muslims, a category which deserves more investigation. Ramadan’s categorization provides a platform upon which this study builds; categories of Muslim activism are often more nuanced, and needs to be properly explored. Social Movement Literature As emphatically asserted by Wiktorowicz, for a great length of time not much attention was devoted to Islamic activism by scholars studying social

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movements: in his opinion, this was to the detriment of the field as a whole, since studying Muslim activism could help shed crucial light on important issues (Wiktorowicz, 2004). In his opinion, by focusing on the West, the social movement theory has ‘been heavily contextualized by liberal democratic politics and Western societies, thus narrowing the generalizability of findings and conclusions’ (Wiktorowicz, 2004, p. 4). His observation is supported by Saba Mahmood’s findings in Egypt: Mahmood argues that the liberal (and/or feminist) tendency to view every action of actors in the non-Western world in binary terms – that is, to see an act as either evidence of resistance or subordination – is not helpful in illuminating realities on the ground (Mahmood, 2005). Very often, other factors such as personal notions of piety matter more in the individuals’ decision-making calculus, as is the case, for instance, for modern Egyptian women who voluntarily wear the veil, citing reasons of modesty (Mahmood, 2005, p. 16). That notwithstanding, the social movement literature has been helpful in understanding collective action and activism in general. Social movements can be defined as attempts to further a cause by a collection of individuals, through collective action and outside the purview of established institutions (Giddens, 1997, p. 511). The social movement literature is replete with ways of overcoming the collective action dilemma, best described by Olson is his seminal work, The Logic of Collective Action: if everyone is rational, it becomes irrational for a person to partake in collective action since the benefits of successful action are non-excludable, while the costs are specific to participants, and thus, collective action does not take place even if it would be beneficial for many (Olson, 1965). Scholars working on resource mobilization have identified the presence of leaders, or political entrepreneurs, as being vital to overcoming this problem (McCarthy & Zald, 1977); others have argued that the role of inter-personal relationships and the creation and/or appropriation of identities matter too (Oberschall, 1973; Goldstone, 2001). Essentially, one of the primary themes within the literature is to address the conditions under which collective action can take place. In a thoughtful piece, Ondrej Cisar identifies four main views of social movements in the political science literature: Marxist, Weberian, Polanyian, and Tocquevillean. The Marxist perspective identifies socially excluded groups as the actors behind social movements; these movements protest against the excesses of the capitalist system, and are typically anti-systemic. The Weberian view – which is prevalent in analyses of non-Western societies as Mahmood acknowledges – places the state as the primary mover in society, and concomitantly, social movements as challengers to the state who participate in collective action because they have been excluded from

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decision-making. Scholars who adopt the Polanyian perspective believe social movements are occupational groups which seek reform in a corporatist system. Finally, for those who favour the Tocquevillean view, civil society is the arena within which collective action in the form of social movements manifest, and these movements represent a wide range of social interests (Cisar, 2015). Cisar’s typology is useful: in Singapore, social movements and individual activists can be studied from either the Weberian or Tocquevillean perspectives; indeed, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. There could very well be activists who are challenging the state, as much as there could be individuals or groups who work with the state and other social movements to expand the common space. Both can, and do, exist simultaneously. Political psychologists have highlighted three main motivations for individuals to take part in collective action: instrumentality, identification, and expressiveness. Instrumental participants partake in activism in order to affect socio-political outcomes; identification refers to the idea that participating would confer on these individuals a sense of solidarity with the organizers and other participants; expressiveness means that individuals participate in order to air their concerns (Klandermans, 2015). At the core of collective action is the concept of ‘grievances’, which can be defined as ‘outrage about the way authorities are treating a social problem’ (Klandermans, 1997, p. 38); individuals are motivated to address, if not correct these grievances via collective action. Deprivation, whether absolute or relative, is an efficacious stimulus for protest against established institutions. Put differently, grievances ensure that there is a demand for protest; the supply-side of protest depends on the availability of political entrepreneurs, the cohesiveness of the demonstrations/collective action, and the sense of identification that it can offer (Drury & Reicher, 2000; Ruef, 2010; CorrigallBrown, 2012). However, social movements are not just a simple matter of demand and supply: at times, identities are created and manipulated, as are perceptions of grievance (Finkel, Muller, & Opp, 1989; Kelly, 1993; Tucker, 2007). The focus on social movements has typically been on the mobilization of individuals, rather than the demand and supply aspects of collective action (Klandermans, 2015). Insights into these factors thus become valuable in understanding not only social movements, but the psyches of activists as well. When motivations are understood in terms of identification and expressiveness too, in addition to instrumentality, the studies move beyond material costs and benefits – which although important, should not be the only dimension of analysis – toward investigating concerns which are based on considerations of ‘morality’, emotions, and social obligations (Elster,

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1985b; Marwell & Oliver, 1993; Shilling & Mellor, 1998; Yang, 2000; Polletta & Jasper, 2001; Klandermans, 2015). The social movement literature has also been preoccupied with the concept of political opportunity structures. Sidney Tarrow, one of the proponents of the notion, initially defined political opportunity structures as comprising four elements: the openness of the political process, the stability of political alignments, the availability of allies, and the existence of conflicts between the political elites (Tarrow, 2011). The concept has undergone significant modifications since then and has been the subject of much inquiry and critique, partly because it has been used as a catch-all idea to explain all outcomes associated with social movements and collective action (Goodwin & Jasper, 1999). The idea of political opportunity will be developed in the next chapter; even though it may have been used amorphously by some scholars, I posit that it is nonetheless a useful concept to help illuminate activism in Singapore. I utilize the concept of political opportunities to help understand the seemingly variegated and multi-faceted nature of Muslim activism in Singapore. An important facet of the literature on social movements deals with co-optation. Co-optation can be defined as the tying of ‘strategically-relevant actors (or a group of actors) to the ruling elite’ (Gerschewski, 2013, p. 22). Co-optation can be formal or informal: formal co-optation refers to bringing in actors into institutional state mechanisms, whereas informal co-optation entails the altering of end-goals of non-state actors, such that they align with the state’s objectives (Abdullah W. J., 2013, p. 1189). Social movement actors or NGOs have been susceptible to overtures by the state, as the latter bids to bolster its control and/or legitimacy via co-opting dissent. Whether a government is democratic or authoritarian, the strategy of co-optation is utilized quite frequently. It has already been mentioned earlier that authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have had complicated relationships with the ulama and Muslim activists: amongst the repertoire of stratagems deployed by these states is co-optation of the religious establishment. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family has conceded many aspects of religious governance to the ultra-conservative ulama, in exchange for their political loyalties (Al-Rasheed, 2007). Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which is widely regarded by Muslims to be the best tertiary institution in the Muslim world, and the most popular destination for undergraduates from Southeast Asia who are interested in pursuing Islamic education at the higher levels, has had to contend with state interference, and is argued to have been co-opted by the Egyptian state (Barraclough S., 1998). For Malaysia, beginning with Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as Prime Minister (1981-2003), the state

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has aggressively courted the assistance of the ulama, and has institutionally co-opted them into the formal state machinery (Liow, 2009b). Mahathir of course, desired to ‘out-Islamize’ PAS, the Islamist opposition party, in addition to harnessing the potential of the ulama for nation-building purposes (Wain, 2009). A similar situation has ensued in Indonesia where both the authoritarian regime of Soeharto and subsequent democratically elected governments have attempted to co-opt the ulama. Of course, the success of these regimes’ efforts is never absolute: there is always a group of ulama within these countries which not only resist the state’s advances, but oppose it as well (Barter, 2011; Abdullah W. J., 2016). The ulama, for reasons already described in the earlier chapter, form a vital bloc in any Muslim community, and states have to work out a way to engage with this group as they could potentially mobilize people against it. Naturally, co-optation becomes a recurring theme within state-ulama relations. The ulama, just as any other social movement, are a rational group, who decide to work with, or resist the state, based on their own cost-benefit analyses. These costs and benefits are not necessarily material, however, as will be developed later. Moreover, it must be emphasized that to be co-opted itself is a conscious political choice; actors who are co-opted by the state should not be assumed to be devoid of agency. Whether the choices are constrained or liberating, actors still nonetheless have a choice as to how to operate within a political system: actors who are co-opted choose to be co-opted (Abdullah, 2013). Social movements, especially NGOs, have been particularly prone to co-option by the state. This is not a particularly surprising phenomenon: states would view social movements as potential competitors in the public space, and co-opting them would simultaneously boost a state’s legitimacy while quelling a source of dissent. While repression and exclusion of such groups are other possible alternatives for the state, they tend to be more costly and even authoritarian states which wield the stick in response to confrontational activism prefer not to do so, and would rather utilize co-optation, wherever possible (Gandhi & Przeworski, 2007). Gerschewski describes co-optation as one of the ‘three pillars’ of authoritarian rule, alongside legitimation and repression (Gerschewski, 2013). There are many modes of co-optation available, from the perspective of the state. For one, a state could choose to co-opt the language and goals of a particular social movement, without actually bringing in the members of the social movement into the fold. By doing this, the state can exclude the social movements while incorporating their language, and by extension, their support base. The far-right in Germany, for instance, has penetrated German society not via electoral victories per se, but by forcing the centrist parties to adopt aspects

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of its discourses and proposed policies (Bale, 2003). The Republican Party in the United States, like many other centre-right parties in Europe, has co-opted the language of the far-right, and is increasingly moving further to the right as well. More conventionally, though, states institutionally co-opt dissenters, activists or social movements. By giving these actors a stake in the system, the presumption is that they would have an incentive to ensure the system remains intact, while at the same time, they would be more inclined to channel their opposition through more peaceful and ‘constructive’ ways such as discussing with state elites in closed-door settings, rather than challenge them in the public arena: the state decreases the ‘probability of upheaval’ via co-optation (Bertocchi & Spagat, 2001). Co-opting individuals and groups has been the primary strategy adopted by many states, democratic or authoritarian. In 1982, a year after Dr. Mahathir Mohamad assumed premiership of Malaysia for the first time, he brought Anwar Ibrahim – a firebrand Islamist leader who was critical of the state at the time – into the ruling party, in an obvious bid to appease the substantial following Anwar had with the conservative segments of the Muslim electorate, especially his ties to influential grassroots organizations such as the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, ABIM) and other activists (Barraclough S., 1985; Abdullah K., 1999). Community mediation groups in the United States – which were formed to be alternatives to the formal justice and legal system – have increasingly become co-opted, albeit to differing degrees, within the court system (Coy & Hedeen, 2005). The longevity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is at least partially attributable to its adaptability and ability to co-opt different segments of civil society into its machinery (Dickson, 2000). The challenge for coopted entities though, is understanding what are the costs associated with being aligned with the state, and assessing whether the possible benefits outweigh the costs. While there are obvious trade-offs, especially in terms of losing credibility with the social movement’s supporters – since being associated with the state could be detrimental for an actor’s image amongst its constituents – there is also a possibility of the social movement being better-positioned to advance at least part of its agenda (Campbell, 2001). Najam outlines the dilemma faced by social movements when he asks the question whether NGOs which cooperate with, and/or are co-opted by, the state, can be said to have a ‘beautiful friendship’ with the authorities, or if they are ‘too close for comfort’ (Najam, 2000). Especially in authoritarian states, where the costs of confronting the state are high, and there is less room for civil society to operate, social movements and activists frequently

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end up being co-opted. Social movements have to confront the realities of functioning within systems whereby the political opportunities are more restricted: in democratic systems, these actors can act as pressure groups, work together with the opposition, or just attempt to influence the electorate via raising issues and putting them on the political agenda (Foweraker, 1995). Saward’s three-part typology of formal co-optation may provide valuable insights here. He argues that there are three types of institutional co-option: value co-option is when the state relies on the co-opted entities’ religious, cultural or social values; expertise co-option is when the co-optees are prized for their knowledge on particular matters; and producer co-option is when entities with economic production resources are brought into the state mechanism (Saward, 1990). The first two types of co-optation are most relevant for the purposes of this book. On the part of the state, the motivations are clear. Via co-optation, a state is able to stifle potential dissent and/or expand its support base. For the co-opted entities, being co-opted provides them with more opportunities to influence state decisions, as (authoritarian) states may be more averse to be perceived to compromise with confrontational actors; it also drastically reduces the probability of their being targets of state repression (Saward, 1992). Co-optation has been used adroitly by the PAP government in Singapore. A wide range of groups and individuals has been co-opted by the state in order for the purposes that have already been highlighted in the literature. Both formal and informal co-optation have been utilized. While it is commonly described in the literature that the Singapore government relies heavily on repression and fear to maintain its rule (Tremewan, 1994; George, 2007; Barr, 2010; Slater, 2012; Morgenbesser, 2017), one facet to the PAP’s political acumen that is often overlooked is its success in co-optation. To be sure, the PAP does rely on heavy-handed tactics to stifle dissent in Singapore. These have already been detailed earlier: opposition leaders such as Chee Soon Juan and JB Jeyaratnam have faced the full force of the law, the growth of civil society has been curbed, and various other methods have been employed to sustain the PAP’s rule. Nevertheless, in tandem with such draconian measures, the PAP adopts a ‘calibrated’ approach toward politics, and arguably, relies on co-optation more than repression (Abdullah W. J., 2013). Right from independence, the state has sought to co-opt trade unions, student movements and the mass media: three potential sources of dissent. Trade unions not only have a symbiotic relationship with the state, but via the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), an umbrella body of trade unions in the country, is directly linked to the PAP, since it is typically led by a sitting

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member of cabinet.18 The mainstream media is not only heavily regulated by legislation, but is required to act as a partner in the nation-building agenda and galvanizes citizens behind government policies, rather than as a confrontational actor which calls state elites to account. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, the function of the media is to present to the people ‘Singapore’s problems simply and clearly and then explain how if they support certain programmes and policies, these problems can be solved’ (Bokhorst-Heng, 2002). Student unions, which used to be a thorn in the PAP’s side before independence, were curtailed early on, and subsequently became apolitical movements increasingly averse to being critical of the establishment (Jianli, 2006). It has been noted earlier that religion has been a preoccupation of the PAP. One of the ways it has managed religion is by co-opting religious organizations. Thio Li-Ann describes the state’s approach toward religion as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘accommodative’ secularism: describing it in a positive light, she characterizes Singapore’s religious management as reflective of the government’s commitment toward nurturing religious harmony and ensuring the protection of religious minorities (Thio, 2017). Secularism in Singapore, embodied by the institutionalization of MUIS as an arm of the state, is not ideological, but rather pragmatic, and can aptly be understood as ‘secularism with a soul’ (Thio, 2012). Lily Zubaidah Rahim views the state’s management of religion in a more critical light, arguing that the PAP intermeshes religion with politics as it deems fit, while simultaneously advocating their separation: she terms this as ‘strategic’ secularism (Rahim, 2012). Apart from MUIS, the state has managed to informally co-opt other religious organizations and leaders such as Pergas, Habib Hasan Alatas (the influential imam of Baalwie Mosque), Ustaz Ali Mohamed (the imam of Khadijah Mosque) and others (Mutalib, 2012, pp. 76-77; Abdullah W. J., 2016). The ulama’s relationship with the state will be explicated in Chapter 4. Apart from organizations and the ulama, the state has also courted the intelligentsia with some success. Rodan considers the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme as the archetypical mode of co-opting dissent without conceding political power (Rodan, 2009). The NMP is an electoral innovation whereby nine seats in Parliament are reserved for non-elected members representing various sectors (arts, culture, the sciences, business, industry, social or community service, and the labour movement) (Abdullah W. J., 2016). When a person is selected to be an NMP, he/she is given an outlet to formally participate in the system, and is thus less likely to air their 18 The current Secretary-General of NTUC is Ng Chee Meng, A Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. His predecessor was Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry.

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grievances through other means. Since the debate takes place in Parliament, the terms of engagement are set within the parameters outlined by the PAP. Cherian George highlights an entire list of outstanding individuals who have succeeded in their various fields – the ‘who’s who’ of Singapore intelligentsia – who were eventually co-opted by the state. These include David Marshall, founder of the opposition Workers’ Party, who became Ambassador to France in 1978; Tommy Koh, an ‘independent-minded law faculty dean’, who served as Ambassador to the United Nations and the US; Chan Heng Chee, a political scientist who was eventually given similar ambassadorial positions to Tommy Koh; Ho Kwon Ping, who was arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1977 for his student activism, and was subsequently made chairman of Singapore Power and Singapore Management University; and others such as Walter Woon, Chua Beng Huat and Philip Jeyaretnam (son of JB Jeyaretnam) who sit on various boards which are connected to the government (George, 2000, pp. 116-118). Then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted in 1994 that co-opting such individuals into the state machinery was a deliberate, conscious strategy by the PAP. He said: If we have good people, we will try to co-opt them into the PAP and make them part of the system […] If good people are forced to join the opposition, then I think we have already failed […] We’ve done the wrong thing. Why aren’t they able to join us? What are we doing wrong? So I’m not sure we want to go in that direction. (Rodan, 1996, p. 86)

The PAP evidently does not shy away from admitting that co-optation is an overt strategy to ensure that there is less dissent in society against its rule. Lee Hsien Loong’s admission is not surprising: co-opting dissent has always been the less costly strategy for not just the PAP, but any authoritarian regime. Repression cannot be used indiscriminately, as doing so would only motivate more dissent. Thus, the sparing utilization of repression is accompanied by the deft usage of co-optation. The PAP’s co-optation strategy is multi-faceted; the party does not just co-opt large organizations, but small ones and even individuals as well. It does not just formally co-opt these entities, but does so through informal means as well. This is a point which will be revisited later; often, activists are given enough incentives – and sufficient deterrents – to work within the system. The state of civil society in Singapore thus needs to be assessed. In 1991, then-Minister for Information and the Arts, George Yeo, who is generally regarded as an intellectual within the ranks of the PAP, gave a seminal speech in which he ostensibly championed for expanding civil society. The speech

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was not groundbreaking in the sense that it called for PAP’s diminished role in society; indeed, Yeo emphasized that the country still needed to have a ‘strong centre’, and that too much pluralism could ‘destroy’ Singapore. Nevertheless, he advocated a ‘judicious’ pruning of the Banyan Tree in order to allow more space for (regulated) dissent (Jones & Brown, 1994, p. 81). Yeo’s call seemed to be congruent with the greater openness promised by Goh Chok Tong’s premiership; Goh had openly declared that he wished to have a more consultative approach in governance, in an apparent bid to distinguish himself from his larger-than-life predecessor. Interestingly, Yeo used the term civic society instead of civil society: the former refers to societal entities performing functions which complement the state, whereas the latter is a broader concept which entails the space between the individual and the state (Lee T., 2002, pp. 97-98). Hence, even in the speech which supposedly was a defining moment for the state of civil society in Singapore, the parameters were still set in such a way that the core ideologies and fundamentals of the nation were not to be changed, nor challenged; in other words, instead of uprooting the tree, what is promoted is just some pruning. Some authors have therefore questioned the state’s approach toward civil society; Rodan argues that the state has actively suppressed civil society since Yeo’s speech, (Rodan, 2003) while Terence Lee refers to the state’s proclamations as merely ‘gestural politics’ (Lee T., 2005). Others have provided more optimistic analyses. Lynette Chua details the success of the gay lobby in Singapore, arguing that LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals) activists have been successful in pushing their cause in the public arena. Crucially though, she attributes this success to the fact that the gay activists have played by the rules of the state, and have not attempted to circumvent, let alone trespass the boundaries (Chua, 2014). Another area in which civil society can claim some achievement is in migrant workers’ rights: the issue has been successfully pushed into the public domain via civil society movements and activists (Yeoh, Huang, & Devasahayam, 2004). Both streams of thought can be true at the same time: it is possible that civil society has both been stifled in some aspects and allowed to grow in others. The space for civil society must not be understood as monolithic and consistent across issues. The state jealously guards its core ideologies, and sets certain Out-of-Bounds (OB) markers which cannot be crossed. Singaporeans too, by and large, have accepted these ideologies – survival, meritocracy, multiracialism, as the premises upon which Singapore society should be built. The fact that the Workers’ Party (WP), the party which is closest to the PAP in its ideologies, is the best performing opposition party, and not the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which challenges the PAP’s

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fundamentals unlike the WP, underscores the point that Singaporeans have internalized these ideologies (Abdullah W. J., 2017). On these matters, the state does not allow too much contestation from civil society. When the narrative of survival was questioned by dissident-scholar PJ Thum, senior state elites reacted vociferously to his revisionism, casting Thum in a negative light and questioning his loyalties to the country (Abdullah W. J., 2018). On the other hand, when the LGBT activists question the state’s handling of the gay community, the state actively engages with them, and does not castigate these individuals (Abdullah W. J., 2019). Two points are pertinent. First, the method of the activists are directly commensurate with the state’s reaction to them: for civil society leaders or movements who do not challenge the integrity of state leaders but rather, work constructively with them, they are given more leeway to operate within the system. Second, the issue at hand matters as well: the state is more willing to consider dissenting opinions in matters which are not integral to its overall governance. The LGBT issue is one such matter. Questioning the state’s narrative on its vulnerability would therefore be unacceptable; but challenging the state’s position on the criminalization of sexual acts between males is tolerated. Civil society is regulated in this particular manner. Activists who violate the acceptable boundaries – either in terms of subject matter or approach – are met with harsh criticism, and at times, punitive action. Actors then learn from the past experiences of other activists, and formulate their own strategies, bearing in mind the nature of activism that the state is willing to put up with. The state’s co-optation tactics must be comprehended within the context of the Singapore state’s aversion to challenges to core aspects of its governance, within the broader ambit of authoritarian strategies of maintaining power, and even more generally, the fates of social movements.

2.3 Moving Forward: Understanding Activism in Singapore This chapter has outlined 1) the theological arguments put forth and used by Muslims in regard to activism, and 2) the literature associated with social movements and co-optation. By expounding the religious justifications for and against activism, a better picture of Muslim activism in Singapore can be painted. Indeed, many Muslim activists use the exact justifications propounded by Muslim scholars, which have been explicated in the first part of this chapter. It is useful to appreciate that these justifications have been used by other activists – albeit in differing contexts and to varying degrees – elsewhere. The second part of the chapter deals with the literature on social

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movements. Activism usually, though not exclusively, comes in the form of social movements. It is therefore important to understand the literature on social movements, the motivations for actors to get involved in activism, the reactions of states to social movements – which include co-optation – and the impact of social movements on public policy. By analyzing social movements in general, especially the writings on co-optation, the actions of Muslim activists in Singapore can be placed within the broader literature and can be better understood. An analysis of the Singapore state’s approach toward activism, and its co-optation strategies, has also been provided, in order to better appreciate the socio-political context within which these activists operate. The following chapter will explain the theoretical framework used in this study.

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Jones, S. (2011). ‘The Ongoing Extremist Threat in Indonesia.’ Southeast Asian Affairs, 2011, 91-104. Jones, D. M., & Brown, D. (1994). ‘Singapore and the Myth of the Liberalizing Middle Class.’ The Pacific Review, 7(1), 79-87. Kadioglu, A. (2005). ‘Civil Society, Islam and Democracy in Turkey: A Study of Three Islamic Non‐Governmental Organizations.’ The Muslim World, 95(1), 23-41. Kelly, C. (1993). ‘Group Identification, Intergroup Perceptions and Collective Action.’ European Review of Social Psychology, 4(1), 59-83. Klandermans, B. (1997). The Social Psychology of Protest. Oxford: Blackwell. Klandermans, B. (2015). ‘Motivations to Action.’ In D. D. Porta, & M. Diani (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements (pp. 219-230). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Knysh, A. (2016). Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism. Princeton, New Jersey; Oxford: Princeton University Press. Kramer, G. (2010). Hasan al-Banna. London; New York: OneWorld. Lauzière, H. (2016). The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press. Lee, R. D. (2018). Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions and Attitudes. London: Routledge. Lee, T. (2002). ‘The Politics of Civil Society in Singapore.’ Asian Studies Review, 26(1), 97-117. Lee, T. (2005). ‘Gestural Politics: Civil Society in “New” Singapore.’ SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 20(2), 132-154. Leiken, R. S., & Brooke, S. (2007). ‘The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.’ Foreign Affairs, 86(2), 107-121. Liow, J. C. (2009a). Islam, Education, and Reform in Southern Thailand: Tradition & Transformation. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Liow, J. C. (2009b). Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia. New York: Oxford University Press. Low, A. L. (2013). ‘Community Engagement: Singapore Experience.’ In R. Gunaratna, J. Jerard, & S. M. Nasir (Eds.), Countering Extremism: Building Social Resilience Through Community Engagement (pp. 19-28). London: Imperial College Press. Lust-Okar, E. (2006). ‘Elections under Authoritarianism: Preliminary Lessons from Jordan.’ Democratization, 13(3), 456-471. Madelung, W. (1981). ‘ʿAbd Allāh B. Al-Zubayr and the Mahdi.’ Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 40(4), 291-305. Mahmood, S. (2005). Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Malik, M. (2017). ‘From Political Islam to Democrat Muslim: A Case Study of Rashid Ghannouchi’s Influence on ABIM, IKRAM, AMANAH and DAP.’ Intellectual Discourse, 25(1), 21-53. Marks, M. (2017). ‘Tunisia’s Islamists and the “Turkish Model”.’ Journal of Democracy, 28(1), 102-115. Marwell, G., & Oliver, P. (1993). The Critical Mass in Collective Action: A Micro-Social Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press. McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1977). ‘Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.’ American Journal of Sociology, 82(6), 1212-1241. Milner, A. (2018). ‘Malaysia in 2017: Clever Politics, Deeper Transformation.’ Asian Survey, 58(1), 174-180. Morgenbesser, L. (2017). ‘The Autocratic Mandate: Elections, Legitimacy and Regime Stability in Singapore.’ The Pacific Review, 30(2), 205-231. Murphy, E. (2019). Islam and Sectarian Violence in Pakistan: The Terror Within. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

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Musa, M. F., & Tan, B. H. (2017). ‘State-Backed Discrimination against Shia Muslims in Malaysia.’ Critical Asian Studies, 49(3), 308-329. Mutalib, H. (2012). Singapore Malays: Being Ethnic Minority and Muslim In A Global City-State. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. Nakissa, A. (2015). ‘The Fiqh of Revolution and the Arab Spring: Secondary Segmentation as a Trend in Islamic Legal Doctrine.’ The Muslim World, 105(3), 398-421. Najam, A. (2000). ‘The Four C’s of Government Third Sector‐Government Relations.’ Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 10(4), 375-396. Nasr, V. (2006). The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Noor, F. (2012). Islam on the Move: The Tablighi Jama’at in Southeast Asia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Oberschall, A. (1973). Social Conflict and Social Movements. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Olson, M. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Pierret, T. (2013). Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Polletta, F., & Jasper, J. M. (2001). ‘Collective Identity and Social Movements.’ Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 283-305. Rahim, L. Z. (2012). ‘Governing Islam and Regulating Muslims in Singapore’s Secular Authoritarian State.’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, 66(2), 169-185. Rakic, M., & Juricic, D. (2012). ‘Wahhabism as a Militant Form of Islam on Europe’s Doorstep. ‘Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 35(9), 650-663. Ramadan, T. (1999). To Be a European Muslim: A Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context. Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation. Ramadan, T. (2004). Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press. Rodan, G. (1996). ‘State-Society Relations and Political Oppositions in Singapore.’ In G. Rodan (Ed.), Political Oppositions in Industrialising Asia (pp. 78-103). London; New York: Routledge. Rodan, G. (2003). ‘Embracing Electronic Media but Suppressing Civil Society: Authoritarian Consolidation in Singapore.’ The Pacific Review, 16(4), 503-524. Rodan, G. (2009). ‘New Modes of Political Participation and Singapore’s Nominated Members of Parliament.’ Government & Opposition, 44(4), 438-462. Rogerson, B. (2006). The Heirs of The Prophet Muhammad: And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism (3rd ed.). London: Abacus. Ruef, M. (2010). The Entrepreneurial Group: Social Identities, Relations, and Collective Action. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Saeed, A. (2007). ‘Muslims under non-Muslim Rule: Evolution of a Discourse.’ In A. Reid, & M. Gilsenan (Eds.), Islamic Legitimacy in a Plural Asia (pp. 14-27). London; New York: Routledge. Saward, M. (1992). Co-optive Politics and State Legitimacy. Aldershot: Dartmouth. Schwedler, J. (2011). ‘Can Islamists Become Moderates? Rethinking the Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis.’ World Politics, 63(2), 347-376. Shilling, C., & Mellor, P. A. (1998). ‘Durkheim, Morality and Modernity: Collective Effervescence, Homo Duplex and the Sources of Moral Action.’ The British Journal of Sociology, 49(2), 193-209. Slater, D. (2012). ‘Strong-State Democratization in Malaysia and Singapore.’ Journal of Democracy, 23(2), 19-33. “State Religion Status Leaves Many ‘Outside the Box’,” Free Malaysia Today, 29 December 2017. https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/12/29/state-religion-status-leavesmany-outside-the-box/. Accessed 24 October 2018.

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Sunnah.com. https://sunnah.com/. Accessed 8 August 2019. Tabaar, M. A. (2013). ‘Assessing (In)security after the Arab Spring: The Case of Egypt.’ PS: Political Science & Politics, 46(4), 727-735. Tan, A. (2002). ‘Terrorism in Singapore: Threat and Implications.’ Contemporary Security Policy, 23(3), 1-18. Tarrow, S. G. (2011). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Thio, L.-A. (2012). ‘Relational Constitutionalism and the Management of Religious Disputes: The Singapore “Secularism with a Soul” Model.’ Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 1(2), 446-469. Thio, L.-A. (2017). ‘Rule of Law, Religious Liberty, and Harmony.’ Journal of Law, Religion and State, 5(3), 254-291. “Tindakan guling kerajaan haram – Mufti Perak (Act of Overthrowing Government is Impermissible – Perak Mufti),” Berita Harian Online, 20 August 2015. https://www.bharian.com.my/ node/76106. Accessed 12 October 2018. Tremewan, C. (1994). The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Tucker, J. A. (2007). ‘Enough! Electoral Fraud, Collective Action Problems, and Post-Communist Colored Revolutions.’ Perspectives on Politics, 5(3), 535-551. Valentine, S. R. (2015). Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond. London: Hurst & Company. Valentine, S. R. “What is Wahhabism? The Puritanical Code of Islam Thought to Be a Driving Force behind Global Terrorism,” The Mirror, 5 June 2017. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ uk-news/what-wahhabism-puritanical-code-islam-10564342. Accessed 25 October 2018. Van Bruinessen, M. (2002). ‘Genealogies of Islamic radicalism in post-Suharto Indonesia.’ South East Asia Research, 10(2), 117-154. Wagemakers, J. (2016). Salafism in Jordan: Political Islam in a Quietist Community. New York: Cambridge University Press. Wain, B. (2009). Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Waines, D. (1995). An Introduction to Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Warburg, G. (2003). Islam, Sectarianism, and Politics in Sudan Since the Mahdiyya. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. Warren, D. H., & Gilmore, C. (2014). ‘One Nation under God? Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s Changing Fiqh of Citizenship in the Light of the Islamic Legal Tradition.’ Contemporary Islam, 8(3), 217-237. Wickham, C. R. (2013). The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Wiktorowicz, Q. (2004). ‘Introduction: Islamic Activism and Social Movement Theory.’ In Q. Wiktorowicz (Ed.), Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (pp. 1-36). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Yang, G. (2000). ‘Achieving Emotions in Collective Action: Emotional Processes and Movement Mobilization in the 1989 Chinese Student Movement.’ The Sociological Quarterly, 41(4), 593-614. Yeoh, B. S., Huang, S., & Devasahayam, T. W. (2004). ‘Diasporic Subjects in the Nation: Foreign Domestic Workers, the Reach of Law and Civil Society in Singapore.’ Asian Studies Review, 28(1), 7-23. Zaman, M. Q. (1998). ‘Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shi‘i and Sunni Identities.’ Modern Asian Studies, 32(3), 689-716. Zubaida, S. (2009). Islam, the People and the State. London; New York: I.B. Tauris.

3

Argument: Political Opportunities and Muslim Strategies Abstract This chapter lays out my argument. Firstly, I define and problematize the contentious categories used in the book: ulama, liberals, and conservatives. Subsequently, I delve into the agent-structure debate that pervades much of political science, and postulate a way of thinking of the problem, and then apply it to Muslim activists in Singapore. This is done through an application of the concept of political opportunities. The argument is explicated in detail. Keywords: def initions, liberals, conservatives, ulama, political opportunities

In the precarious times Muslims find themselves in since 9-11, culminating perhaps in the election of President Donald Trump amid a rise in right-wing populism globally, Islam has consistently been under the spotlight. Muslims have been asked to distance themselves from the actions of a small minority of Muslims who commit acts of terror. At other times, the religion itself has been the subject of much discussion. Islam has to be ‘reformed’, the common assertion goes, such that there is a perpetual search for the Muslim Martin Luther.1 These advocates often compare Islam with Christianity and the trajectory the latter has taken; the Christian faith has managed to break away from its violent, misogynistic and abhorrent past because of the Reformation, and in the same vein, Islam needs to undergo a similar process in order for it to adapt to the modern world. It is not the objective of this book to delve into the merits and paradoxes of the growing calls 1 Roula Khalaf, “The Search for a Muslim Martin Luther,” The Financial Times, 14 January 2015. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/56682e1e-9bd7-11e4-b6cc-00144feabdc0.html#axzz43YFHzXZv. Accessed 18 July 2019.

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for an Islamic Reformation (apart from the observation that it does seem bizarre to hold all Muslims, and Islam itself, accountable for the actions of a miniscule minority amongst them), but it is instructive to recognise that much of the discourse surrounding Islam has largely revolved around security. The threat of Muslim terrorism has generated many responses. States have tried to promote the idea of the ‘moderate Muslim’; others have proposed a Reformation of Islam, as already mentioned; and some enlist the help of the ulama to disavow and counter the propaganda of the terrorists (Hassan and Pereire 2006). Often, the state has to engage with various groups of Muslims in order to build a broad-based coalition. Yet, states also exclude some categories of Muslims in order to define what types of ‘Islam’ are acceptable. The process of defining and delineating acceptable versions of Islam is inherently political. In choosing to prescribe certain ‘Islams’ while excluding others, states often have to work together with some groups within Muslim communities, and at times, have to disregard others. This chapter attempts to tease out the different dynamics between states and Muslim communities. Specifically, this chapter will outline the theoretical framework that is used to understand how Muslim groups operate within a political system. I postulate that political opportunities largely determine the tactics, and successes, of Muslim groups in navigating the political terrain in Singapore. What happens in reality is that Muslim groups are not as ideological as they claim to be: ‘liberal’ Muslims are liberal insofar as the political opportunities allow them to be, and so is the case with conservatives too. The ulama too are selective in the causes they pursue, the strategies they adopt, and the statements they issue.

3.1 Ulama, Liberals and Conservatives To be sure, problems of definition arise in ascertaining these contentious, and often politically-charged categories, as they always do in the social sciences. Nevertheless, it is necessary to at least broadly outline the contours of these categories. Liberals and Conservatives The liberal-conservative divide is particularly controversial because it plays out in politics in the real world in a significant manner. In recent years, the importance of understanding these categories has been accentuated with the rise of extremist political parties and populist leaders in the Western world.

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Even without the rise in far-right parties, the liberal-conservative divide was manifesting itself in the ‘culture wars’ involving matters such as LGBT rights, and abortion. Typically, identifying as liberal or conservative implies adopting certain stances on both social and economic issues: the liberal left is associated with advocating more state intervention in the economy while emphasizing individual rights, whereas the conservative right champions a free market economy and prioritizes societal order and norms (Hutter 2014). Conservatives typically adhere to traditions of the ‘ingroup’, argue for respect for conventional authority figures, and uphold standards of purity, usually based on religious understandings (Kugler, Jost and Noorbaloochi 2014, 416). Liberals, on the other hand, value fairness, justice and care for others more (Haidt and Graham 2007). Conservatives emphasize the salience of hierarchy, while liberals assert the value of equality. In the West, the right is often associated with adherence to Christianity. This is not to say that the beliefs of liberals and conservatives are mutually exclusive: to say that conservatives do not bother about equality would be fallacious, for instance, but their emphasis on equality must be understood in light of their preference for order and hierarchy. The desire to protect tradition is essential to the conservative worldview, while the impetus to change the world for the better is a crucial facet of being liberal. A few things, however, need to be pointed out. First, not all individuals think along multiple dimensions: a person who identifies as a liberal may be doing so solely based on his social position, not economic predispositions, and vice-versa (Conover and Feldman 1981). Secondly, this book does not make a normative judgment on whether the liberal or conservative position is more ‘correct’ or ‘moral’. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see the liberal worldview being presented as the only plausible and humane alternative: conservatism is often argued to correspond to authoritarian values, whereas liberalism is understood as commensurate with democratic ideals (Suziedelis and Lorr 1973). Prominent conservative figures in the West have argued that in the media and academia – which are deemed as sites of liberalism – conservative views are typically dismissed as bigoted and regressive. However, such assessments are beyond the scope of this study. The only thing which needs stating in this regard is that both liberals and conservatives, in actuality, believe that their respective ideologies are the ‘right’ ones, and possess differing standards, precepts and conceptions of morality. Additionally, self-identifications can be opposed to more objective evaluations of whether one is liberal or conservative: a person may well be against gay marriage, abortion, and favour the free market, yet see him/ herself as a ‘liberal’. Thus, it is important to understand self-perceptions and doing so requires in-depth interviews with the subjects in question.

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When applied to Muslims, the terms liberal and conservative become even more controversial. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there have been numerous calls for an Islamic Reformation akin to the one Christianity underwent a few centuries ago. Public intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins (a world-renowned evolutionary biologist whose stated mission is to ensure that the God of Abraham disappear from the pages of history as the gods of Rome and Greece have), Tom Holland (a British historian who argues that Islam did not begin in Mecca but in southern Israel),2 Thomas L. Friedman (the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist), and even politicians such as the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the 44th American President Barack Obama,3 have all articulated on different occasions that Islam needs to be ‘reformed’. The argument put forth by these individuals is that Islam is at a stage similar to Christianity prior to the Reformation: in its present form, Islam is either violent, misogynistic, homophobic, or unsuitable to be practised in the modern world, or any combination of these attributes. Christianity too, they posit, was at one point in time susceptible to those dark forces, and the Reformation made it possible for Europe and Christians to escape the shackles of regressive religion and propel itself into modernity. Thus, only when Islam undergoes a Reformation would it be possible for the faith to be fully adjusted to the modern era. This claim is problematic for a few reasons. For one, the assumption by these proponents is that Islam and Christianity share similar historical circumstances and future paths, which is more presumptuous than evidencebased. Islam and Christianity have had major differences from the outset, not least of which is the nature of religious authority in the two faiths. While Christianity had a papal system which centralized power in one or a few religious-political elites, religious and political authority had largely been kept separate after the death of the Prophet and the first five Caliphs of Islam, which meant that political and spiritual authority was combined for only forty years of Islamic history.4 Essentially, for the bulk of the existence of the Muslim ummah, spiritual authority resided in the ulama, or the men (and women) of knowledge, not in the ruling elites (Hallaq 2004). This is not 2 Thomas L. Friedman, “An Islamic Reformation,” The New York Times, 4 December 2002. https:// www.nytimes.com/2002/12/04/opinion/an-islamic-reformation.html. Accessed 18 July 2019. 3 Glen Owen, “Tony Blair Says Murder of Lee Rigby PROVES ‘There is a Problem within Islam’,” The Daily Mail, 1 June 2013. Accessed 21 March 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/ article-2334451/Tony-Blair-says-murder-Lee-Rigby-PROVES-problem-Islam.html. 4 They are Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman Ali and Al-Hasan, who are regarded as pious Companions and/or family members of the Prophet by Sunnis. Shi’ites, however, dispute the spiritual authority of the first three since they were not blood relatives of the Prophet.

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to say that politicians did not seek to utilize Islam out of expediency, and in fact, more often than not, they did attempt to do so. However, the Muslim community had long accepted that the custodians of the faith should be the people who understood the word of God and the Prophetic traditions best, and not those in charge of governance. Moreover, the postulation by the advocates of an Islamic Reformation seems to ignore the fact that the event was accompanied by many years of violence, repression, oppression and injustice. It does seem like a whitewashing of history when one portrays the Christian Reformation as a bloodless and completely constructive occurrence. The problems with a call for a Reformation in Islam notwithstanding, such advocacy is not limited to Western personalities. Some Muslims or ex-Muslims have vociferously championed for a similar paradigm shift. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim of Somali origin who became a Dutch politician, argues for a wholesale reform of Islam to the point of abandoning core theological beliefs, as does Irshad Manji, a Canadian Muslim who is openly lesbian (Manji 2003, Ali 2015). These personalities often invoke the language of liberalism and individual liberty. The core thrusts of these arguments resemble those of the ‘liberal Muslims’, even if Manji and Ali are not regarded as serious intellectuals by liberal Muslims. These Muslims tend to challenge established hierarchies within the faith; prioritize individual liberty; question classical interpretations of the Quran and commentaries on hadith, and on occasion, even contest the authenticity of hadith which are accepted by the general Muslim populace or the entire hadith corpus itself; and further seek to ‘reform’ Islam by discarding patriarchal views espoused by Muslim ulama. The sites of contestation for these liberals often involve women and LGBT rights: for instance, they question the fairness of traditional Islamic inheritance laws which endow men with more portions of the wealth than women, and champion the acceptance of LGBT Muslims. Liberals are also referred to as ‘Progressive Muslims.’ An example of a liberal or progressive group which is not regarded as heretical (but is still considered to be deviant by some Muslims) is the Sisters in Islam (SIS) civil society organization in Malaysia, which champions gender equality. More examples of notable liberal/progressive Muslims will be given later. Conservatives, on the other hand, are those who ‘adhere to traditional understandings of jurisprudence, accept the authority of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet, and abide by the religious authority of the ulama as authoritative interpreters of religious scripture’ (Abdullah 2017b, 346). These could include Muslims who are generally referred to as ‘traditionalists’

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in the literature, who generally adhere to one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali), and the Salafis, who advocate a return to the ‘purity’ of the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet, and who typically do not adhere to one single school of jurisprudence.5 It is not true that Salafis do not subscribe to the authority of the ulama, as is commonly assumed. Rather, the Salafis would argue that Muslims should not put any single alim on the same level as the Prophet, such that he needs to be followed unconditionally; although some of them may very well be guilty of the same and put different ulama – such as Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) and Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyya – on a pedestal. Nevertheless, Salafis draw upon the same corpus of knowledge as Sunnis, although the class of ulama they regard as authoritative is much narrower than Sunnis.6 The category ‘conservatives’ may encompass any theological inclination, as does the term ‘liberal’. That is to say, there may be conservative or liberal Sunnis and Shias. The examples of Manji and Hirsi were given, in tandem with the Western supporters of Islamic Reformation, to highlight the difficulties involved when defining liberals and conservatives: there are political points at stake. The champions of Islamic Reformation are typically treated with contempt by Muslim communities, as they would see the former as outsiders trying to meddle with the Islamic faith. By extension, Muslims who postulate the same would then be seen as ‘tools’ of the West.7 Liberal Muslims face similar accusations, even when they do not go as far as Hirsi Ali and Manji who call for the discarding of traditional, core Islamic beliefs. It is not uncommon to see the term ‘Liberal Muslim’ being bandied about to discredit one’s intellectual adversary. Some refuse to identify themselves as ‘Liberal Muslim’ despite their obvious proclivities precisely because of the negative connotations associated with the term, though others embrace it. Other definitional difficulties arise. As is the case with the left-right division, some people do not neatly fall into one category. Tariq Ramadan is a classic example. He has been an advocate of ‘reform’ in the Islamic world, arguing that Muslims need to reinterpret certain texts in fresh ways. However, unlike Hirsi Ali or Manji, Ramadan does so by drawing upon 5 Salafis also typically abide by the Hanbali school of theology which is characterized by its literalist approach toward understanding God and His attributes. 6 For instance, the influential philosopher Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) is largely revered by Sunnis, but criticized by many Salafis. 7 A conservative activist interviewed said that he considers liberal Muslims to be at best, a ‘useful idiot’ for the West, or someone who is unwittingly used by Western forces to propagate its ideologies and values, and at worse, a sell-out.

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classical sources, and most definitely does not attempt to disavow theological tenets of the faith: in his words, he intends to reform the Muslim mind, and not Islam itself (Ramadan 2004). Incidentally, Ramadan is accepted by many mainstream Muslims as an authority on the subject matter, unlike Hirsi Ali or Manji. Furthermore, some Muslims may be conservative on certain issues yet liberal on others. Even the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are not monolithic: within the liberal category, some may be more liberal than others, and likewise for the conservatives. Undoubtedly, these problems make the categories more arduous to define, which is why greater care needs to be exercised. Nevertheless, broadly, the terms liberals and conservatives may be useful in understanding the power dynamics within Muslim societies and in ascertaining state-Muslim relations. The two categories of Muslims – ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ – compete for political influence as much as they do for ideological supremacy. By political influence, I do not mean to say that they necessarily wish to enter partisan politics and contest in elections (though some do). Rather, I contend that these groups wish that their ideas of what ‘Islam’ is about, and is meant to be, become dominant in the psyches of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. At times, they jostle for the mantle of who ‘speaks for Islam’, and in doing so, may attempt to court the attention of political elites. This competition for access to power will be one of the core topics of discussion in the later parts of this book. The Ulama The ulama refer to Islamic religious scholars. Literally, the term refers to people of knowledge. The ulama are inheritors or heirs of the Prophets, as a hadith of the Prophet goes.8 The ulama believe staunchly in this task of theirs: as the people who understand God’s and the Prophet’s words the most, they have taken it upon themselves to be the ‘custodians of the faith’ and the guardians of authentic Islamic teachings (Esposito and Voll 2001, Zaman 2002). Assuming the mantle of becoming the ultimate arbiters in what is ‘Islamic’ or otherwise is of course not merely a theological or jurisprudential matter; the process is an inherently political one as well. As such, power dynamics should not be neglected in any analysis on the ulama, a point which will be returned to later. Continuing the Prophetic 8 From my interviews with the ulama, not just for this project, but for other works of mine dealing with ulama in other countries, they invariably mention this hadith when explicating their roles and responsibilities.

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mission entails clarifying what scripture means, interpreting scriptural texts in accordance with the contexts in which they are revealed, defending the faith from distortions, and commanding good while forbidding evil (Cook 2001 ). Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali, a classical scholar who wrote a treatise on the ulama, writes that the ulama ‘succeed the Prophets in their communities in the sense of calling people to Allah and to His obedience, prohibiting rebellion against Allah and defending His religion’ (Al-Hanbali 2001, 49). As with any category, delineating the parameters of who is an alim (singular of ulama) involves exclusion: denoting who is an alim also means defining who is not. Naturally, there are competing claims as to who deserves the title of heirship to the Prophet, as the process is inevitably linked with political and personal imperatives. Those difficulties notwithstanding, an alim can be defined as someone who has received religious training with a proper chain of learning that reaches the Prophet – be it in the madrasahs (Islamic schools), pondoks (traditional Islamic centres of learning in the Malay world), or in modern Islamic universities –, and is recognized as one by other ulama (Reichmuth 2004). There are two facets to this definition: the first is an objective criteria which can be easily discerned by a person’s religious education and training; the second is more subjective as it requires the validation of other ulama. One may find similarities between this and the peer-review system in academia: an academic article will be published if it is deemed to be worthy of a scholarly contribution, by other experts working in the field. As with the peer-review system, the process of being recognized by your peers, though robust, is not without its flaws. Personal, not professional, considerations, may cloud judgments on whether a person should be considered as part of the ulama community. Moreover, it is common for the ulama to encounter detractors from amongst their peers. The famous medieval scholar, Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), for instance, is lauded by his followers as a great jurist and saint, yet is considered to be heretical by some ulama (Knysh 1999). In Singapore, there is an attempt to institutionalize and bureaucratize the process of defining and identifying ulama. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) was set up in 2004, and made compulsory in 2017, whereby religious teachers are regulated. In fact, the Asatizah Recognition Board (ARB) gets to decide who is worthy enough to be a religious teacher in Singapore. The ARB is under the purview of MUIS, which is an arm of the state. Essentially, the ARB – a panel which comprises senior ulama – is able to define who is an alim or otherwise. There have been notable omissions. Noor Deros, an independent alim who is known for his critical views on the conventional banking system and modern capitalism,

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was not certified by the ARB, not because he was lacking in credentials, but because his religious views were deemed to be not suitable for the Singapore context (Abdullah 2018a). Murad Said, a formerly accredited religious teacher, had his name removed from the ARS list as he was alleged to have propagated extremist views.9 Murad was subsequently placed on a Restriction Order under the Internal Security Act. In spite of the contestations surrounding the definitions of the ulama, generally, the ulama are accepted as authorities on Islam, and at times, the arbiters between truth and falsehood. Of course, this does not mean that the authority of the ulama is not challenged; indeed, this study will document specific instances in which the ulama are criticized and their decisions are put under the spotlight. The former Mufti of Singapore, Syed Isa Semait, mentioned that he was labelled as a ‘lackey of the government’ for some of his stances: at times, this criticism even came from within the ulama community (Hussain 2012, 61). Yet, it must be noted that the authority of the ulama did not reside in one single figure or group, but rather, in the juristic enterprise (Hallaq 2004). Hence, while their authority has never been unbridled, significant respect is accorded to the ulama class, and what they represent, by Muslim communities. The ulama in Singapore generally adhere to the Shafi’i school of thought and tend to be more conservative, though some are Salafi in orientation. However, there is a small group of ulama who are more liberal in their outlook, and this will be discussed further in the next chapter.

3.2 Agent versus Structure In the fields of political science, sociology and economics, the agent-structure debate has been one of the perennial points of contention. The debate on whether ‘agents’ or ‘structures’ matter more has methodological, ontological and epistemological implications for how scholars choose to approach these various disciplines. As articulated by Alexander Wendt, the agentstructure problem is the direct consequence of two simultaneous truisms about social life: ‘1) human beings and their organizations are purposeful actors whose actions help reproduce or transform the society in which they live; and 2) society is made up of social relationships, which structure 9 Faris Mokhtar, “Former Ustaz Was Spreading Extremist Ideas on Facebook,” Today, 16 January 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/former-ustaz-spreading-extremist-ideasfacebook. Accessed 30 April 2019.

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the interactions between these purposeful actors’ (Wendt 1987, 337-338). While Wendt was discussing the problem in the context of international relations theorizing, the analysis can be applied to any social phenomenon. Do agents or structures matter more? Are the two related, and if yes, how so? Are they mutually constitutive, or does one cause or shape the other more significantly? Are the answers to these questions consistent over space and time? One may look at two seminal studies on revolutions and social change, which is directly related to this book, to see how the agent-structure debate pans out. Theda Skocpol’s influential book on revolutions argues for a structural approach to understanding why revolutions occur; whereas Samuel Popkin’s The Rational Peasant investigates revolutionary action by peasants via the lens of individual agency (Skocpol 1979, Popkin 1979). Skocpol views revolutions as a result of challenges to and a break-down in existing state structures, due to international conditions and class struggle. Popkin, on the other hand, adopts the rational choice method, and asserts that peasants are extremely rational and calculative individuals, who base their actions on cost-benefit analyses. The former largely discounts agency of individuals through her single-minded focus on structure, while the latter does not see structures as insurmountable or as less important than agency. For the purposes of this book, this is why the debate is relevant. It is vital to assess how and whether agents, in this case, the ulama, liberals and conservatives, are responsible for social change; how individual activists react to given structures; how structures are formed and understood in the first place; and what are the structures that matter in Singapore. To do that, a further exposition of ‘agent’ and ‘structure’ is due. Agency can be defined as ‘the ability to choose among different courses of action, to learn from previous experience, and the effect change’ (O’Neill, Balsiger and VanDeveer 2004, 155). The homo economicus (economic man) encapsulates the emphasis of agency given by some scholars, especially in the realm of economics, sociology and political science: humans are assumed to be fully rational, have close to perfect information, and make their decisions on cost-benefit analyses (Cramer 2002). Thus, action occurs when individuals, or agents, decide that the benefits of undertaking a particular course outweigh its costs, and vice-versa. Methodological individualism, the approach that places the agent as the focus of analyses on social phenomena, has its roots in the Enlightenment (Hodgson 2007). Post-enlightenment, individuals were assumed to possess far more autonomy than they ever did, and were at the mercy of their own decisions, and not others’. Concomitantly, the elementary unit of social life becomes the ‘individual human action.’

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(Elster 1989, 13) Elster is one of the most vigorous defenders of methodological individualism: in his critique of Marxist thought, which he deems to excessively concentrate on class to the point of dismissing agency, he states that social phenomena ‘are in principle explicable in ways that only involve individuals – their properties, their goals, their beliefs, and their actions’ (Elster, 1985a, 5). Apart from Elster, Karl Popper and Watkins were two other notable scholars who advocated this approach (Miller 1978). Popper described methodological individualism as the ‘unassailable doctrine’ to make sense of all social phenomena, essentially rendering the other approaches defective (Popper 1957). Watkins was even more pointed. Consider the following quote: Every complex social situation, institution or event is the result of a particular configuration of individuals, their dispositions, situations, beliefs, and physical resources and environment. There may be unfinished or half-way explanations of large-scale social phenomena (say, inflation) in terms of other large-scale social phenomena (say, full unemployment); but we have not arrived at rock-bottom explanations of such large-scale phenomena until we have deduced an account of them from statements about the dispositions, beliefs, resources, and interrelations of individuals. (Watkins 1957, 106)

Proponents of structuralism, on the other hand, maintain that structures are what should be studied, for the simple reason that they are better independent or explanatory variables. Structures can be understood as ‘patterns of social life that are not reducible to individuals and are durable enough to withstand the whims of individuals who would change them’ (Hays 1994, 60-61). In essence, structures exist independently of the agents who occupy them (Clark 1998, 250). This means that structures shape and constrain individuals, more so than the other way round. Emile Durkheim writes that structures, or what he refers to as ‘social facts’, are ways ‘of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint; or: which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations’ (Durkheim 1982, 59). The implication is clear: agents, no matter how much they wish to, cannot easily transform structures and instead, have to work within those confines. In a similar vein, Douglass North points out that institutions are ‘sticky’: once formed, institutions gain a life of their own and produce their own language, norms and modes of functioning, and it becomes difficult for institutional change to occur (North 1990). For North, institutions, once put in place, would likely remain for a long time, making

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them more worthwhile to be studied than other elements. The structural approach is favoured by Marxists, who view class as the most important structural condition, and by many international relations theorists who perceive the international system as a given and a superstructure, and states as black boxes which do not need unpacking (Doty 1997). Building on the works of authors who have been critical of the ‘false dichotomy’ presented in the agent-structure debate (Clark 1998, 247), I argue that ‘agents’ and ‘structures’ should be understood in relation to each other. The concept of political opportunity structures, which is used in this book and will be expounded in the next section, will be utilized in a similar vein. Like Sharon Hays, who asserts that the proponents of the ‘agency’ and ‘structural’ arguments are ‘talking past each other’ (Clark 1998, 247), I combine aspects from both sides of the debate. Hays postulates a fresh way of looking at structures, based on three features. First, structures are indeed created by agents. Therefore, these structures should not be perceived as eternal or immortal, since the very act of creating means that they can be un-created or reversed. Agents are perpetually recreating these structures. Immediately, such an understanding of structures requires one to seriously consider and explore the role of agents and agency. Second, she posits that structures should not just be seen as constraining human behaviour, but also as liberating human action. Structures could constitute the fundamental way in which humans think, behave and make decisions. She uses Durkheim to illustrate her argument: ‘Through the practice of moral rules we develop the capacity to govern and regulate ourselves, which is the whole reality of liberty’ (Hays 1994, 61). Third, she proposes a straightforward and uncontroversial, yet nuanced, point that structures should not all be put on the same level: some structures are stronger than others. In practice, this observation translates to some structures being more malleable than others, and in those circumstances, agency needs to be looked at seriously. Understanding Hays’ analysis is instructive for comprehending this book. Structures are indeed the creation of agents, and therefore, agents will recreate, or at least attempt to, those structures. Various structures apply in the case of Muslim activists in Singapore. The state, and its attendant ideologies, is one-party dominant and adopts an interventionist attitude toward secularism. Ultimately though, it is Singaporeans themselves who have voted in the ruling party consistently, and as already described previously, while the electoral playing field is slanted against the opposition, elections are never fraudulent in Singapore. This means that Singaporeans, or agents, choose to live under the structure of a dominant one-party system, with its ideologies. To be sure, some of these activists may not have voted for the

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PAP, though some do. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the structures of the state are a result of the approval of its citizens, whether overt or tacit. At the same time, some structures are far more formidable and resistant to change than others. Again, the political system is relevant here. As a dominant one-party state which has received the lion’s share of the votes in every single election – in the latest 2020 election, the PAP attained around 61.2% of the valid votes – the ruling party is extremely powerful and is able to shape Singapore society in its own image (Tan 2013). No doubt, no state, however dominant, is fully insulated from public pressures, but some states are still more insulated than others. The PAP is one such ruling party. How this translates in real life is that often, the PAP sets the rules of the game, and actors respond to it. Some actors push the boundaries, and in the process widen them; others challenge these boundaries and come at the receiving end of punitive state retribution; and most work within the confines of what the state deems acceptable. Even when actors choose to play by the rules, the important thing to recognize is that it is a choice they exercise: thus, even in the extreme case of constricting political opportunity structures, agency must still be studied. Ultimately, actors can choose to go against the PAP in an overt manner through their activism, and if they do not, that decision must be recognized as a wilful act. Another structure that is germane is the religion of ‘Islam’ itself. As with any definition, the term ‘Islam’ excludes certain understandings. That is to say, when one defines what Islam is, one is also making judgments on what it is not. As with all faith traditions, Islam comes with its own sets of theological beliefs, norms, and practices, conferring certain expectations on what it means to be Muslim. And just as with other religions, what constitutes ‘correct’ theology or jurisprudence differs across Muslim communities: Muslims have long held various opinions on different matters. Theologically, Sunnis and Shias disagree on the issue of rightful heirship to the Prophet, but on other jurisprudential matters as well: for instance, while both groups affirm the obligation of the five daily prayers, Shias believe it is permissible to combine the noon and afternoon, and the evening and night prayers every single day, while Sunnis are allowed to do so only under certain conditions, such as travel and sickness. Even within the Sunni corpus of knowledge, the ulama have held vastly diverse opinions on numerous matters: the Shaf i’i school, for instance, states that one’s ablution is nullified when one has physical contact with a member of the opposite sex, while the other three schools of jurisprudence disagree (Jackson 2000). Salafis are against the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet, the mawlid, while Sufis-traditionalists consider it a momentous occasion in the

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Islamic calendar (Sedgwick 1997). However, in spite of these multitudes of differences, there are certain beliefs and practices which are considered orthodox and mainstream, and others which are not. The process of defining ‘orthodoxy’ is, of course, one which is not just theological, but political as well: various factions jostle for the right to define what the ‘true’ Islam is. Nonetheless, there is still a sense of what ‘orthodoxy’ means in Muslim societies. Typically, it entails belief in the core tenets of the faith, especially the Oneness of God and Prophet Muhammad as His Messenger, the Prophets, the Books (especially the Quran as the unadulterated word of God), the Angels, and the Day of Judgment; and affirming the fundamental practices such as prayer, zakat (compulsory alms-giving), fasting in Ramadhan, and performing the hajj at least once in a lifetime for those who can afford to do so (Esposito 2002). More controversially in today’s era, orthodox or mainstream Islam recognizes marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and does not accept gay relationships as permissible within the faith. There is a point to be noted here: what is considered orthodoxy may differ across space and time, and ‘orthodoxy’ may evolve. At point in time, for instance, celebrating Nisfu Shaaban (the middle of the month of Shaaban which precedes Ramadhan in the Islamic calendar) was considered to be a deviant activity by the ulama of Syria; however, now, the event is pretty much a staple of mainstream Sunni Islam (Talmon-Heller 2007, 244-245).10 There are always individuals and groups who challenge and seek to redefine ‘orthodoxy’, and they adopt various strategies in their quest. The liberal activists in Singapore are amongst those who attempt to do so, as will be discussed later. Some of the liberals propagate mores which other Muslims find objectionable, for example, the discarding of classical inheritance laws. As Talal Asad perceptively notes, while not discounting the concept altogether, orthodoxy must be understood in relation to power. ‘Wherever Muslims have the power to regulate, uphold, require, or adjust correct practices, and to condemn, exclude, undermine, or replace incorrect ones, there is the domain of orthodoxy’ (Asad 2009, 22). What is orthodox is thus subject to contestation at times. Islam itself is a structure which can constrain and liberate agents. When activists profess to be Muslim, they are bound by certain creeds and must champion their causes without undermining those doctrines 10 In fact, the Nisfu Shaaban, much like the Mawlid, has become the archetypical symbol of traditionalist Islam, so much so that traditionalists would use it as the yardstick by which a person is considered to be of the ‘mainstream’. This is in order to distinguish themselves from the Salafis.

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(or at least without being seen to do so). At the same time, as individuals who subscribe to the faith, they are involved in the process of defining, and redefining, it. As agents, even if the ‘structure’ of Islam limits them in some ways, they engage in attempts to reshape the structure by redrawing its boundaries. Again, some boundaries are much harder to contest than others: for instance, the oneness of God and the Prophet-hood of Muhammad are quintessential Muslim beliefs that Muslims are uncompromising on, and are thus less malleable. Others, such as the position of women in society, are more amenable to change. Thus, activists have ‘the ability to choose among different courses of action’, as O’Neill, Balsiger and VanDeveer (2004) defines agency, even if they must exercise their choices within the structures they operate in.

3.3 Political Opportunities and Agency The modern nation-state is an institution which attempts to monopolize authority: loyalty to the nation-state is paramount and all other allegiances are expected to come after. The phrase ‘love it or leave it’ encapsulates the level of devotion a citizen is supposed to display toward the nation-state. Often, criticisms toward one’s nation are used by political opponents to question the critic’s sense of belonging, and in fact, citizenship status as well. While this is true of all nations, the situation is accentuated in countries where the ruling party is the state. In Singapore, where there has been only one ruling entity, party ideologies are national ideologies: criticism toward the party’s fundamental approaches to government may be construed, or misconstrued, as critiquing the ‘country’ as well. Responding to dissident historian PJ Thum’s claims that Operation Cold Store, an operation prior to merger with Malaysia in 1963 in which the PAP arrested over 100 opposition leaders and activists under charges of being communist, was a political hatchet job and that the threat of communism was exaggerated, Bilahari Kausikan – a former top diplomat and staunch ally of the ruling party – said: The key challenge is internal: that a new generation of Singaporeans will take the achievements of Mr. Lee and his comrades for granted and be persuaded that Singapore was no longer vulnerable. Some opposition politicians and their fellow travelers among the intelligentsia have tried to do just that. They either do not understand their own country and region or place their personal ambition above the national interest. Fortunately,

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as the results of our recent General Election have demonstrated, the majority of my compatriots do not believe them.11

For Kausikan and others aligned to the state, when one questions official narratives regarding the vulnerability of the nation-state, one is not particularly concerned about the national interest. The same can be extended to the PAP’s other core ideologies, the most relevant of which here are multiracialism and interventionist secularism. That is to say, when one challenges the state’s approach to religious management, one runs the risk of being at the receiving end of harsh criticisms, at the very least, as the example of MP Faisal Manap, which was raised in Chapter 1, shows. This means that the political opportunities may be more limited for agents in a competitive authoritarian state like Singapore, especially as the ruling regime has a propensity toward treating religion as a potential source of conflict, and anyone who goes beyond the bounds of the acceptable ideologies can be subject to much criticism, if not outright censure. To further understand the concept of political opportunities, I introduce the work of McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2001), in their study of social movements. They argue that the greater the political opportunity structures, the higher the possibility of the claims of these movements being materialized. Six features of political opportunity structures were posited: a. the multiplicity of independent centres of power within the regime b. the regime’s openness to new actors c. instability of current political alignments d. availability of influential allies or supporters for challengers e. the extent to which the regime represses or facilitates collective claim making f. decisive changes in items a. to e. (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2009, 263)

Tarrow later argued that political opportunity structures comprise four elements: the openness of the political process, the stability of political alignments, the availability of allies, and the existence of conflicts between the political elites (Tarrow, 2011).

11 “Bilahari Kausikan on ‘The Legacy of LKY’,” Channel NewsAsia, 3 November 2015. Available at: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/bilahari-kausikan-on-the/2235302.html. Retrieved 3 October 2017. The recent GE he was talking about was the 2015 election.

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While this is a useful starting point, their work ignores several points. First, the analysis does not suff iciently consider the agents, be it their motivations or their ability to challenge structures. The regime’s openness to new actors, for instance, should not be assumed to just be a function of the ideologies of state elites, but rather, political exigencies as well, which would involve how activists are able to push certain boundaries. The case is similar for the level of repression used by the regime. What the authors do astutely point out is that political opportunity structure differs from ‘actor to actor and situation to situation’ (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2009, 264). The Singapore case would amply demonstrate this observation: the state is more open to the involvement of new actors in issues which do not concern their fundamental principles of governance, such as in the LGBT rights arena, and therefore exercises less repression. With regard to other matters, such as the hijab for example, it is less open to the involvement of activists. The situation is similar for the availability of influential allies: on the matter of LGBT rights, since it is something the ruling party allows dissent for, there are members of the ruling elite who both support and oppose the repeal of Section 377A (a law which criminalizes male homosexual activities), which means that activists on both sides could draw upon their support for the cause. In others, however, the state maintains a unified front, such that there are few allies available. Elite unity has been a remarkable feature of the PAP; since independence, the party has never experienced a major split. This is due to the cadre structure of the party, whereby there are no leadership contests for the top post, and where each cadre is carefully chosen by senior party leaders. Therefore, the party is able to remain largely united, since the possibility of fissures is drastically reduced with such a watertight inception process (Abdullah 2019b). As with many broad concepts, the notion of political opportunity structures runs the risk of becoming an all-encompassing term which is a ‘sponge that soaks up every aspect of the social movement environment’, and worse still, if it is used to ‘explain so much, it may ultimately explain nothing at all’ (Gamson and Meyer 1996, 275). This is why I seek to define the term political opportunity structures, which I argue, comprises four aspects. First, the state’s ideological predispositions toward governance in general, and in this case, religion and Islam specifically. The PAP’s understandings of where the OB markers lie basically define what is acceptable activism. Second, the availability of allies and supporters outside the state. This is where elite unity matters. The more cohesive the elites are, the narrower political opportunities are. Third, particular electoral contexts. In Singapore’s case, as a dominant one-party or hegemonic party system,

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the structures are more constricting for activists as compared to countries with more competitive electoral arenas. Activists cannot readily approach the opposition to champion its causes, since there is no significantly strong opposition to begin with. Of course, if the electoral arena gets more competitive, the opportunities for activists widen as well: not only would they be able to generate more alliances, potentially with the opposition, the costs for outright repression toward activists would substantially be higher as well. What needs to be noted is that as things stand, the PAP has managed to develop institutions which are sturdy, such as the legal and education systems, and has control over the mass media, bureaucracy, grassroots organizations, and trade unions. These institutions translate into the PAP’s dominance being ubiquitous, as it can punish dissidents, socialize citizens into accepting its ideologies, and prevent labour from organizing as a force. The First-Past-The-Post and Party Block Vote/GRC (plurality) electoral system further constricts political opportunities. Unlike Proportional Representation systems, plurality electoral systems substantially increase the barriers to entry for opposition parties to make breakthroughs in elections, as more resources are needed to be successful (Norris 1997, MacKerras 1999). Finally, the capabilities – personal and social – of the activist in question form part of the structure. Congruent with the preceding section, any discussion on political opportunity structures must take into account agency. Thus, the resources of individuals and groups must be investigated (Odmalm and Lees 2006): an alim who has been teaching Islam for 40 years in Singapore and has built a huge following, for instance, has more social capital than one who is just starting out. Different groups have different resources, and even individuals within the same group may possess them. Political opportunity structures can ‘further or restrain the capacity of social movements to engage in protest activity’ (Kitschelt 1986, 61), depending on the resources each individual has access to. It is worth mentioning that political actors can over or under-estimate the political opportunity structures; these actors may mistakenly perceive the structures to be more liberating or constraining than they actually are (Oliveira and Carvalhais 2017). This is something which needs to be parsed out through the interviews. Based on these four components, it is evident that political opportunity structures for activists are not as wide as in other countries. Neighbouring Malaysia provides a good contrast. Prior to 2018, when the Barisan Nasional (BN) was in power, the country was a competitive authoritarian regime similar to Singapore, so much so that Slater remarked that these two regimes resembled no one else, except each other (Slater 2012, 19). However, even though both BN and the PAP were dominant one-party

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regimes, the political opportunity structures for activists in Malaysia were far wider. For one, the opposition parties in Malaysia were far more formidable than their counterparts in Singapore. In 2013, the opposition even won the popular vote, although it did not manage to form a government due to the disproportionality of vote share and parliamentary seats made possible by the First-Past-the-Post electoral system (Ostwald 2013). Moreover, the BN had experienced many internal splits. These meant that there were opportunities for the opposition to seek allies from within and outside the government, and they successfully made those alliances (Rodan 2014). Both activists and opposition parties formed formal and informal alliances with defectors from the BN, to the point that the strongest civil society movements in Malaysia were usually aligned with the opposition. Similarly, in Taiwan, student activists were able to capture the legislature because they were able to take advantage of an internal split within the ruling party, and because of the support they received from the opposition (Ho 2015). In Singapore, however, the situation is different. There are no meaningful fractures within the ruling party for activists to exploit. At the same time, the political opportunities differ for each activist. An activist who has a more theologically liberal approach toward Islam may find that the structures are wider for him as compared to a conservative, since he espouses a version of Islam that the state finds more palatable, and is hence more willing to accommodate. Koopmans and Olzak introduce the idea of discursive opportunities, defined as ‘the aspects of the public discourse that determine a message’s chances of diffusion in the public sphere’ (Koopmans and Olzak 2004, 202). For them, there are three elements of discursive opportunities: visibility, resonance, and legitimacy. Visibility refers to how an idea or cause is given attention in the public space, usually via the media. Resonance is about provoking reactions to a message, while legitimacy concerns public reception to a message (Koopmans and Olzak 2004, 203-204). In the case of Singapore, it is difficult to disentangle discursive opportunities from the state or from political opportunities. The media is highly regulated by the state via legislation, and journalists’ ability to put forth messages contrary to state ideologies are highly limited. No doubt, social media has put a dent in the state’s ability to have a monopoly over information dissemination, but through various pieces of legislation described earlier, the PAP still retains enormous control over the visibility of messages. However, there still remains some room for activists to take advantage of ‘resonance’ and ‘legitimacy’. Teo Yeo Yenn’s book, This is What Inequality Looks Like, received national attention upon its release in 2018. In it, Teo, an Associate Professor and the

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Head of Sociology Program at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, described the plight of the low-income class in Singapore through ethnographic work (Teo 2018). Teo vividly portrayed details of living conditions in rental flats in Singapore, and the experiences of those who dwell in them. The book obviously resonated with many Singaporeans as it became a bestseller, which is a rarity for an academic book, especially in Singapore.12 The resonance and legitimacy of the book can further be seen from the fact that state elites refuted the book on multiple occasions, sometimes challenging the author’s assertions directly and at other times making oblique references to inequality and how the state has been successful at tackling the problem.13 The very act of state leaders paying attention to the book is a nod to how it was gaining traction amongst the public. What is perhaps most important here is that the book challenged the state’s idea of meritocracy being an equalizer, as different starting points mattered a lot in determining outcomes. While one could imagine that the state would not have been too pleased about the book, Teo did not incur the wrath of the ruling party to the point that she suffered material consequences, such as a loss of job or accusations of trying to undermine the stability of the country. Here, Teo’s position as an Associate Professor at a prestigious university, and the meticulous nature of her research both matter: the fact that she is a person of some standing, and that her arguments were based on rigorous study and not unsubstantiated critiques, meant that the state had to engage with her at a serious level.14 The discussions on discursive opportunities and an individual’s own position in determining how an issue is accepted into the public discourse will be taken into consideration when outlining the parameters of political opportunity structures, as will be explained later. Chapter 2 has already described the politics of social movements and how states deal with them. The politics of co-optation and resistance were discussed at length, particularly in the Singapore case. Social movements and individuals are tolerated as long as, firstly, the issue they champion 12 A commentary on the book in a mainstream outlet began with ‘It is not often that a book by an academic makes the bestseller lists.’ See Bharati Jagdish, “Universal Welfare and Saying ‘No’ to Tuition: Teo Yeo Yenn Goes on the Record About Inequality,” Channel NewsAsia, 20 May 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/teo-you-yenn-this-is-what-inequalitylooks-like-on-the-record-10246872. Accessed 5 August 2019. 13 Dr. Maliki Osman, a Senior Minister of State, wrote an op-ed responding to Teo’s book. See Mohamad Maliki Osman, “This is What Helping Families Looks Like,” The Straits Times, 27 June 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/this-is-what-helping-families-looks-like. Accessed 8 November 2019. 14 The fact that Teo is not affiliated with any opposition party further ensures that she could not be accused of trying to score political points.

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is deemed acceptable by the state, and secondly, they do not adopt overly confrontational tactics. Muslim activists who have made gains in the public arena have by and large abided by these two guidelines. The discussion in Chapter 2 on co-optation, and strategies and motivations of activists, will be revisited throughout the next few chapters. The typology on Muslim activists too will be used: as will be seen later, different activists invoke various theological, and personal, interpretations of Islam, and how they choose to implement the faith. Different activists quote various traditions from the Islamic corpus of knowledge, and draw upon both classical and modern understandings of Islam to justify their positions on activism, vis-à-vis the state. Ideological slants of the activists do matter in shaping their worldview on how to operate within the system, although it must be noted that ideology is not the be-all, end-all factor. Just as ideologies affect an activist’s demeanour toward politics, politics too could alter one’s ideologies. After the Arab Revolutions in 2011, Egypt witnessed a shift in the political stances of many Islamist groups and individuals: some previously quietist Salafis modified their positions and advocated more active involvement in the post-Arab Spring Egypt (Al-Anani 2012). The typologies of Muslims will be discussed further in the following chapters: for now, it suffices to note that theology matters, but it is not the paramount factor at all times. Both deprivation, or the perception that one’s rights are lacking in certain areas, and identity factors matter for activists. When an activist champions a particular issue, almost by definition, he believes that there is a right that has been ignored, or a cause that has been sidelined, and wishes to bring attention to that matter. The idea of deprivation may not merely be something which affects one personally: a liberal activist may argue for the acceptance of LGBT relationships within Islam and not be gay himself/herself, but rather, believes that the LGBT community has been abandoned by the larger Muslim society.15 Similarly, a conservative male activist may be petitioning for the hijab to be allowed in uniformed groups, even though males do not wear the headscarf. The perception of deprivation is intrinsically linked to one’s identity too. The aforementioned conservative male may view it as the duty of men to be ‘protectors’ of women, and hence, find the hijab issue to be of supreme significance. The heterosexual liberal may perceive the LGBT cause as a matter of justice for the disadvantaged and downtrodden, and it is a crucial part of the liberal identity to defend these groups. The decisions these actors make are thus wholly ‘rational’. However, unlike assumptions related to the economic man, the decisions of actors are not always based 15 Interviews with liberal activists will be documented later.

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on material costs and benefits. At times, ideological considerations factor into the decision-making calculus of individuals. Rationality here thus refers to how agents are aware of the potential benefits and detriments of their decisions, and thinking in a structured and ordered way to arrive to that particular decision. The politics of co-optation detailed at length in Chapter 2 is again useful in helping us comprehend the nature of activism in Singapore. The state’s motivations are clear: to suppress or prevent opposition or potential opposition to its policies, co-optation is a far better tool than outright repression, since the former is less politically costly. The state may also co-opt individuals and/or organizations if they genuinely align with the state’s own predispositions, or if they wish to benefit from the latter’s technical expertise (Saward 1992). For the activists, being co-opted is a choice which they can exercise. In doing so, they make calculations on how they position themselves vis-à-vis the government would impact themselves and the causes they champion. The Weberian and Tocquevillean perspectives on social movements thus become relevant (Cisar, 2015). I therefore incorporate endogeneity into the concept of political opportunity structures, building on the works of the scholars mentioned, and argue that an individual’s own abilities should form part of his or her own structure. This is in line with the conclusion of McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly that political opportunity structures vary across individuals.

3.4 Main Arguments Based on the foregoing discussions on structures and agency, I make the following arguments on Muslim activism in Singapore. I posit that political opportunity structures, based on the above factors, are limiting as far as the activists are concerned. The absence of competitive elections under which the PAP is at genuine risk of losing power, and the cohesion of political elites, coupled with the party’s aversion to any challenge to it in the realm of religion, ensures that civil society in Singapore is highly regulated. Muslim activists are no different. They therefore tread carefully in their activist undertakings, which are often built in to their strategies for the causes they pursue. At the same time, bearing in mind the agency of activists, they still have options. As already mentioned in Chapter 1, activists could do the following. First, they could choose to cooperate with the state as much as possible. This means that activists would have to work hand-in-glove with the state,

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support its causes, and even at times, tacitly endorse state leaders and/or ideologies. An example would be the Dadah itu Haram (Drugs are impermissible) campaign launched by former Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Health Amrin Amin. The campaign was designed to convince drug abusers, or potential drug abusers, that Islam frowns upon and forbids the misuse of drugs.16 It was targeted toward Muslims since the majority of drug offenders in Singapore are Malay-Muslims. Putting aside the criticism that the campaign is redundant because most Muslims already know that drug abuse is not allowed, and that it ignores deeper root causes for drug abuse such as familial and socio-economic problems (Rahim 1998), the government relied on Muslim clerics to support the movement. Another example would the establishment of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), an organization of ulama which assists in counselling detained extremists in order to convince them that their violent ideologies are warped and against the grain of Islam (Hassan and Pereire 2006, Abdullah 2017c). In both instances, the ulama’s assistance is required since the state’s strategy was to channel positive Islamic teachings toward tackling the problems at hand. When activists cooperate with the state, they do not run the risk of any reproach, and additionally, may gain access to certain benefits, which are not necessarily material. RRG, for instance, is an entirely voluntary project, even if the body is endorsed by the state, but RRG leaders regularly meet up with ministers and policymakers, and hence have opportunities to ‘advise’ the government on Islamic matters.17 Many ulama throughout the world have echoed similar sentiments to explain their cooperation with states, even when such actions prove to be controversial with Muslim masses. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf was castigated by many quarters of the American Muslim community when he decided to be a member of the Trump Administration’s Commission for Unalienable Rights. Hamza, an enormously popular figure in Western Muslim communities, has previously been similarly derided for partaking in peace initiatives led by the United Arab Emirates, to the point of praising the Emirati government as ‘tolerant’.18 Many American Muslims were critical of Hamza as his 16 See “Dadah itu Haram Appreciation Lunch 2019 – Speech by Mr. K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Law,” Ministry of Home Affairs, 9 March 2019. https://www.mha.gov. sg/newsroom/speeches/news/dadah-itu-haram-appreciation-lunch-2019-speech-by-mr-kshanmugam-minister-for-home-affairs-and-minister-for-law. Accessed 7 August 2020. 17 The following chapter will document some of the responses by some ulama. 18 Maha Hilal, “It’s Time for Muslim Americans to Condemn Hamza Yusuf,” Al Jazeera, 16 July 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/time-muslim-americans-condemnhamza-yusuf-190715130254222.html. Accessed 24 July 2019

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agreeing to be part of any Trump Administration enterprises can be seen as an endorsement of a government which regularly espouses xenophobic and Islamophobic views. On Hamza’s part, he has been explicit that he would take any opportunity to provide states with advice if he is given the chance to do so.19 Ulama and activists who work with the Singapore government articulate similar thoughts. Herein lies the conundrum facing those who choose to cooperate with the state. Even if one has the noblest of intentions and has made the calculation that cooperation would be more beneficial, especially in causes which are in line with the teachings of Islam anyway (such as Dadah itu Haram and RRG initiatives), one faces the risk of being the subject of allegations of ‘selling out’ as Hamza does. The example of former Mufti Isa Semait being criticized for being a tool of the state mentioned in Chapter 1 further buttresses this point. The ulama and activists have to consider the possibility that their credibility could be tainted by their close association with the state. The second option is for activists to conduct activism in areas which the state allows for some contestation, or is simply ambivalent to. Activists could be tactical and selectively champion causes which the state does not regard as critical to its legitimacy. The LGBT cause is again relevant here as it is one issue which does not encroach upon the fundamental underpinnings, and hence, an area where some dissent is allowed. Both conservative (against) and liberal (for) Muslim activists have exhibited vociferous tendencies in their attitudes toward the LGBT cause, which manifests itself in the debate over the repeal of Section 377A. The section, a statute which Singapore inherited from its British colonial masters, criminalizes sexual intercourse between men. The PAP has promised not to enforce the law, but yet choose to retain it, in an obvious bid to appease both the liberal and conservative factions of the electorate (Abdullah 2019a). The LGBT issue does not affect the PAP’s credibility too much, since its legitimacy is neither built on being a moral bulwark of conservative values nor a champion of individual liberty. Activists could also choose to be dynamic in fields which are deemed as ‘apolitical’. For instance, many ulama prefer to teach Islam in solely spiritual terms, and eschew discussing social affairs such as poverty, rights of migrant workers, inequality and so on, which are issues which Islam – or certain interpretations of the faith – may have something to say about. It is 19 He clearly expressed in an interview with the Malaysian TV channel Astro Awani TV that if he was invited to advise the Chinese government with regard to its treatment of the Muslim-majority Uyghur population in Xinjiang, he would do so. See https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=RBsHO8R3XZw. Accessed 24 July 2019.

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increasingly commonplace to see seminars, talks and courses conducted by the ulama on how to love oneself, how to improve one’s spiritual condition, how to be the best version of oneself, inter alia. This is what I term as the rise of ‘feel-good’ Islam, where the focus of Muslims is directed solely to matters which may give one a ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling, but shuns difficult topics which may inadvertently earn the ire of the state. For these ulama, and some activists adopt this tack too, they are merely being apolitical. The ‘apolitical’ trope is used by many Muslim groups elsewhere too: the case of the Jamaat Tabligh has already been explicated in the previous chapter. However, as a political scientist would say, there is really no such thing as being apolitical. Being apolitical is a political stance. When one is being ‘apolitical’, in essence, one chooses to ignore certain issues which are uncomfortable for the state, and which may result in a backlash for those pursuing the cause. There is a third, more perilous, option for activists, which is to challenge the state in areas where its legitimacy may be questioned. Needless to say, activists who embark on this path risk robust reprisals by the state. Non-Muslim activists such as Jolovan Wham, Kirsten Han and PJ Thum would probably be the quintessential examples of those who persistently take on the state. All three have been critical of the state in spheres which go beyond the OB markers. Han wrote in the New York Times that Singapore was an ‘authoritarian paradise, where critics of the government are squelched and drug traffickers are hanged,’ and that the PAP had ‘little time for human rights civil liberties, or even openness and accountability when there’s something they want to achieve.’20 Jolovan Wham has had a history of running afoul of the law via his activism: he was charged in court and convicted in October 2018 for ‘scandalizing the judiciary’ with a post on Facebook.21 PJ Thum’s criticisms of the PAP’s treatment of leftists in the 1960s has already been documented earlier. All three of them have been on the receiving end of either the long arm of the law – as in Wham’s case – or at the very least, some harsh rebuke by state elites. All three were declared ‘not patriotic’ by Minister Shanmugam via his press secretary, after Thum met with Dr. Mahathir and urged the latter to ‘spread democracy’ to 20 Kirsten Han, “What Trump is Learning from Singapore – and Vice-Versa,” The New York Times, 28 March 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/opinion/trump-singapore.html. Accessed 25 July 2019. 21 Selina Lum, “$5000 Fine Each for Activist Jolovan Wham and SDP’s John Tan for Contempt of Court,” The Straits Times, 29 April 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courtscrime/5000-fine-each-for-activist-jolovan-wham-and-sdps-john-tan-for-contempt-of. Accessed 25 July 2019.

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Southeast Asia.22 The sharp censure by PAP leaders was hardly surprising: the PAP had always frowned upon foreign involvement in the domestic political affairs of Singapore. To make matters worse, Mahathir has long had a troubled history with Singapore, as he has criticized his neighbour on numerous occasions, not least because of disputes over the price of water between the two nations: Thum was therefore, to the PAP, not just asking a foreign leader to meddle in Singapore’s politics, but he was requesting a somewhat hostile foreign leader to do so.23 Singapore’s difficulties with Mahathir were mentioned by Shanmugam’s press secretary in the very same statement which chastised the three activists. The three individuals then wrote a letter to PM Lee protesting the criticisms by his party members on Thum’s visit. Whether Thum and his fellow activists should have been deemed as almost traitorous is not the point of contention here; rather, what I wish to highlight is that the three of them are clear examples of Singaporean activists who challenge the state outright, even in the more controversial spheres. However, Thum, Han and Wham are really in the extremely small minority of activists who adopt such a defiant attitude. The pool is even smaller when it comes to Muslim activists. Two cases are worth mentioning. The first is Alfian Sa’at, a prominent playwright who writes critical commentaries of the state’s policies especially on race; and the second, Ustaz Noor Deros, someone who had his ARS revoked because his teachings were deemed to be unsuitable to the Singapore context. Noor Deros is a critic of capitalism and the entire modern banking system which is based on interest or usury, something he considers to be a major sin in Islam. The two personalities will be discussed further later; for now, it is worth noting that Alfian can be considered a liberal, while Noor is a conservative. Both liberals and conservatives can get into the state’s bad books, if they so wish to pursue causes which the state finds problematic.24 Being a liberal or a conservative does not necessarily spare a person from castigation. 22 The three sent a letter of complaint to the Prime Minister after Thum was criticized by two PAP leaders, including Shanmugam, for the meeting with Mahathir. See “Shanmugam Stands by Comments Made about Thum: Press Secretary Responds to Activists’ Letter to PM,” Channel News Asia, 5 September 2018. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/ shanmugam-stands-by-comments-made-about-thum-press-secretary-10687056. Accessed 25 July 2019. 23 Mahathir claims that the 1962 water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia, which is valid until 2061, shortchanges Malaysia since each gallon of water was sold to Singapore at three cents. 24 Thum, Han and Wham can also be deemed liberals.

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As might be expected, most activists in Singapore, including Muslims, choose one of the first two options, whatever their orientations may be. That is to say, both liberals and conservatives typically do not rock the boat, and work within the acceptable boundaries drawn by the state. The political opportunities for them are not as wide as in other countries, and activists are well aware of this. They are not under any illusion that Singapore is a liberal democracy where more forms of activism would be tolerated, if not celebrated. If anything, their perceptions are often that the boundaries are narrower than in reality, which is why they usually do not stray anywhere near the OB markers. While there are some like Alfian and Noor who choose the third option, these are by far in the minority. For the majority of activists who choose the first or second options, they have to be at peace with the fact that they may not be able to pursue causes which are completely in line with their ideological predispositions. Liberals and conservatives may not champion liberal/conservative causes when the political opportunities are not in their favour. For liberal Muslims, the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA), for instance, is not something which they actively pursue, even though they believe in individual liberties and would normally be wary of strong state intervention in the realm of individual rights. This is because the ISA is framed as a necessary choice for the security and safety of the nation-state which is obsessed with survival, and challenges to the ISA may be viewed by political elites as an attempt to contest a core ideology of the state. For conservatives, on the other hand, even though some of them are uncomfortable with certain policies such as the equating of conservative practices with extremism by some politicians, they do not mention so in public, and choose to remain silent while privately disavowing those statements. More examples and cases will be discussed in the upcoming chapters. Activists conscientiously navigate the political system to maximize their benefits within this framework. It is worth reiterating that these actors are typically aware of the potential repercussions of their actions, or inaction. These activists may of course, like other agents, make miscalculations, and may over-estimate the probability of state condemnation for instance, and vice-versa. Nonetheless, that does not mean the decisions undertaken are not based on rational calculations. These activists weigh the potential costs and benefits of their actions – made based on available information to them on state policy and ideologies, and precedents – and choose a particular course of action. Their idea of what is a cost and a benefit is highly dependent on their own worldviews and ideologies, and hence, even the very notion of ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ differs across individuals. Agency matters, and we

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should not assume activists to be mere passive agents who do not know what their decisions entail, and are completely constricted by external factors. Yes, political opportunities are important, but so is the agency of activists. Capitalizing on the system meant that for some activists, at times, painful decisions had to be made, and certain causes had to be prioritized over others, and other matters which may close to an activist’s heart be put on the back burner, or even abandoned entirely. Because of the political opportunity structures in Singapore, the activists who make the most gains in the system are those who align themselves with the state, or at least, do not challenge it, even when such an alliance could cost them some credibility. These activists are able to push specific agendas which they find appropriate under such circumstances. However, in the process, these activists may have to accept that by not challenging the state, they may end up strengthening authoritarianism. The state’s core ideologies remain intact, as do most of the policies associated with those fundamental underpinnings of governance. While these activists may wish to enact social change, and often they do in fact manage to do so, they do so within the parameters drawn by the state. Activists have generally chosen to work within the system, and not dismantle it. As a result, the system remains as secure as ever, contrary to predictions to the contrary as embodied in the modernization-democratization theory explained in Chapter 1. As remarked by Chan, Siddique, Masron, and Cooray: It is almost impossible to view civil society in Singapore as an independent social force. Registered NGOs are encouraged to promote the special interests of their members, engage in social welfare activities, and occasionally act as advocacy groups. The ground rules are as follows: no entering the political arena and no activities that could lead to social unrest. Groups which cross these out-of-bounds (OB) markers are summarily dealt with. In the context of religion and state, there is not much room for religious players to challenge the fabric of what is considered to be secular. (Chan, et al. 2019, 93)

Herein lies the dilemma for activists: if they play by the rules of the game, they are endorsing and strengthening the authoritarian state; on the other, if they do not, they would be ‘summarily dealt with’ (Chan, et al. 2019, 93). This is one of the reasons why, in spite of a huge middle-class population, there has not been much clamour for greater democratization in Singapore. Civil society, which usually leads the way in democratization processes elsewhere, together with other allies in and outside the state, is pretty much regulated to

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the point that it has become a partner in nation-building, not an adversary or even a check and balance. Again, a contrast with Malaysia would be helpful. Civil society organizations led calls for greater democratic transparency in Malaysia prior to 2018, and in doing so, often were on the wrong end of the law. They conducted open demonstrations, challenging key aspects of the Barisan Nasional ruling foundations. In 2016, for example, activists in Malaysia advocating electoral reform under the movement called Bersih (translated as clean, in a reference to make elections fairer and ‘cleaner’), were arrested by the police before a protest which was meant to urge Najib to resign.25 Such brazenness from activists was becoming more commonplace after 2008, when Barisan Nasional had lost its two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament for the first time. In Singapore, activists do not undertake similar risks. Of course, there could be several reasons for that. First, the political opportunities are different. Even though activists in both countries did face similar risks, in Malaysia, the opposition was much stronger than in Singapore, and bolder too, and hence, these activists had allies in parliament. The PAP is also more electorally popular than the BN was, which means that generally, the electorate supported the major facets of PAP’s governance. This meant that civil society could not easily tap into a pool of disgruntled citizens. The aforementioned Kirsten Han, an activist who does challenge boundaries, admitted that her form of activism is not exactly supported by the majority of Singaporeans. She said: I am no longer afraid of being jailed, which is why I can do whatever activism I want. And I know the majority of Singaporeans do not always agree with me, which is why I am an activist. Otherwise, I would be a PA member.26, 27

Second, it is true that for some activists in Singapore, they believe in the system more than their counterparts in Malaysia did, and hence, do not see a pressing need to uproot it, but rather, chose to work within it. At the same time, there are activists who disagree with many fundamental aspects of the PAP’s governance, but do not actively pursue their points of contention out of pragmatic reasons. Whatever the reasons, it is definitely the case that civil society in Singapore is far less confrontational than some of their 25 “Malaysian Police Arrest Bersih 2.0 Chairperson, ‘Red Shirts’ Leader Ahead of Rally,” Channel News Asia, 18 November 2016. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/malaysian-policearrest-bersih-2-0-chairperson-red-shirts-leader-7705658. Accessed 1 August 2019. 26 My correspondence with Kirsten Han, 31 July 2019. 27 PA is the People’s Association, a grassroots body which is affiliated with the PAP.

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peers elsewhere are. Activists who do adopt an adversarial approach are in the small minority, and, by Han’s own admission, do not command support from the majority of Singaporeans. The net, perhaps unintended, effect is of such activism by the majority of actors is that the PAP remains not only electorally secure, but competitive authoritarianism remains intact too. There is no sustained and systematic attempt by civil society to champion democratic freedoms and oppose authoritarian institutions, apart from the spheres within which the PAP allows for contestation. The concluding chapter will parse out these arguments more, as will the subsequent chapters.

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Kugler, M., Jost, J. T., & Noorbaloochi, S. (2014). ‘Another Look at Moral Foundations Theory: Do Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation Explain Liberal-Conservative Differences in “Moral” Intuitions?’ Social Justice Research, 27(4), 413-431. Lum, S. “$5000 Fine Each for Activist Jolovan Wham and SDP’s John Tan for Contempt of Court,” The Straits Times, 29 April 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courtscrime/5000-f ine-each-for-activist-jolovan-wham-and-sdps-john-tan-for-contempt-of. Accessed 25 July 2019. MacKerras, M. (1999). ‘Compulsory Voting, Party Stability and Electoral Advantage in Australia.’ Electoral Studies, 18(2), 217-233. “Malaysian Police Arrest Bersih 2.0 Chairperson, ‘Red Shirts’ Leader Ahead of Rally,” Channel News Asia, 18 November 2016. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/malaysianpolice-arrest-bersih-2-0-chairperson-red-shirts-leader-7705658. Accessed 1 August 2019. Manji, I. (2003). The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. McAdam, D., Tarrow, S., & Tilly, C. (2009). ‘Comparative Perspectives on Contentious Politics.’ In M. Lichbach, & A. Zuckerman (Eds.), Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure (pp. 260-290). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Miller, R. W. (1978). ‘Methodological Individualism and Social Explanation.’ Philosophy of Science, 45(3), 387-414. Ministry of Home Affairs. “Dadah itu Haram Appreciation Lunch 2019 – Speech by Mr. K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Law,” 9 March 2019. https://www.mha.gov. sg/newsroom/speeches/news/dadah-itu-haram-appreciation-lunch-2019-speech-by-mrk-shanmugam-minister-for-home-affairs-and-minister-for-law. Accessed 7 August 2020. Mokhtar, F. “Former Ustaz Was Spreading Extremist Ideas on Facebook,” Today, 16 January 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/former-ustaz-spreading-extremist-ideas-facebook. Accessed 30 April 2019. Norris, P. (1997). ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems.’ International Political Science Review, 18(3), 297-312. North, D. C. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Odmalm, P., & Lees, C. (2006). ‘Getting Ethnic Questions on the Agenda: Party Formation as a Strategy for Social Movements.’ Social Movement Studies, 5(1), 1-18. Oliveira, C. R., & Carvalhais, I. E. (2017). ‘Immigrants’ Political Claims in Portugal: Confronting the Political Opportunity Structure with Perceptions and Discourses.’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40(5), 787-808. O’Neill, K., Balsiger, J., & VanDeveer, S. D. (2004). ‘Actors, Norms, and Impact: Recent International Cooperation Theory and the Influence of the Agent-Structure Debate.’ Annual Review of Political Science, 7, 149-175. Osman, M. M. “This is What Helping Families Looks Like,” The Straits Times, 27 June 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/this-is-what-helping-families-looks-like. Accessed 8 November 2019. Ostwald, K. (2013). ‘How to Win a Lost Election: Malapportionment and Malaysia’s 2013 General Election.’ The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, 102(6), 521-532. Owen, G. “Tony Blair Says Murder of Lee Rigby PROVES ‘There is a Problem within Islam’,” The Daily Mail, 1 June 2013. Accessed 21 March 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/ article-2334451/Tony-Blair-says-murder-Lee-Rigby-PROVES-problem-Islam.html. Popkin, S. L. (1979). The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press. Popper, K. R. (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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Rahim, L. Z. (1998). The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press. Ramadan, T. (2004). Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press. Reichmuth, S. (2004). ‘Murtada al-Zabidi (1732-91) and the Africans: Islamic Discourse and Scholarly Networks in the Eighteenth Century.’ In S. S. Reese (Ed.), The Transmission of Learning in Islamic Africa (pp. 121-153). Leiden; Boston: Brill. Rodan, G. (2014). ‘Civil Society Activism and Political Parties in Malaysia: Differences over Local Representation.’ Democratization, 21(5), 824-845. Saward, M. (1992). Co-optive Politics and State Legitimacy. Aldershot: Dartmouth. Sedgwick, M. J. (1997). ‘Saudi Suf is: Compromise in the Hijaz, 1925-40.’ Die Welt des Islams, 37(3), 349-368. “Shanmugam Stands by Comments Made about Thum: Press Secretary Responds to Activists’ Letter to PM,” Channel News Asia, 5 September 2018. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/ singapore/shanmugam-stands-by-comments-made-about-thum-press-secretary-10687056. Accessed 25 July 2019. Skocpol, T. (1979). States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. Slater, D. (2012). ‘Strong-State Democratization in Malaysia and Singapore.’ Journal of Democracy, 23(2), 19-33. Suziedelis, A., & Lorr, M. (1973). ‘Conservative Attitudes and Authoritarian Values.’ The Journal of Psychology, 83(2), 287-294. Talmon-Heller, D. (2007). Islamic Piety in Medieval Syria: Mosques, Cemeteries and Sermons under the Zangids and the Ayyubids. Leiden; Boston: Brill. Tan, N. (2013). ‘Manipulating Electoral Laws in Singapore.’ Electoral Studies, 32(4), 632-643. Tarrow, S. G. (2011). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Teo, Y. Y. (2018). This is What Inequality Looks Like. Singapore: Ethos Books. Watkins, J. W. (1957). ‘Historical Explanation in the Social Sciences.’ The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 8(30), 104-117. Wendt, A. (1987). ‘The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory.’ International Organization, 41(3), 335-370. Zaman, M. Q. (2002). The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

4 The Ulama: Pragmatism and Political Acquiescence Abstract This chapter investigates the position of the ulama within the political system in Singapore. It interrogates the various cleavages amongst the ulama, the strategies they undertake to further causes which they deem important, the issues they shun, and the thought processes behind their decisions. The ulama, just like other actors, are pragmatic creatures, fully cognizant of the costs and benefits of their actions. Different ulama prioritize various goals, depending on their own worldviews and ranking of what is important to them. As a result, the ‘pragmatic alim’ is able to operate within the political opportunity structures in an attempt to maximize his/her gains, while being aware of what has to be given up in order to achieve those objectives. Keywords: ulama, pragmatic, acquiescence, hijab, madrasah, Religious Rehabilitation Group

You will not find a single person in Singapore who considers himself to be part of the ulama. You need a deep level of knowledge of the Islamic tradition. At best, most of us are comfortable being called ustaz (religious teacher).1

The statement quoted above was largely the sentiment of most, if not all, of those interviewed for this project, when I had indicated to them that I regarded them as being part of the ulama fraternity. For them, the term ulama was enormously significant and carried with it connotations of deep 1 Interview with an ustaz, 19 August 2019. The term ‘ustaz’ will be used subsequently for both male and female respondents from the ulama fraternity, even if technically, a female religious teacher is referred to as an ustazah. This is to further ensure anonymity of the interviewees.

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knowledge, stellar character and immense responsibility. No doubt, part of their reluctance is motivated by a sense of humility and knowing one’s place within the Islamic tradition: it is quite unbecoming of righteous people to consider themselves as righteous, since an important part of the Islamic faith is the suppression of one’s own ego. These religious teachers are well aware of the possibility of falling into such hubris. At the same time, they also recognize the responsibilities, and perhaps burdens, of the ulama. It is rare to see Muslim scholars who would readily and openly admit themselves to be an alim (singular of ulama), even if they may personally feel that they fulfil the requisites of being one. This chapter investigates the position of the ulama within the political system in Singapore. It interrogates the various cleavages amongst the ulama, the strategies they undertake to further causes which they deem important, the issues they shun, and the thought processes behind their decisions. The ulama, just like other actors, are pragmatic creatures, fully aware of the costs and benefits of their actions. Different ulama prioritize various goals, depending on their own worldviews and ranking of what is important to them. As a result, the ‘pragmatic alim’ is able to operate within the political opportunity structures in an attempt to maximize his/ her gains, while being aware of what has to be given up in order to achieve those objectives.

4.1 The Ulama: Roles and Responsibilities As inheritors of the Prophets, the ulama are regarded as the authoritative interpreters, and defenders, of the Islamic tradition. The Islamic tradition is vast and more complex than many would believe, and hence, just like any other discipline, proper scholarship and training is needed to fully fathom the intricacies of Islamic jurisprudence and theology. As articulated by Sheikh Ali Gomaa, a prominent contemporary Muslim alim who is also the former Mufti of Egypt, ordinary Muslims cannot interpret religious scripture on their own as the ‘elliptical style of the Qur’an and the Hadiths, with their constant interaction with the shifting contexts of the Prophet’s surroundings, makes them incomprehensible at times without context’ (Brown J. A., 2014, p. 287). Gomaa was not enunciating a new idea: he was merely repeating the thoughts of Muslim scholars who preceded him. Since a profound knowledge of both text and context is needed to have a sound understanding of the tradition, the ulama have also – throughout Islamic history – found themselves to be at the forefront of social change, or as

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Zaman (2002) terms it, they have been the ‘custodians of change’. This is not to say that the ulama have always advocated change; indeed, at times, the ulama have been at the forefront of resisting reform. Nonetheless, to portray them as completely resistant to any form of alterations to the status quo would be inaccurate. The Singapore experience is replete with instances of how the ulama have embraced reform in some instances and eschewed it in others. These will be detailed later. If Islam is defined as a discursive tradition, as Asad argues, then the ulama ‘are def ined as representatives of this discursive tradition, as it has evolved over the centuries’ (Petersen 2009, 28). Drawing on the great luminaries of the past, they ‘profess their dependence on and commitment to a great Islamic scholarly tradition, of which they consider themselves the contemporary representatives’ (Petersen 2009, 28). This means that the legitimacy of the contemporary ulama rests on their predecessors, which explains why, at times, the process of change can be laborious since it would be difficult for them to disavow some of the religious rulings issued by the ulama of the past. Similarly, in Singapore, many religious scholars speak liberally of their associations with notable ulama of the previous generation. Ustaz Syed Abdillah Al-Jufri, (d. 2003) – the former President of Pergas and Principal of Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah, the most famous Islamic religious school in the country – for instance, is invoked by many current ulama, as they attempt to boost their credentials.2 It is common to hear them say something along the lines of ‘I was fortunate enough to have studied under Ustaz Syed Abdillah.’ Al-Jufri is still widely respected amongst both the lay Muslim populace and the scholarly class, which is why it is not surprising to see him being mentioned often. A connection to previous generations of ulama who were themselves connected to previous generations, going all the way back to the Prophet, ensures the authenticity of teachings and hence, one’s credentials as well. As mentioned in previous chapters, the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) is increasingly assuming greater significance in the bureaucratization of Islam in Singapore. With the ARS, religious teachers have to get certified before they teach Islam. Thus, those who are not deemed to be worthy of being a religious teacher, cannot become one. The criteria here are not merely academic: even if one has studied at an Islamic institution and has 2 An ustaz is a male religious teacher, and an ustazah is the female equivalent. The terms are regularly used in the context of the Malay-speaking world, including in Singapore, to refer to those who teach Islam. The term asatizahs is used to denote the community of religious teachers.

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the necessary educational credentials to be a religious teacher, one can be denied/stripped of the ARS if one’s views are ‘inimical to social cohesion’, as stated by Minister of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulfkili.3 Even private Islamic educational centres need to get accreditation from MUIS (Abdullah 2018a). Social cohesion, of course, is dependent on socio-political considerations, and in the context of Singapore, much of what is ‘inimical to social cohesion’ is defined by the PAP, as several examples given later in this chapter will show. Those who contravene the law, and still teach Islam even without getting accreditation, face the risk of being charged.4 The ARS is a powerful tool at the disposal of the state, and the ulama have no doubts about its potency. As said by an interviewee: No doubt, we are all cautious because of the ARS. We would not dare say anything that could get us into trouble, and get our ARS revoked. So we just concentrate on non-controversial things. We are definitely self-conscious and think many times before we speak, because our rice bowls are on the line.5

Another, while commenting on the ARS, mentioned something similar and outlined his strategy: I know that I am at the mercy of MUIS and ARS. Which is why I try to have a good relationship with the government.6

Dr. Abdullah Othman, the Director of Andalus, a private Islamic educational centre, expressed his worry that the ARS may deter the ulama from speaking candidly and bravely on issues facing the Muslim community, as they may be too worried about their status as accredited religious teachers being affected.7 The candid nature of the respondents’ replies was somewhat surprising, but it is clear from the interviews conducted that the asatizahs were fully 3 Hariz Baharudin, “More Than 4000 Accredited Islamic Religious Teachers in Singapore,” The Straits Times, 12 February 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-morethan-4000-accredited-islamic-religious-teachers-in-singapore. Accessed 6 August 2019. 4 See the ARS handbook for a thorough explanation of the scheme. https://www.muis.gov. sg/-/media/Files/ARS/Document/ARS--IECP-Handbook--Final.pdf. Accessed 15 August 2019. 5 Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019. 6 Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019. 7 “Skim Pengiktirafan Asatizah (Asatizah Recognition Scheme),” Berita Minggu, 22 September 2019, p. 8.

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aware of what could be the potential repercussions if they ran afoul of the state. The cases of those who have suffered such ignominy are few and far between, but they exist, and hence, the presence of these examples is enough to have deterrent effects. Ustaz Murad Said and Ustaz Noor Deros are two prominent examples of those who have been denied the ARS, for varying reasons. The former was deemed to have preached ‘segregationist’ teachings, had a ‘binary us versus them worldview’, and taught the ‘primacy of Syariah law over Singapore’s secular nation-state system.’8 Murad was issued a Restriction Order under the Internal Security Act – where a person is not imprisoned but is subject to certain restrictions such as not being able to travel abroad -9 after he was struck off the ARS list. Unlike Murad, however, Noor was not considered a security threat. Rather, he was denied the ARS because the Asatizah Recognition Board (ARB) deemed his teachings to not be suitable in the Singapore context. This is because he has previously been critical of capitalism and the modern banking system, and takes a strict approach towards usury and interest rates.10 Both cases will be elaborated later. The duty of teaching the ‘correct’ version of Islam is foremost on the agenda for the ulama: on this, there is no dispute within the fraternity. They all agree that the primary responsibility of an alim is to teach Islam to Muslims. The following quote encapsulates most of the respondents’ take on this responsibility: It is the role of the ulama to guide the Muslim community with authentic teachings. Nowadays, people can get their knowledge from everywhere, especially the Internet. The ulama thus must be well-read and knowledgeable, in order to perform this duty responsibly. The ulama need to advise the community when they see something that goes against Islam. Amr ma’ruf nahi mukar (enjoin good, forbid evil) is an important aspect of being an alim.11

Where there is slight disagreement, is on the secondary roles of the ulama. For some, the ulama should be singularly focused on teaching Islam, and 8 Hariz Baharudin, “Former Religious Teacher and Student Placed on Restriction Order under ISA,” The Straits Times, 16 January 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/formerfreelance-religious-teacher-and-student-placed-on-restriction-order-under-isa. Accessed 6 August 2019. 9 The Detention Order under the Internal Security Act, on the other hand, requires that a person be imprisoned. 10 Correspondence with Ustaz Noor Deros, 5 September 2019. 11 Interview with an ustaz, 19 August 2019.

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nothing else should distract them from this focus. The politically quietist approach adopted by some Muslims has already been discussed in Chapter 2. In Singapore too, such an ideology exists amongst some of the ulama. A respondent notes: Our job is to reach as many people as possible through our teachings. The ulama should focus on our job, which is to teach Islam, and leave the rest to others.12

These ulama define their roles in simple terms, and in the process, eschew any form of political involvement, or even activism. For others, however, they have additional expectations of themselves and their colleagues. Some view the ulama as champions of the Islamic faith too, and therefore, see the articulation of certain rights of Muslims as part of their job scope. Others see engagement with contemporary issues as necessary for the ulama, together with reaching out to, and connecting with every segment imaginable in the Muslim community. Consider the following quotes: The ulama should be people who not only teach Islam, but also people who defend Islam and champion the causes of the Muslim community. While the ulama should not be directly involved in politics, they should be a form of pressure group and articulate the rights of Muslims. In fact, the Muslims expect this of people who call themselves ulama.13 The ulama should have a voice in the contemporary issues which intersect with religion, such as in finance and bio-medicine. As such, the ulama must not only be equipped with knowledge in the spiritual domain, but the secular fields too.14 For me, the ulama must be able to reach out to every single Muslim, and must be able to be very open toward understanding their struggles and problems.15

From these, it is evident that some ulama have a broader idea of what their roles entail. The first quote is especially interesting since there is an activist 12 13 14 15

Interview with an ustaz, 20 August 2019. Interview with Pergas member, 3 February 2012, as cited in (Abdullah 2013). Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019. Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019.

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element to it: desiring the ulama to take up the roles of being a ‘pressure group’ and championing Muslim issues, invariably means some form of involvement in political affairs. As mentioned in preceding chapters, while the ulama hold a special status in the eyes of Muslims everywhere, and even in the legal apparatus of the Singapore state via the codification and bureaucratization of Islam, their authority is by no means unfettered. Throughout the history of Islam, the ulama have had their authority challenged by state actors, other ulama, and in modern times, Islamists and liberals (Lacroix 2004, Rahnema 2008, Hatina 2010). In Singapore, the ulama have on occasion been on the receiving end of criticisms by both conservatives and liberals. Both groups have disputed the validity of several fatwas or stances of the ulama. In 1973, a debate took place between MUIS and Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, the then-Head of Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore, on the issue of cornea transplant. After the then-Mufti Shaykh Isa Semait issued a fatwa declaring such a procedure to be impermissible, Professor Alatas wrote a piece in Berita Harian, disagreeing with the premise of the fatwa (Alatas 2015 ). On another occasion, Shaykh Isa Semait’s statement in 2002 which stated that seeking knowledge was more obligatory than covering the aurah – in response to the hijab issue which will be discussed in a while – was roundly criticized by many conservatives, up till today (Abdullah 2013).16 The point here is that the ulama, though revered, are not regarded as infallible.

4.2 Different Groups of Ulama in Singapore From the self-understandings of the roles and responsibilities of the various ulama interviewed, it can already be discerned that the ulama are not homogenous. The ulama are not a monolithic group, even though they are at times assumed to be. Chapter 2 has outlined the various fault-lines that exist between ulama in general. This section will outline the cleavages specific to the Singaporean ulama. A few main categories are identified. Firstly, the ulama differ along ideological lines. The Sufi/traditionalist schism has generated much discussion in the public sphere in recent years, and due attention will be given on this divide since it has political ramifications. Secondly, the ulama have various political positions. It has already been 16 The aurah refers to the parts of the body which Muslims are required to cover in Islamic jurisprudence. For women, this includes their hair, which is why the headscarf/hijab is donned.

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pointed out earlier that some ulama prefer a quietist stance, while others see the need for more activism. Some are more amenable to the state, while others are not as agreeable. Traditionalist/Sufi-Salafi Cleavage The traditionalist/Sufi-Salafi divide has indeed garnered much attention in the popular consciousness, even amongst non-Muslims. Since 9-11 and the rise of groups such as Al-Qaeda and later on, Daesh, Wahhabism has been thrust into the limelight, as the rigidity and pedantic nature of this ideology has been associated with terrorism. Indeed, many terrorists and Muslim extremists do subscribe to some version of Wahhabism. However, many Wahhabis are not violent, and are merely puritanical or ultra-conservative. Moreover, there are non-Wahhabis who have become attracted to terrorist ideology and have carried out acts of violence too (McCargo 2008). Nonetheless, this nuance is often lost on many commentators. Wahhabism has been described as a threat to normative Islam, and even to the stability of Singapore as a multiracial and tolerant society. Both Wahhabism’s Muslim and non-Muslim detractors are vehemently against the ideology and decry its potential to incite violence and cause harm. Academics Zoltan Pall and Maarten Bruinessen sounded alarm bells and urged the Muslim community to confront Salafism/Wahhabism.17 Salafism and Wahhabism are often used synonymously, even though there are slight differences between the two terms, as already elucidated in Chapter 2. Salafism is a broader category, which seeks to reform Islam by going back to the original sources – the Quran and Sunnah – and strip Islam of superstition and cultural practices which were not practised by the Prophet. The Salaf refer to the (pious) predecessors, which is taken to be the first three generations of Islam, based on the hadith of the Prophet which states that the best people of the Muslim ummah are the first three generations.18 As the hadith indicates that after the first three generations, the quality of piety would deteriorate, which is why for Salafis, the first three generations become the gold standard to 17 Faris Mokhtar, “Islamic Community ‘Must Act to Counter Growing Influence of Salafism’,” Today, 18 June 2018. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/seen-promote-intolerance-salafismcomes-under-renewed-scrutiny. Accessed 8 August 2019. 18 The hadith is: ‘The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them, and then those who will come after them, and then after them, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness.’ Hadith is in Bukhari and a similar version can be found in Muslim. See Sunnah.com, https:// sunnah.com/search/?q=the+best+of+generation. Accessed 8 August 2019.

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which Muslims must aspire.19 There are three main features of Salafism. 1) An adherence to the Hanbali or Athari theology which believes in the literal attributes of God. For example, when God says He sits on the throne, Salafis would understand that to literally mean that He sits on the throne, without any further queries on what that entails. Other Muslims would be more inclined toward interpreting that phrase metaphorically, that God rules from His throne. 2) A critical attitude toward rigid obedience to a madhab of school of jurisprudence. 3) A focus on eliminating bidaah or innovations from Islam. Because of their combined zeal for protecting the one-ness of God (tawhid) and disdain for innovations, Salafis tend to adopt harsh stances toward non-Sunni groups, especially the Shias. Ibn Taimiyyah is perhaps the central figure of authority for Salafis (d. 1328). Wahhabism, as a subset of Salafism, concurs on these three matters, but its followers tend to follow a smaller group of ulama, usually those originating from Saudi Arabia or at least who are trained there. Some of the ulama they revere include Ibn Baz (d. 1999), the former Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Al-Uthaymeen (d. 2001), and Nasiruddin Al-Albani (d. 1999). These ulama are followers of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (d. 1792). The Saudi state had entered into a pact with Wahhabi ulama – the ruling family agreed to adopt and spread Wahhabi teachings, in exchange for political support from the Wahhabi ulama – and till today, the religious leaning of the kingdom is Wahhabism (Al-Rasheed 2002). Salafis comprise more than just the strict Wahhabis. I had earlier noted Tariq Ramadan’s typology which included three forms of Salafism: the Literalists, the Reformists, and the Political Literalists. Wictorowicz’s typology of Salafis takes a similar approach. He classifies Salafis into three main categories. The first are the purists. These are typically politically quietist, and are more interested in maintaining the purity of Islam, with their main obsession being the eradication of deviant practices or innovations. In Saudi Arabia, the purists are allies of the state and are given official positions in the country’s religious bureaucracy. In return, their ‘apolitical’ stance is useful for the Saud family, since they are able to embark on what would be otherwise controversial courses of action – such as the alliance with the United States – and are able to snuff out domestic opposition by claiming religious legitimacy. The ulama in this group use the justifications provided in Chapter 2 with regard to obeying the ruler, and prioritizing social order even under conditions of repression, as long as Islam can be practised. The second group comprises the politicos. Wictorowicz uses the Muslim 19 Traditionalists/Sufis believe in this hadith too, and do regard the first three generations as the best, but have different interpretations and methodologies on what their practices were.

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Brotherhood as the archetypical example for this category. Even though they generally subscribe to the Salafi school of thought, the Muslim Brothers were more open to rationalization as a means to engage with contemporary phenomena such as democracy and elections. The Brothers also were critical of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East, including the Saud kingdom, which set them on a collision course with both the royal family and the establishment ulama. In spite of their disagreements with various Arab regimes, the Brothers typically advocated non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, and tried to uproot the system via peaceful ways. The third group consists of the Jihadis. The Jihadis were relentless in their criticisms of the Saudi royal family and later on, of the purist ulama for their complicity in sustaining the regime. The Jihadis advocated violence not only against the external enemies of Islam, but also, its internal enemies, which included other Muslims who disagreed with them and especially those who were perceived to be in cahoots with the West (Wiktorowicz 2006). This typology is definitely useful, especially if taken in tandem with Ramadan’s. Although Wictorowitz emphasizes theology more than opportunities as explanations for certain political outcomes, these trends do exist within the Salafis, including in Singapore. A respondent informed me that according to his Salafi teacher, it was impermissible for them to vote for the opposition, as the leaders of a country must always be supported.20 The teacher was of course trained in Saudi Arabia, and evidently, subscribes to quietist Salafism. At the same time, there are other Salafis who actively comment on current affairs. Salafism is as varied as other ideologies, and should not be assumed to be a monolith. There is a misconception that Salafis do not allow room for human reasoning in the formulation of laws (Pall 2018, 15-16). While it is true that Wahhabis typically eschew independent reasoning as much as possible and try to stick to the literal texts wherever possible, other Salafis – as the example of the Muslim Brothers demonstrates – are more willing to engage in rationalization exercises. In Southeast Asia, the influential Muhammadiyah movement in Indonesia, and the great intellectual, Buya Hamka, had Salafi leanings and yet encourage a critical re-thinking of the Islamic tradition (Aljunied 2018). Of course, the ‘Salafism’ of Muhammadiyah is not at all akin to other groups which are more extremist, but herein lies the point: under the broad umbrella of Salafism, there exists a spectrum of approaches, from the ultra-conservative to the more open-minded. Traditionalists on the other hand, form the majority of Sunnis. They adhere to one of the four schools of jurisprudence, adopt a theological stance 20 Interview with Muslim professional, 8 August 2019.

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which allows room for more rational thinking and philosophical theorizing to understand God, and have practices such as the Mawlid (the Prophet’s birthday). Usually, they also place importance on tasawwuf, a discipline in Islamic sciences which emphasizes the purification of the heart. Sufis are traditionalists who are inducted into formal Sufi orders or tareqahs. In the Malay world, including in Singapore, the traditionalists belong to the Shafii school of jurisprudence and the Ash’aari school of theology.21 Salafis and traditionalists have often clashed in the Muslim world, and in Southeast Asia, it has been no different. From the 1920s onwards, the Salafi-reformists – inspired by Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida from Egypt – embarked on multiple attacks on certain practices in the Malay world, arguing that the malaise of the Muslims was partly due to them abandoning the purity of their faith. Because of innovations such as the Mawlid, the way Islam was practised in the region was no longer pure, the Salafis asserted. The traditionalist-Salafi debates took place in the Kaum Tua (Old Group) -Kaum Muda (New Group) discourse, where the Kaum Muda was calling for a return to the purity of the Prophet’s teachings. Post 9-11, Wahhabism was blamed for being the cause of terror and/or exclusivism, including by Singaporean traditionalists. Ustaz TM Fouzy, a prominent senior alim, publicly said in a forum that when a person exhibits Salafi-Wahhabi traits such as not wanting to adhere to one madhab, he is likely to become a violent extremist (Hassan and Pereire 2006).22 Even more recently, former top diplomat and head of the Middle East Institute, Bilahari Kausikan, averred that one of the three biggest threats to Singapore’s social cohesion was the ‘Arabization’ of Islam. The tenuous nature of the claim notwithstanding, Bilahari associated Arabization with the decline of traditionalist and Sufistic Islam, insinuating that Wahhabi-Salafi beliefs were problematic for the social fabric of the country.23 It is worth pointing out that most important positions are held by traditionalists-Sufis in Singapore. The Asatizah Recognition Board is headed by Ustaz Ali Mohamed, and Pergas is headed by Ustaz Hasbi Hasan, while both of them co-lead the Religious Rehabilitation Group: both are staunch Sufis. Dr. Fatris Bakaram, the former Mufti, is a traditionalist too, as was his predecessor, Shaykh Isa Semait. While there are Salafis represented in these organizations, it 21 The non-Malay speaking Indian Muslims are usually Hanafis and not Shafiis. 22 I was present at this forum. 23 Adrian Lim, “3 Forces Could Challenge Social Cohesion in Singapore: Bilahari,” The Straits Times, 25 July 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/3-forces-could-challenge-socialcohesion-bilahari. Accessed 8 August 2019.

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is clear that the traditionalists wield more influence within the Muslim community. There have been some tensions between Salafis and Sufis within Pergas – the leading organization of the ulama in Singapore – to the point that a few years ago, there were rumours that Salafis were about to mount a challenge against Ustaz Hasbi’s leadership. The rumours started after a senior alim of mild Salafi persuasion, Ustaz Kamal Mokhtar, had given an interview to the Malay daily, Berita Harian, in which he argued for leadership rejuvenation for Pergas. The Sufi-inclined ulama then galvanized and attended the Annual General Meeting in large numbers, and made sure that Ustaz Hasbi retained the presidency. In the process, they also voted out Salafi ulama such as Ustaz Azmi Abdul Samad from the executive committee.24 The battleground between the Salafis and Sufis/traditionalists takes place on multiple levels. For one, the theological and jurisprudential differences are real, even if they are not as gargantuan as many would typically assume. Salafis take issue with traditionalist understandings and teachings of Islamic theology, and criticize their innovative practices. At times, the critiques go beyond mild censures, and often venture into harsh labelling. The term ‘ahlul bidaah’ (people of innovation) is bandied about by Salafis to refer derogatorily to traditionalists. On their part, traditionalists-Sufis have accused Salafis of causing divisions within the Muslim community, and for even not loving the Prophet since they oppose the celebration of his birthday. Apart from the mawlid, other contentious practices include the kenduri arwah or tahlil, or prayers for the deceased, when family members and friends gather in order to recite verses of the Quran for their loved ones who have passed on; the majlis zikr, or occasions of remembrance of God when people gather and recite certain chants to glorify God; the talkin, a sermon that is recited to the deceased in anticipation of events that will happen in the hereafter; the Nisfu Shaaban, or the middle of the month Shaaban of the Islamic calendar, where traditionalists-Sufis would recite a chapter of the Quran, Yaasin, three times; the Isra’ Mi’raj on the 27th of the Islamic month Rajab, a date which Muslims believe is the anniversary of the Prophet’s miraculous journey from Mecca to Palestine and ascension into the seven heavens to meet God;25 the recital of Yaasin on every Thursday 24 This incident was narrated to me via multiple sources. 25 Muslim historians unanimously accept that this event took place, though they disagree on the exact date. Salafis tend to believe that the precise date is not recorded and known, and thus it does not make much sense to celebrate the occasion. For them, the fact that the Companions did not care to preserve the date shows that the celebration of the event is not important. Rather, deriving lessons from it is what matters.

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night;26 inter alia. Traditionalists-Sufis have long accepted these as part of the Islamic tradition, even if they were not explicitly performed by the Prophet in the same exact way. For traditionalists and Sufis, the essence of these events is the remembrance of God, which is indisputably encouraged in Islam, and as long as the commemoration of these occasions does not contain sinful activities, they should be encouraged. For Salafis, however, as long as the Prophet and his companions did not practise something, it should be duly avoided. Even though the differences are real, in the grander scheme of things, Salafis and traditionalists-Sufis have more in common than they would like to admit. They have similar beliefs on God, the Prophet, the Companions and the major tenets of the faith. Yet, at times, the chasm between the two is made out to be rather deep, by both sides. A Salafi alim recognizes this, and said: The differences between us (Sufis and Salafis) are not fundamental. But, they are about identity. The mawlid has become a symbol of Sufism, and a symbol against Salafism. Likewise, for the Salafis, opposing the mawlid has become an identity marker for us. In reality, the mawlid is not the biggest matter in Islam.27

It is a common misconception that Salafis form the conservative faction within Muslim communities while Sufis-traditionalists are more liberal. When commentators such as Bilahari lament the rise of ‘Arabization’ due to Salafism, in actuality, what they are complaining against is conservativism, or even Islamization. In reality, conservative thought exists within both Salafi and Sufi traditions. Differences between Sufis and Salafis are of theological and jurisprudential nature, but are not necessarily reflective of their liberal leanings or lack thereof. Indeed, both traditionalists/Sufis hold on to many views which could be considered conservative. For instance, many ulama of both strands believe that shaking hands with members of the opposite gender is disallowed in Islam; many disagree with the idea that not wishing a person from another faith at their religious festive occasion is un-Islamic;28 all of them agree that homosexual relationships are disallowed 26 The surah is recited on malam Jumaat, which translates literally as Friday night. However, the Islamic day begins at sunset, which means that the night comes first. Malam Jumaat, a term which is used by Singaporean and other Malay-speaking Muslims, is therefore Thursday night. 27 Interview with an ustaz, 22 August 2019. 28 To be clear, there are different jurisprudential opinions on this matter within the Islamic corpus of knowledge. The point here is even those who believe that wishing others to be present is permissible would admit that the opinion which prohibits such an act exists within the Islamic

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in Islam, even if they may differ on what approaches the ulama should take toward the matter as a whole.29 Most, if not all of them, believe in salvific exclusivity, which connotes that Islam is the only true religion in the eyes of God, and therefore, is the only guaranteed path to salvation. This does not mean that they believe non-Muslims automatically end up in hellfire; in the vein of Al-Ghazali, many of them do believe that non-Muslims can end up in paradise, if the true message of Islam did not reach them. Ghazali had posited that the Christians of his time could attain salvation since for some of them, what they had rejected was not Islam per se but the version of Islam that was presented to them: for him, only the non-Muslims to whom the Prophet had preached to were guaranteed to suffer eternal damnation, since they had learnt about Islam in its unadulterated form. For everyone else, they may or may not have been exposed to the ‘true’ Islam, and hence, their position in hell is by no means guaranteed (Jackson 2002). However, like Al-Ghazali, even the ulama who hold on to this position would state that these non-Muslims would enter paradise in spite of their beliefs, not because of them. Islam still remains the only assured path to paradise, and the only religion with the ultimate truth. An interviewee encapsulates this belief: Do you really think that the non-Muslims of today know the real Islam? If all they see on television is violence, poverty, war, they would associate Islam with all of that. You cannot then say they have rejected Islam.30

To be sure, not all of them hold on to this nuanced view. Some – both amongst traditionalists/Sufis and Salafis – believe that as long as non-Muslims do not accept Islam, they do not have a chance of salvation. Others, especially amongst the more liberal-minded Muslims, argue that Islam is not the only path to salvation. Alami Musa, the former President of MUIS and current non-executive President of the same organization, and the Head of Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) based at Nanyang Technological University – a highly influential figure within the community– argued in tradition, and is not an ‘extremist’ position. Many, however, believe that such an opinion is less suitable in the context of a multiracial, multi-religious society such as Singapore. This issue will be revisited later on as it has taken on an extremely political dimension in the country. 29 Consider the following quote: ‘For me, it is clear that homosexual relations are haram. But I adopt the approach of being close to such people (gay or lesbian Muslims), and many of them attend my class. I do not turn them away. We should never turn such people away.’ Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019. 30 Interview with an ustaz, 22 September 2019.

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an op-ed in The Straits Times for an ‘inter-religious’, rather than a ‘multireligious’ Singapore: The moderate position is to have an inclusive view of the “religious other”. They believe that their religion provides the preferred way to salvation, but do not discount the reality that other religions contain truths, goodness and even pathways that may or can lead to salvation. Such a view is an important condition for one to be inter-religious.31

Alami’s more ‘liberal’ view is definitely not shared by the ulama interviewed for this project, traditionalist or Salafi alike. While traditionalists/Sufis and Salafis disagree on many matters, they converge on many other issues as well. Again, this is unsurprising since they both draw upon similar sources and the Sunni corpus of knowledge, though for Salafis, their points of references are narrower. Most of the ulama are more conservative than they are liberal. MUIS’ own findings corroborate this: its 2019 report suggests that the ‘youths, Malay Muslim Organizations (MMOs), leaders and professionals displayed a more embracing and inclusive attitude towards diverse groups compared to the asatizah. While the former called for more safe spaces for dialogue and understanding, the latter showed a degree of anxiety with the growing presence of Shias and LGBT, preferring more well-defined guidelines to deal with such groups.’32 It must be repeated that this book does not make a normative stance on whether being conservative or liberal is ‘better’ or is more in line with the authentic teachings of Islam. Another caveat needs to be made: just because many of the ulama are conservative, it does not mean that they are resistant to change or do not modify their teachings to fit with the modern world. In fact, many of these conservative ulama have issued fatwas or edicts which can be seen as ‘progressive’ by others. These include MUIS’ fatwa to allow human organ transplants in 2007,33 the revised joint-tenancy fatwa in 2019 which allows spouses to own the house after the death of their partners,34 instead of distributing proceeds from the sale 31 Mohammad Alami Musa, “Let’s Move from Being Inter-Religious to Being Multi-Religious,” The Straits Times, 6 June 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/lets-move-from-beingmulti-religious-to-being-inter-religious. Accessed 15 August 2019. 32 MUIS (2019), “MUIS50 Conversations”, p. 29. https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/ Corporate-Site/Publications/MUIS50-Conversations-Report.pdf. Accessed 20 September 2019. 33 Off ice of the Mufti (2007), “Fatwa on Organ Transplant,” https://www.muis.gov.sg/officeofthemufti/Fatwa/English-HOTA. Accessed 15 August 2019. 34 Off ice of the Mufti (2019), “Fatwa Joint Tenancy 2019,” https://www.muis.gov.sg/off iceofthemufti/Fatwa/English-Joint-Tenancy. Accessed 15 August 2019.

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of the house to one’s beneficiaries, and numerous statements by the ulama on the impermissibility of beating one’s wife, amongst many others.35 As scholars such as Zaman and Hallaq have argued, the ulama have never been static in their religious pronouncements, and have always been somewhat amenable to change (Hallaq 2009, Zaman 2002). Hallaq goes as far as saying that the claims made by orientalist scholars regarding the closure of the gates of ijtihad (independent reasoning) were never true; in fact, ijtihad was perennially an important facet of the juristic exercise (Hallaq 1986). Variations of Political Stances within the Ulama Apart from ideological and theological differences, the ulama hold varying ideas on cooperation with the state. Undoubtedly, some ulama are supportive of the state and have no qualms working with it. An example would be Habib Hasan Alatas. The notable alim has many PAP Muslim parliamentarians visiting his mosque regularly, takes part in state-endorsed institutions such as the Inter-Religious Organization, a body which promotes inter-faith relations, and is willing to attend even slightly controversial events such as an iftar (breaking of fast) gathering with the Israeli embassy.36 Other ulama, include Ustaz Ali Mohamed, the chairman of the RRG and the ARB, his son Ustaz Mohamed Ali, who is the vice-chairman of RRG and an Assistant Professor at RSIS, a think tank within Nanyang Technological University which has close ties with the state, and the various ulama at MUIS. Some ulama may not express their support for the state outright, but adopt language which does indicate their approval of it. For instance, a popular young alim declared on his Instagram account that it was ‘obligatory’ under Islamic law to love one’s country, ‘fullstop’, on the occasion of Singapore’s national day in 2019. Incidentally, this alim, Ustaz Zahid Zin, was mentioned by Prime Minister Lee in the 2019 National Day Rally as one of the outstanding religious scholars in Singapore. Each year, the National Day Rally – akin to the State of the Union address in the US – features individuals who are considered as evidence for Singapore’s success story 35 “Ustaz Irwan Hadi jelaskan persoalan suami mengasari isteri (Ustaz Irwan Hadi Clarifies the Question of Husbands Harming Their Wives,” Berita Harian, 15 October 2017. https://www. beritaharian.sg/hidayah/ustaz-irwan-hadi-jelaskan-persoalan-suami-mengasari-isteri. Accessed 13 November 2019. 36 Walter Sim, “Embassy of Israel in Singapore Hosted Breaking-of-Fast Dinner with Muslim Community,” The Straits Times, 16 July 2015. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/embassyof-israel-in-singapore-hosted-breaking-of-fast-dinner-with-muslim-community. Accessed 15 August 2019.

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or those who should be emulated for various reasons. Zahid was singled out for teaching views which are considered conducive to the multiracial fabric of society: in particular, his post on Facebook, which detailed him paying respects at a Chinese funeral, was highlighted by PM Lee. This was of course in line with one of the themes of the speech in Malay – the Rally is delivered in three languages, with the other two being Mandarin (Chinese) and English – which focused on the distinctive brand of Islam in Singapore, which was defined as tolerant and inclusive. For Lee, Zahid’s value-add to the nation is seen through the ‘inclusive’ nature of his message, which is in line with the state’s own multiracial proclamations.37 During the early days of Halimah Yacob’s presidency, then-Mufti Fatris Bakaram spoke about his encounter with Halimah’s entourage on the road, and recited some prayers for her.38 Halimah was a PAP stalwart for many years, and the run-up to her Presidency was shrouded with much controversy as the PAP amended the constitution to require the Presidential candidates to be of ethnic Malay origin. The PAP said that it was a necessary safeguard to ensure multiracial representation, since in a national election, it was harder for non-Chinese candidates to win. Critics of the move decried the constitutional change as a clear strategy to prevent Tan Cheng Bock – a former PAP member who ran against the PAP-endorsed candidate, Tony Tan, and almost won in the 2011 Presidential Election -39 from contesting again (Osman and Waikar 2019). Dr. Fatris had not commented on the groundswell of negative sentiment against the entire process, but instead, seemed to endorse Halimah’s presidency. His post was accompanied by a picture of Halimah foregrounding the Singapore flag. Numerous ulama are involved with state projects such as the aforementioned Dadah itu Haram campaign, the Asatizah Youth Network (AYN), which was set up by MUIS to promote young religious teachers as role models for Muslim youths as a bulwark against extremist thought seeping into impressionable minds, 40 the RRG, and others. 37 Ira Musfirah Mohamed Rashid, “Islam tunggak masyarakat Melayu; asatizah main peranan penting pupuk umat progresif (Islam is a Pillar of the Malay Community; Religious Scholars Play a Vital Role in Creating a Progressive Ummah),” Berita Mediacorp, 18 August 2019. https:// berita.mediacorp.sg/mobilem/singapura/islam-tunggak-masyarakat-melayu-asatizah-mainperanan-penting/4324084.html. Accessed 19 August 2019. 38 See his Facebook post on 14 September 2017. 39 He lost by a razor-thin margin of about 0.2% of the votes. 40 The members of the AYN were chosen for their ‘online presence and influence’. See Yuen Sin, “Parliament: Network of Young Religious Teachers to be Expanded, Says Yaacob Ibrahim,” The Straits Times, 8 March 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-networkof-young-religious-teachers-to-be-expanded-yaacob-ibrahim. Accessed 15 August 2019.

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However, not all the ulama, even those who are involved in state-led or state-endorsed projects, are effusive in their assessment of the state. Some see cooperation with the state as in line with Islamic objectives on certain matters. For instance, there are those who are not entirely agreeable with certain state attitudes towards Muslim matters, yet are supportive of other initiatives. An alim interviewed proclaimed his support for RRG, even though he is not a part of it, because it is indeed what Islam enjoins. The proliferation of extremism is a serious problem, and efforts like RRG’s are needed to mitigate it. 41 The political differences between the ulama will be discussed later in the following two sections. There will be intersections between the ideological divide of the ulama and their political stances, but the nuances between these nodes must be understood.

4.3 Political Acquiescence of the Ulama: Between Cooperation and Ambivalence Like other activists in Singapore, the positions of the ulama must be understood within the wider eco-system of the country’s political system. Individual freedoms must be subjugated to the over-riding needs of the nation, as defined by the nation’s elites. Democracy is not as important as stability, and may be deemed to even be a hindrance to social cohesion at times. Thus, not only are democracy and liberty not priorities, they may even be detrimental to the nation’s well-being. Religion and race are placed under even greater scrutiny, as they are regarded as the forces that are most likely to upset societal stability. As such, religious leaders and organizations have even less space to manoeuvre, since their articulation of interests for their religious constituents could easily be framed as attempts at interference of religion in politics. Such a predicament can be discerned from Lee Kuan Yew’s quote when he was commenting on the Marxist Conspiracy described earlier in Chapter 1: I urge that churchmen, lay preachers, priests, monks. Muslim theologians, all those who claim divine sanction or holy insights, take off your clerical robes before you take on anything economic or political […] Come out as a citizen or join a political party and it is your right to belabor the government. But you use a church or a religion and your pulpit for these purposes and there will be serious repercussions. (Lee Kuan Yew, as quoted in (Haas 1989, 61-62)) 41 Interview with an ustaz, 23 August 2019.

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The message from Lee, and the PAP, is clear: religion cannot be used for political purposes. Even establishment-linked Muslims, such as the aforementioned Alami Musa, subscribe to the same idea, perhaps showing its ubiquity. In another op-ed, Alami wrote: Raising issues of religion in Parliament for the sake of winning political support or gaining political mileage is politicising religion and is against secularism. 42

Alami was referring to the incident – also mentioned in Chapter 1 – when opposition MP Faisal Manap raised the issue of the hijab for certain frontline jobs. Even though Faisal was elected via the GRC system in order to be a representative of the Malay-Muslim community and articulate their concerns, for Alami, Faisal cannot do so as it would be ‘against secularism’. The bizarre nature of the argument notwithstanding, the consistent message of the government is unmistakably obvious: religious preachers, and even politicians, must be circumspect whenever they wish to bring religion into the political dialogue, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Doing so may threaten the fragile social fabric upon which the country is built. The quandary is even more accentuated in the case of Islam and Muslim preachers, for reasons already explained. The ulama and other Muslim activists have to carefully navigate this. It is evident from the interviews conducted that the ulama are well-aware of what they can or cannot do, what the state expects of them, what are areas in which they should not be commenting on, and how they should conduct themselves in this regard. The ulama have to be even more cautious than other Muslim activists for various reasons. First, as the quote by Lee Kuan Yew suggests, the state would react differently to ordinary Muslims advocating certain issues as compared to the ulama. The ulama have the gravitas of being the faith’s representatives, in a way that other Muslim activists do not, and hence, they are not ‘ordinary’ citizens. Secondly, due to the nature of the ulama class and rising religiosity in Singapore, the ulama are assumed to possess more influence than other Muslims. A cursory look at the social media accounts of the young ulama in Singapore would bear this observation out: some of these religious scholars boast tens of thousands of followers on their Instagram account. Thirdly, the way the Singapore state deals with religious communities 42 Mohammad Alami Musa, “Religion’s Place in Parliament, Politics and Policy,” The Straits Times, 12 May 2017. http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/religions-place-in-parliament-politicsand-policy. Accessed 10 April 2018.

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is essentially a top-down approach. In communicating with Muslims, the state usually engages selected individuals, especially from the clergy. Apart from MUIS and the Mufti, the government relies on certain trusted ulama and has close relationships with them. As already mentioned, Habib Hasan and Ustaz Ali are two such clerics. The state not only sees the ulama as legitimate representatives of the community, but at the same time, anoints some of them as the legitimate representatives. When the hijab issue resurfaced in late 2013, PM Lee Hsien Loong held a dialogue with 100 Muslim leaders and representatives, which included the usual participants, but excluded the activists who were championing the issue in the first place. Those 100 were selected by the government, and in the dialogue, the PM reassured them that the issue was being looked at.43 The idea is that these representatives, many of whom included the ulama, would be able to assuage the community on whatever misgivings they may have on the issue. The approach by the state, though understandable, has several obvious oversights. For one, as already discussed, the authority of the ulama is never absolute or unchallenged. Just because the ulama have decided to not publicly pursue a cause – in this instance, the hijab issue –, does not mean that the Muslim public would not. Moreover, associating with the state could cause some problems for the ulama’s legitimacy. A common motif of the history of state-ulama relations throughout Muslim lands is that religious scholars who are working with the state are often met with much scepticism by both their peers and their constituents (Al-Qaradawi 2002). The Arabic adage which says that ‘one who has two masters cannot be loyal to both’ is often brought up in precisely such a context: the idea is that an alim who is connected to the state may not be able to speak ‘truth to power’ when it comes to defending Islamic principles. This problem is compounded by the modern nature of societies, where social media has allowed everyone to have a voice. The democratization of expertise, which essentially leads to the devaluation of expertise, has taken place. It is common to read on Facebook Muslims expressing critical thoughts of the ulama and quoting various Quranic verses or Prophetic traditions to imply that the religious scholars have deviated from the true path of Islam. Many ulama have openly cooperated with the state, as mentioned in the previous section. Amongst those who take part in state-led initiatives, 43 Robin Chan, “PM Lee Holds Dialogue on Tudung Issue, Says Change Must Be Gradual,” The Straits Times, 25 January 2014. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/pm-lee-holds-dialogueon-tudung-issue-says-change-must-be-gradual. Accessed 16 August 2019. Interestingly, though perhaps not coincidentally, the picture of the dialogue featured by the Straits Times was of Habib Hasan and Shaykh Isa Semait conversing with PM Lee.

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various motivations are present. Some believe that indeed, Singapore is a haven for Muslim minorities. These ulama would use both religious and worldly justifications. It was even mentioned to me by an interviewee that he had heard others praising the Singapore system, to the point that one of them said that if non-Muslims could attain salvation, Lee Kuan Yew would be the first person to be in that category, because of his steadfast commitment to cleanliness, a corrupt-free system, and efficiency, all of which are admirable Islamic values. 44 Another alim quoted the Prophetic tradition of looking at others who are less well-off to be thankful to God for what we have, and said that Singaporean Muslims are allowed to practise their faith without much restriction, are allowed to have mosques, and have a direct line with the government if required, and therefore should be grateful. 45 A conversation I had with an alim was fascinating: he said that since the system largely works for Singaporean Muslims, it must be maintained. Even if there may be unresolved issues such as the hijab, they are relatively small matters in the grander scheme of things. If Muslims were to push too hard, we might end up having a situation like Syria, where there is neither order nor individual rights. 46 The invocation of Syria was intriguing for multiple reasons. Firstly, it demonstrated the alim’s acceptance of, if not adherence to, the principle of ‘a hundred years under tyranny is better than a day of chaos.’ Syria was used as the archetypical example of what could happen if those in power were not obeyed. Secondly, even though comparisons between the situations in Singapore and Syria are completely off the mark, the alim in question had no qualms making them. For him, as long as there is a possibility of disorder occurring from citizens’ demands, the comparison can be made, even if the two countries possess wildly different characteristics and systems. The point is, cooperation with the state is justified both on theological and practical grounds. Such an appeal was a recurring theme amongst the ulama interviewed. Indeed, one would not expect anything less from a group of religious scholars: clearly, they would see themselves as acting in accordance to Islamic principles and values. However, the sense of self-awareness and understanding of the political climate was present in all of these interviews. Practical considerations not only accompanied theological ones, but in fact, practical concerns were considered to be part of theological approaches. An alim should be wise enough to not get into trouble with the state, not because he/she is afraid of punitive action, but 44 Interview with an ustaz, 13 August 2019. 45 Interview with an ustaz, 24 August 2019. 46 Interview with an ustaz, 3 October 2019.

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because he/she is able to help the Muslim community more if he/she is able to continue teaching the faith. Earlier, I had talked about the phenomenon of ‘feel-good’ Islam, where religious scholars discuss matters which are uncontroversial, non-political, and are designed to address emotional or spiritual problems. Phrases like ‘learn to love yourself’, ‘work on you’, and ‘Islam is all about love’ abound under this approach to religious instruction. Some of the ulama who are involved in such efforts include Ustaz Mizi Wahid – the founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Safinah Institute, a Muslim organization which conducts talks and classes – and Ustazah Liyanah Musfirah, who is perhaps the most recognized religious scholar amongst millennial women and girls, and plenty more.47 A look at the past two Safinah-organized Spiritual Summits – large-scale events with numerous lectures by mostly younger asatizahs – would show that in 2018, the theme was ‘The Search for Meaning’ and in 2019, it was ‘In the Footsteps of the Beloved’. 48 For these individuals, they are dealing with important issues which have been neglected by others, such as the need to get Muslim youths involved with positive projects in the age of disillusionment with the modern world, tackling mental health and depression, and being relatable figures to young Muslims. The phrase ‘come as you are’, initially popularized by Ustaz Zahid Zin, to encourage Muslim youths to attend his religious class no matter how they are dressed, or whether they have any tattoos, is becoming more common for younger religious scholars. 49 For them, it is important that there are ‘safe spaces’ for anyone who wishes to study Islam, and exclusionary attitudes toward any group are not useful, or indeed, Islamic. There is a problem with our mosques with regard to inclusivity. I understand that many well-intentioned Muslims seek to advise those whom they feel are not dressed appropriately, but the way they advise these youths may turn them off completely from our faith. This is why I feel it is very important to be open to all sorts of Muslims […] In my classes, I have members of the LGBT community attending as well. I treat them with love and compassion, as I would treat any other Muslim.50 47 As of 16 August 2019, she has 35 500 followers on Instagram. 48 Safinah Institute, https://spiritualsummit.sg/. Accessed 21 August 2019. 49 Stories of Muslims being chided for not being ‘appropriately’ dressed or for having tattoos in mosques are not uncommon. I myself have encountered occasions where a mosque-goer castigated a person who was not wearing hijab on one occasion, and an ex-convict who had tattoos on him, on another. These took place in different mosques. 50 Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019.

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Another defended the roles played by the younger religious scholars, dismissing the perception that they are not tackling important matters. It is not fair to say that the asatizahs do not deal with important issues. A lot of us are speaking up on mental health, and that is a serious matter in this day and age.51

Indeed, these religious scholars have filled a gap within the Muslim community. A decade ago, the ulama speaking on mental health was almost unheard of; religious classes have endeavoured to be more inclusive to fellow Muslims, accepting different stripes and stages in the faith development; and the ulama are now more accessible to the general public. In that regard, these religious scholars are right to take credit for their approaches, for reaching out to disenchanted youths, and for placing emphasis on issues like mental health. No one could say that mental health is not a salient issue. Nonetheless, the issue here is not one of importance: what needs to be investigated and explained is amongst a plethora of important issues, why are some given greater emphasis over others? The phenomenon of ‘feel-good’ Islam can be explained by a few factors. First, there is evidently a spiritual void in many Muslims today. This is due to a few factors such as alienation, disenchantment with the world, stress in coping with modern life, and the ubiquity of social media which has led to younger people, especially millennials, to be in a perpetual state of comparing their lives with others as they witness the seeming perfection of others’ lives via their curated postings on social media. As mentioned by a respondent: Younger people are seeking spirituality. They have all sorts of emotional problems due to stress at work, and with relationships. It is the job of asatizahs to help them go through these problems.52

The second factor which can explain the rise in ‘feel-good’ Islam is political opportunities. As delving into potentially controversial topics may get preachers into unnecessary trouble, they stay away from them altogether. The ulama, even those who are looked up to and followed by young Muslims, rarely discuss more touchy topics which are indeed talked about in the national discourse, especially by youths. A recent example would be 51 Interview with an ustaz, 7 August 2019. 52 Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019.

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an incident involving racism. In July 2019, E-pay, an electronic payments website, released an advertisement which was deemed racially insensitive as it featured an ethnic Chinese person being depicted as four characters, from each of the main racial groups in Singapore. For the Indian character in the ad, his skin was darkened and his hair was made curly, playing on the stereotypes associated with the ethnic group’s attributes. The advertisement was swiftly condemned by many quarters online, as it was deemed as insensitive at best, and racist at worst. The incident became known as the ‘brownface’ saga. In response to the ad, popular local Indian blogger and online personality known as Prettipls – her actual name is Pretti Nair –, released a rap video featuring herself and her brother, in which she chastised the Chinese for always messing things up. The video used vulgarities which were presumably intended to highlight the gravity of the matter. Following the release of the video, state leaders came out to vociferously condemn the Nair siblings. Minister Shanmugam argued that the video was unacceptable and ‘crosses the line’, and that if the government did not take action, the social fabric of the nation would be harmed. He said, in no uncertain terms: And suppose you allow this video? Let’s say a Chinese now does a video attacking Indians, Malays using four-letter words, vulgar gestures […] And let’s say there are hundreds or thousands of such videos. How do you think the Indians and Malays will feel? Would people feel safe? Will the minorities feel safe? There are good reasons why Singapore is different, why there is racial harmony here, why all races feel safe, why minorities feel safe. And we must maintain that, we will maintain that.53

Other minority parliamentarians showed similar disgust toward the video. Amrin Amin, former Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Health, said that ‘If we don’t stand up and condemn this offensive act now, if we keep silent, or worse, laugh and sing along, remember it could be us next time.’54 Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary wrote that the video was ‘vulgar, aggressive, and does 53 Adrian Lim, “Rap Video by Local YouTube Star Preetipls on ‘Brownface’ Ad Crosses the Line, Not Acceptable: Shanmugam,” The Straits Times, 30 July 2019. https://www.straitstimes. com/politics/rap-video-by-local-youtube-star-preetipls-on-brownface-ad-crosses-the-line-notacceptable. Accessed 21 August 2019. 54 Belmont Lay, “Ethnic minority MPs slam vulgarity-filled, race-baiting Preetipls response video,” Mothership, 31 July 2019. https://mothership.sg/2019/07/mps-slam-preetipls-video-ad/. Accessed 21 August 2019.

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nothing to help either the initial mistake nor the circumstances that allowed it to happen.’55 Then-Minister of State for the Ministry of National Development and Ministry of Manpower, Zaqy Mohamad, labelled the video as ‘totally offensive and uncalled for.’56 While all of them did indeed take issue with the ‘brownface’ ad, two things must be noted: firstly, no condemnation of the ad was issued, until the response video by the Nair siblings was released; and secondly, the castigation toward the video was far harsher than that toward the advertisement. The government clearly saw the video as dangerous and perhaps borderline seditious, and the ad as insensitive or inappropriate. The Nair siblings were eventually issued a conditional warning by the police. The police said that the video could lead to more ‘racism, more racial tensions, and eventually violence,’ and that ‘Singapore has taken a clear approach, to say no to offensive speech, targeted at race and religion.’57 It is beyond the scope of this book to provide a normative assessment on which of the two was more offensive, or whether the government’s response was adequate or unnecessarily strict. Rather, what this project is interested in is the response of the ulama to this incident. The episode generated much debate, and minorities took to social media to express their frustrations at both the advertisement and the government’s perceived heavy-handed response to the video. In response to both the state’s demeanour and claims by ordinary citizens that the ad was merely comedic and should not be taken too seriously, playwright Alfian Sa’at wrote: I’m actually starting to feel unsafe just existing as a minority in Singapore. This keeps happening over and over again -- the ones perpetuating racism get a wrist slap, the ones who call out acts of racism have the instruments of the state used against them – through the weaponization of police reports, as well as minority MPs lining up to perform overpolicing of their own, as if to demonstrate to the majority that they’re still committed to majoritarian interests […] I see so many of my Malay friends say the same thing: ‘penatlah’. It means we’re tired.58 55 Ibid. 56 Ibid. 57 Tessa Oh, “Siblings Preeti and Subhas Nair Given Conditional Warning for Rap Video: Police,” Today, 14 August 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/siblings-behind-controversialrap-video-given-conditional-warning-police. Accessed 21 August 2019. 58 Danisha Hakeem, “ “Penatlah”: Singaporean Playwright Alfian Sa’at, on Racism and Chinese Majoritarianism in Singapore,” The Online Citizen, 2 August 2019. https://www.theonlinecitizen. com/2019/08/02/penatlah-singaporean-playwright-alfian-saat-on-racism-and-chinese-majoritarianism-in-singapore/. Accessed 21 August 2019.

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The post by Alfian was shared widely, especially by young Malay and Indian Singaporeans, and the hashtag #penatlah was used by many on their subsequent social media posts on the incident. Alfian’s view was evidently not an isolated one. Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, a freelance author and another influential counter-hegemonic voice, wrote against the idea propagated by some defending the ad that the opposition to it was just mindless imitation of Western liberal norms: Yet, whenever Singaporean conservatives and chauvinists feel threatened, they will trot out this ridiculous line of argument. It is actually dangerous, a dog whistle to patriots to target people they don’t like – in this case, Preeti and Subhas – for somehow being foreign agents.59

The tone and vocabulary used by personalities such as Alfian and Sudhir reflected the emotive nature of the debates surrounding the ‘brownface’ incident in particular, and race in general. Throughout the entire discourse, the ulama were conspicuously silent. While it would perhaps be unfair to expect the senior ulama to partake in such conversations, since the discussions mostly took place online and were of a nature that was more likely to concern the younger generation, even the more junior religious scholars refrained from commenting on the matter. The Asatizah Youth Network did not comment, for instance, and even on the social media pages of the younger asatizahs, the issue was not mentioned, even remotely. When asked on this matter, a respondent candidly stated: You know, this is Singapore, we cannot just comment on every single issue. It is better for us to pick our battles and work on issues that we can solve.60

‘Feel-good’ Islam thus becomes the uncontroversial mode of expression of Islamic teachings. To be sure, it is not the claim of this book that the topics touched upon by such ulama are not part of the Islamic corpus of knowledge. One can quite convincingly make a case that Islam has always placed importance on a person’s overall well-being, which includes emotional and mental states. That is not the point of contention here. 59 Kiara Xavier, “Author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh Slams Individuals Who Say “Brownface” Concept Originated in the West,” The Online Citizen, 8 August 2019. https://www.theonlinecitizen. com/2019/08/08/author-sudhir-thomas-vadaketh-slams-individuals-who-say-brownface-conceptoriginated-in-the-west/. Accessed 21 August 2019. 60 Interview with an ustaz, 6 August 2019.

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What I am arguing is that ‘feel-good’ Islam is, at least in part, a function of the political opportunity structures. The ulama, though aware that Muslims may have expectations that they would comment on issues of the day which affect them, such as racism, rarely get involved in these discourses. They make the prudent choice, or at least, what they consider to be prudent, and do not discuss matters which may get them on the wrong side of the law. In the ‘brownface’ saga, it was evident that the state was taking a f irm stance against even the slightest whiff of potential racial unrest, as evinced by the strongly worded statements of both government off icials and the police; Singaporeans who commented on the topic therefore clearly had to be judicious. Although there was quite a groundswell of negative sentiment toward the state’s reaction, and the time was opportune for an open and frank discussion on race and racism in Singapore, the ulama chose not to participate. Again, one could easily make a case that Islam has always been against racism from the outset, so speaking up on the matter would not be out of the purview of the religious scholars. Political considerations, not theological or jurisprudential ones, made the ulama steer clear of commenting on such issues. In the previous section, the state’s preference for traditionalist-Sufi Islam has been referred to. This is manifested through multiple ways. First, state elites have on occasion directly or indirectly lamented the threat of SalafismWahhabism and its associated mores. Bilahari Kausikan’s statements have already been detailed earlier. In a speech which outlined three primary challenges for the Malay community, Minister Masagos said that the spread of ideas which consider traditional practices as such as the kenduri arwah as innovations were signs of religious exclusivism which could lead to extremism.61 Evidently, what was alluded to was Salafism-Wahhabism. The thrust of many speeches by government leaders, including this by Masagos, is similar: traditionalist Islam has been peaceful and inclusive, and it is the spread of Wahhabism which has overturned this. Secondly, the state maintains extremely close relations with Sufi ulama. Habib Hasan regularly hosts senior Ministers at his residence. Ustaz Hasbi and Ustaz Ali are two ulama who have close ties with the state, in no small part due to their involvement in RRG. Ustaz Hasbi is also the President of Pergas, while Ustaz Ali is the same organization’s advisor, and both are senior ulama who wield a lot of influence 61 “Tiga cabaran perlu ditangani (Three Challenges Need to Be Tackled),” Berita Harian, 2 August 2017. https://www.beritaharian.sg/setempat/tiga-cabaran-perlu-ditangani. Accessed 21 August 2019.

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within the religious clergy.62 Both have also served multiple terms on the MUIS council, and have been bestowed multiple honours by the state.63 It is common to see the two figures at events together with Ministers and political elites. In fact, such is the close association between them and the state that they have been labelled as lackeys of the state by their critics, a charge which they vehemently deny.64 For them, their involvement with RRG and their support for such state-endorsed projects is because these initiatives are in line with Islamic principles, not because of any patronage. Indeed, RRG ulama do not receive any financial remuneration, as their work is entirely voluntary. However, one can also not deny that benefits from cooperation with state entities do not have to be purely financial: having access to the corridors of power are in some cases equally, if not more, pertinent. Indisputably, ulama such as Ustaz Hasbi, Ustaz Ali and Habib Hasan have access to the corridors of power. As mentioned by a Muslim professional who regularly attends Masjid Ba’alwie and considers Habib Hasan in the highest regard: Politicians come here often because they know Habib is influential in the community. They have to rely on him for support. What this means is that Habib gets to advise our leaders on many things, especially on the Wahhabis.65

While the respondent was perhaps being hyperbolic on state elites’ reliance on Habib for support, it is evident that there is a good relationship between him and the government. What is more interesting is the admission of this interviewee, which was corroborated with many other conversations I have had with Ba’alwie mosque-goers, that Habib and those in the ‘Ba’alwie crowd’ are able to share their opinions with political leaders, including on Muslim sectarian concerns. Some Sufis-traditionalists have identified Wahhabism as a clear and present danger to both Singapore and Islam. On Facebook, there is a group called Singapura Tolak Fahaman Wahabi/Salafi (Singapore rejects Wahabi/Salafi ideologies) comprising more than 10,000 followers. 62 It was quite common for respondents to mention Ustaz Hasbi especially, but also Ustaz Ali, as senior ulama who are respected by most of the religious scholars in Singapore. 63 Ummu Rabbisyfina Abdul Hamid, “Ustaz Ali dan Ustaz Hasbi dianugerahkan Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi Bestowed Meritorious Service Medal),” Berita Harian, 9 August 2018. https://berita.mediacorp.sg/mobilem/singapura/ustaz-ali-dan-ustaz-hasbidianugerahkan-pingat-jasa-gemilang/4097918.html. Accessed 22 August 2019. 64 Puad Ibrahim and Nazri Hadi, “Kami Ustaz Pemerintah? Astaghf irullah. (We Are the Government’s Ustaz? God Forgive),” Berita Harian, 13 May 2006. 65 Interview with Muslim professional, 18 August 2019.

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In numerous classes in mosques conducted by traditionalist/Sufi ulama, it has become routine to hear them either directly or implicitly chastising Wahhabism. The example of Ustaz TM Fouzy given earlier is most definitely not an isolated affair. Other ulama are less explicit and challenge the ideology of ‘exclusivism’, and not Wahhabism per se, but go on to associate certain Wahhabi/Salafi beliefs with exclusivism. To say that the state has a preference for Sufi Islam would thus be an understatement. Many key positions within the Muslim community are held by Sufi ulama. Some Salafi-Wahhabi beliefs are disavowed and labelled as threatening the social fabric of the country, and even beliefs which are shared by traditionalists are often dismissed as being a product of the spread of Wahhabism-Salafism, such as the prohibition of saying Merry Christmas, a point which will be discussed later. Books which have been banned because they are deemed to be ‘detrimental to Singapore’s inter and intra racial and religious harmony and relations’ are almost always exclusively of the Wahhabi-Salafi bent.66 Fascinatingly, this particular statement by the Ministry of Communication and Information included the phrase ‘intra racial and religious harmony’, which is a veiled reference to the perceived divisive nature of Salafism-Wahhabism within the Muslim community. While the state maintains a relatively good relationship with all Muslim organizations, including the Salafi-inclined Muhammadiyah, from the statements issued, and the books which have been banned in Singapore, it is apparent that its preference is for traditionalist-Sufi Islam. As admitted by a Salafi-inclined alim: For sure, the government prefers Sufi Islam. Just look at (Minister) Masagos’ statements where he talks about Wahhabism. Look at the three main points of references amongst the ulama for the government: Ustaz Hasbi, Ustaz Ali, and Habib Hasan. And to some extent, I can see why this is justified. Sufi Islam is essentially Singapore Islam: traditionally, that is how Islam has been practiced in Singapore. However, with globalization, there is no way we can prevent the spread of ideas, including Salafism. In fact, Salafism may provide a value-add to the Muslim identity […] Besides, not all Salafis are the same. Some are more rigid than others. I identify myself as a Salafi, but many Salafis who are stricter than I am do not like me very much.67 66 “3 Books Banned in Singapore for Having Extremist Religious Views: MCI,” Channel News Asia, 20 November 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/3-books-bannedin-singapore-for-having-extremist-religious-views-10950106. Accessed 22 August 2019. 67 Interview with an ustaz, 22 August 2019.

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To be sure, the partiality toward Sufism is not at all unique to the Singapore government. Especially since 9-11, there has been a theory that has been advocated by many academics and Muslims throughout the world that Sufi Islam is peaceful, whereas Salafism is violent and problematic. Governments throughout the world have collaborated and worked closely with Sufis and have tried to give legitimacy to this school of thought, in a bid to promote a more pliant Muslim polity. On their part, some Sufis have embraced this cooperation as they genuinely believe Wahhabism-Salafism to be an aberration and not representative of the true Islam. Antagonism between the two sides has of course existed because of the Salafis-Wahhabis attacks on many Sufi practices described earlier. In the US, after the September 11 terrorist incidents and the narrative that Wahhabism was responsible for transforming Islam into a militant and violent force, Hisham Kabbani, leader of the Nasqshbandi tareqah, adroitly positioned himself as an ally of the Bush administration and as a representative of authentic and moderate Islam, slamming Wahhabism at every opportunity he got (Leonard 2002). Similar tactics were adopted by Sufis elsewhere too. Muedini argues that some Muslim states exploited the Sufi-Salafi schism and began to ‘sponsor’ Sufism: in Morocco, Algeria, and Pakistan, governments promoted Sufism and Sufi orders as they believed that this strand of Islam was apolitical, docile and would give them a credibility boost as they attempted to halt the rise of Islamist parties (Muedini 2015). A few caveats must be made. Firstly, not all Sufis and Salafis are alike: there exists great variation within the two categories. The aforementioned Muhammadiyah is not a rigid Wahhabi-organization, even though it has Salafi leanings. Some Sufis do not see Wahhabis as arch enemies to be defeated, but rather as fellow Muslims to be advised, loved and tolerated. Secondly, the Salafis-Wahhabis in Singapore generally do not attempt to challenge the state in overt ways, even when their beliefs are questioned, their books are banned, and preference for Sufism is stated. While there may be murmurings on the perceived unfair singling out of Salafis-Wahhabis by some, these do not translate into outright resistance. Rather, SalafisWahhabis too work within the system. ‘Generally, we all try to have a good relationship with the government,’ a Salafi alim remarked.68 Muhammadiyah operates welfare homes for children between the ages of 10 and 19 who are ‘neglected, abused and homeless; are juvenile offenders and those beyond parental control,’ which are supported by the government.69 This effort 68 Interview with an ustaz, 22 August 2019. 69 Muhammadiyah Welfare Home, https://mwh.muhammadiyah.org.sg/about-us/. Accessed 23 August 2019.

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is encouraged by the state, since it is ‘apolitical’ and fills an important gap within the social sector. Other Salafi-inclined alim have also been brought into the system. Ustaz Kamal Mokhtar is a member of the Asatizah Recognition Board,70 and Ustaz Fathurrahman M Dawoed is part of the 18th MUIS Council.71 Salafi ulama are not discriminated per se, even if the state frowns upon Salafi-Wahhabi beliefs. The overall approach of the state is consistent: as long as it can co-opt individuals and bring them into the state machinery, it will do so. At the same time, it outlines its partiality toward a particular brand of Islam. The sum result of everything that has been described above is that the ulama in Singapore are generally politically acquiescent. In other countries, the ulama may form a strong bloc which may form counter-hegemonic aspirations. In Syria, while Sheikh Ramadan Al-Buti – a revered alim in the Sunni world – threw his weight behind the Assad regime before his death, other ulama tried to cast aspersions on Buti’s political leanings as they opposed the regime (Pierret 2013). In Malaysia and Indonesia, the ulama generally comment publicly on political affairs, and are often in the news for making their stances known (Hefner 2000, Bush 2009, Liow 2009b, Osman 2017). Even in Saudi Arabia, where dissent is scarcely tolerated, there are pockets of ulama who challenge the political and religious establishment’s articulated views, to the point that some of them are publicly chided, or worse, punished: Salman Al-Odah, an activist cleric with considerable following in the Middle East, was arrested and is due to face the death penalty for charges of spreading corruption and causing discord.72 In Singapore, such a situation is not witnessed. This is not to say that the ulama are chattel who uncritically follow the state’s guidance; indeed, such an accusation would be thoroughly unfair. Rather, the ulama, just like other activists, generally work within the system, even when they would prefer to see different political outcomes. Even openly criticizing the state is a rare occurrence amongst the ulama; for them, the political opportunities are even more constricted than for others due to the state’s intolerance for political interference from religious actors. When there are disagreements with state policy, the normal course of action would be either silence or 70 Asatizah Recognition Board, https://www.muis.gov.sg/ARS-and-IECP/About/AsatizahRecognition-Board. Accessed 23 August 2019. 71 Council of MUIS, https://www.muis.gov.sg/About-MUIS/Council-of-MUIS. Accessed 23 August 2019. 72 Abdullah Alaoudh, “My Father Called for Reform in Saudi Arabia. Now He Faces Death,” The Guardian, 13 August 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/13/ saudi-arabia-salman-al-odah-arrest-death-sentence. Accessed 23 August 2019.

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advising those in power ‘behind closed-doors’. Naturally, this approach is met with cynicism by some observers, including from within the ulama fraternity. As argued by a respondent: The ulama and the government have a good relationship. In the area of terrorism, it is beneficial for both sides. The ulama assist the government through RRG. But in other areas, the case is not the same. Even though the job of the ulama is to advise political personnel, sometimes, it seems that political personnel are the ones advising the ulama.73

Now, we will turn to a few incidents which amply demonstrate the general political acquiescence of the ulama, and how this relationship is the result of conscious decisions undertaken by the religious clergy.

4.4 Case Studies 4.4.1 Pre RRG: The Hijab Issue and the Madrasah Controversy It has been repeated throughout this book that the state jealously guards its authority, and is particularly cautious of religion. At the same time, the book has described the venerated status of the ulama within Muslim societies everywhere, and in the historical evolution of Islam. Together with Singapore’s unique circumstances – its history, geography and constitutional provisions for the Malay-Muslims – the state of affairs becomes a mixed bag for the ulama. The state is more wary of the potential of the ulama to be thought leaders within the Muslim community, and at the same time, it realizes that it cannot be seen as being too heavy-handed toward a respected group. The ulama too realized this, as will be evident from this section’s analysis. Having said that, two points are to be noted. One, the ulama still had to tread cautiously since, as the Marxist Conspiracy event had shown, when push came to shove, the government had no qualms using an iron-fisted approach if it was required. Two, the conditions for the ulama were rather different before the discovery of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group in Singapore. After JI cells were exposed, what was an already constricting political opportunity structure became even narrower, as will be detailed later. Two incidents are of particular importance. The first happened in 1999 and will be referred to as the Madrasah saga. In 1999, then-Prime Minister 73 Interview with an ustaz, 22 August 2019.

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Goh Chok Tong created a stir in the Muslim community through his critique of the madrasahs in Singapore, and their focus on Arabic and the Islamic sciences. His concern was amplified by the revelation that between 1996 and 1998, roughly 65% of madrasah students did not complete Secondary 4 education (Kong 2005). He proposed the implementation of the Compulsory Education (CE) scheme, whereby all students had to go through six years of education (from primary one to primary six) in national schools. Fears grew within the community that the scheme would, in effect, end the relevance of the madrasahs in Singapore leading to their closure (Abdullah 2013). The madrasah is a crucial institution in the community, both symbolically and functionally, and unsurprisingly, emotive and boisterous responses to Goh’s plans ensued. Pergas became the torch-bearer for the Muslim community, and articulated that it did not agree with the plan, and asserted the community’s right to choose its own educational path (Rahim 2009, 355). The ulama of Pergas, under the leadership of Ustaz Syed Abdillah, and comprising members such as Ustaz Fatris Bakaram (who would go on later to become the Mufti) and Ustaz Hasbi, mounted significant resistance toward the proposal. Goh had to provide an explicit guarantee that the government had no intention to close down the madrasahs. I am aware that the Malay community may worry over the implication of compulsory education for the madrasahs. I understand its concern. Let me make it clear that there is no intention to close the madrasahs. But the madrasahs may have to adjust their teaching hours should compulsory education in national schools be introduced. We have not taken a decision yet on compulsory education. We will factor in the concern of madrasahs when we do. Madrasahs fulfil an important role in the Malay/Muslim community. They produce asatizahs, ulamas and imams which the Muslim community needs, besides providing an Islamic education for those who want it. But we have to find the balance between achieving this and optimizing our manpower resources for a knowledge-based economy.74

Pergas did not accept the assurances and continued to pursue the matter, and eventually, the two sides reached a compromise. Madrasahs would be 74 Ministry of Information and the Arts, “Speech by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Majlis Pusat 30th Anniversary Dinner on Saturday, 30 October 1999, at Orchid Country Club Ballroom, at 8.00pm.” http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/speeches/view-html?filename=1999103003. htm. Accessed 23 August 2019.

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exempted from the CE scheme for eight years, to give them adequate time to prepare for its implementation (Mauzy and Milne 2002, 110-111). The incident was a turning point of sorts for Pergas, as it turned the clerical organization into ‘a forceful advocacy group representing Muslim interests’ (Rahim 2009, 355). It further showed the lobbying potential of the ulama. Around three years later, another incident tested the relationship between the state and the ulama. In 2002, the parents of four primary school girls sent their children to national schools donning the hijab, in an open act of defiance of state policy. PAP leaders were unsurprisingly not amused, and began reprimanding those parents, and identified Zulfikar Shariff as the chief instigator.75 Then-Mufti Shaykh Isa Semait tried to calm matters and issued a statement saying that the injunction to seek education was more important than covering the aurat, and that the ‘no-tudung rule lasts only for a few hours when the pupils are in school’ (Hussain 2012, 159). He also accused the agitators of politicizing the matter. Immediately after the Mufti’s intervention, PAP MP Maidin Packer advised Muslims to heed the Mufti’s advice and to stop championing the cause. Shaykh Isa’s statement was met with a swift, and surprisingly stern, rebuttal from Pergas. Pergas’ statement said: Although their children have not yet attained the age of puberty and discernment (baligh), the (parents) view the inculcation of modesty to be an important element of their children’s education that should be instilled while still young. It is regretted that several people including those regarded as community leaders, have made statements which clamour for the closure of further discussions just because the Mufti had made a statement. (Hussain 2012, 160)

In the Shafii school of thought, and according to MUIS’ own fatwa committee, wearing the hijab is compulsory for every Muslim female. Yet, Shaykh Isa issued the above statement. This book does not make a normative judgment on the jurisprudential validity of Shaykh Isa’s statement: even if the opinion is sound from the Islamic perspective and it is true that Muslims place a high priority on seeking knowledge, the question which was not addressed is why there existed a false dichotomy between the two options. Why could Muslims not both pursue knowledge and fulfil the religious obligation of covering their aurah? Pergas’ response, and the thinly-veiled criticism toward PAP Malay leaders such as Packer, demonstrated a willingness to take on both 75 Zulfikar was arrested in 2016 under the Internal Security Act for promoting extremist views, in an unrelated incident.

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the state and MUIS when it had to. There were obvious tensions between the ulama of Pergas and the PAP leaders, as the hijab incident came not long after another contentious matter, the madrasah saga. While there was no concession from the state in the hijab incident, unlike during the madrasah saga, Pergas’ strongly-worded statements and insistence on the right of Muslim women to don the hijab displayed the confidence the organization had in articulating Muslim interests. Moreover, it showed that although political opportunities are constricted, they are not non-existent: this is a crucial point that bears repeating. The ulama, especially those with the gravitas of Ustaz Syed Abdillah Al-Jufri, had more room to pursue such causes, even if it meant being mildly antagonistic toward the state. It is also worth pointing out that Ustaz Abdillah was a traditionalist-Sufi, and under his leadership, Pergas was more involved in advocacy efforts, being more willing to dabble in ‘political’ affairs. The ‘cooperative Sufi-aggressive Salafi’ dichotomy again breaks down. Both these incidents, however, occurred prior to the formation of the RRG in Singapore, which completely altered the picture as far as state-ulama relations go. 4.4.2 Post RRG: Moving towards Greater Cooperation with the State In 2002, Singapore was rocked with the revelation by the government that local terrorist networks existed. The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) cells had been discovered earlier, and in late 2001, the Internal Security Department (ISD) had arrested 13 Muslims for being part of this group. A second batch of 18 individuals were arrested in September 2002 (Desker 2003). These arrests of course came on the back of the September 11 attacks in New York, which proved to be a turning point in the globalization of terror. JI was a transnational terrorist organization with its Singapore branch. What was particularly pernicious about the JI in Singapore, and which really shocked a lot of Singaporeans, was their plans to bomb key installations in Singapore, including the airport and train stations (Hastings 2008). The Muslim community was especially hit: this was the start of a perpetual struggle to distance themselves from extremists in their midst and assert their commitment to the fundamental values the country holds dear. While some were initially suspicious of the arrests, especially since there were no trials conducted to ascertain the detainees’ guilt, once mounting evidence was presented by the ISD and the government, it became quite clear that the arrests were not politically motivated or trumped-up charges. The incident was traumatic for Muslims on many levels. One, as mentioned earlier, they were put on the back foot as Islam came under trial: the association between Islam and violence was now one which they had to perennially refute and

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constantly engage with. Two, the relationship between the government and the community had now changed too. The community had to develop more trust with the state, since it was inexplicable that some of its members had desired to cause harm to the country (Abdullah 2013). Following these arrests, a different state-ulama dynamics ensued. The RRG was formed in 2003, under the leadership of Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi, who took over the leadership of Pergas following Ustaz Syed Abdillah in early that year, ostensibly for the aim of rehabilitating terrorists and to counter the ideology of violent extremism. Ustaz Hasbi had been till that point in time quite critical of certain state policies, and was of course part of Pergas during the aforementioned incidents. However, both he and Ustaz Ali decided to be part of RRG as they saw Muslim extremism as a genuine problem. The RRG surmised that the ulama had to take the lead in tackling this problem, since it is their duty to ‘adorn the earth as beacons to show the right paths’ and to ‘repel those who mix truth with falsehood and introduce wayward understanding of Islam.’76 Slowly, Pergas’ attention shifted from being an advocacy group which was audacious enough to go head-on with the state, to one which was in close cooperation with it. Extremism and terrorism brought both the ulama and the state together. Once Pergas, the body representing the clergy, adopted this stance, the ulama began to develop a working relationship with the state, which was much more cordial than it was just a few years before. The formation of the RRG is perhaps the most important juncture, in my estimation, in state-ulama relations in Singapore. Through RRG, greater cooperation ensued between the two sides, and Ustaz Hasbi, and thus Pergas, developed a special relationship with the state. RRG works closely with the Ministry of Home Affairs, especially the ISD, as it had to get the latter’s permission to enter detention centres and counsel the terrorists. The government has openly and consistently reiterated its support for the group. As observed by an ustaz: Ustaz Hasbi has a really good relationship with the government now. This is not like the past anymore, when Pergas was confrontational. Now, Pergas and the government are on good terms.77

Indeed, nowadays, it is a common sight to see Ustaz Hasbi and Ustaz Ali together with members of the ruling party. As already mentioned, apart from the RRG, Pergas is also supportive of the state-initiated Dadah itu Haram campaign. 76 Religious Rehabilitation Group, https://www.rrg.sg/about-rrg/. Accessed 26 August 2019. 77 Interview with an ustaz, 19 August 2019.

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For Pergas, practical considerations had to be made. At a time when relations between both the state and the community, and Muslims and the other ethnic communities, were potentially fraught because of the discovery of homegrown terrorists, the ulama focused their priorities on being partners in nation-building, in a bid to allay the fears that the state and other Singaporeans may have toward Muslims. This does not mean that Pergas was doing something which compromised its beliefs: for sure, ulama such as Ustaz Hasbi and Ustaz Ali are absolutely convinced that the mission of RRG is completely in line with Islamic teachings, and they are not doing it just because the state is supportive of their efforts. Another alim, who is not part of RRG, voices his support for the cause: RRG is a noble effort. It is the job of Muslims to counter extremist ideology […] If we do not have RRG, the government would probably not trust us as much.78

The worthiness of the cause aside, it is obvious that since Pergas’ involvement with RRG, the organization is no longer quarrelsome with the government. The interests of the two have intersected, and gradually, the familiarity between the two sides has led to a more friendly relationship. Pergas has not openly championed the hijab issue since then, for example, at least not to the extent it did in the past. A ‘closed-door’ approach is now favoured: access to state officials has increased following the improvement of relationships between the two, and hence, some ulama believe it is more productive to express their concerns directly to the government, away from the public eye. The political capital Pergas has gained has definitely increased with Ustaz Hasbi’s active involvement with RRG, and the consequent rapprochement between the two sides. In some ways, Pergas is perhaps even better positioned than before to pursue some causes such as the hijab more aggressively, but the organization chooses to not jeopardize its relationship with the state. Pergas is in a better position to pursue the hijab cause now. Ustaz Hasbi’s position is unique, because the government has a lot of respect for him. His motives would not be questioned if Pergas pursued the cause.79

While Pergas’ shift in approach toward the state and politics is undoubtedly significant, other developments demonstrate the changing dynamics between the ulama and the government too, signifying a more cooperative 78 Interview with an ustaz, 20 August 2019. 79 Interview with an ustaz, 19 August 2019.

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relationship. Again, power matters. The relationship between the two sides is not between two entities of equal stature. At times, cooperation may be perceived as subordination, due to the power imbalance. The state definitely has a preferred brand of Islam it would like to promote, and one which focuses on a more ‘inclusive’ Muslim identity. Moving towards an ‘Inclusive’ Muslim Identity In Singapore’s plural society, Islam is practised in a spirit of mutual respect, tolerance and inclusiveness. Our asatizah are central to nurturing a progressive Muslim community. One ustaz who exemplifies this is Ustaz Zahid Zin. Ustaz Zahid also takes an active part in MESRA-led activities, and serves on the M3 Advisory Council. Recently, one of his distant relatives passed away. Ustaz Zahid paid respects at the wake, which was conducted in the Buddhist tradition. He posted on Facebook how all cultures and beliefs must be respected, and how his attendance at the Buddhist funeral was a teachable moment for his children. Actually, it was a teachable moment for all of us, whatever our religion or our age. (PM Lee Hsien Loong, 2019 National Day Rally)80

The quote by PM Lee in his National Day Rally Speech delivered in Malay encapsulates the state’s expectations of the ulama, and concomitantly, of Islam. A few characteristics are emphasized. Firstly, Islam which is practised in Singapore must be ‘inclusive’, and must portray a multiracial image as much as possible. Ustaz Zahid was praised specif ically for attending a Buddhist wake and for writing on it on his social media accounts, extolling the importance of respecting all belief systems in the country. Secondly, he was further applauded for his involvement in state-sponsored committees, such as M3. M3 is the brainchild of the current Minister for Muslim Affairs, Masagos Zulkifli, whereby the three Malay-Muslim organizations, MUIS, Mendaki and MESRA (which is the Malay Activities Executive Committees Council, a grassroots entity linked to the ruling party) are supposed to collaborate and organize projects and events together. Ustaz Zahid was thus an example of an alim who works within the system and actively partakes in state-led or state-endorsed projects. Third, the ulama must nurture a ‘progressive Muslim community’, exemplified by inclusivity (as defined by the state) and tolerance, not exclusivity or narrow-mindedness. 80 National Day Rally 2019, “Malay Speech”, https://www.gov.sg/microsites/ndr2019/press-room/ news/content/ndr2019-malay. Accessed 28 August 2019.

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To be sure, 2019 was not the first time such an exhortation was made. Numerous statements and policies have reflected the state’s preference for what it considers a more tolerant and inclusive Islam. The Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) Project is one such instance. While the SMI project was autonomously crafted by the bureaucrats in MUIS after consultation with members of the religious clergy (Razak 2019), the endeavour is ultimately under the auspices of MUIS, and can thus can be considered to be state-endorsed. Being a statutory board comes with certain expectations, codes of conduct, norms and even legal considerations, and it is unrealistic to expect that an agency under the state would directly go against it, or openly contradict the government, especially in a system like Singapore’s. The SMI was introduced in 2004, against the backdrop of the discovery of the JI cells, and purported to provide guidelines by which Singaporeans should live; ultimately, there was supposed to be no contradiction between being Singaporean and being Muslim. In addition, the project served to highlight a distinctive brand of being Muslim, one which took into consideration the peculiarities and complexities of Singapore’s socio-political realities, or what is commonly referred to as the ‘context’. It must be noted that the invocation of the term ‘context’ to justify certain positions the ulama adopt is not unique to the Singaporean case, and therefore should not be immediately dismissed as attempts to pander to the acceptable norms of the society, and perhaps more crucially, the whims of the state. Rather, it has always been incumbent upon the ulama to issue fatwas which are socially relevant, while taking into account the texts. The Damascene alim ‘Ibn Abidin (d. 1836) elegantly explained this duty: The rigidity of the mufti and the qadi (judge) in following (only) the apparent meaning of the reported text (zahir al-manqul), while neglecting custom (‘urf) and context (al-qara’in al-wadiha), and his ignorance of the (actual) circumstances of the people necessarily entails the loss of numerous rights and (results in) injustice for numerous people. (Zaman 2002, 19)

The SMI was thus an effort at highlighting certain traits which Singaporean Muslims were supposed to embody. Ten desired attributes were listed as part of the SMI. A Singapore Muslim is ideally someone who: 1 Holds strongly to Islamic principles while adapting itself to changing context. 2 Is morally and spiritually strong to be on top of challenges of modern society.

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3 Is progressive, practices Islam beyond forms/rituals and rides the modernization wave. 4 Appreciates Islamic civilization and history and has a good understanding of contemporary issues. 5 Appreciates other civilizations and is confident in interacting with and learning from other communities. 6 Believes that good Muslims are good citizens. 7 Is well-adjusted as a member of a multi-religious society and secular state. 8 Is a blessing to all and promotes universal principles and values. 9 Is inclusive and practices pluralism, without contradicting Islam. 10 Is a model and inspiration to all.81

While formulated in 2004, the SMI has been referred to quite regularly since. In 2019, MUIS said that the ‘SMI values of Religiously Resilient, Inclusive, Contributive, Adaptive and Progressive (RICAP) will continue to form the basis of Muis’ socio-religious programmes.’82 From these statements, one can see the direction MUIS wishes Singaporean Muslims to take. It is evident that the values of a good Muslim are in harmony with that of the state. A good Muslim is someone who is ‘progressive’, accepts the ‘secular state’, is a ‘good citizen’, ‘practices pluralism’, and ‘promotes universal principles and values’. Of course, each of these points can be contentious, and much unpacking is needed. For instance, what does being a good citizen entail? Does that require obedience to the state, and working within the OB markers, or are contestations of the state’s core ideologies allowed? What does being ‘progressive’ mean? What if Muslims lean toward a conservative interpretation of Islam: does that make them less Singaporean, or even less Muslim? What does ‘pluralism’ connote? Does that mean denouncing salvific exclusivity, as Alami seems to suggest in the aforementioned Straits Times article? What does acceptance of the secular state translate to in reality: is it a philosophical acceptance of the privatization of faith, or is it a practical approval of secularism as a political and governing principle? And what are these ‘universal’ values? Any student of politics would know that values are always being contested. What should Singaporean Muslims’ 81 MUIS, Office of the Mufti (2006), “Risalah for Building a Muslim Community of Excellence,” 2nd Edition, https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/OOM/Resources/Risalah-eng-lr.pdf. Accessed 2 September 2019. 82 MUIS (2019), “MUIS Work Plan Seminar 2019,” https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/ Corporate-Site/Press-Releases/Fact-Sheet---Muis-Work-Plan-Seminar-2019.pdf, p. 4. Accessed 2 September 2019.

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stance be toward gay marriage, for instance, and is recognition of that a universal value? If so, why, and if not, why not? Like most values, the ones suggested in the SMI project are up for contestation. One would probably not notice that from the discourse prevalent amongst the ulama today. In 2003, Pergas had released a publication entitled Moderation in Islam in the Context of the Singapore Muslim Community. In the book, Pergas made nuanced arguments on the differences between secularism as a philosophy and the secular state in practice, as it argued that Islam rejects secularism as a philosophy since Islam is Ad-Deen, or a way of life, and cannot be separated from any personal exertions in one’s daily living. However, secularism as a political practice is acceptable, since it does not require the trivializing of one’s faith, and as long as Muslims are allowed to practice their faith. In a secular state too, Muslims are not obliged to follow certain Islamic forms of governance to the letter such as the implementation of hudud laws. However, Pergas did say that Singaporean Muslims should continue to strive toward the hijab being allowed in certain frontline positions in Singapore (Pergas, 2004, pp. 108-115, 343-347). Since then, however, alternative discourses, or even ones that may provide slight challenges to state-endorsed rhetoric, are notably missing for the most part. Ever since Pergas’ rapprochement with the government, discourses have centred around the need for Muslims to be part of the multiracial and multicultural landscape. The SMI has indeed acquired almost a hegemonic status within the community, even if many of its members may not be too familiar with the project. Rather, the values it espouses are most definitely the ones that are the most repeated, oft emphasized, and outright promoted. Because of MUIS’ unique position within the fabric of the community, and since Pergas has stopped being a counter-hegemonic force, MUIS largely dominates the discourse in the Muslim community. Banning of Controversial Speakers Perhaps the starkest example highlighting the preponderance of stateendorsed ideas in def ining the Muslim identity is the controversy surrounding the ‘Merry Christmas’ issue. In 2015, a well-known preacher from Zimbabwe, Mufti Menk, was not allowed to enter Singapore to preach to the Muslim community. Menk had previously been allowed to give speeches here, but not on this occasion (Abdullah 2017b). A video of Menk stating that it was impermissible for Muslims to wish their Christian friends ‘Merry Christmas’ surfaced on social media. In the video, Menk said that Muslims should substitute ‘Merry Christmas’ for

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‘Happy Holidays’. Senior government leaders then highlighted a worrying trend they observed amongst Muslims. Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, asserted that there was a growing number of young Muslim Singaporeans declining to wish their non-Muslim friends ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Deepavali’ as they believed the act was impermissible in Islam. Dr. Maliki Osman, another PAP senior Malay leader, said that in parliament that Habib Hasan had unequivocally stated that opinions such as Menk’s were not right. 83 Minister Masagos Zulkifli, was even more explicit. He said: We have the guidance of our local religious scholars who allow and even encourage us to develop the spirit of harmony and be compassionate to other communities. In fact, when we wish others ‘Merry Christmas’, we know that we are not Christians and will not become Christians by saying ‘Merry Christmas’. So, this is important and we do not need opinions which are not only contrary to what we uphold but can also create a situation that is not harmonious. As I have said earlier, the ban on foreign speakers is not just applicable to Muslims. This applies to all, whether they are Christians or Buddhists and so on. We recognize that the Government wants to create a harmonious, peaceful environment for everyone. Anyone who threatens it, whether they are in this country or overseas, we will stop it.84

The state took a strong and clear stance against opinions such as Menk’s, as PAP leaders believed that, if left unchecked, such sentiments could lead to greater distance between the Muslim community and other Singaporeans. Ulama such as Habib Hasan gave religious advisories that it is permissible to wish ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Deepavali’ to those from other faith traditions on their special occasions, as did MUIS. Mufti Fatris Bakaram 83 Ministry of Defence, Singapore, “Speech by Dr. Mohamed Maliki Bin Osman, Senior Minister of State for Defence, at the Debate on the President’s Address 2016,” 26 January 2016. https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/mindef/news-and-events/latest-releases/ article-detail/2016/january/2016jan26-speeches-00792/!ut/p/z0/f Y27bsJAEEW_JYXL1QwrsJXSIUVA2KYwkdkmGsGAF8z4sQshf88CKaOU596Ze8BABUboYvfkbSvUBF6b-Csp3qcfONZ5MSlHmH6W5WLyls9WSQxzMP8fhAU9ZNNsD6YjXysruxYqjaNQHUjONPw8MYCOleuYNzU7hZi86vu3PfS9ScFsWvF89VCdrGx5px4sPsK6PXGEwt9OkWwVX0LqImzIs_Nq4IbJcQ jukgh_ nU_809kdzXq5SF9u5pVCpA!!/. Accessed 2 September 2019. 84 “Religion Must Be Practised Based on Local Context”, Channel News Asia, 11 February 2016. http:// www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/religion-must-be/2504298.html. Accessed 3 April 2016.

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has himself wished Catholics and other Christians ‘Merry Christmas’.85 But what is interesting is not that Muslim leaders and ulama issued statements urging Muslims to adopt what they viewed as a more tolerant approach; indeed, in a multiracial and multi-religious society, one would expect many ulama to encourage such an approach, especially since Muslims are in the minority. Rather, what was perhaps more fascinating is that the state had equated the act of not greeting others to extremism, or as something which threatened the very fabric of Singapore society. Pergas, however, issued an intriguing statement. While Pergas said that it believed Muslims in Singapore should give good wishes to others, and that Islam permitted such an act, it also provided a balanced argument by highlighting that there were Muslim ulama who had forbidden the act. Pergas essentially stated that the latter opinion, though not encouraged in Singapore, was one which existed within the Sunni corpus of knowledge.86 Two ulama, Ustaz Haniff Hassan and Ustaz Mustazah Bahri, both researchers at RSIS, wrote an online commentary which is still available on Pergas’ website, arguing that Muslims who did not subscribe to the state-endorsed opinion on well-wishing others should not be classified as extremists. They said that many of their own teachers of the senior ulama held on to the belief that well-wishing others on their special occasions was not permissible.87 Ustaz Haniff in particular is an important figure within the ulama circles: he is one of the more respected senior ulama who was also active in Pergas during the madrasah saga and first hijab issue. However, the counter-narrative provided by Ustaz Haniff, Ustaz Mustazah and the statement by Pergas did not challenge the predominance of the state’s discourse. In the first place, both the article by the two ulama and Pergas’ statement did mention that wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ was encouraged in Singapore’s context; what they disputed was the notion 1) that the opinion forbidding such an act was ‘un-Islamic’ and 2) that those who subscribed to 85 Charissa Yong, “Muslim Leaders’ Christmas Greetings Call for Religious Unity,” The Straits Times, 24 December 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/muslim-leaders-christmasgreetings-call-for-religious-unity. Accessed 2 September 2019. 86 See Pergas’ official Facebook Page, “Religious Guidance in Sending Greetings to Non-Muslims on Their Festivals and Celebrations,” https://www.facebook.com/Pergas.Singapore/photos/a.452274041491748/1072976906088122/? type=3&theater. Accessed 2 September 2019. 87 Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Mustazah Bahri, “A Balance Approach to the Issue of “Merry Christmas” Greeting by Muslims,” Wasat, 1 February 2019. https://blog.pergas.org.sg/ wasat/a-balance-approach-to-the-issue-of-merry-christmas-greeting-by-muslims/. Accessed 2 September 2019. Wasat is Pergas’ online journal. From my own conversations with these ulama, I concur with Ustaz Haniff and Ustaz Mustazah’s observation.

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this particular jurisprudential opinion were displaying unsavoury traits.88 Moreover, state elites continued to propagate the narrative, in spite of Pergas’ statement. The ulama did not subsequently challenge the state’s approach, at least overtly. Many were either silent, or supported the idea that it was positive for Muslims to express their happiness toward their friends from other faiths on the latter’s religious festivals. Those who were silent were not necessarily in support of the state’s narrative, but did not see much value in challenging it. An alim interviewed said: As believers, we wish to safeguard our beliefs. It is natural for some Muslims to not be comfortable to greet others on their religious festivals, not secular festivals, but just religious ones. A secular state should not impose its idea of wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ onto religious people. If it has a stance, it should educate people, not impose its view. But what can we do, apart from express our views privately to our leaders when we see them.89

There was an air of resignation in the interviewee’s response. Although the alim in question did not agree with the state’s approach, in spite of the fact that he personally believed that it is permissible to give good wishes to non-Muslims, he did not publicly express his disapproval. He was, of course, not the only one. Other ulama who disagreed with it remained silent too. The quietist approach, or one which favoured closed-door discussions or private counsel, was preferred to overt dissent. If one were to extend the logic behind the state’s argument for the banning of Mufti Menk, even more uncomfortable questions arise. What about ulama who believe in salvif ic exclusivity? Would that not be an exclusivist view as well, since it requires that people believe in Islam to be saved in the hereafter? Or even more fundamentally, what about the belief that Islam is the only true faith, which is of course the stance of the overwhelming majority of Muslim lay-persons and the ulama? Would that be considered exclusivist in the future? For sure, if one is honest, one would say that all religions, while they share basic premises and some universal values about peace, love, and tolerance, differ on core tenets, and often, propagate mutually exclusive beliefs. The Muslim and Christian cannot be 88 Some Muslims I conversed with said that they have good relationships with their non-Muslim neighbours, and often exchange food or gifts with them. However, they do not greet them on their religious festivals. One could certainly not make the claim that these people are somehow extremists or exclusivists. 89 Interview with an ustaz, 22 August 2019.

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both simultaneously correct on the position of Jesus, for instance: either Jesus is a Prophet and not God or the son of God, as the Muslims assert, or he is God and/or the son of God. Both can be wrong, if Jesus is neither a prophet nor God, but both cannot be correct at the same time. This is just one example of theological exclusivity. Where thus, is the line between what a Muslim, or an adherent to any faith for that matter, is allowed to believe and socially exclusive theologies, as the state sees it? The ‘Merry Christmas’ saga seems to be a derivative of this question. No doubt, the Singapore state is not the first to view theological exclusivities as problematic. Indeed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had written: Those who distinguish between civil and theological intolerance are mistaken, in my opinion. The two intolerances are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people one believes to be damned; to love them would be to hate God who punishes them; one must absolutely bring them back (to the fold) or torment them. Wherever theological intolerance is allowed, it is impossible for it to not have some civil effect; and as soon as it does, the Sovereign is no longer Sovereign, even in the temporal sphere; from then on, the Priests are the true masters; Kings are but their officers. (Rousseau 1997, 151)

Rousseau makes the point that in cases of theological exclusivity, social cohesion would be indisputably affected. In addition, the state would no longer be truly in charge, since religious clerics would have the final authority over their faith-adherents. The Singapore state’s approach to the ‘Merry Christmas’ issue bore remnants of Rousseau’s thoughts on the matter. Muslim scholars, however, had typically argued against such a view. To be sure, there is a minority of Muslims who equate theological superiority of Islam to an injunction to either convert or fight non-Muslims; however, the vast majority of ulama throughout Islamic history had always written treatises and issued edicts on how to co-exist with non-Muslim communities. The parallel between theological intolerance and civil intolerance thus, for many Muslims, is a false equivalence. Yes, I believe that Islam is the ultimate truth, and hence, I believe other faiths may contain beliefs which are wrong. But I also believe Islam enjoins goodness to my neighbours. There is no contradiction between believing I am right in my theology, and being nice to others who do not share my beliefs.90 90 Interview with Muslim professional, 11 November 2019.

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The respondent enunciated a view which was shared by many ulama I conversed with as well. The example given earlier was how some Muslims exchange gifts with their non-Muslim neighbours, visit each other’s houses on their special occasions, but do not greet them ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Deepavali’. Evidently, for these Muslims, theological exclusivity does not lead to socially exclusivist behaviours. Yet, while Muslims generally believe this to be true, they did not, en masse, dissent with the state on its interpretation of the ‘Merry Christmas’ saga. Another case which demonstrates the state’s unflinching stance on potential racial and religious divides is the Imam Nalla incident. In a Friday sermon in early 2017, Indian National Imam Nalla made a supplication in a mosque in Singapore, which translated as ‘give us victory over the Jews and Christians.’ The supplication is not uncommon in the Muslim world: it is heard in many countries. Typically, such prayers are understood to be directed against those who wage war against Islam. However, a national uproar ensued after a video of the Imam making the prayer was uploaded online by a Muslim who was critical of the Imam. Many non-Muslims expressed shock and even disgust that such a supplication was being made in a mosque in Singapore; perhaps equally, many Muslims too were unhappy at the uploader of the video, stating that the prayer did not mean a call to war against Jews and Christians, but simply referred to those who were oppressing Muslims. Then-Minister Yaacob Ibrahim acknowledged the sentiments of some Muslims, saying that many ‘in our community felt angry, because they believe that the postings could be used to cast aspersions on Islam and the asatizah.’91 Pergas issued a six-page statement which was nuanced, and even amorphous at times, stating that Islam did not allow Muslims to pray for negative outcomes against ordinary people, but did so for those who waged war against and were oppressing Muslims. Pergas also acknowledged the Imam’s statements and apology, but did not particularly come out either in support or condemnation of the Imam.92 Yaacob’s candid admission was quite revealing, as it showed how the stern rebuke of the Imam by state elites was actually frowned upon by some Muslims. These Muslims felt that 91 Toh Yong Chuan, “No Room for Religious Extremism in Singapore,” The Straits Times, 5 March 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/no-room-for-religious-extremism-insingapore-say-muslim-leaders. Accessed 4 September 2019. 92 Pergas, “Religious Guidance on Supplicating Against Those From Different Faiths,” 3 April 2017. http://www.pergas.org.sg/media/MediaStatement/mediarelease_ReligiousGuidanceonPrayingforThosefromDifferentFaithGroups_3April.pdf. Accessed 4 September 2019.

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the community was at best, misunderstood again, or at worst, unfairly targeted. A respondent said: Look, every Muslim who hears that du’a (supplication) knows that it is not a war cry against Jews and Christians. Singaporean Muslims have always lived in harmony with our brothers and sisters from the other faiths, including the Christians. The du’a was obviously directed toward those who are at war with Muslims. The issue is, the du’a was done in the setting of a mosque, where Muslims know exactly what it is for, but was then taken outside the mosque. The act of uploading the video was mischievous, as it could cause much misunderstanding.93

The respondent’s thoughts seem to confirm what Yaacob had said. But what was even more illuminating was the Mufti’s reaction. When the video first made its rounds on Facebook, Mufti Fatris wrote a Facebook post, which apparently was directed toward the individual who uploaded it, harshly criticizing him. The post was later removed by the Mufti, who also deactivated or privatized his account for a while because he wanted things to ‘cool things down’.94 While this was ongoing, a prominent Muslim academic, Associate Professor Syed Khairudin Aljunied from the Malay Studies Department at the National University of Singapore, wrote a satirical post on Facebook mocking the uploader of the video. Minister Shanmugam mentioned Aljunied by name in Parliament later for promoting a position which is ‘quite contrary to the norms, values and laws in Singapore,’ adding that his actions were ‘unacceptable’.95 Aljunied was suspended from NUS for a brief period, while the police began investigations into whether he had committed a criminal offence. When the investigation had been concluded, both Aljunied and the uploader of the video were issued a warning by the police.96 Mufti Fatris subsequently issued a statement censuring the Imam’s supplication, saying that the ‘words used by the Imam have no place in 93 Interview with Muslim professional, 10 September 2019. 94 Toh Yong Chuan, “No Room for Religious Extremism in Singapore,” The Straits Times, 5 March 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/no-room-for-religious-extremism-insingapore-say-muslim-leaders. Accessed 4 September 2019. 95 Pearl Lee, “NUS Suspends Academic While It Investigates His Involvement in Case of Imam’s Remarks,” The Straits Times, 8 March 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ nus-suspends-academic-while-it-investigates-his-involvement-in-case-of-imams-remarks. Accessed 5 September 2019. 96 Toh Yong Chuan, “Duo Warned for Supporting, Uploading Video,” The Straits Times, 4 April 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/duo-warned-for-uploading-supportingvideo. Accessed 5 September 2019.

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today’s Singapore where we as communities live in peace and harmony.’97 However, the Mufti still condemned the act of uploading to the video on social media as ‘irresponsible’ since it ‘will definitely sow discord within and across communities.’98 Imam Nalla was charged in court, fined 4000 Singapore dollars, and then repatriated to India.99 What is arguably most interesting about the Imam Nalla incident was the reaction of prominent Muslims such as Mufti Fatris and Dr. Aljunied, and even ordinary members of the community. After the state had made clear its stance and said that it would not tolerate comments of the nature of the Imam’s supplication, these individuals directed their ire to the uploader of the video, and not to state leaders. This is rather telling. It would appear that these people decided that it was not possible to embark on the latter, while the former was a better course of action since the person involved was not directly associated with the state. In short, taking on the uploader of the video was a less risky endeavour than disagreeing with the ruling elites. Again, once the dust had settled, as was the case with the other issues already mentioned earlier, there was no counter-narrative in public. The ulama largely remained silent, even though many of them had expressed concern in private over how the incident was handled by the state.100 The quietist, or politically acquiescent, stances of the ulama, can be understood through the lens of political opportunity structures. Most ulama have chosen to take the first two options described in Chapter 3: either they cooperate with the state, as is the case with the ulama in MUIS, RRG and to a large extent, Pergas too, or they do not antagonize the state in potentially hazardous areas and remain publicly silent, in spite of their disagreement. When there are contestations, these come in the form of mild disagreements with the state’s position, as embodied in Pergas’ statement and the article by Ustaz Haniff and Ustaz Mustazah, rather than a stern rebuke of the government. As explained, this was not always the case: in the past, Pergas was more willing to go toe to toe with the PAP leaders. One can explain Pergas’ ability to challenge the state due to the social capabilities 97 MUIS, “Mufti of Singapore, Dr. Mohamed Fatris Bakaram’s Statement on the Case of Mr. Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel,” 3 April 2017, https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/Corporate-Site/ Press-Releases/03-Apr-2017--Media-Statement--Mufti-Statement-on-the-Case-of-Mr-NallaMohamed-Abdul-Jameel-Eng.pdf. Accessed 5 September 2019. 98 Ibid. 99 “Imam Fined $4k over Remarks, Will Be Repatriated,” The Straits Times, 4 April 2017. https:// www.straitstimes.com/singapore/imam-fined-4k-over-offensive-remarks-will-be-repatriated. Accessed 5 September 2019. 100 This sentiment was communicated to me by many of my respondents.

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it possesses: as a body of Islamic religious scholars, it has a great deal of credibility amongst its constituents, and the state cannot easily dismiss the ulama of the caliber of Ustaz Syed Abdillah and Ustaz Hasbi. Not all ulama, especially those outside Pergas, could do the same, and to a large degree, they did not because they knew this too. To some extent, one can make a similar case for Ustaz Haniff, for reasons outlined earlier. However, after 2003, the political opportunities became more constricted, even for Pergas, as it had to shift its focus toward gaining the trust of both the state and the wider Singapore community, after the spotlight had been shone on Muslim extremism. Pergas now saw itself as an ally of the state in the war against terrorism. Other ulama focused on uncontroversial aspects of the faith, resulting in the popularity of ‘feel-good Islam’, especially those for whom the political opportunities are more restrictive, and consciously stay away from dabbling in contentious issues. Political opportunities must also be seen through the lens of not only the strong state and its ideological stance on multiracialism, but also electoral conditions. Post-2015, it was more able to push through policies and take stances which were not too well-received by some segments of Singapore society. This is largely due to the political capital it derived from the 70% vote share it garnered in the 2015 election. Many of the state’s uncompromising stances in the issue of Muslim identity – such as the Imam Nalla and Merry Christmas episode – occurred after 2015. The state was more able to act according to its ideological predisposition, and not on electoral considerations, once it had accumulated significant political capital. 4.4.3 The Ruptures Occasional Points of Disagreement It needs to be emphasized that this book does not make the claim that the ulama have become agents of the state, useful idiots, or have ‘sold out’. Instead, the argument is that the ulama are generally conscious of the consequences of their political choices, just like the activists, and choose to work within the system to change it. This does not mean that there are no points of disagreement between the ulama and the state at times, even in the post-2003 era. Pergas’ statements on the Merry Christmas and Imam Nalla episodes, and the article by Ustaz Haniff and Ustaz Mustazah mentioned earlier are examples. However, even in those instances, the dissent is rather mild, and is expressed in a tactful, gentle way, and not in an uncontrolled manner. Again, political opportunity structures could explain this. Nevertheless, no matter how limiting political opportunities,

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it is never the case that no dissent occurs. The following section deals with the case of two clerics who have endured differing fates for operating outside the mainstream. The Odd Dissenter: Noor Deros and Murad Said The examples of Ustaz Noor Deros and Ustaz Murad Said are important to highlight for a couple of reasons. One, they show that ultimately, the ulama have a choice to disagree with the state on the fundamentals; two, there are consequences for not working within the system; and three, the hegemony of the PAP goes beyond its formal institutional structures. From the outset, it must be noted that this book does not make the claim that the two clerics are alike. Indeed, there are significant differences between the two: Noor Deros has Sufi leanings, while Murad can be described as a Salafi. Noor was not branded by the state as an extremist, while Murad was. Noor’s case did not garner national attention, though it was a point of conversation amongst the ulama; while Murad’s did as he was deemed a national security threat. The point of this section is not to challenge or affirm the state’s characterization of Murad, or the denial of the ARS to Noor; rather, I intend to highlight the occasional points of rupture between the ulama and the state, by pointing out the non-monolithic nature of the ulama, and even though the majority of them work within the confines of the state, there is a small minority who do not. Murad’s case is perhaps more straightforward. He was placed under the Restriction Order for promoting ‘exclusivist’ interpretations of Islam, especially when it came to non-Muslims and even Muslims from other sects such as Shi’ites. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) also said in its statement that Murad ‘encouraged his students to withdraw from Singapore’s secular society, disregard secular laws and adhere to the rulings of Syariah law instead.’101 MHA did not allege that Murad was a terrorist, however; its assertion was that he was an exclusivist and his divisive views were detrimental to a multiracial and multi-religious society. Some of his controversial social media posts include criticism of those who celebrate National Day in Singapore, and warning of the dangers of having inter-faith dialogues.102 101 Hariz Baharudin, “Former Religious Teacher and Student Placed on Restriction Order under ISA,” The Straits Times, 16 January 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/formerfreelance-religious-teacher-and-student-placed-on-restriction-order-under-isa. Accessed 6 August 2019. 102 Faris Mokhtar “Former Ustaz Was Spreading Extremist Ideas on Facebook,” Today, 16 January 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/former-ustaz-spreading-extremist-ideasfacebook. Accessed 5 September 2019.

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For the Singapore state, those views are evidently unacceptable. Loyalty to the nation is an integral part of being a citizen, as is supporting inter-faith events which the state sees as vital to promoting harmony between different religious communities. It is also clear that Murad knew precisely the dangers of adhering to his views. Before he was placed under the Restriction Order, his ARS had already been revoked, which meant that he knew his positions on certain issues did not sit well with senior ulama within the community. Even after the revocation, he continued to write postings of a similar nature, according to the MHA. For Noor Deros, he was denied the ARS not because his views were extremist or exclusivist, but because they were deemed to not be suited to the country’s realities. Noor takes a strong stance against usury, critiques capitalism and secularism at a fundamental level, and used to promote the Dinar and Dirham (gold and silver) in lieu of Fiat money. The ARB decided that Noor ‘supported views that encourage Muslims to reject the system of governance and economy practiced in Singapore as being unsuitable for Singapore Muslims.’103 It does not appear that the state actively involved itself in the decision to deny Noor the ARS; rather, the decision was made by members of the ARB. A member of the ulama fraternity, who is not on the ARB, commented on the decision: He (Noor) is my friend, but I think there is a basis for the ARB to deny him the ARS. His teachings may not be suited for a secular context.104

It is this author’s belief that there was indeed no injunction from the state to deny Noor his ARS. However, the decision made by ARB must have taken into account what is acceptable by the state’s standards: indeed, when one talks about the context of Singapore, one’s understanding of what constitutes the socio-political environment invariably includes the state’s principles. Not everyone, of course, agreed with the ARB’s decision on Noor. Some ulama interviewed stated that they believed Noor was wrongly denied the ARS. However, they do not voice their opposition to the ARB’s decision publicly. This reticence is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it would perhaps be unwise – from their perspective – to take on the board which can deny them the license to teach, and secondly, since the ARB comprises senior ulama, it would have not been appropriate for the dissenters to publicly question 103 Correspondence with Ustaz Noor Deros, 5 September 2019. He quoted the reason given by ARS in their letter to him. 104 Interview with an ustaz, 19 August 2019.

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them. The ulama community is rather hierarchical, with seniority playing a huge role in determining the level of respect accorded to someone. Murad, on the other hand, had far fewer sympathizers amongst the religious clerics. These two cases highlight the role of agency in understanding Muslim activism in Singapore. It is true that most ulama operate within the political structures in Singapore; but it is also true that the fact that they do is in itself an indication of a political choice, not a lack thereof. Activists, in this case the ulama, can always choose to challenge state ideologies, if they are prepared to bear the brunt of the state reprisal. Noor’s case further highlights how political opportunities are shaped not only by direct state intervention, but by the ruling party’s ideological hegemony as well. The government did not have to tell the ARB to not induct Noor; rather, the body is fully aware of what is acceptable or otherwise in the context of the city-state.

4.5 Conclusion Much like the other categories of Muslim activists investigated in this book – the liberals and conservatives – the ulama are not a homogenous entity, as this chapter has endeavoured to show. Theological and jurisprudential differences exist within the ulama, though ultimately, political opportunities determine their stances. Even though political opportunities are limited in the city-state, due to the competitive authoritarian regime and its disdain of religious interference in politics, they are not non-existent. As Pergas’ encounters during the hijab and madrasah episodes demonstrate, the ulama could provide a robust challenge to the state when they wish to, even though the discovery of JI terrorist cells altered the calculations of these religious clerics. Most ulama choose to operate within the system, though a couple of notable exceptions make for an interesting comparison. Unlike the liberals and conservatives, the ulama have a unique position within any Muslim community, a fact that the PAP government recognizes. State-ulama interactions thus provide a perspective through which we can understand Singapore politics in general. From the answers given, one can see similarities with theological justifications given by ulama elsewhere, in determining their political positions. Theology informs politics; at times, as much as politics informs theology. The next chapter will discuss the liberal activists in Singapore and how they have navigated the political system.

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Pergas. “Religious Guidance on Supplicating Against Those From Different Faiths,” 3 April 2017. http://www.pergas.org.sg/media/MediaStatement/mediarelease_ReligiousGuidanceonPra yingforThosefromDifferentFaithGroups_3April.pdf. Accessed 4 September 2019. Pergas (2004). Moderation in Islam: In the context of Muslim Community in Singapore. Singapore: Pergas. Pergas’ Official Facebook Page, “Religious Guidance in Sending Greetings to Non-Muslims on Their Festivals and Celebrations,” https://www.facebook.com/Pergas.Singapore/photos/a.4 52274041491748/1072976906088122/?type=3&theater. Accessed 2 September 2019. Petersen, J. S. (2009). ‘Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Al-Azhar.’ In J. S. Petersen, & B. Graf (Eds.), Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (pp. 27-54). London: Hurst & Co. Pierret, T. (2013). Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Rahim, L. Z. (2009). ‘A New Dawn in PAP-Malay Relations?’ In B. Welsh, J. Chin, A. Mahizhnan, & T. T. How (Eds.), Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore (pp. 350-362). Singapore: NUS Press. Rahnema, S. (2008). ‘Radical Islamism and Failed Developmentalism.’ Third World Quarterly, 29(3), 483-496. Rashid, I. M. M. “Islam tunggak masyarakat Melayu; asatizah main peranan penting pupuk umat progresif (Islam is a Pillar of the Malay Community; Religious Scholars Play a Vital Role in Creating a Progressive Ummah),” Berita Mediacorp, 18 August 2019. https://berita. mediacorp.sg/mobilem/singapura/islam-tunggak-masyarakat-melayu-asatizah-mainperanan-penting/4324084.html. Accessed 19 August 2019. Razak, M. A. (2019). “‘World-Class Muslims’: Examining the Discursive Construction of a Singapore Muslim Identity.” The Muslim World, 109(3), 417-430. “Religion Must Be Practised Based on Local Context”, Channel News Asia, 11 February 2016. http:// www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/religion-must-be/2504298.html. Accessed 3 April 2016. Religious Rehabilitation Group, https://www.rrg.sg/about-rrg/. Accessed 26 August 2019. Safinah Institute, https://spiritualsummit.sg/. Accessed 21 August 2019. Sim, W. “Embassy of Israel in Singapore Hosted Breaking-of-Fast Dinner with Muslim Community,” The Straits Times, 16 July 2015. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/embassy-of-israel-insingapore-hosted-breaking-of-fast-dinner-with-muslim-community. Accessed 15 August 2019. Sin, Y. “Parliament: Network of Young Religious Teachers to be Expanded, Says Yaacob Ibrahim,” The Straits Times, 8 March 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-networkof-young-religious-teachers-to-be-expanded-yaacob-ibrahim. Accessed 15 August 2019. “Skim Pengiktirafan Asatizah (Asatizah Recognition Scheme),” Berita Minggu, 22 September 2019. Sunnah.com. https://sunnah.com/. Accessed 8 August 2019. “Tiga cabaran perlu ditangani (Three Challenges Need to Be Tackled),” Berita Harian, 2 August 2017. https://www.beritaharian.sg/setempat/tiga-cabaran-perlu-ditangani. Accessed 21 August 2019. Toh Y. C. “Duo Warned for Supporting, Uploading Video,” The Straits Times, 4 April 2017. https:// www.straitstimes.com/singapore/duo-warned-for-uploading-supporting-video. Accessed 5 September 2019. Toh Y. C. “No Room for Religious Extremism in Singapore,” The Straits Times, 5 March 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/no-room-for-religious-extremism-in-singaporesay-muslim-leaders. Accessed 4 September 2019. “Ustaz Irwan Hadi jelaskan persoalan suami mengasari isteri (Ustaz Irwan Hadi Clarifies the Question of Husbands Harming their Qives,” Berita Harian, 15 October 2017. https://www.

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beritaharian.sg/hidayah/ustaz-irwan-hadi-jelaskan-persoalan-suami-mengasari-isteri. Accessed 13 November 2019. Wiktorowicz, Q. (2006). ‘Anatomy of the Salaf i Movement.’ Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29(3), 207-239. Xavier, K. “Author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh Slams Individuals Who Say ‘Brownface’ Concept Originated in the West,” The Online Citizen, 8 August 2019. https://www.theonlinecitizen. com/2019/08/08/author-sudhir-thomas-vadaketh-slams-individuals-who-say-brownfaceconcept-originated-in-the-west/. Accessed 21 August 2019. Yong, C. “Muslim Leaders’ Christmas Greetings Call for Religious Unity,” The Straits Times, 24 December 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/muslim-leaders-christmasgreetings-call-for-religious-unity. Accessed 2 September 2019. Zaman, M. Q. (2002). The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

5

Liberal Activists: Playing by the System and Making Gains Abstract This chapter analyzes the relationships Muslim ‘liberal’ activists have with the state. Just like the ulama, the liberals are not a monolithic group, with various approaches taken by different actors. However, by and large, the liberals, again like the ulama, play by the rules of the game set by the state. In fact, I argue that liberals have managed to maximize their space the most as compared to conservatives, for reasons which are explained in the chapter. Keywords: liberal Muslims, progressives, liberal-conservative divide, LGBT rights

In this, ‘critical Islam’ as Muslim thinker Ziauddin Sardar argues, can be a counter narrative for the Muslim public against the dominance of fundamentalist Islam. Where the latter generated an intellectual mess and a stagnation of Muslim sociopolitical thought, critical Islam can salvage the situation by reconstructing a new, cosmopolitan vision of Islam that is ethically grounded, socially committed, politically progressive and intellectually sound for today’s world.1

The statement above was written by two Muslim thinkers in Singapore, Nazry Bahrawi, a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and Imran Taib, a prominent Muslim activist who is active in inter-faith dialogue circles. Both can be said to be liberal-leaning Muslims; Imran in particular has been the subject 1 Nazry Bahrawi and Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, “Counter Fundamentalism with ‘Critical Islam’,” Today, 11 September 2013. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/counterfundamentalism-critical-islam. Accessed 10 September 2019.

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of much ire and consternation by conservative Muslim activists, and has been identified as the face of ‘liberal Islam’ in Singapore.2 But what exactly is ‘liberal Islam’, and who is a ‘liberal Muslim’? Is liberal Islam synonymous with ‘critical Islam’, as used by the two authors in the above-mentioned quote, or ‘progressive Islam’, as is often heard in contemporary Muslim discourse? This chapter analyzes the relationships Muslim ‘liberal’ activists have with the state. Just as the ulama, the liberals are not a monolithic group, with various approaches taken by different actors. However, by and large, the liberals, again like the ulama, play by the rules of the game set by the state. In fact, I argue that liberals have managed to maximize their space the most as compared to conservatives, for reasons which will be outlined later. Examples of liberals who are more willing to take on the state will also be explored, to provide a fuller picture of the activist scene in Singapore. But before going further, it is crucial to define, and problematize, the term ‘liberal Muslim’.

5.1 ‘Liberal’ Muslims: Complexities of the Category I am liberal, both politically and religiously, but I really do not like to call myself a liberal Muslim. The term has all sorts of negative connotations. I prefer the term progressive […] Usually, people call us liberal Muslims to delegitimize our views and portray us as some form of deviants.3

This quote by the liberal activist interviewed captures the diff iculties involved in defining the term ‘liberal Muslim’. Often, the term is used in a derogatory fashion by opponents. A conservative interviewed describes liberal Islam as a ‘clear and present danger to the aqeedah (beliefs) of Muslims.’4 ‘Liberal Islam’ is viewed with much suspicion, as the activists interviewed themselves acknowledged. More so than the categories ulama and conservatives, the term liberal is by far the most contentious concept in this book. To understand why this is so, one must know what is at stake when defining these terms: liberals seek to define, or redefine, Islam in particular ways, which are often socially progressive, as the earlier quote 2 A few conservative activists interviewed made this point. Imran himself acknowledged that there exist perceptions of him as a prominent liberal Muslim activist, but adds that many people have made unfair judgments on his nuanced positions, often without reading his own works. Interview with Imran Taib, 23 September 2019. 3 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019. 4 Interview with conservative activist, 6 August 2019.

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by Nazry Bahrawi and Imran Taib suggests, and they are often met with opposition by Muslims who are more traditionalist or conservative. Any attempt to undermine an established hierarchy of ideas would always be met with resistance, and the case of the liberals is no exception. This chapter will use the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ Muslim interchangeably. Chapter 3 had already defined the term ‘liberal’, but it bears repeating and expanding. A few characteristics are central to the identity of liberal Muslims. Firstly, they challenge uncritical adherence to traditions found in the Islamic corpus of knowledge, and call for a fundamental rethinking of certain issues. This is especially true in the domain of gender and sexuality. They question injunctions which they deem to be not in line with the Islamic spirit and principle of equality. These include inheritance laws, where males are usually understood to be entitled to a higher share of the wealth;5 the question of female Imams, or whether females can lead congregational prayers; the talaq or pronouncement of divorce issue, where males can divorce their wives by declaration whereas females have to apply for a divorce through a qadi or Islamic judge; the position of LGBT groups within Muslim communities, inter alia. Liberal Muslims tend to be passionate on these issues. Secondly, they emphasize the values of justice, equality and individual liberty, more than tradition, authenticity, and hierarchy. For liberals, it is the spirit of Islam which needs to be maintained and protected, more so than the laws and traditions. Laws and traditions are merely the means to achieve those goals, and not the ends themselves. When those objectives cannot be attained through the laws, they should not be adhered to. Shunning dogmatic interpretations of Islam, they are more likely to focus on how Muslims should be co-existing with people of other/no faiths rather than emphasizing Islam’s theological superiority. It is not controversial to suggest that liberals do not constitute the majority of Muslims. Many Muslim communities are still traditional and conservative. However, their importance should not be undermined just because they are in the numerical minority. For one, the allure of liberal or progressive Islam is on the rise. Many young Muslims especially struggle with the contradictions between being Muslim and living in a Westerndominated world, and thus for them, liberal Islam becomes an appealing way to reconcile between their faith tradition and socio-political realities. Younger Muslims who believe in the equality of the genders, for instance, 5 Conservative Muslim scholars would argue that the financial responsibilities for Muslim males also outweigh those of their female counterparts, which is why they are entitled to more inheritance.

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may find traditional Islamic inheritance laws difficult to accept, and may attribute them to a misreading of Islamic tradition, and as a result, may prefer a critical rendition of the faith. Furthermore, liberals and progressives are prominent in the discourses on Islam. Many leading Muslim intellectuals identify themselves as progressive, or at least, promote a version of Islam that is more liberal-leaning. Some of these intellectuals will be mentioned later. Liberal or progressive Muslims have also been given platforms, especially in the West, in both politics and the media. It was earlier mentioned that Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali get exposure that many conservative Muslims do not receive in the West, precisely because the version of Islam they promote is perhaps more palatable to Western sensibilities. Manji and Ali, incidentally, are not the intellectuals whom liberal Muslims look up to or derive inspiration from. Nevertheless, the point here is that liberal Muslims are a group which should not be ignored. The category liberal is controversial not just because the term is used by other Muslims to delegitimize their thoughts; defining the term becomes even more difficult since there are different strands of liberals. As mentioned earlier, it is more worthwhile to think of the categories ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ as existing on a spectrum, rather than viewing them as binaries. This means that even amongst liberals, some are more liberal than others. Take for instance the issue of gay marriage. Some liberal Muslims view gay relationships as permissible in Islamic law, and regard the command against it as either time-specific, which means that it was valid in the past but not anymore, or misunderstood by the majority of Muslims. Scott Kugle, a Professor in Islamic Studies at Emory University, and a leading progressive Muslim, argues that the Quran is actually silent on the matter and adopts a creative interpretation to the story of Lot, which will be expounded later (Kugle 2010). Other progressives, however, do not believe that gay or lesbian relationships are permissible, but challenge Muslims’ treatment of the LGBT community. Thus, it can get quite murky when we are placing individuals under the liberal banner. As with all categories, there are individuals who do not fit neatly in these categories. The example of Tariq Ramadan was given earlier: he is considered as ‘liberal’ by many of his detractors, as he himself has acknowledged. Ramadan is an intriguing case which really highlights the complexities of defining ‘liberal’: he has simultaneously been described as a ‘liberal Muslim’ and a ‘closet fundamentalist’.6 The terms ‘liberal’ and 6 Henry Chu, “Islamic Scholar Tariq Ramadan Defends His Views,” Los Angeles Times, 16 September 2014. https://www.latimes.com/la-fg-ramadan-qa22-2009sep22-story.html. Accessed 11 September 2019.

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‘fundamentalist’ can easily be weaponized to delegitimize one’s opponent. Nevertheless, cases such as Ramadan’s are instructive as well as they tell us where the boundaries between what constitutes a liberal and otherwise are.7 In the Muslim world, there are some renowned and leading liberal/ progressive intellectuals. As already mentioned, while Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji are given much attention, especially in the Western media, they are not really considered as points of references by liberal Muslims in Singapore.8 Muslim progressive intellectuals in the world include the aforementioned Scott Kugle; Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Professor in Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); Farid Esack, the famous anti-apartheid activist who is now a Professor in Religious (Islamic) Studies at the University of Johannesburg; Ebrahim Moosa, a Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame; Amina Wadud, a former Professor of Quranic Studies at the International Islamic University of Malaysia; Fatimah Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist and feminist writer who died in 2015; and Ziauddin Sardar, a writer and literary critic born in Pakistan and based in Britain. The volume edited by Omar Safi entitled Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism provides insights into not only the issues which progressive Muslims hold dear, but also the identities of the foremost liberal intellectuals (Safi 2003). Others who contributed to the volume are Ahmet Karamustafa, Tazim R. Kassam, Sa’diyya Sheikh, Kecia Ali, and Farish Noor, amongst others. Amongst these, only Farish Noor is from Southeast Asia (Malaysia). But the region has had its fair share of progressive Muslim intellectuals. These include Professor Farid Alatas, a Malaysian sociologist based at the National University of Singapore, Nurcholish Madjid (d. 2005), Ulil Abshar Abdalla and Syafiq Hasyim from Indonesia (Kersten 2011), and many more.9 In fact, there is an organization called Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL), or The Liberal Islam Network, comprising intellectuals and activists who promote progressive Islam (Nurdin 2005). The discourse on Liberal Islam in Indonesia is particularly intense, due to the more democratic arena and because of the political imperatives involved. Politicians eager to brandish their Islamic credentials took it upon themselves to grouse about the threat 7 In this book, I do not consider Ramadan to be a liberal or progressive, as even though he challenges conventional Muslim understandings of Islamic tradition, he does so by going back to classical sources, instead of drawing on novel interpretations. However, someone else could easily classify him as a liberal/progressive. 8 A liberal activist interviewed does not even consider these two to be intellectuals who warrant serious attention, and said ‘I cannot stand that fraud’ in reference to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019. 9 See (Alatas 2009).

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to Islam that came from progressives. Earlier, MUI’s fatwa which condemned ‘pluralism, liberalism and secularism’ was discussed (Gillespie 2007). The fatwa was used by many conservatives to denounce progressive Muslims in the country. The issuance of the fatwa resulted in a pushback by many liberals, and generated many discussions on the nature of secularism in Indonesia, what type of country it is, what the role of Islam should be, and so on, even though it did legitimize some forms of violence toward minority communities as well (Sirry 2013). In Malaysia too, one sees the politicization of conservative and liberal identities. At various times, different political parties have used ‘liberal’ Islam in varying ways. During Dr. Mahathir’s first term as Prime Minister, he embarked on multi-faceted ways to out-Islamize the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), including affirming its commitment to modern and ‘liberal’ Islam (Hamayotsu 2002, 362). However, after 2008, when Prime Minister Najib Razak attempted to mend his ruling party’s electoral fortunes by retreating to an ethno-religious agenda, the government began to chastise the phenomenon of liberal Islam, as he courted the conservative vote (Hamid and Razali 2015). In both countries, the Muslim-majority populations, coupled with a competitive electoral arena, made it ripe for these identities to be politicized. Obviously, such a situation does not occur in Singapore. First, the electoral arena is not nearly as competitive; and second, the state is careful to ensure religion is not meshed with politics. However, that does not mean that liberals and conservatives do not engage in diatribes, and that they do not try to seek the government’s attention, as subsequent sections will show. The intellectuals mentioned earlier all seek to challenge established understandings and interpretations of Muslim practices. Many of them are explicitly cited by liberal Muslim activists interviewed, as sources of inspiration. The quote cited at the beginning of this chapter utilized Ziauddin Sardar’s works, demonstrating how progressive Muslims in Singapore engage with these authors. They share similar vocabulary and conceptions of what Muslim societies ought to be, though of course, for Singaporean progressives, they take into account the specific contexts within which they operate, as will be discussed later. Many of these figures are unknown to the average Muslim, with the possible exception of Amina Wadud. She is infamous for having led congregational prayers on multiple occasions, inviting the ire of many conservative Muslims who believe that only men can lead mixed-congregational prayers.10 Such an act of defiance of traditional 10 This is the view of mainstream Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim scholars. Women are allowed to lead prayers where congregants are entirely female.

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norms was calculated and intended to send a message of gender equality and the dismantling of patriarchal interpretations of Islam.11 For Farid Esack, Progressive Islam denotes ‘Muslim reformist attempts that deal with the cultural and scientif ic challenges presented by the encounter with Western modernity as well as internal socio-economic stagnation’ (Esack 2018, 81). However, even though he was comfortable using ‘Progressive Islam’ previously to describe his approach to Islam, after 9-11, ‘the term was consciously shifted beyond what I and many others had recognized, promoted, and identified with, to the point where we no longer desire any association with it’ (Esack 2018, 81). This was because the US government began to promote certain narratives on what is acceptable Islam, in its ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ project. Charles Kurzman views liberal Islam as contrasting to ‘customary tradition’ and ‘calls upon the precedent of the early period of Islam in order to delegitimate presentday practices,’ in ‘the name of modernity’ (Kurzman 1998, 6). He further argues that Liberal Islam is conducive for democracy and even ‘Western sensibilities’, since it allows for, and even advocates, a contextualized reading of the Sharia, where multiple valid interpretations of revealed texts are possible (Kurzman 1998, 16-20). A key tenet of liberal Muslim thought is the acceptance of secularism as a political system and philosophy. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, a progressive Muslim intellectual who is a Professor of Law at Emory University, encapsulates this idea when he says: In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By a secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shariʿa – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Shariʿa cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials. This is what I mean by secularism in this book, namely, a secular state that facilitates the possibility of religious piety out of honest conviction. (An-Naim 2008, 1)

The debate on Islam and secularism has been a major theme in the discussions between liberals and conservatives in Muslim societies. For conservatives, as Olivier Roy notes, monotheistic religions, especially Islam, claim ‘to speak the truth, to have something to say about all human actions and conduct’ (Roy 2007, 38). For many conservatives, to accept secularism 11 “Woman Leads Controversial US Prayer,” Al-Jazeera, 19 March 2005. https://www.aljazeera. com/archive/2005/03/200849145527855944.html. Accessed 11 September 2019.

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means to relegate Islam to an unimportant sphere. Professor Syed Naquib Al-Attas, one of the most pre-eminent Muslim intellectuals of this era, forcefully argues against secularization of Muslim societies. He asserts that Islam ‘totally rejects any application to itself of the concepts secular, or secularization or secularism as they do not belong and are alien to it in every respect’ (Al-Attas 1985, 23). Yusuf Qaradawi makes a similar argument, saying that secularism is more compatible with Western societies because of how Christianity had developed, but less so for Islam since the latter has a revealed law which encompasses all facets of life (Hashemi 2009, 147). Progressives, on the other hand, view the matter differently. Like An-Naim and other progressives, Singapore liberal Muslims do believe in the principle of secularism. Imran Taib says that a defining feature of Progressive Islam is the belief in separation of church and state; he says that this is different from the separation of religion and politics, since in reality, it is not possible to dissociate the latter two. It is, however, not only possible, but desirable to ensure that the church and the state remain separate.12 This is not to say that conservatives reject the secular state in Singapore. Indeed, the previous chapter documents how the ulama have accepted the secular state as a political reality. What the conservatives reject is the idea that Islam should theoretically be separate from the state, much in the vein of Al-Attas and Qaradawi. Khaled Abou el-Fadl, though not discussing secularism directly, critiques Muslims’ defensiveness toward Western ideas. He says: Such groups ignore the Islamic civilizational experience, with all its richness and diversity, and reduce Islam to a single dynamic – that of power. They tend to define Islam as an ideology of nationalistic defiance of the other, a rather vulgar form of obstructionism vis-à-vis the hegemony of the Western world. Therefore, instead of Islam being a moral vision to humanity, it becomes constructed into the antithesis of the West. In the world constructed by these groups, there is no Islam; there is only opposition to the West. (El-Fadl 2002, 11)

While el-Fadl is not really explicit on which Muslims he is referring to exactly, he has his finger on the pulse of the issue: the battle between liberals and conservatives and their interpretations of Islam, has as much to do with religious predilections as it has to do with identity. As the debates between liberals and conservatives take place on issues such as secularism, both sides’ positions become hardened, culminating in name-calling, delegitimizing, 12 Interview with Imran Taib, 23 September 2019.

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and even excommunicating. Liberals are at times derided as ‘apostates’, for holding unorthodox Islamic views (Kurzman 1998, 18). Conservatives are often referred to as ‘bigots’ by their liberal counterparts. The identity battles are manifested in specific incidents, which will be discussed later in this chapter. To be sure, progressive Muslims do not claim that they reject scripture. Rather, they adopt varying approaches toward scripture than the conservatives, especially the hadith. Some liberals accept the Quran, but not the hadith, arguing that the compilation of the hadith is suspect, a position which is completely rejected by mainstream Muslims. Others are less dismissive of the hadith tradition, but adopt a far more critical eye in accepting the hadiths. Unlike conservative Sunni Muslims who mostly accept or reject the authenticity of a hadith based on its chain of narration, progressives tend to prioritize the text of the hadith. For them, if the text contradicts established principles of the Quran, the hadith should be rejected (Kamali 2005). Moreover, the Quran is understood not primarily as a source of legislation, but as a basis for determining guiding principles. The focus for progressives is usually the higher objectives of the Sharia, or the Maqasid Sharia (Duderija 2014). In the words of the late Fazlur Rahman, a liberal Muslim thinker who was a Professor at the University of Chicago, conservatives believed in the principle that ‘Although a law is occasioned by a specific situation, its application nevertheless becomes universal’ (Rahman 2009, 48). Progressives, on the other hand, are more willing to discard laws which they deemed to no longer have served its original purpose of revelation, such as the inheritance portions, or even the permissibility of polygamy for Muslim males. While the term ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ are recent constructs, progressive Muslims can be said to be the intellectual descendants of the Mu’tazilites. The Mu’tazilites were a sect in early Islam which subscribed to the principle of ethical rationalism, where ‘the values of human and divine actions are in principle knowable by human reason’ (Hourani 1976, 59). In essence, what was moral could be determined by the human mind. Reason, therefore, does not contradict revelation, and revelation must be understood in light of reason. In the early centuries of Islam, there was a theological battle between Mu’tazilite thought and traditionalism, which really eschewed the use of human reason. Traditionalists argued that human reason was fundamentally flawed, and therefore could not be wholly relied upon to understand a divine commandment, which is infallible. For ‘traditionalists’ in early Islam, revelation had to be prioritized over reason, and when there is a conflict between the two – as there is bound to be if one accepts the fallibility of human reason as they did – revelation always triumphed over reason. Even though the ‘traditionalists’ won the theological battle that

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constrained the use of reason in faith –Ahmad ibn Hanbal has been dubbed the ‘Imam of Ahlussunnah’ (Sunnism) because he is credited with defeating Mu’tazilism – mainstream Islam eventually evolved to accept the Asha’ri version of theology, which is basically a combination of orthodox Sunni traditionalism and Mu’tazilite rationalism (Brown 2014b). While Mu’tazilite thought has ceased to exist in its original form, the modern progressive Muslims can be argued to adhere to a similar tradition. Like the Mu’tazilites, the progressives are sceptical of the hadith, especially if it conflicted with reason (Brown, 2014a, p. 17). Additionally, both groups interpret revelation in light of reason, and do not see major contradictions between the two. One difference perhaps exists between progressives and Mu’tazilites: the latter came out organically of the Islamic tradition, and was an internal response to what they viewed as dogmatic understandings of Islam, while the former operates in a world where Muslims are not dominant. Progressives, like other Muslims, also live in a world of Western hegemony, where Western standards of morality and norms are regarded as the benchmark via which all other societies should be judged (Massad 2015). It is thus not inconceivable that many modern Muslim progressives’ views are shaped by their acceptance of these standards. A liberal respondent acknowledges this observation: I have to be honest and say that some progressive Muslims believe in the things they do because they are influenced by the West. Not all, but some definitely.13

It is definitely not an exaggeration to say that most progressive Muslims in Singapore are university-educated, and are often exposed to ideas and debates in the social sciences on matters such as inequality, privilege, power, traditionalism, and so on; and neither is that surprising. The heart of social scientific discussions usually involves deep critiques of existing social and power structures, of which religion is obviously a significant one. Many of these progressives display familiarity with the issues discussed in Western, especially American societies, and they tend to side with the politically liberal, or leftist, arguments, such as criticisms against neoliberalism, male and White ‘privilege’, supporting redistributive economics, and being proLGBT communities, amongst others. A respondent notes: Many progressives are university-educated. In fact, I myself was exposed to progressive ideas at university. That was when I started thinking critically 13 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019.

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about certain Islamic practices, and question the things I have been taught by at my weekend madrasahs and my religious teachers.14

This book makes a conscious choice to utilize the term ‘liberal Muslim’, even if it is eschewed by the progressives themselves. As acknowledged earlier, the term liberal is often used by conservative Muslims to imply the impurity of one’s doctrinal beliefs, and this makes using the term problematic. The situation is compounded by the experiences of various progressives in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, where liberal Muslims are vilified by the more conservative segments in society. In 2005, the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Indonesian Ulama) issued a fatwa condemning the ideologies of liberalism, secularism and pluralism (Menchik 2016, Fenwick 2016). The fatwa was an evident bid by the conservative ulama to extend their influence in the Indonesian political scene, and as events in recent years have shown, there are many within Indonesian society who are amenable to the ideas underpinning it. Of course, the term ‘liberalism’ was not sufficiently problematized within the fatwa, but that is beside the point here: what is relevant for this discussion is that there exist negative connotations associated with the term ‘liberal’ within the context of Islam and Muslims, as the respondent quoted at the start of this section describes. Nevertheless, I will use the term ‘liberal’, with a few caveats. Firstly, the term still carries important descriptive elements within it: as already said earlier, many of these progressive Muslims do admit to having liberal views on Islam and politics, but do not use the term simply because it has been misunderstood or weaponized by conservatives. Secondly, this book does not use the term ‘liberal’ to delegitimize the views of this segment of activists. I do not adopt a normative stance on whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ Islam is more faithful to the Islamic tradition: that would be a debate more suited for the theological realm, not a political analysis. Rather, I am merely describing and analyzing the stances of liberal and conservative activists in regard to the state. In doing so, obviously I would have to problematize these categories, but I do not go as far as backing one approach to Islam over the other. A look at Omar Safi’s aforementioned edited volume would indicate the topics and causes which progressives are passionate about, and my interviews with liberal activists confirm this. Some of the issues discussed in the book include feminism, the need to rethink marriage and divorce 14 Many Singaporean Muslims attend weekend madrasahs, where they spend a few hours learning about Islam. Such educational institutions are quite common in the country, catering to Muslim students who are not enrolled in full-time madrasahs.

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law in Islam, sexuality, interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and democracy. Liberals typically share an unwavering commitment to secularism, as opposed to conservatives whose acceptance of secularism is more tempered or lukewarm. The thrust of progressive Islam is the acceptance of a multiplicity of ways to understand, implement and practice Islam, without a rigid and dogmatic adherence to interpretations of Islam by previous and contemporary ulama. All human beings are flawed, and so too would be the ulama’s, the progressive argument goes. Abdullah Saeed, a Professor in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne and another progressive Muslim intellectual, argues that every single person is at least partially the product of his or her own context, and therefore, the opinions of the ulama can be subject to review (Saeed 2006, 53-56). The ulama of the past lived in male-dominated societies, so for progressives, their interpretations of Islam are conditioned by patriarchal understandings of the texts. Additionally, progressives believe Islam should not be viewed in purely theological terms, but rather, in cultural and more importantly, civilizational terms as well, with a commitment to universal and humanistic values. Ahmet Karamustafa articulates: Viewed as civilizational project, Islam emerges as a dynamic, evolving phenomenon, one that cannot be reified or fixed in any way. This is a healthy reality, one that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated, and not to be concealed from view under the banner of dubious calls issued by some Muslim activists “to establish true Islam” (normally an unmistakable sign of authoritarianism) or to ‘unify all Muslims’ (normally betraying an extremely naïve political utopianism. When it is understood as an ongoing civilizational construct, it is easier to highlight and to appreciate Islam as a truly global tradition […] To put it in other words, the emphasis on Islam’s globality enables us to acknowledge and cherish its transcultural, transethnic, transracial, transnational, in short, its truly humanistic dimensions. (Karamustafa 2003, 109)

Thus, the notion of Islam from the progressive’s perspective is less dogmatic and more ‘inclusive’.

5.2 Liberal-Conservative Divide amongst Muslims Needless to say, the progressives’ emphasis on the values and ideals of Islam, as opposed to theology and legislation, does not sit well with

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conservatives. For conservative Muslims, Islam is Ad-Deen, or a complete way of life.15 This means Islam should feature in every facet of their lives, wherever possible. Conservatives are concerned about authenticity – which can be seen in the numerous and at times, convoluted (from the lay perspective) debates on whether a hadith is authentic – and in adhering to the rituals practiced and encouraged by the Quran and the Prophet. Conservatives believe that Islam does not only specify the end-goal, it also tells you how to get there. A conservative activist interviewed expresses this opinion: Yes, Islam teaches us values. But all religions do. In fact, even atheists can come to similar conclusions on the importance of values such as peace, tolerance, good neighbourly behavior, and so on. One does not need to be a Muslim to attain all of that. What then is the difference between Islam and the other religions? It is our theology.16

Another conservative, in a similar vein, says: The first pillar of Islam is the shahadah.17 That is what determines whether you are a Muslim or not in the first place. Before we even talk about values or rituals, we must accept that Allah is our God and Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him as His Messenger.18

Conservatives additionally perceive liberals to not prioritize rituals as part of the faith, and to some extent, this perception is indeed valid. Progressives criticize conservatives for excessively focusing on the minutiae of the jurisprudence. A progressive respondent states: What you hear conservatives always talk about is the hijab, how to do prayers, what nullifies your fast […]19 15 Many progressive Muslims do accept the idea of Islam as Ad-Deen. However, they interpret the notion in a different way; again, they focus on the universal and humanistic values aspect of Islam. 16 Interview with conservative activist, 30 October 2019. 17 The shahadah is the Islamic declaration of faith which says that ‘I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.’ For most Muslims, especially conservatives, the shahadah is what differentiates between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. 18 Interview with conservative activist, 31 October 2019. 19 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019.

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A conservative provides a completely contrasting view. He notes: Rituals are important in Islam. The mantra that Islam is not about rituals is just false. Islam is about rituals. What would be correct is if liberals said Islam is not all about rituals, to which we would agree. No conservative has ever limited Islam to only rituals, but rituals and laws are part of Islam. Look at the thousands of books written by our ulama on these subjects. I do not know how liberals can sideline rituals and just focus on values.20

The liberal-conservative divide must be understood in a nuanced way. On one hand, it is true that many times, liberals and conservatives speak past each other. It is not entirely accurate that conservatives do not prioritize values or that liberals discard rituals altogether; rather, the emphasis on both differ in terms of degree. On the other, there are deep differences between these two groups. It is also correct to say that theological, methodological and consequently jurisprudential differences exist between the two, as has already been described earlier. The progressives’ skepticism of the hadith tradition, for instance, is a major difference that cannot be glossed over. More importantly for the present study, the battle between liberal and conservative Muslims is not merely ideological or theological: it further encroaches on the political realm. In Malaysia and Indonesia, different ideological factions have always competed and tried to gain the upper hand over others, and have tried to capture the state, or at least, gain the state’s favour (Saat 2018). In Singapore, while the political opportunities do not allow for a state capture, liberals and conservatives vie for the state’s attention. Especially in a state like Singapore where the government actively attempts to shape the Muslim identity and polices certain expressions of the Islamic faith, there exist opportunities for these groups. The liberals have a slight edge over the conservatives in this regard: the state has shown an apprehension, if not disdain, toward certain conservative interpretations of Islam, providing liberals with more room to influence public discourse. Various examples will be illustrated later. For now, it suffices to note that both these groups, due to their differing, and in some spheres mutually exclusive, beliefs, view the public arena as an ideological battleground. Both would like to see their understanding of Islam being preferred by both the state and Muslims in general. This is true even of progressives who make the assertion, as Ahmet Karamustafa does, that Islam should not be viewed as monolithic or as something that is fixed: indeed, the idea that Islam is not 20 Interview with conservative activist, 4 September 2019.

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unitary is a truth claim in itself. In essence, both liberals and conservatives compete for what is the ‘true’ version of Islam, and both of them find some interpretations of Islam as unacceptable. Many progressives would say that patriarchal manifestations of Islam are, in essence, un-Islamic, as they do not represent the true meaning behind Quranic injunctions. In this way, the liberal-conservative divide is akin to the Sunni-Shia or Sufi/traditionalistSalaf i divide: different factions of Muslims battle it out for ideological supremacy, and in the process, power relations matter. Some forms of Islam are favoured by states over others. Earlier in the book, it was described how some states promote a particular version of Sufism, in a bid to make Muslims more apolitical (Muedini 2015). The Saudi state too promotes a version of Islam that is pacifistic, even though it is completely antithetical to Sufism: the quietist Salafism-Wahhabism brand of Islam encouraged by the Saudi government discourages civil resistance and disobedience, and the ulama linked to the establishment are called upon to spread this version of the faith (Bligh 1985, Nevo 1998). The Sunni-Shia cleavage has been exploited by states beyond the Middle East too: in Malaysia and Indonesia, the conservative Sunni ulama have attempted, and have been successful to varying degrees, to convince institutions and agents in their respective countries, to define Shias as deviants and even threats to the national security (Schafer 2015, Musa and Tan 2017). The liberal-conservative divide is similar in some ways. In Malaysia and Indonesia, many ulama have come out against liberal Islam, warning of the dangers it could bring for Muslim communities, as described earlier. On some occasions, the conservatives have managed to influence the government’s rhetoric and policies towards progressive Islam. Anwar Ibrahim, a senior member of the current Pakatan Harapan government and someone who is celebrated as a liberal reformer,21 criticized the group which he deemed as ‘super liberal’.22 Even though liberals were most likely a voting bloc of the PH, Anwar felt compelled to denounce the group as he probably made the calculation that conservatives constituted a large portion of the electorate. Indonesia’s fatwa by the MUI has already been documented earlier. What we see in these two instances is the involvement of political entities in favouring the conservatives over liberals. Although the political opportunities are vastly different in Singapore, and Muslims do not constitute 21 Although Anwar has no formal cabinet position, he is expected to take over the premiership from Dr. Mahathir as promised by PH in its election campaign, but recent events have shown that the transition is by no means secure. 22 “Anwar Warns of ‘Super Liberal’ Group,” The Star, 25 September 2018. https://www.thestar. com.my/news/nation/2018/09/25/anwar-warns-of-super-liberal-group.

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a significant voting bloc on which elections can turn, the crux of the matter remains the same: both liberal and conservative Muslim activists try to expand their influence in the wider social sphere. The liberal-conservative debate also manifests itself in differing ways in Malaysia and Indonesia. For instance, in Malaysia, the issues that are contentious involve the position of Islam in a secular state like Malaysia, or indeed whether Malaysia should be a secular country in the first place, and the matter of special privileges for the Malay-Bumiputera communities (Hoffstaedter 2013). In Singapore, while there are discussions on the nature of secularism that is acceptable within Islam, such discourses are not as central as in Malaysia since a secular state is the reality that the minority Muslim population has to deal with. Even the nature of discourse is thus determined by political opportunities: for the PAP government, a rejection of the secular state is not acceptable, which is why conservatives do not even venture into that realm. At best, what is rejected is the philosophical reduction of faith to the private sphere, not the political practice of separation of church and state.23 A note on the pervasiveness, or lack thereof, of the discourses between liberals and conservatives is due. It is true that liberal-conservative debates frequently do not occur in such explicit terms in the public discourse. However, two points need to be noted. First, this study focuses on Muslim activists, and not the Muslim population in general. There are multiple reasons for this: these activists are at times thought leaders who may be in positions to influence other segments of the Muslim community; and more importantly, these individuals and groups also actively engage with the state, who can then affect Muslims on a real, tangible level. Second, at times, liberal-conservative debates do spill over in the public sphere and ordinary Muslims participate in them, even if they do not use the liberal-conservative terminology. One example would be the LGBT-Section 377A debate, in which many Muslims actively took sides, as will be described later. Others include the permissibility of marrying persons from other faiths: conservatives tend to restrict marriages to within the Muslim community whereas liberals are more open to such an idea; the consumption of halal food: conservatives have a narrow definition of what food is permissible, whereas liberals are willing to accept a broader understanding which includes the permissibility of eating meat which was slaughtered by Jews and Christians; the donning of the hijab: conservatives see this as an explicit command by God, whereas liberals do not; the permissibility of apostasy or leaving the faith: conservatives would see this as an abomination 23 The example of Pergas’ stance on secularism given in the previous chapter highlights this distinction.

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while liberals would be comfortable with the notion; the practice of korban or animal sacrifice on the Eidul Adha, where Muslims in the region traditionally slaughter lambs, goats or cows in commemoration of Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Prophet Ishmael in obedience of God’s decree: conservatives see this ritual as part of the faith, whereas liberals view it as not necessary;24 and the issues mentioned before pertaining to divorce, gender roles, and salvific exclusivity.25 From these areas of contestation, one can discern the priorities of liberals: they are concerned with justice, equality and conceptions of human rights that are akin to Western notions. This does not mean that liberals are uncritically accepting of ideas originating in the West. Indeed, many of them also display skepticism toward Western political and economic hegemony. A liberal respondent explains: We adopt causes which mirror our counterparts in the West. Even if they (the ideas) may have begun there, they are universal, which is why we champion them. That does not mean we follow the West blindly. We take only what is good.26

Earlier, a list of leading Muslim progressives round the world was provided. The list is, of course, not exhaustive, but nevertheless, instructive. In Singapore, there are a few individuals who can be described as prominent liberal or progressive thinkers. A good starting point to identify these activists, and the causes they are interested in pursuing, would be the volume, Budi Kritik, edited by Imran Taib and a young researcher, Nurul Fadiah Johari. The book comprises 22 essays by progressives. A collection of provocative essays, most of which can be said to be liberal-leaning, the book has been derided by some conservatives. One conservative activist interviewed described it as an ‘open effort to undermine traditional Islamic values.’27 A mere look at the book’s synopsis gives a glimpse into why conservatives who were aware of the book greeted it with such contempt. Why is it important to imbibe a thinking culture? What can contemporary Malays contribute by way of an active intellectual and social life towards 24 See Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, “The Story of Abraham and Ishmael: A Reassessment,” https://dialogosphere.wordpress.com/2016/09/11/the-story-of-abraham-and-ishmael-areassessment/. Accessed 26 September 2019. 25 This is evident not only from the writings by progressives which I have highlighted earlier, but also my own interviews with them. 26 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019. 27 Interview with conservative activist, 9 September 2019.

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reform and progress? Where are the loci of critical thought in Malay public life? In a revealing book of essays edited by Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib and Nurul Fadiah Johari, writers from various backgrounds – academics, researchers, community organisers, and social activists – offer insights and critical reflections into contemporary Malay society. These essays span wide-ranging fields – from culture to religion, identity to literature, faith to governance – with a shared objective: to promote the will to think and challenge dominant perspectives. By actively engaging in the identification of problems in society, defining and diagnosing them, Budi Kritik offers ways to overcome these problems through deep thinking, cogent analysis, perceptive insights, and an unwavering commitment to lasting peace and progress. This is a necessary and urgent book for anyone asking where the Malay voices are in public discourse.28

The volume purported to ‘challenge dominant perspectives’ on issues related to the Malay community. Naturally, that meant questioning conventional understandings of Islam practised by the community in Singapore. Some of the topics the book delves into include compatibility of human rights with Malay society, Islamic feminism, gender equality, toxic masculinity, inter-faith efforts, the danger of believing in a monolithic ‘true Islam’, and the problem of rising religious conservatism in the region (Taib and Johari 2018). The topics involve some of the key ‘battlegrounds’ between liberals and conservatives. As the book’s editors make clear, the volume intends to question existing understandings of Islamic and Malay practices. The book is also part of a drive to ramp up the culture of intellectualism, which liberals see as necessary to develop a ‘progressive Islam’. Progressive Muslims in Singapore have long embraced the need for intellectual discourse, as evinced by their writings. Of particular interest are publications by The Reading Group which comprises prominent progressive Muslims in Singapore. They have published several books, including Islam, Religion and Progress: Critical Perspectives (Alwee and Taib 2006), and Moral Vision and Social Critique: Selected Essays of Syed Hussein Alatas (Alwee and Taib 2007), and the aforementioned Budi Kritik. The groups holds seminars and reading circles, with the eventual aims of having a ‘critical appreciation of our Muslim intellectual traditions’, engaging ‘contemporary discourses 28 See the synopsis on Ethos Books’ website, https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/ budi-kritik. Accessed 13 September 2019.

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on Islam’, inculcating ‘a diagnostic and re-constructionist thinking’, and addressing ‘Malay intellectual and cultural identity’.29 To say that progressive Muslims have been engaging in, and pushing for, intellectual discourse in the Singapore Muslim community would not be an exaggeration at all. Another useful resource would be the Beyond the Hijab website, a platform for Muslim women to share their stories on ‘their experiences as women reconciling the demands of their religion and the pressures of the modern world.’30 The site does not avoid discussing controversial issues such as divorce in Islam, intra-faith matters, and the problems with the Madrasahs in Singapore, inter alia. From these, one may be able to recognize some of the prominent progressive Muslim activists in Singapore, which include but are not limited to, Imran Taib, Nazry Bahrawi, Azhar Ibrahim Alwee (a lecturer at the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore), Zuby Eusofe (founder of The Healing Circle, a support group for LGBT Muslims), Fadiah Johari, and Diana Rahim, editor of Beyond The Hijab. A point which this section intends to emphasize is that there are real differences in the way progressive and conservative Muslims understand and interpret Islam, and that there exists real antagonism between the two factions, even if this resentment is not at a worrying level nor is it any cause for concern for the state in terms of maintaining societal order. The two groups of activists are also aware of their foils: progressives know exactly who they would potentially annoy when they pursue certain causes, as do conservatives. No doubt, there exist mischaracterizations of each other’s stances on issues, especially when one side holds a nuanced view on a matter. However, generally, these activists are cognizant of not only the presence of the other, but what their preferences and understandings of Islam are. The state did not construct these identities: these leanings are present because of varying interpretations of Islamic texts, and perhaps more crucially, the different methodological approaches to comprehending scripture. It is true that the state, as repeated throughout this book, has a predilection toward the version of Islam that is preferred, which resembles the liberal interpretation more so than the conservative understanding. However, the state did not create these identities. It is an important point to emphasize as it has been a common trope to blame states around the world for politicizing Muslim identities in their bids to retain and expand power (Hashemi and Postel 2017). No doubt, states would always do their best to stay in power, and in the process, may use religious identities to boost their 29 The Reading Group, http://www.thereadinggroup.sg/about.htm. Accessed 26 September 2019. 30 Beyond the Hijab, https://beyondhijab.sg/about/. Accessed 27 September 2019.

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electoral credentials, or even in executing particular agendas. However, while the state tries to construct, deconstruct, define, and redefine Muslim identities, it is vital to acknowledge agency. These ideological differences exist independently of the state. As I have argued earlier, progressive Islam can be said to be the intellectual descendant of Mu’tazilites. A corollary of this argument is that these differences, or at least some variant of them, can be traced to early Islam, and predate the formation of the modern nation-state. Muslim activists subscribe to a particular version of Islam which they find most intellectually compelling and emotionally appealing. Thus, differences between Muslims cannot be said to be simply products of state politicization of identities, even though states most definitely matter in political analyses of Muslim identities. Having discussed the liberal identity and the tensions between this group and the conservatives, it is now timely to talk about how liberals conduct themselves vis-à-vis the state.

5.3 Choosing the Battles to Fight: Playing by the Rules of the Game We know which battles we can win, and which we cannot. Better for us to focus on those which we can win.31

A progressive activist candidly expressed the view articulated above, which is a rather pragmatic enunciation of his/her position. For this person, it is more worthwhile spending time on causes on which may bear fruit, which is why many liberals do not take up the cause of fighting for the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA). For persons who are zealous about personal liberties and freedoms, the ISA stands out as a clear atrocity. For the Singapore state, collective security always outweighs individual liberty, which is why it has no qualms about using the ISA when necessary. For liberals, however, the ISA should affect their sensibilities. However, the situation is such that progressive Muslims almost never openly express their dissatisfaction toward the law, or campaign against it. To be fair to them, even non-Muslim liberals or left-leaning individuals in civil society have never organized sustained resistance toward the draconian law. Therefore, just like other liberals, Muslim progressives have been calculated in their

31 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019.

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approaches, and have studiously avoided championing issues that would earn the wrath of the state. Realizing that political opportunities are constricted in the country, and unlike in a liberal democracy where activists can take up causes which they find salient, progressive Muslims in Singapore choose their battles wisely. In some instances, these Muslims even have no problems working with the state on a close basis. In doing so, they have to either give up, or not place too much emphasis, on what would be considered traditional liberal causes. Professor Chua Beng Huat, one of Singapore’s most eminent intellectuals and a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, remarked in a forum at Yale-NUS that he was disappointed that the liberals did not take up the cause of the abolition of the ISA.32 For progressive Muslims, however, there are other efforts more worth going through the hassle for. Working within the system requires that some ‘liberal’ causes have to take a backseat. The ISA is just one example, albeit a crucial one that highlights not only the difficulties of being an activist in Singapore, but the agency of individuals when faced with constricting choices. It further demonstrates the realpolitik that actors have to deal with. Many progressive Muslims are also not openly critical of the state when it comes to extremely touchy policies. There is one obvious exception, Alfian Sa’at, who is known to be a staunch critic of the PAP government. Alfian pulls no punches in admonishing the state, even on sensitive matters such as the state’s treatment of the Malays. Alfian’s case will be elaborated later. Others are not as brazen, and tend to be more circumspect in their approach. In many ways, the activism of progressive Muslims mirrors that of liberals in Singapore in general. Apart from the few activists who are more willing to take on the state, such as PJ Thum, Kirsten Han, Jolovan Wham – whose examples were mentioned earlier – and a few others, most prefer to either cooperate with the state or challenge it in ways which do not upset the political elites too much. Here, it bears emphasizing that liberals’ unwillingness to pursue certain causes must be analyzed with respect to their ideological preferences. For instance, it would not be fair to discuss an absence of public discourse facilitated by progressive Muslims on the matter of the hijab. Progressives do not champion the hijab cause not because of fear of state reprisal, but because for them, the matter is not important. It would be fair, however, to point out that liberals do not call for the abolition of the ISA, or do not 32 Forum organized by Singapore Undergraduate Research Conference, “Change and Continuity: Capital, Culture, Climate,” 23 August 2019. See https://www.surconference.com/.

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chastise the state for its avowed policy of excluding Muslims from some top positions in the military, since those are issues that progressives are supposed to care about. Additionally, it would not be accurate to say that all liberal Muslims do not say things which would potentially antagonize the state. No doubt, there are progressive activists who castigate the state for some of their policies, even on sensitive issues, from time to time. What is meant when I say that liberals generally do not challenge the state on core issues is that there is no sustained opposition to the government on those fronts, unlike in other areas where they actively mobilize. Clearly, it is not coincidental that these activists are most lively in arenas which are not particularly frowned upon by the state. Here, I will give a few instances in which progressives have chosen to direct their efforts towards. Inter-Faith and Intra-Faith Activities It is no secret that the Singapore state views inter-faith dialogues and activities in an extremely favourable light. The Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), a body founded in 1949 by religious leaders of different faiths with the purpose of fostering social harmony, is supported by the government, and state leaders regularly attend events organized by the IRO.33 The government’s obsession with maintaining racial and religious harmony has been documented earlier, and inter-faith activities are one such avenue to realize that objective. The state is further wary of any potential mobilization based on religion, or any theological divide which could lead to social discontentment. As such, inter-faith dialogues prove to be a worthy cause for support, as far as the government is concerned. To be sure, both conservative and liberal Muslims are involved in inter-faith activities. Many mosques throughout Singapore have events which cater to non-Muslims as well. However, comparatively, progressive Muslims tend to be more involved in inter-faith activities. The aforementioned Imran Taib is one example, as is another young liberal activist, Ashraf Anwar, who is part of the asatizah community. Both are active in the inter-faith circles. Ashraf even attended an Iftar (breaking of fast) session hosted by the Israeli Ambassador, when he gave a short speech on the positive historical relations between Jewish and Islamic communities. Such a move was of course potentially controversial, since Muslim communities typically have a fraught relationship with the state 33 See Inter-Religious Organization website, https://iro.sg/. Accessed 16 September 2019.

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of Israel. Nevertheless, the point here is not to assess whether having an event with the Israeli Ambassador is wise or Islamic: that is for a different discussion. Rather, it is to show that liberal activists are more willing to embrace undertakings which they view as promoting harmony between various groups. Indeed, involvement with inter-faith activism is a cause one would expect liberals to be passionate about. Progressive Muslims are usually concerned with the social values promoted by Islam, rather than the theological facets, and Muslims’ roles in co-existing with other communities. However, the cause cannot be said to be uniquely liberal. Conservative Muslims too are concerned with social cohesion. Perhaps the difference between the two groups when it comes to inter-faith dialogue is in the approach. Conservatives are less willing to compromise on the theological supremacy of Islam: for them, Islam is the right and only true way to God. That does not mean that Muslims should make enemies of those who live around them; Muslims are enjoined to live in peace with their neighbours and friends. However, it does mean that the primacy of Islamic theological beliefs is emphasized by conservatives in a way that is not done by liberals. Progressives are thus more willing to embrace the possibility of salvation existing outside of Islam, as the earlier chapter had discussed. Alami Musa had written that Singaporeans needed to embrace the idea that other faiths ‘can or may lead to salvation’, a point which most conservatives are not ready to concede. It is thus not a surprise to see Alami being heavily involved in inter-faith efforts too, especially given his position as a senior civil servant. The point here is not to say that inter-faith activism is a wholly liberal cause. As already discussed, the passion for inter-faith events is not exclusive to liberals or conservatives. Rather, liberals have become involved in interfaith dialogues to a much greater degree. What perhaps distinguishes the liberals from the conservatives is the formers’ involvement in intra-faith dialogues in Singapore. Progressives have been at the forefront of pushing for acceptance of the Shia and Ahmadi communities by the Sunnis. Again, for progressives, theological differences between Sunnis and Shias are not particularly important, at least not to the extent that it should affect any facet of the relationship between the two groups. In Singapore, there are two main groups of Shias: the Dawoodi Bohras (Ismailis) and the Twelver Shias. The Dawoodi Bohras are a group of Indian Shias who have been in Singapore since the mid-1800s, and have been part of the Singaporean landscape for a long time. In fact, the community’s contributions to nation-building are

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well-known.34 The community comprises about 1000 members, and has a mosque in town, known as Masjid Burhani. There have largely been no tensions between the Sunni community and the Dawoodi Bohras. The Twelver Shias are a more recent addition to the Singapore Muslim community. Many of them either became Shias in the post-1979 era, having been inspired by the Iranian Revolution, or are children of those who did. There seems to be more wariness toward the Twelver Shias on the part of the conservatives. A conservative interviewee says: Dawoodi Bohras have never caused any trouble for Sunnis. The Malay Shias (Twelver) are different. Yes, they have not caused any trouble for us, but in other countries, they can be evangelical. We just need to guard against that here and ensure that Sunni beliefs are not affected.35

Again, the response indicates conservatives’ emphasis on purity, theology and orthodoxy. Even though privately, some conservatives express a mild disapproval, if not caution, toward Twelver Shias, overtly, there has been virtually no Sunni-Shia tension to speak of. This does not mean that no resentment exists between the two sides. One can make a case that the constricting political opportunities and the state’s no-nonsense approach to any religious strife is what prevents anti-Shia or anti-Sunni sentiments from being articulated in the open. A respondent remarks that there ‘is tension between the two (Sunnis and Shias), but there is no opportunity for people to act on those tensions.’36 Liberals are far better-positioned to pursue the cause of intra-faith activism precisely because of their acceptance of various ‘orthodoxies’, or the lack of orthodoxy, and in reality, that is what pans out in Singapore. Inter-faith activists such as those mentioned above and others also tend to be involved in building bridges between the Sunni community and the Shias. The Twelver community has a centre which opened in 2017 under the Jaafari Muslim Association of Singapore (JMAS) which organizes various events and an annual iftar event. JMAS was approved as a registered organization in 1998, and moved to its current location in 2017.37 Often, individuals from the progressive Muslim groups are active participants of these events. A few 34 On 15 October 2015, Straits Times ran an article entitled “Dawoodi Bohra Members who Contributed to Singapore Society.” See https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/dawoodi-bohramembers-who-contributed-to-singapore-society. Accessed 16 September 2019. 35 Interview with conservative activist, 4 October 2019. 36 Interview with Muslim professional, 18 October 2019. 37 See Jaafari Muslim Association of Singapore, https://www.jaafarimuslim.com/about-jmas/ singapore-shia/. Accessed 17 September 2019.

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articles have been written by liberal Muslims, arguing for the acceptance of Shias. Imran Taib writes in one such piece: Today, I will not stay silent when an untruth is spoken against Shi’ism in general. That is the very least that I can do as a fellow Muslim who acknowledges his Shi’a brothers and sisters as belonging to the same ummah. Sectarianism has no place in Singapore, nor anywhere in the world, and I hope more voices will emerge to provide guidance for a new generation of Muslim youths who are trying to make sense of diversity, while remaining vigilant of the rise of extremist discourses that are divisive and promoting a supremacist, exclusivist and monolithic version of Islam.38

Another article in the liberal-leaning Beyond the Hijab website claims: In full-time Madrasahs, the hate Sunnis have for Shias is incredibly prominent. Time and time again they remind us how Shias are astray and are not considered as Muslims until that very exclusivist ideology is embedded in our minds and becomes a part of our beliefs as Muslims. Unfortunately, this ideology has become so widespread in the MalayMuslim community that we dehumanise Shia Muslims. It’s a disease that blinds us from the fact that even scholarly consensus (under the Amman Message) has agreed that Ja’fari and Zaydi Shias are recognised as Muslims, and declaring them as disbelievers or transgressors is impermissible.39

While Amber’s account is perhaps hyperbolic, it is true that many Sunnis find some Shia beliefs to be objectionable, and vice-versa. The more important point to be highlighted here is that liberals are at the forefront of calling for treating Shias as part of the mainstream Muslim community. Conservatives are less involved in such initiatives, because firstly, there exists some apprehension toward legitimizing the beliefs of other sects within Islam, and secondly, because intra-faith events are simply not a priority for them within the context of Singapore. An estimated 5,000 Shias live in the country, which comprises 38 Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, “My Encounters with Shi’ism: The Lessons That I Learnt,” The Muslim Vibe, 21 December 2017. https://themuslimvibe.com/faith-islam/myencounters-with-shiism-the-lessons-that-i-learnt?fbclid=IwAR1Y04FcEbAcwKWqB32ZZo2_ 2u-ZP-OgGdPd3gchT9ldytQP9xyDdGxMsv4. Accessed 17 September 2019. 39 Amber, “I Wanted to Teach Islam in a Madrasah,” beyondhijab.sg, 6 May 2019. https:// beyondhijab.sg/2019/05/06/i-wanted-to-teach-islam-in-a-madrasah/. Accessed 17 September 2019.

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about 1% of the Muslim population. 40 There is no urgency, conservatives believe, for intra-faith rapprochement, especially in the absence of overt Sunni-Shia conflict. For liberals, the cause is important as a matter of principle: minority communities need to be protected, acknowledged and included. An undoubtedly more controversial endeavour embarked on by progressives is activities held with the Ahmadi community. While Shias are generally accepted as Muslims by the Sunnis, Ahmadis are not considered as Muslims. In fact, both mainstream Sunnis and Shias regard Ahmadis as heretics and the Ahmadi belief to be outside of Islam. Differences between the Sunni and Shia creeds have been explained in earlier chapters. What is important to reiterate here is that while there are immense theological and jurisprudential differences between the two major groups, those differences do not undercut the Islamic declaration of faith, which is ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his (final) messenger’. For Ahmadis, however, the same cannot be said. Sunnis and Shias usually consider the Ahmadi creed to be heretical for a couple of reasons: first, they deny Prophet Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets, and second, they allege that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of their faith, was both a Prophet and the Messiah (Burhani 2014, 135-136). Mainstream Muslims find both beliefs to be objectionable. The official fatwa by MUIS is that Ahmadis are not considered Muslim. A fatwa issued in 1969, which has not been rescinded, reads: Based on the beliefs of the Qadiyan as explained above, it is concluded that the Qadiyan (Ahmadiyah) and those who are similar to them are not Muslims and are deviant. This is in line with the fatwas issued by all other Islamic countries, that the Ahmadiyah Qadiyan are not considered to be within the folds of Islam. The bodies of their dead cannot be buried in Muslim burial grounds. 41

Ahmadis number about 300 in Singapore. Again, the numbers are too small for there to be significant Sunni-Ahmadi tension, nor is there any noteworthy discourse in the mainstream Sunni community on the Ahmadis. Conservatives do not seem particularly bothered by the Ahmadis, probably of the miniscule number. However, because conservatives do not consider Ahmadis to be Muslim, there is no impetus to engage in any meaningful 40 Azil Haziq Mahmud, “A Singaporean in Iran: Life in a Shi’ite Seminary,” The Straits Times, 1 January 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/a-singaporean-in-iran-life-in-a-shiiteseminary. Accessed 18 September 2019. 41 Office of the Mufti, MUIS, “Fatwa Decided by the Fatwa Committee of MUIS, 23 June 1969.” https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/OOM/Fatwa/Ahmadiyah-English.pdf. Accessed 18 September 2019.

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dialogue with them. Progressives, on the other hand, find it quite important to dialogue with Ahmadis, as they are a minority sect. A group of liberals have initiated some engagement with the Ahmadi community. Maryam Khan, a progressive activist involved in such efforts, states: Some of my friends are members of the Ahmadi community. Yes, I consider Ahmadis to be Muslim, even though I know many Muslims do not. I think they misunderstand the Ahmadis’ impression of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. They don’t see him as a Prophet. But you know what most of the activists I know are concerned about? To be honest, there is very little debate about theology because Muslims will never agree. But what they focus more on is the protection of a vulnerable minority group. What is important to us, is that we treat them as equals, and don’t treat/see them differently from everybody else. 42

The priorities for progressives are obviously different. As they focus on defending minority rights, they are more likely to pursue the cause of intra-faith activism, even when it involves a group that is considered to be deviant and/or heretical. A point that needs mentioning is that intra-faith activism, while it may be slightly controversial within the Muslim community, is something which is not at all contentious for the state. In fact, it is something the government would be pleased about. The government has explicitly cautioned Muslims against getting embroiled in sectarian divisions which originate in the Middle East, especially the Sunni-Shia divide. Some extremists who were arrested under the ISA in recent years have professed hatred for non-Sunni groups, and the government has in no uncertain terms condemned ‘exclusivist’ religious mindsets.43 The political opportunities in this regard allows progressives to truly act on their liberal ideologies of inclusivity and minority protection. LGBT issues and the Section 377A Debate Perhaps no other issue today demarcates the line between liberal and conservative Muslims in a more explicit manner than the debate on LGBT rights. Like the other Abrahamic faiths, traditionally, Muslim scholars 42 Correspondence with Maryam Khan, progressive activist, 18 September 2019. 43 Lee U-Wen, “PM Lee Urges Muslims to Help Fight Extremism and Self-Radicalisation,” The Business Times, 21 June 2017. https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/ pm-lee-urges-muslims-to-help-fight-extremism-and-self-radicalism. Accessed 18 September 2019.

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have interpreted Islam to be against homosexual relationships and sexual activities (Auda 2015, 24-25). The story of Lot in the Quran, and various Prophetic traditions make it quite explicit, for these ulama, that Islam views gay sexual relations to be impermissible. Conservative Muslims tend to hold on to these opinions of the ulama. Most view homosexual acts as sinful. It is important to note that what the ulama have generally forbidden is acting on homosexual inclinations, just as they have disallowed heterosexuals acting on their sexual desires outside the institution of marriage. That is to say, being attracted to a person of the same gender is not wrong; what is sinful is to act on those attractions in a physical and sexual way. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that at least the overwhelming majority, and in all likelihood the entirety, of the pre-modern ulama believed homosexual acts to be impermissible. All conservative Muslims believe this as well. No doubt, many conservatives conflate the idea of homosexual inclination and homosexual act. Some still espouse the idea that having homosexual inclinations in itself is a sin, which has never been the scholarly view. And undeniably, discrimination toward LGBT individuals exists in Muslim communities, as in many other societies, in spite of the ulama’s constant exhortations to separate the sin from the sinner, and to condemn the sin but love the sinner.44 But at the heart of the issue is not just a conflation of homosexual inclination and homosexual act: even if conservatives do not misunderstand the two and hold a nuanced position, and even if they do treat LGBT individuals with respect and love, the point remains that it is their belief – and the conviction of the vast majority of Muslim scholars past and present – that gay and lesbian sexual relationships are impermissible (Dennerlein 2017). There are differences within the progressive Muslim movement on this particular issue. As mentioned earlier, liberal Muslim intellectual Scott Kugle argues for the acceptance of gay relationships as permissible in Islamic jurisprudence, and calls for a creative reinterpretation of the Quranic story of Lot. Even though the story seems quite obvious in its message to the reader, Kugle writes: The story is really about infidelity and how the Tribe of Lot schemed for ways to reject his Prophethood and his public standing in their community. Same-sex acts were only one of a range of actions that constituted their 44 Pergas released a statement saying that it supports the retention of Section 377A since Islam did not allow homosexual acts, but urged Muslims to treat LGBT individuals with love and compassion. See Pergas media statement released on 19 September 2018, available on its official Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/Pergas.Singapore/posts/2018791921506611. Accessed 19 September 2019.

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infidelity – from murder and robbery (as mentioned in Q. 29:29) to other repugnant acts in their assemblies […] In putting forward this interpretation, gay and lesbian Muslims are not rejecting the whole classical tradition of tafsir, as some opponents have accused. Rather, they renew the tradition by fueling debate, through which the tradition was originally built. (Kugle 2010, 51)

For context, the story of Lot is mentioned numerous times throughout the Quran. The narrative in the Quran shares similar characteristics with the Biblical story, though there are significant differences too, as is the case with all the Prophetic accounts which are shared between the two holy books. In the Quran, the story essentially goes like this: God sends a couple of angels, in the form of human beings to the people of Lot, because they are engaged in wickedness. When the angels come, the people of Lot are still unrepentant. They rejected his message and were subsequently punished by God. For conservatives, the sin in question is engaging in homosexual activities. For people like Kugle, the sin was the rejection of Prophet Lot, and anal rape, not same-sex relations per se. The verses that conservatives point to is found in Chapter 11 of the Quran, verses 77-78: And when our messengers (the angels) came to Lot, he was anguished for them and felt for them great discomfort and said, “This is a trying day.” And his people came hastening to him, and before [this] they had been doing evil deeds. He said, “O my people, these are my daughters; they are purer for you. So fear Allah and do not disgrace me concerning my guests. Is there not among you a man of reason?”45

Conservatives aver that progressives like Kugle are at times practising ‘intellectual gymnastics’ by reinterpreting the Quran in such a radically different way, when the texts show otherwise. A respondent says: The verses are so clear, there is really no way to interpret the story in any other way. If the people of Lot were practicing rape, why was he offering his daughters to them? Was he asking them to rape his daughters? And we have not even gotten into the hadith on homosexuality yet. 46

Again, the purpose of this section is not to assess which position is more intellectually sound or valid from the Islamic perspective. The point is 45 Quran, Chapter 11, Verses 77-78., Sahih International. See https://quran.com/11. 46 Interview with conservative activist, 10 September 2019.

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instead, to show that conservatives take a much more firm stance on the issue of homosexual relationships than liberals, and that the scholarly opinion is indeed in line with conservatives’ interpretation of the matter. Same-sex relations in Islam has been a hot-button issue facing many Western Muslim communities, and increasingly, Muslims in other parts of the world as well. There have been gay imams who have founded mosques in America, Canada, Germany, and elsewhere. 47 To no one’s real surprise, these imams and mosques have been greeted with some level of disdain by conservative Muslims, who view the normalization of gay and lesbian relationships as antithetical to ‘pure’ Islamic teachings. In Singapore, we see a similar battle between the conservatives and progressives, though a nuanced understanding is needed. From the outset, it needs to be said that progressives do not all believe what Kugle argues. There are differences within liberal Muslims themselves on the issue of same-sex relations. Some progressives view gay relationships to be impermissible, based on the text of the Quran, but not lesbian relationships, since these were not mentioned. This group reject the hadiths which seem to prohibit same-sex relations between women.48 Others are like Kugle and believe that traditional stances should be reinterpreted, if not discarded. Zuby Eusofe of The Healing Circle, a progressive Muslim, writes: I read the Story of Lot time and time again. It mentions in both the holy scriptures (Quran and Bible). To me, it wasn’t making sense. Why would God or Allah destroy a whole town or city including women and children if the menfolk were homosexual? If we were to look at the issues, the mortal heterosexual men desired Angels in the guise of men and there were other issues at play too – power, gluttony, control, rape, promiscuity, incest, consent, tests of faith and loyalty to Allah or God, idolatry and worship of deities, intoxication, and amongst other issues, which had no bearings on being gay itself. 49 47 Finbarr Toesland, “Affirming Mosques Help Gay Muslims Reconcile Faith, Sexuality,” NBC News, 2 April 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/affirming-mosques-help-gaymuslims-reconcile-faith-sexuality-n988151. Accessed 8 November 2019. 48 An example of such a hadith is found in the Sunan Abi Dawud: “A man should not look at the private parts of another man, and a woman should not look at the private parts of another woman. A man should not lie with another man without wearing lower garment under one cover, and a woman should not lie with another woman without wearing lower garment under one cover.” See https://sunnah.com/abudawud/33/10. Accessed 19 September 2019. 49 Zuby Eusofe, “Speak Up or Be Forgotten,” The Healing Circle, 24 February 2019. https://www. thehealingcircle.sg/. Accessed 20 September 2019.

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Another group holds on to a jurisprudential position that is more akin to the conservatives, in that Islam does not permit homosexual relations, but is not at all critical of people who are homosexuals. All three groups, however, agree that Section 377A should be repealed as it has no place in a secular state. Section 377A is a colonial relic. It is a law which criminalizes homosexual relations between men, and was a commonwealth legislation inherited by Singapore. In the past decade or so, there has been a vibrant discussion in Singapore society about the existence of the law. Liberals have called for its repeal, while conservatives have lobbied to retain it. The issue attained national prominence in 2007, when a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), Siew Kum Hong, sponsored a petition to repeal Section 377A, sparking a debate in the legislative body (Abdullah 2016b). NMPs are members of parliament who are not elected and do not belong to any political party, but are instead chosen by a Parliamentary Select Committee based on. The PAP introduced the scheme in 1990 in order to diversify parliamentary representation, and to enable talented Singaporeans who may not like to go through the rough and tumble of elections, but still can and want to contribute to Singapore’s governance (Abdullah 2016b). No doubt, the scheme was also an adroit method of co-optation (Rodan 2009). What is significant here is that it was an NMP who raised the issue in Parliament. Interestingly, the parliamentarian who vigorously opposed calls for repeal was Siew’s fellow NMP, Professor Thio Li-Ann. While the PAP MPs were generally reticent and equivocal in the discussion, and the opposition MPs did not even participate, it was the NMPs who took clear stances either in favour of or against repeal (Abdullah 2019a). This is because NMPs do not have to pander to any segment of the electorate, since they are not elected and will not be running for re-election, and can instead voice their conscience. The PAP government has explicitly stated that it will not enforce the law, both in response to the debate and subsequently, and retaining it is merely a symbolic gesture since Singapore society was deemed to be ‘not ready’ for the change. PM Lee Hsien Loong said in 2017 on the government’s position: My personal view is that if I don’t have a problem – this is an uneasy compromise – I’m prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.50 50 He said this in an interview with BBC Hard Talk host, Stephen Sackur. See “Govt Has No Plans to Repeal Section 377a for Now,” Today, 2 March 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/ singapore/govt-has-no-plans-repeal-section-377a-now. Accessed 19 September 2019.

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While retaining the law but not enforcing it does not seem to be congruent with the intent of rule of law and constitutionality, politically, it is an astute move. Through this ‘uneasy’ compromise, the government is able to suff iciently appease both the liberal and conservative factions of society, or at the very least, not antagonize both to a large extent (Abdullah 2019a). It is not surprising at all to find that activism in the LGBT-rights and Section 377A sphere is vibrant. LGBT activists have managed to deftly manoeuvre their way around the political system and have made significant strides. While the topic was considered taboo a couple of decades ago, now, Section 377A is routinely discussed, and perceptions towards LGBT individuals have definitely changed to a significant degree. Lynette Chua argues that the gay lobby has been able to do all of this because they have avoided the politics of confrontation with the state, and have instead engaged in pragmatic resistance (Chua 2014). More importantly, the LGBT lobby has made advancements in this area because the state has allowed for contestations in this matter. Section 377A is not integral to the PAP’s credibility. The party has not built its legitimacy on the protection of individual freedoms; rather, it has always maintained that it should be judged on the ability to deliver security and prosperity to Singapore, both internally and externally. One of the major components of internal security revolves around the multiracialism principle. Here, one can see a contrast between how the government treats criticisms towards its policies on race versus its stance on the LGBT matter. It is more amenable to critiques on the latter as opposed to the former, since its legitimacy is tied to multiracialism (Mauzy and Milne 2002). One can look to an op-ed by Constance Singam, a women’s rights activist, in which she made the bold claim that the state’s decision in 2010 to choose Christian groups as vendors for sex education programs in national schools, and the National Arts Commission’s decision to not fund projects which went against the government’s ‘core values’ were completely wrong. In fact, the article was entitled State’s Decisions a Threat to Secular Society.51 Perhaps the impact of the gay lobby’s efforts is most clearly reflected in the annual Pink Dot event. Pink Dot began in 2009, and is an event which celebrates LGBT individuals and promotes the freedom to love. When it began, the event had about 1,000 attendees; by 2015, more than 20,000 people 51 Constance Singam, “State’s Decisions a Threat to Secular Society,” AWARE, 10 May 2010. https://www.aware.org.sg/2010/05/states-decisions-a-threat-to-secular-society/. Accessed 7 October 2019.

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attended the gathering.52 The tremendous increase is at least partially indicative of how society has moved on this issue. This is not to say that there is widespread acceptance of homosexual relationships: according to a survey in 2018, around 55% of Singaporeans support Section 377A. The same study also showed that around one-third of Singaporeans are more accepting of same-sex relationships than they were five years before.53 The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) released in 2018 showed similar results: while Singapore society generally remains conservative, it is becoming more liberal in its acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships.54 However, it is not just the liberal-leaning activists who have taken advantage of the state’s ambivalence. Conservative activists too have been vocal in expressing their opposition to calls for the repeal of the law, arguing for the sanctity of marriage, the protection of the nuclear family/traditional family unit, and the preservation of conservative values. A particular group of Christians, with Pastor Lawrence Khong as the face of their movement, was one of the earliest groups to express their dissatisfaction toward the gay lobby. The leader of Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC), Khong has been unapologetic about his views on Section 377A and homosexuality. He says in an interview: First of all, I want to very clearly state that I don’t believe in discriminating against anybody in terms of the basic human rights […] And there is a difference between loving people, including homosexuals, and allowing the homosexual lifestyle to become normalised in society. The reason I stand firm on asking that this law not be repealed is that Section 377A is a standard that is written down. The history of many countries tells us that if you remove it, the homosexual community is not going to stop there. They f irst ask for tolerance. Tolerance means: Don’t bully me, don’t make me a criminal. The minute you take that away, they will ask for acceptance, in the form of gay marriage. And then, before long, they 52 Wan Ting Koh, “Pink Dot 2017 Draws Thousands Despite New Restrictions,” Yahoo! News, 1 July 2017. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/pink-dot-2017-draws-thousands-despite-newrestrictions-152411039.html. Accessed 8 November 2019. 53 Gilaine Ng, “55 Per Cent of Singapore Residents Support Section 377A: Ipsos Survey,” The Straits Times, 10 September 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/55-per-cent-ofsingapore-residents-support-section-377a-ipsos-survey. Accessed 20 September 2019. 54 Tham Yuen-C, “Singapore Society Still Largely Conservative But Becoming More Liberal on Gay Rights: IPS Survey,” The Straits Times, 2 May 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/ singapore-society-still-largely-conservative-but-becoming-more-liberal-on-gay-rights-ips. Accessed 20 September 2019.

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will go for celebration of the lifestyle. Singapore does not need to go that way. I do not believe this is good for any society. And I will stand firm because I love my nation very much. This homosexual agenda is being pushed with great aggression. For example, inasmuch as they ask for tolerance, they are some of the most intolerant people that I have ever met. Anytime you disagree with them, you are said to be homophobic, you are said to have made hate speech.55

Khong’s words are extremely prescient as conservative Muslims who oppose Section 377A use almost the exact same language. They argue against the slippery slope of the gay agenda, which would one day lead to a marginalization of religious groups who disagree with homosexuality, while maintaining that they love LGBT individuals. Note that Khong’s disagreement is with the gay lobby, not with the government. In fact, he goes out of his way to say that he loves Singapore. The conservative Muslims’ response to Section 377A will be described in the next chapter. For now, it suffices that both conservatives and liberals are strident in their opposition to and support of Section 377A respectively. In their attempts, both sides do not confront the state, but in fact, court it, and each portrays itself as more worthy of the government’s support. Singapore’s progressive Muslims are involved in efforts to ensure acceptance of the LGBT community and the repeal of Section 377A as well. A few groups which provide support for LGBT Muslims exist, and are run by progressive Muslims. They are: Jejaka, a support group for gay, bisexual and queer Malay-Muslim men;56 The Healing Circle, which provides ‘a safe space for queer Muslims to embrace their sexuality’;57 and Pelindung, another support group for queer people. For the liberals, the protection of LGBT groups is a crucial cause worth fighting for, because these people are at the receiving end of significant discrimination from their fellow Muslims. A Muslim LGBT activist says: I don’t really care about religion. I care more about justice […] Religion plays a powerful role in people’s lives, but like anything with power, it

55 Elgin Toh, “Lawrence Khong: There Are No Ex-Chinese, But There Are Ex-Homosexuals,” AsiaOne, 9 September 2013. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/lawrence-khong-there-areno-ex-chinese-there-are-ex-homosexuals. Accessed 19 September 2019. 56 See their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/JejakaSGR/. Accessed 20 September 2019. 57 See their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pg/thehealingcircle.sg/about/?ref=page_ internal. Accessed 20 September 2019.

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can be weaponized. You see Islam being weaponized against the LGBTQ community.58

The aforementioned Zuby Eusofe, who identif ies as an LGBT Muslim, articulates her own struggle in this regard: Going back to the issue of religious spaces for LGBT muslims here in Singapore, I can simply state that it is difficult for us to be in the mosque and commune in religious congregations with other Muslims as their ‘fear’ leads to discrimination towards LGBT muslims. They have the privilege to be with the rest of the Muslim community who are already a minority in this country. Us LGBT muslims do not have that privilege. We are the minority within the minorities.59

Just as with the general liberal activism on the LGBT issue in Singapore, progressive Muslims have been vigorous in pursuing this cause too. Numerous blog and online posts deal with this matter, and in fact, as alluded to in the earlier chapter, even MUIS’ own report has included the need to be more inclusive of minority groups, including the LGBT community.60 This is precisely because of the discourse that has been generated by liberal non-Muslim and Muslim activists, to the point that the matter cannot be ignored by the ulama and religious organizations. Progressive Muslims have been able to capitalize on the state’s indifference on this matter, and have actively pushed for more acceptance of LGBT Muslims. And as the respective surveys by Ipsos and IPS show, as does the MUIS 50 report, many Singaporeans’ perceptions on LGBT issues have been modified, proving that the efforts of these activists have been fruitful in moving the needle on public opinion. Women’s Issues Another domain in which Muslim progressives have been very active is in the arena of women’s rights. Many Muslim feminists have long been critical of what they view as patriarchal interpretations of Islam. Fatimah Mernissi, 58 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019. 59 Zuby Eusofe, “Mercy to All Creations: The Muslim LGBT’s Dilemma in Religious Spaces,” Beyond the Hijab, 25 October 2018. https://beyondhijab.sg/2018/10/25/mercy-to-all-creationsthe-muslim-lgbts-dilemma-in-religious-spaces/. Accessed 20 September 2019. 60 MUIS (2019), “MUIS50 Conversations”, p. 29. https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/ Corporate-Site/Publications/MUIS50-Conversations-Report.pdf. Accessed 20 September 2019.

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one of the giants of the modern progressive Islam movement, labels some hadiths and aspects of classical Islamic jurisprudence as part of a ‘tradition of misogyny’ (Mernissi 1991, 49-81). In Singapore, liberal Muslims have carried the mantle of their counterparts elsewhere, and devote a significant portion of their activism toward women’s rights. A few main issues have surfaced in the discourse by progressives in this sphere. They are: the issues surrounding the hijab, including whether it is obligatory to wear it in the first place; female circumcision; and domestic abuse, among others. Many progressive Muslims argue that the hijab is not compulsory, and is merely an Arab tradition. Zuby Eusofe’s article entitled The Hijab Syndrome – in which she quotes Fatimah Mernissi – is instructive in this regard, as she enunciates the thoughts of many progressives interviewed. She says that the hijab ‘is a traditional dress that in origin has nothing to do with Islam or any other religion.’61 A liberal Muslim expressed that ‘the hijab is an Arab tradition, not Islamic law. People have misunderstood it.’62 Both Zuby and the respondent’s argument centred about the fact that the Quran did not mention the hijab, and that the verse which Muslim ulama typically use to justify their view that the hijab is mandatory was misunderstood. The verse in question is in the 24th Chapter of the Quran: And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their head-covers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.63

The word for head-covers in Arabic is khumur, the plural for khimar. According to progressives like Zuby, the word does not actually mean head coverings, but instead, is translated as such by Muslim scholars. For her, the khimar can mean ‘a dress, coat, shawl, shirt, blouse, tie or scarf’.64 Apart 61 Zuby Eusofe, “The Hijab Syndrome,” Beyond The Hijab, 5 January 2017. https://beyondhijab. sg/2017/01/05/the-hijab-syndrome/. Accessed 23 September 2019. 62 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019. 63 Quran, Chapter 24, verse 31. Sahih International. https://quran.com/24. 64 Zuby Eusofe, “The Hijab Syndrome,” Beyond The Hijab, 5 January 2017. https://beyondhijab. sg/2017/01/05/the-hijab-syndrome/. Accessed 23 September 2019.

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from the differing interpretation of this word, progressives also do not seem to engage with the hadiths on the subject, which is consistent with their overall approach of hadith scepticism. The official fatwa issued by MUIS is that hijab is indeed obligatory for females, as is the opinion of the vast majority of ulama. One hadith which conservatives point to is the following: Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Messenger of Allah (‫)ﷺ‬ wearing thin clothes. The Messenger of Allah (‫ )ﷺ‬turned his attention from her. He said: O Asma’, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to his face and hands.65

Again, the ‘correct’ Islamic position on the matter is not the subject of contention. Rather, this book suggests that the hijab has been a significant battleground between conservative and progressive Muslims: progressives not only mostly see the hijab as not obligatory, they further see conservatives’ obsession with the matter as an attempt to police the clothing of Muslim women.66 Conservatives view the hijab as a clear obligation given in the Quran and the hadith, and attempts to reinterpret the Quran are symbolic of progressive Islam’s scant regard for authenticity and tradition.67 A similar prism of analysis can be adopted for the issue of female circumcision in Singapore. The practice is still quite prevalent amongst Muslim girls. While erroneously equated to other extreme forms of female genital mutilation, it is quite clear that progressives display disdain toward this particular practice. Filzah Sumartono argues that: Sunat perempuan (female circumcision) is no different from other forms of violence against women. It is just one of the many ways society tries to control the female body, sexuality and being. In our Malay community, we begin the process at infancy. To not see it as a problem is to deny that this is part of a bigger picture of how society condones violence against women and removes women’s rights to live on their own terms.68

65 Hadith in Sunan Abi Daw ud, https://sunnah.com/abudaw ud/34/85. Accessed 23 September 2019. 66 This sentiment was conveyed by multiple liberal activists. 67 This was communicated to me by numerous conservative activists. 68 Filzah Sumartono, “The Problem of Sunat Perempuan,” Beyond The Hijab, 5 February 2016. https://beyondhijab.sg/2016/02/05/the-problem-of-sunat-perempuan/. Accessed 23 September 2019.

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A mother who had her daughter circumcised, however, evidently disagrees with the position: It is just circumcision. Even my sons go through it. I really do not know what the big deal is. It does not affect my daughter at all. She is already a teenager now, and she is healthy.69

However, unlike the LGBT and hijab issues, conservatives are less particular about female circumcision: in fact, there is disagreement between the conservatives themselves on it. This is probably due to the differing opinions which exist in traditional Islamic jurisprudence on the matter, unlike on same-sex relationships and the hijab, which most ulama generally come to a consensus on. Many conservatives interviewed mentioned that they do not believe in female circumcision, nor did they do so for their daughters. One exclaimed: The act (female circumcision) is permanent. Also it can be argued it is one way the ‘patriarchy’ exerts control to subjugate women. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t support feminists at all. Having said that, the (feminist) movement arose because of a lot of zulm (oppression) on women.70

A few other conservatives interviewed said that they do not prescribe it for their family members because there are differing opinions on this matter within Islamic jurisprudence. Thus, the issue of female circumcision is not a huge battleground between progressive and conservative Muslims, since there is more room for agreement, unlike matters pertaining to homosexuality and the hijab. This is the case for domestic abuse too: while progressives are definitely more vocal on the matter, and have sought to highlight cases of domestic violence, conservatives are receptive to such moves, and typically do not oppose the calls for the ulama to condemn such violence. Here, again there is convergence between progressives and conservative Muslims. So far, what we have are essentially the major causes which are picked up by the progressive Muslim faction: inter and intra-faith activism, LGBT rights advocacy, and the protection of women’s rights. These are obviously causes which are in line with liberal values of protection of the vulnerable and marginalized classes in society, the emphasis on justice, tolerance and inclusivity. What is notably missing is activism in 69 Interview with conservative Muslim, 23 September 2019. 70 Interview with conservative activist, 24 September 2019.

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spheres which are typically the arena of progressive activism. The ISA has been discussed a lot in this book, but it is worth repeating since the state considers the ISA as a tool to solve existential problems. Progressive Muslims, like liberals in general, have not taken it upon themselves to pursue the abolition of the act, even though in recent years, those who have been arrested under the ISA have been almost exclusively Muslim. In the words of a liberal activist: We are silent on this because the state silences dissent on security matters. Also, the majority of progressive Muslims are university-educated, and thereafter, they hold jobs in the public sector. This makes it difficult for them to speak on such matters.71

Furthermore, the fact that the ISA has been, since 1988 and the Marxist Conspiracy saga, largely used on Muslim extremists and not on political opponents give a tremendous deal of legitimacy to the law, in the eyes of many Singaporeans. Most Singaporeans, including activists, do not actively champion the abolition because of pragmatic reasons – the fear of state sanction – and also because they do not believe that the law has been significantly abused in recent years (Abdullah 2018c). Progressive activists have also been silent on certain forms of censorship, especially the clamping down on certain Muslim speakers and publications, or in fact, supportive of it at times. In recent years, Mufti Menk has been disallowed from entering Singapore to preach Islam, for reasons which have been detailed in the preceding chapter. Islamic books which have been deemed to be problematic have also been banned. In 2018, three books were regarded by the government to have contained ‘exclusivist or extremist religious views that promote enmity among different religious communities’, and for encouraging a ‘culture of violence’.72 Not all of the three books advocate violence directly, but the concern of the state is that the book would sow elements of discord between the Muslims and other religious communities, by denigrating other faiths. A progressive Muslim interviewed said that he supports the book ban, but the reasons behind the decision must be explained clearly so that the public does not think it is an authoritarian manoeuvre. A couple of others said that Menk is an extremist, and he should not be allowed in Singapore to spread 71 Correspondence with liberal activist, 23 September 2019. 72 “3 Books Banned in Singapore for Having Extremist Religious Views: MCI,” Channel News Asia, 28 November 2018. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/3-books-bannedin-singapore-for-having-extremist-religious-views-10950106. Accessed 24 September 2019.

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his views.73 Interestingly, these progressives do not believe in unfettered protection of freedom of speech. For them, since the books cover dangerous material and since Menk – in their estimation – supports extremist views, they take no issue with the ban. Such a position is arguably not entirely ‘liberal’. Typically, one would expect conservatives to be more pliable to restrictions to free speech, on the basis of protecting public order. Liberals, on the other hand, are expected to defend one’s right to say whatever he/she wishes, no matter how repulsive one may find those comments to be, as long as they do not directly call for violence. The maxim ‘I may disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ comes to mind (Kinne 1943).74 Yet, progressive Muslims in Singapore are either not perturbed by the ban on Menk and the books, or in some cases, even supportive of it. This could be due to a few reasons. First, there may be some realization that on the matters related to security, the state is uncompromising in its approach and activists are pragmatic enough to not rock the boat in such issues. Second, it could be that progressives are fine with the ban because the ones who are affected are not fellow progressive intellectuals, but rather, people who espouse conservative positions like Mufti Menk. One cannot imagine that these progressives would be similarly ambivalent if progressive intellectuals were affected.75 Third, the fact that some liberals support the ban shows that they accept the language of the state when it comes to securitization of certain Muslim expressions of faith (Razak 2019, 424). Progressive Muslims: Not a Monolithic Group In general, it is true that progressive Muslims have not been vocal about the ISA, about the state’s narratives on survival of the nation, and on matters like the ban on people such as Menk. However, it is also crucial to note that the group is not monolithic. There are differences between categories of activists, and highlighting them helps us understand the activist scene better. Two sub-topics will be discussed in this section: first, the difference in approach between the younger progressive Muslims (under the age of 35) and the rest; and second, the case of Alfian Sa’at, arguably the most prominent Muslim dissenter in the country. 73 These sentiments were conveyed through multiple interviews. 74 The quote is often used in defence of free speech. While often misattributed to Voltaire, Kinne (1943) argues that Evelyn Beatrice Hall was the one who coined the phrase. 75 Of course, these progressives would probably say that liberal intellectuals would not spout rhetoric like Menk’s.

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There seems to be some form of generational divide between younger and more senior progressive Muslims. The younger liberals are more willing to be critical of the state on some sensitive issues, namely race. Apart from championing the causes described above pertaining to gender, sexuality and women’s rights, and taking on conservative interpretations of Islam, these progressives are also involved in the wider national discourse on ‘Chinese privilege’. The concept of Chinese Privilege was popularized by Sangeetha Thanapal, an online race activist who is quite well-known. She utilizes the theoretical lens developed by Peggy Mcintosh, who compares the unearned advantages White Americans enjoyed by virtue of their ethnicity to an ‘invisible knapsack’ (Mcintosh 1988). Younger progressive Muslims have displayed more willingness to enter discussions on racial privilege in the country. An article on New Mandala, for instance, identifies the PAP government’s policies as directly responsible for the perpetuation of Chinese privilege.76 Others have been critical of the state’s racial policies on their own social media feed.77 While some of these liberals say they recognize that there is a possibility of them facing state censure – Sangeetha was after all investigated by the police for promoting ‘ill will between races’ with her feisty Facebook posts and was subsequently issued a warning – they believe that the discourses in Singapore have moved to a stage where such open discussions are necessary, the number of people who discuss these issues openly have been increasing, which do not make their views isolated, and thus are not particularly worried about their social media posts. The more ‘seasoned’ progressives, however, are more cautious in their approaches, especially on the matter of race. In the words of a progressive Muslim activist: The new activists lack institutional memory and knowledge. They do not experience what we have gone through, what had been achieved […] They have the enthusiasm, but the grounding in context is lacking […] They do not have deeper reflection on nuances over the issues […] For us (senior progressives), the battle was always about principles and the betterment of the community. It seems to me for them (younger progressives), the politics of the self matters more.78 76 Hydar Saharudin, “Confronting ‘Chinese Privilege’ in Singapore,” The New Mandala, 2 November 2016. https://www.newmandala.org/brief-history-chinese-privilege-singapore/. Accessed 25 September 2019. 77 Interview with liberal activist, 19 August 2019. 78 Interview with liberal activist, 23 September 2019.

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This generational divide is not unique to progressive Muslims in Singapore, quite evidently. It is rather common that younger people believe their predecessors were not bold or brave enough. Nonetheless, it shows the diversity of thought and approaches within the progressive Muslims as well. The case of Alfian Sa’at further bolsters the point of heterogeneity within the liberal Muslim movement. While Alfian is more of a ‘national’ than a community activist, he nonetheless identifies himself as Malay-Muslim (Poon 2016). Alfian is a playwright and engages in provocative critiques of the state, especially when it comes to racial policies. Alfian’s reaction to the Prettipls incident – which generated a national conversation on race and racism in Singapore – was documented in Chapter 4. He was stinging in his critique of the state and even the PAP’s minority MPs, arguing that they conduct ‘overpolicing’ of their own volition and that people who call out racism have ‘the instruments of the state used against them’.79 Alfian even criticized the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew right after the latter’s death in 2015, causing him to receive abuse and even death threats.80 To be sure, Alfian’s is a fascinating case. He has been allowed some space to operate in Singapore, even as he regularly directs plays some of which are obviously critical of the state. At the same time, he has been denied certain opportunities too. In 2003, the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew its funding for a project which Alfian was involved in: he had written an article which the NAC took issue with in the journal which was to be funded. NAC denied that the withdrawal was because of censorship, but rather, ‘funding re-prioritization’.81 Alfian applied to be a relief teacher for the Ministry of Education in 2007, and got denied, in spite of his stellar academic qualifications. MOE did not state why his application was not approved.82 More recently, a programme which was supposed to be taught at Yale-NUS college, a liberal arts tertiary institution, was cancelled. The course was originally entitled “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore”, and was to be led 79 Danisha Hakeem, “ “Penatlah”: Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, on racism and Chinese majoritarianism in Singapore,” The Online Citizen, 2 August 2019. https://www.theonlinecitizen. com/2019/08/02/penatlah-singaporean-playwright-alfian-saat-on-racism-and-chinese-majoritarianism-in-singapore/. Accessed 21 August 2019. 80 Akshita Nanda, “Playwright Alf ian Sa’at Questions LKY’s Legacy,” The Straits Times, 27 March 2015. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/playwright-alf ian-saat-questionslky-legacy. Accessed 25 September 2019. 81 National Library Board, “Alf ian Sa’at,” http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/ SIP_1299_2007-12-26.html. Accessed 25 September 2019. 82 Ibid.

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by Alfian himself.83 Aflian was later criticized in parliament by state elites such as the Minister of Education, Ong Ye Kung.84 Cases like his serve as examples – whether in perception or reality – for other activists, just as the cases of Kirsten Han, PJ Thum, Jolovan Wham, Sangeetha Thanapal and others do. Activists do know that there is a possibility of strong-arm actions toward them if they run afoul of the state. Unlike the other progressive Muslims mentioned earlier, Alfian can be more accurately termed as an activist who happens to be a progressive Muslim, and not a progressive Muslim activist per se. This distinction is made because Alfian’s raison d’être is not causes based on the reinterpretation of Islam per se, but rather, he delves into issues which are of broader national significance (such as authoritarianism, gender, sexuality and racism), and not Muslim-specific subjects. The general assessment of progressive Muslim activism is one which is pragmatic and political opportunities-dependent: liberals are strategic in their championing of issues, and shun discussing and championing causes which, though consistent with their worldviews, may venture beyond the OB markers set by the state. Nevertheless, cases like Alfian and the younger progressives show that there is diversity within this category. Still even Alfian and the rest do not conduct activism through unlawful means, such as organizing demonstrations. Even when they champion causes which may be controversial to the state, they still do it within legal limits.

5.4 Gains Made in the Public Domain Some scholars have described Singapore’s political system in harsh terms, to the point of declaring it a ‘dictatorship’, as mentioned earlier. As such, it becomes difficult to conceive of any form of activism bearing fruit in terms of political outcomes. However, what these authors fail to consider are: 1) the existence of opposition parties who can and do win in free but rather unfair elections; and 2) the presence of activists who have managed to move the state in a different direction on some of its policy positions. 83 Seow Bei Yi, “Yale-NUS Cancels Course on Dissent and Resistance,” The Straits Times, 15 September 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/yale-nus-cancels-courseon-dissent-and-resistance. Accessed 25 September 2019. 84 Ang Hwee Min, “Yale-NUS Course: Schools Should Not Be Misused for Partisan Politics, Says Ong Ye Kung,” Channel News Asia, 7 October 2019. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/ singapore/yale-nus-course-schools-should-not-be-misused-for-partisan-11975994. Accessed 9 October 2019.

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To be sure, I do not claim that activism is free-flowing, that censorship – actual or self-censorship – does not exist, or that the government is always extremely responsive to differing points of view. The analyses so far should make that clear. Rather, what I am proposing is that it is useful to look at Muslim activism through the lens of political opportunities. The fact there are fewer political opportunities for activists in Singapore does not mean that there are no opportunities. Even the political opportunities which exist are different from actor to actor. The last two chapters (4 and 5) have amply demonstrated these points. This section serves to highlight the gains which liberal Muslims have made in the public arena in Singapore. Again, by no means am I suggesting that progressive activism has been an unqualified success, or that most of the causes they champion are eventually accepted by the state and wider society. I am merely postulating that because of the political opportunities available to them which may not be accessible to conservatives in some spheres, progressives have made certain strides. Consider the matter of Section 377A. Just ten years ago, the issue was not even discussed by Muslims, and when the topic of homosexuality was raised, it was mostly done in a way which LGBT individuals found demeaning. Today, the discourse has moved considerably. MUIS’ report mentioned earlier talks about the need for Muslims to be more embracing of the LGBT community.85 This is not to say that LGBT individuals do not encounter discrimination from some Muslims, because they do. The point is that the progressive discourse has helped to move the needle in favour of the LGBT community. Ustaz Irwan Hadi, a Deputy Director at MUIS, said in a public forum: I do not condemn them, but I will say that I do not condone it. I will make this clear. We do not excommunicate, denigrate, or disparage LGBTQ Muslims in our community. We sit down with them to understand the challenges they go through, and the fact that they still want to turn to God – I see it as a positive development.86

It is unclear from Ustaz Irwan’s comments what exactly he does not ‘condone’, since he used the word ‘it’, but the point remains that the conciliatory 85 MUIS (2019), “MUIS50 Conversations”, p. 29. https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/ Corporate-Site/Publications/MUIS50-Conversations-Report.pdf. Accessed 20 September 2019. 86 Jonathan Lee, “Ask Them Anything About Inter-Faith Discourse,” The New Paper, 9 May 2018. https://www.tnp.sg/news/singapore/ask-them-anything-inter-faith-discourse. Accessed 25 September 2019.

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approach he and MUIS take is in line with what has been advocated by progressives. Another example would be the repeal of immunity for marital rape. Women’s rights groups had been campaigning for such a move for a long time, and in 2019, the government announced that the law would change to criminalize marital rape. Minister Shanmugam said that his consultations with Muslim ulama showed that they too believed that marital rape should be disallowed, and the move was indeed subsequently supported by the religious clergy.87 Yet another instance would be when President Halimah Yacob lauded MUIS’ move to include a female into the fatwa council as a permanent member, lauding the step as a ‘progressive and inclusive one.’88 Even more relevant is the state’s overall approach toward the version of Islam it prefers. For the state, Islam as practised in Singapore must be ‘inclusive’, not ‘exclusivist’, ‘tolerant’ and even ‘progressive’. The state frowns upon certain conservative interpretations of Islam, as evinced from the ‘Merry Christmas’ episode. Razak’s careful analysis of seventeen speeches which touched on Muslim identity delivered by government leaders – namely K. Shanmugam, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, Masagos Zulkifli and Amrin Amin – is useful here. The period of study is 2015-2018. She finds that conservative expressions of Muslim faith were securitized, as they were deemed to be exclusivist, and were almost always mentioned in conjunction with extremism. Three characteristics were mentioned specifically: first, the refusal to exchange greetings on others’ religious occasions; second, not eating together with non-Muslims; and third, not wanting to shake hands with members of the opposite gender. Basically, the idea is possessing these traits ‘sets the stage, the framework, the foundation’ for Muslims to become susceptible to radicalization (Razak 2019, 422-423). Thus, the progressive versions of Islam become more palatable to the state in some aspects, from the tolerance of different theological positions in Islam (such as the Shias and Ahmadis) to the desire for Muslims to patronize ‘markets and eating places’ together with other Singaporeans.89 And because of the way that the 87 Kevin Kwang, “Marital Immunity for Rape Set to Be Repealed as Part of Changes to Singapore’s Penal Code,” Channel News Asia, 11 February 2019. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/ singapore/marital-immunity-for-rape-set-to-be-repealed-as-part-of-changes-11229224. Accessed 26 September 2019. 88 “First Woman in Fatwa Committee as Full Member,” The Straits Times, 27 September 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/first-woman-in-fatwa-committee-as-full-member. Accessed 27 September 2019. 89 Prime Minister’s Office Singapore, “Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Written Interview with Berita Harian,” 11 July 2009. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/prime-minister-lee-hsienloongs-written-interview-berita-harian. Accessed 25 September 2019.

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political system is set in place in Singapore, the state’s preferred narrative is often the dominant one. Some progressives challenge this interpretation. They would say that liberal Muslims are still very much on the margins of the community, and have not been able to translate their causes into tangible policy prescriptions. I disagree with such an assessment. At the very least, the state’s prescribed version of Muslim identity is extremely close to what progressives would prefer, in the spheres mentioned above. The emphasis on pluralism, less theological rigidity, and inclusivity of all creeds is welcomed by liberals. Of course, one can make the case that the state’s emphasis on those interpretations of Islam is not a result of progressive discourse and activism. I do not make a causal argument here: it is difficult to properly assess whether the state’s decisions to adopt a harsh approach toward what they view as exclusivist interpretations of Islam as entirely a result of its own predispositions, or if it was influenced – in small part – by liberal discourse. Whatever the cause (s), the end result is that the progressive discourse has come to be dominant, in these few spheres. The changes made to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) further strengthen my argument. Under the proposed amendments, religious leaders will be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny as they are in more influential positions. Acts which are criminalized are when people: a Incite violence on the basis of religion, or against a religious group or its members; b Incite feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility against a religious group; and c Insult the religion or wound the religious feelings of another person. For the latter two, special consideration is given to religious leaders who commit the offence. The government’s rationale is that these members of the clergy exercise greater influence over their faiths’ adherents, and therefore must be more accountable than the ordinary citizen.90 Again, this is a change which progressive Muslims would presumably not be uncomfortable with. For them, Islam is not an ‘exclusive path to God’, even if they believe in the truth of Islam’s message.91 For conservatives, however, they typically believe 90 Ministry of Home Affairs Singapore, “First Reading of Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill,” 2 September 2019. https://www.mha.gov.sg/newsroom/pressrelease/news/first-reading-of-maintenance-of-religious-harmony-(amendment)-bill. Accessed 26 September 2019. 91 Many liberals interview articulated this sentiment.

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in the uniqueness of Islam’s claim to truth. It is amorphous how the changes would be translated in reality. Would a Muslim or Christian preacher who teaches salvific exclusivity be liable to a criminal charge, if members of other faiths are offended at such a message? What about atheists who say publicly that the idea of a God is not rational, as some do,92 causing religious adherents to feel insulted? However the amended legislation pans out in practice, it is evident that progressive Muslims would be more comfortable with these changes than conservatives, because of the differing ways in which they approach religion. The bottom-line here is that, whether the state was influenced by liberalprogressive discourse is irrelevant: what matters is that progressives have gained the upper hand in the arenas which I have described above. The progressive interpretation when it comes to exchanging greetings, shaking hands with the opposite gender, theological tolerance and so on, is congruous with the state’s desired Muslim identity. In fact, in some cases, the conservative interpretation is not only the less-preferred option, it is not an option at all. Conservative interpretations of the faith may be deemed as security threats. In this sense, the Singapore state too, like many others throughout the world (especially in the West), has a ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ narrative (Mamdani 2008). Here, the concept of discursive opportunities discussed earlier becomes relevant too. Liberal ideas have acquired visibility, resonance, and legitimacy, in large part because of state approval of those concepts. The hegemony – institutional and ideological – the state possesses further means that many non-Muslim Singaporeans accept liberal positions as ‘moderate’ and ‘inclusive’ and certain conservative stances as ‘problematic’, even if many members of the Muslim community are conservative themselves.

5.5 Conclusion Much like the ulama, the liberals are not homogenous, and have largely been pursuing their activism within the confines of what is deemed acceptable by the state, with few exceptions. The liberal category though, unlike the other two studied in the book, is the hardest to def ine, as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ Islam is often used in a pejorative way by its 92 See this article, for instance. Melody Zaccheus, Pang Xue Qiang, and Ng Keng Gene, “Youth in Singapore Shunning Religion,” The Straits Times, 21 March 2016. https://www.straitstimes. com/singapore/youth-in-singapore-shunning-religion. Accessed 26 September 2019.

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detractors. Nevertheless, there are real theological, jurisprudential and methodological differences in the way liberals and conservatives approach Islam. These differences are translated in the political sphere, but not in the manner which Indonesia and Malaysia experience. Rather, the state here is by far the most dominant actor, and there is no question of state capture by other entities, especially religious actors. However, the activists operate in the political scene by attempting to affect discourse, and by cooperating with the state, or operating in the realms which the state is not particularly averse to. The liberals have been able to make gains in the public arena because in the state’s attempts to def ine the ‘good Muslim’ and the ‘bad Muslim’, the ‘good Muslim’ is someone who adheres to norms which progressives are supportive of, as long as the state’s core ideologies are not infringed upon. At the same time, because liberals play by the rules of the game, they are not ‘pure’ liberals, and have to be pragmatic or strategic in the causes they pursue. In other words, political opportunities determine liberal activists’ adherence to ‘liberal’ values, and those opportunities have favoured liberal activists more than conservatives in Singapore. The next chapter will deal with conservative activists and juxtapositions with the liberals will be made.

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“Govt Has No Plans to Repeal Section 377a for Now,” Today, 2 March 2017. https://www.todayonline. com/singapore/govt-has-no-plans-repeal-section-377a-now. Accessed 19 September 2019. Hakeem, D. “‘Penatlah’: Singaporean Playwright Alfian Sa’at, on Racism and Chinese Majoritarianism in Singapore,” The Online Citizen, 2 August 2019. https://www.theonlinecitizen. com/2019/08/02/penatlah-singaporean-playwright-alf ian-saat-on-racism-and-chinesemajoritarianism-in-singapore/. Accessed 21 August 2019. Hamayotsu, K. (2002). ‘Islam and Nation Building in Southeast Asia: Malaysia and Indonesia in Comparative Perspective.’ Pacific Affairs, 75(3), 353-375. Hamid, A. F., & Razali, C. H. (2015). ‘The Changing Face of Political Islam in Malaysia in the Era of Najib Razak, 2009-2013.’ Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 30(2), 301-337. Hashemi, N. (2009). Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hashemi, N., & Postel, D. (2017). ‘Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.’ The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 15(3), 1-13. Hoffstaedter, G. (2013). ‘Secular State, Religious Lives: Islam and the State in Malaysia.’ Asian Ethnicity, 14(4), 475-489. Hourani, G. F. (1976). ‘Islamic and Non-Islamic Origins of Mu’tazilite Ethical Rationalism.’ International Journal of Middle East Studies, 7(1), 59-87. Inter-Religious Organization, https://iro.sg/. Accessed 16 September 2019. Jaafari Muslim Association of Singapore, https://www.jaafarimuslim.com/about-jmas/singaporeshia/. Accessed 17 September 2019. Kamali, M. H. (2005). A Textbook of Hadith Studies: Authenticity, Compilation, Classification and Criticism of Hadith. Leicester, United Kingdom: The Islamic Foundation. Karamustafa, A. (2003). ‘Islam: A Civilizational Project in Progress.’ In O. Safi (Ed.), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (pp. 98-110). London: Oneworld. Kersten, C. (2011). Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam. London: Hurst and Co. Kinne, B. (1943). ‘Voltaire Never Said It!’ Modern Language Notes, 58(7), 534-535. Kugle, S. S.-H. (2010). Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: OneWorld. Kurzman, C. (1998). ‘Introduction: Liberal Islam and its Islamic Context.’ In Liberal Islam: A Source Book (pp. 3-26). New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kwang, K. “Marital Immunity for Rape Set to Be Repealed as Part of Changes to Singapore’s Penal Code,” Channel News Asia, 11 February 2019. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/ singapore/marital-immunity-for-rape-set-to-be-repealed-as-part-of-changes-11229224. Accessed 26 September 2019. Lee, J. “Ask Them Anything about Inter-Faith Discourse,” The New Paper, 9 May 2018. https://www. tnp.sg/news/singapore/ask-them-anything-inter-faith-discourse. Accessed 25 September 2019. Lee U. W. “PM Lee Urges Muslims to Help Fight Extremism and Self-Radicalisation,” The Business Times, 21 June 2017. https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/pm-lee-urgesmuslims-to-help-fight-extremism-and-self-radicalism. Accessed 18 September 2019. Mahmud, A. H. “A Singaporean in Iran: Life in a Shi’ite Seminary,” The Straits Times, 1 January 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/a-singaporean-in-iran-life-in-a-shiite-seminary. Accessed 18 September 2019. Mamdani, M. (2008). ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism.’ American Anthropologist, 104(3), 766-775. Massad, J. (2015). Islam in Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press. Mauzy, D. K., & Milne, R. (2002). Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party. London: Routledge.

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Mcintosh, P. (1988). ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.’ In P. S. Rothenburg (Ed.), Race, Class and Gender in the United States (pp. 188-192). New York: Worth Publishers. Menchik, J. (2016). Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism. New York: Cambridge University Press. Mernissi, F. (1991). The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. New York: Addison-Wesley. Muedini, F. (2015). Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote “Mystical Islam” in their Domestic and Foreign Policies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. “First Reading of Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill,” 2 September 2019. https://www.mha.gov.sg/newsroom/press-release/ news/f irst-reading-of-maintenance-of-religious-harmony-(amendment)-bill. Accessed 26 September 2019. MUIS (2019). “MUIS50 Conversations”. https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/Corporate-Site/ Publications/MUIS50-Conversations-Report.pdf. Accessed 20 September 2019. MUIS, Off ice of the Mufti. “Fatwa Decided by the Fatwa Committee of MUIS, 23 June 1969.” https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/OOM/Fatwa/Ahmadiyah-English.pdf. Accessed 18 September 2019. Musa, M. F., & Tan, B. H. (2017). ‘State-Backed Discrimination against Shia Muslims in Malaysia.’ Critical Asian Studies, 49(3), 308-329. Nanda, A. “Playwright Alfian Sa’at Questions LKY’s legacy,” The Straits Times, 27 March 2015. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/playwright-alf ian-saat-questions-lky-legacy. Accessed 25 September 2019. National Library Board, “Alf ian Sa’at,” http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/ SIP_1299_2007-12-26.html. Accessed 25 September 2019. Nevo, J. (1998). ‘Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia.’ Middle Eastern Studies, 34(3), 34-53. Ng, G. “55 Per Cent of Singapore Residents Support Section 377A: Ipsos Survey,” The Straits Times, 10 September 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/55-per-cent-of-singaporeresidents-support-section-377a-ipsos-survey. Accessed 20 September 2019. Ng, K. G., Pang X. Q., Zaccheus, M. “Youth in Singapore shunning Religion,” The Straits Times, 21 March 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/youth-in-singapore-shunningreligion. Accessed 26 September 2019. Nurdin, A. A. (2005). ‘Islam and State: A Study of the Liberal Islamic Network in Indonesia, 1999-2004.’ New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 7(2), 20-39. Poon, A. (2016). ‘Writing Home: Alfian Sa’at and the Politics of Malay Muslim Belonging in Global Multiracial Singapore.’ Interventions, 18(4), 498-511. Prime Minister’s Office Singapore. “Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s written interview with Berita Harian,” 11 July 2009. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/prime-minister-lee-hsienloongs-written-interview-berita-harian. Accessed 25 September 2019. Quran, Sahih International. https://quran.com/ Rahman, F. (2009). Major Themes of the Qur’an (Second ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Razak, M. A. (2019). “‘World-Class Muslims’: Examining the Discursive Construction of a Singapore Muslim Identity.” The Muslim World, 109(3), 417-430. Rodan, G. (2009). “New Modes of Political Participation and Singapore’s Nominated Members of Parliament.” Government & Opposition, 44(4), 438-462. Roy, O. (2007). Secularism Confronts Islam. (G. Holoch, Trans.) New York: Columbia University Press. Safi, O. (Ed.). (2003). Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. London: OneWorld. Saeed, A. (2006). Islamic Thought: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

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Saharudin, H. “Confronting ‘Chinese Privilege’ in Singapore,” The New Mandala, 2 November 2016. https://www.newmandala.org/brief-history-chinese-privilege-singapore/. Accessed 25 September 2019. Schafer, S. (2015). ‘Renegotiating Indonesian Secularism through Debates on Ahmadiyya and Shia.’ Philosophy & Social Criticism, 41(4-5), 497-508. Seow B. Y. “Yale-NUS Cancels Course on Dissent and Resistance,” The Straits Times, 15 September 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/yale-nus-cancels-course-ondissent-and-resistance. Accessed 25 September 2019. Singam, C. “State’s Decisions a Threat to Secular Society,” AWARE, 10 May 2010. https://www. aware.org.sg/2010/05/states-decisions-a-threat-to-secular-society/. Accessed 7 October 2019. Singapore Undergraduate Research Conference, “Change and Continuity: Capital, Culture, Climate,” 23 August 2019. See https://www.surconference.com/. Sirry, M. (2013). ‘Fatwas and their Controversy: The Case of the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI).’ Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 44(1), 100-117. Sumartono, F. “The Problem of Sunat Perempuan,” Beyond The Hijab, 5 February 2016. https:// beyondhijab.sg/2016/02/05/the-problem-of-sunat-perempuan/. Accessed 23 September 2019. Sunnah.com. https://sunnah.com/. Accessed 8 August 2019. Taib, M. I. M. “My Encounters with Shi’ism: The Lessons that I Learnt,” The Muslim Vibe, 21 December 2017. https://themuslimvibe.com/faith-islam/my-encounters-with-shiism-the-lessons-thati-learnt?fbclid=IwAR1Y04FcEbAcwKWqB32ZZo2_2u-ZP-OgGdPd3gchT9ldytQP9xyDdGxMsv4. Accessed 17 September 2019. Taib, M. I. M. “The Story of Abraham and Ishmael: A Reassessment,” https://dialogosphere. wordpress.com/2016/09/11/the-story-of-abraham-and-ishmael-a-reassessment/. Accessed 26 September 2019. Taib, M. I., & Johari, N. F. (Eds.). (2018). Budi Kritik. Singapore: The Literary Centre; The Reading Group. Tham, Y. C. “Singapore Society Still Largely Conservative but Becoming More Liberal on Gay Rights: IPS Survey,” The Straits Times, 2 May 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/ singapore-society-still-largely-conservative-but-becoming-more-liberal-on-gay-rights-ips. Accessed 20 September 2019. The Reading Group, http://www.thereadinggroup.sg/about.htm. Accessed 26 September 2019. Toesland, F. “Aff irming Mosques Help Gay Muslims Reconcile Faith, Sexuality,” NBC News, 2 April 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/aff irming-mosques-help-gaymuslims-reconcile-faith-sexuality-n988151. Accessed 8 November 2019. Toh, E. “Lawrence Khong: There are No Ex-Chinese, but There are Ex-Homosexuals,” AsiaOne, 9 September 2013. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/lawrence-khong-there-are-no-exchinese-there-are-ex-homosexuals. Accessed 19 September 2019. Wan, T. K. “Pink Dot 2017 Draws Thousands Despite New Restrictions,” Yahoo! News, 1 July 2017. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/pink-dot-2017-draws-thousands-despite-new-restrictions-152411039. html. Accessed 8 November 2019. “Woman Leads Controversial US Prayer,” Al-Jazeera, 19 March 2005. https://www.aljazeera.com/ archive/2005/03/200849145527855944.html. Accessed 11 September 2019.

6

The Conservative Dilemma: To Challenge or Accept State Proclamations? Abstract This chapter interrogates the relationships between conservative activists and the state. By now, there is perhaps no need to belabour the point that each category of activists is not homogenous, as the previous chapters have shown. The conservatives are a varied group, with some actively cooperating with the state and others adopting a more pragmatic approach. I argue that just like the ulama and the liberals, conservative activists typically work within the system, even when they disagree with state pronouncements. Unlike the liberals, however, the space is more constricted for conservatives to influence discourse and policy in many areas. The political opportunities for these activists are limited because of the government’s preference for more ‘inclusive’ interpretations of Islam. As in the previous chapters, cases of dissident conservatives are discussed so as to provide a more comprehensive picture of Muslim activism in Singapore. Causes which conservatives champion and duly avoid will be investigated in depth, to comprehend the nexus between political opportunities and activism. Keywords: conservative Muslims, traditionalist, Muslim identity, hijab, Arabization

There have been many policies which the government has pursued which are not the best. The Arabization narrative is clearly wrong. The ‘Merry Christmas’ incident was narrowly understood by the government and their supporters. However, there is a limit to what we can do, what we can oppose. Sometimes, we just have to accept that there are some battles which we cannot win.1 1

Interview with conservative activist, 7 October 2019.

Abdullah, Walid Jumblatt, Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press 2021 doi: 10.5117/9789463724012_ch06

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The above quote – from a conservative activist – mirrors much of the language used by progressive Muslims described in the earlier chapter, even if the issues of concern vary. For liberals, the ‘Arabization’ narrative or the ‘Merry Christmas’ incident are not matters in which they disagree with the state’s stance: in fact, ideologically, they agree with the government’s approach in these matters. Where they do agree with conservatives, however, is in the understanding that there are ‘some battles’ which activists cannot win. The acceptance of the disparity in power between the citizens and the state, and the potential detrimental repercussions of straying beyond acceptable activism, is evident on both sides of the ideological aisle. One key difference between the categories ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is that the former is far less fractious. Many conservative activists are willing to embrace the term, and there is not much ‘baggage’ associated with it, unlike the term ‘liberal’ which is often used to summarily dismiss a person’s argument. Having said that, generally, they do not consider themselves as ‘conservative Muslims,’ but rather, as just ‘Muslims’ or ‘mainstream Muslims’, which will be expounded in the next section. This chapter interrogates the relationships between conservative activists and the state. By now, there is perhaps no need to belabour the point that each category of activists is not homogenous, as the previous chapters have shown. The conservatives are a varied group, with some actively cooperating with the state and others adopting a more pragmatic approach. I argue that just like the ulama and the liberals, conservative activists typically work within the system, even when they disagree with state pronouncements. Unlike the liberals, however, the space is more constricted for conservatives to influence discourse and policy in many areas. The political opportunities for these activists are limited because of the government’s preference for more ‘inclusive’ interpretations of Islam. As in the previous chapters, cases of dissident conservatives will be discussed so as to provide a more comprehensive picture of Muslim activism in Singapore. Causes which conservatives champion and duly avoid will be investigated in depth, to comprehend the nexus between political opportunities and activism.

6.1 Conservative Muslims: Understanding the Category It was mentioned in Chapter 3 that conservatives usually uphold traditions of the ‘ingroup’, place a lot of emphasis on showing respect for

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f igures of authority, which in this case refers to the ulama, and believe in the ‘purity’ of the faith. (Kugler, Jost and Noorbaloochi 2014, 416). It must further be repeated that it is not that liberals do not care about the values conservatives prioritize, or vice-versa. Conservatives value justice, just as liberals do believe in purity and authenticity. However, it is the degree to which one group emphasizes certain principles over others. Furthermore, definitions may differ amongst the two groups. For conservatives, justice may mean ‘putting each thing in its proper place’ (Al-Attas 2015), whereas for liberals, it may mean equality of treatment for every group. Conservatives thus def ine justice and equality in light of authentic traditions, whereas it can be said that liberals ascertain the authenticity of traditions through their understandings of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’. Conservatives differ from liberals in their relationship with Islamic texts and religious authority. Since the liberal position has been described in much detail in the preceding chapter, the conservative stance will be the focus here. They tend to ‘adhere to traditional understandings of jurisprudence, accept the authority of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet, and abide by the religious authority of the ulama as authoritative interpreters of religious scripture’ (Abdullah 2017b, 346). Conservatives are also more protective of the hadith tradition than progressives. A few points are to be emphasized here. Firstly, it was already mentioned earlier that the ulama are mostly conservative, as acknowledged by MUIS too. The focus of this chapter, however, are conservative activists who are not part of the ulama. They tend to be mostly Muslim professionals who are secular-educated. These activists warrant a separate category of analysis since unlike the ulama, they do not have the gravitas of religious authority behind them, which means that both the state and the public may act in a different way toward them. However, they are also theoretically less bounded by affiliation to the state, since they are mostly independent actors. Secondly, a few terms are typically conflated and used interchangeably. These include ‘conservatives’, ‘traditionalists’, and ‘Islamists’. Traditionalists are usually juxtaposed with ‘modernists’ or ‘reformists’. In Southeast Asia, the traditionalist-reformist debate took place in the form of the Kaum Muda-Kaum Tua polemics. The Kaum Muda (New Group) represented the reformists who called for a critical reassessment of Islamic practices, whereas the Kaum Tua referred to the traditionalists who mostly wanted to retain the way Islam manifested itself in Southeast Asia. The debate, which was essentially a Sufi-Salafi divide, concerned itself with who were the rightful heirs to the Prophetic tradition, and whose version of Islam was ‘purer’. It is

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a mistake, however, to conflate the Kaum Muda-Kaum Tua, or Sufi-Salafi, or traditionalist-reformist, cleavage with the liberal-conservative divide. It has been mentioned elsewhere that conservatives comprise both Sufis and Salafis. In fact, most Sufis and Salafis are conservative. While it is true that many liberals draw on Sufism and display little affinity toward Salafis-Wahhabis who tend to be more pedantic, it cannot be said that Sufis are generally liberal. Sufis and Salafis share similar methodological approaches toward ascertaining and understanding Islamic legislation. Many of the conservative activists interviewed for this project were Sufis/ traditionalists, and they displayed some contempt for progressive Muslim ideas. Likewise, liberals direct their frustrations toward both Salafi and traditionalists for their unwillingness to reconsider established Muslim practices. Both Sufis and Salafis accept the authority of the Islamic sources and the ulama, believe in the exclusivity of the truth of the totality of Islam’s message,2 and prioritize authenticity or purity of Islam. Where the two depart is in which ulama they find authoritative (Hassan 2010), as was discussed in Chapter 4. Conservatism encompasses Sufism and Salafism, and in fact, Shi’ism as well.3 The term ‘Islamist’ requires some elaboration. The term is often used interchangeably with ‘fundamentalist’, usually in a pejorative way designed to discredit Islamic movements. The term Islamist is used to denote Muslims with political ambitions, using Islam as a rallying cry (Iqtidar 2011). Tibi defines Islamism as a ‘political ideology based on the politicising of religion for sociopolitical and economic goals in the pursuit of establishing a divine order’ (Tibi 2002, 20). However, the term encounters a few problems as well, as with most definitions. Since it is often accompanied with normative judgments, does it become abhorrent then for a Muslim to have political ambitions, with Islam as a motivating factor? Just as the term ‘liberal Muslim’ is used to delegitimize opponents, the term ‘Islamist’ is used for the same purpose. However, the term can arguably be more malicious since there may be security implications when one is called an Islamist: states may feel more threatened when there is an ‘Islamist threat’, and may adopt all sorts of draconian measures against those who are deemed to be Islamists. In Egypt, for instance, it has been a strategy of successive governments to nullify a political threat by labelling 2 This is not to say that Sufis and Salafis do not believe that other faiths may contain truths in them. Indeed, conservatives generally do think that other religions contain goodness in them. What conservatives believe in, however, is that the totality of Islam’s message is correct, which is not the case for other religions. 3 Just as in the Sunni community, most Shi’ites are conservative, though some are liberal too.

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an individual or organization as an Islamist, or an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood (Abed-Kotob 1995, Campagna 1996, Munson 2001). President Trump vowed to help Egypt leader Al-Sisi fight ‘Islamist militants’ together in 2017, illustrating the instrumental usage of the term, and the equating of Islamism and militancy. 4 Again, these problems do not negate the utility of the term: it is just that more caution needs to be applied when understanding it, especially after knowing what is at stake. Using the definition by Tibi, it is safe to say that there is an absence of Islamists in the political scene in Singapore, as the political opportunities simply do not allow for such an occurrence. People who attempt to pursue a ‘divine order’ via politics would be dealt with by the state in no uncertain terms, as the cases of the JI terrorists have shown. However, this is not to say that activists are not motivated by their faith, or sense of what is right and wrong, as defined by their understanding of Islam. Indeed, unlike the progressives, conservative activists are more likely to hold a particular position because of their deep commitment to enacting their religious beliefs. The outcomes pursuant to this commitment may be similar to what liberals envisage the political-religious scene to be, but the intent is not the same. For instance, conservatives may engage in inter-faith dialogues precisely because of their commitment to peace and harmony in multiracial societies, which is driven by their understanding of Islam; while liberals do the same, but because they believe in the multiplicity of paths to the one true God. As noted by a conservative activist: We do whatever we do because of Islam. The causes we pursue, the ideas we have […] All of these are because of the Islamic worldview.5

This book thus uses the term conservatives, as opposed to ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘Islamist’, because the latter two are accompanied with negative connotations pertaining to security threats. Furthermore, there is no significant movement to replace the secular state with an Islamic polity, which is usually the mark of an Islamist movement. It is true, however, that some progressives refer to conservative activists as ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘Islamists’. ‘Traditionalists’ are a subset of the category conservatives, since as explained earlier, Salafis or non-traditionalists can be conservative too. 4 Steve Holland, “Trump Tells Sisi U.S., Egypt Will Fight Islamist Militants Together,” Reuters, 4 April 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-egypt-idUSKBN1751WT. Accessed 1 October 2019. 5 Interview with conservative activist, 7 October 2019.

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As mentioned earlier, many conservatives do not call themselves that, but are usually more willing to embrace the term. In the words of a few respondents: It is very hard (to define conservative Muslim) because the label doesn’t really fit in our understanding of Muslims. But I often think about what others think is a conservative Muslim, which is one who adheres to mainstream traditional interpretations of Islam, and doesn’t really care much for their acceptance in the non-Muslim world.6 My colleagues tell me I’m very religious, just because they see me going for Friday prayers and fast during Ramadhan.7 Conservative Muslims are practising Muslims. Practising Muslims to the dot. Not cherry picking anything.8

For these three interviewees, the practices which conservative Muslims are associated with are just Islamic, not necessarily conservative. This is why they do not refer to themselves as conservative, even though they do not necessarily vehemently oppose the label. One of them said that while he/she does not use that label, if he/she were to identify himself/herself in those terms, he/she would use ‘conservative’. The first response was interesting as it indicates that some form of siege mentality exists, or at least, that conservatives acknowledge or believe that their understanding of Islam is different from what others would like them to adhere to. Another respondent echoed similar thoughts: Conservative Muslims believe in practising Islam without assimilating into the currently more popular ways to practise it –without state intervention or popular media or Islamophobia – I think that is more true to a traditional form.9

For some, however, the usage of the term ‘conservative’ opens the door toward the acceptance of unorthodox Muslim views as within the spectrum of Islam. 6 7 8 9

Correspondence with conservative activist, 15 September 2019. Correspondence with conservative, 15 September 2019. Correspondence with conservative, 16 September 2019. Correspondence with conservative, 17 September 2019.

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There is no conservative Muslim. Muslim is Muslim.10 Once you assume there is a “conservative Muslim”, that means you can measure religiosity. To that effect, that means there is a spectrum (of Islam) to accept even liberal or LGBT Muslims.11

From these responses, it becomes evident that conservatives are interested in ‘purity’ and orthodoxy more so than progressives. Conservative activists also do define themselves in opposition to progressives, just as the converse is true. It is also true that while undoubtedly, there are liberals-progressives who make caricatures of the conservative set of arguments, by and large, both sets of actors are aware of what is at stake in the issues they discuss and debate. A respondent remarked: It (conservative Muslim) is a term non-Muslims or liberal Muslims use to refer to Muslims who practice their faith religiously. Outsider’s idea of conservative Muslims are those who are pretty strict and still follow “dated” or “backwards” rulings. I am not following anything backwards with regards to religion.12

Another said something similar: I perceive a conservative as someone who generally practises – rituals and adheres to Islamic norms (traditional marriages; no fluidity in gender)13

Ustaz Zhulkiflee Haji Ismail, an alim who has been vocal against the phenomenon of liberal Islam and who passed away recently in 2016, writes: Well, there are some who may label me and my fellow asaatidza as ‘traditional’. We believe that those who are wont to label us may not have understood our concern, may Allah give them guidance […] Let them be reminded that this tradition belongs to Islam and the Muslims. They who styled themselves as ‘liberal & progressive’ who are anti-traditionalist ought to know that they are mere servants (don’t know, servants of

10 11 12 13

Correspondence with conservative activist, 18 September 2019. Correspondence with conservative activist, 18 September 2019. Correspondence with conservative, 16 September 2019. Correspondence with conservative, 17 September 2019.

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whom? They should do muhaasabah),14 and they do not have the right to exchanging our tradition on behalf of Islam and Muslims. To insist in doing so is treachery.15

Ustaz Zhulkiflee’s harsh words, labelling those who insist on discarding the tradition as being treacherous, is reflective of the liberal-conservative divide amongst Muslims, as are the other responses quoted above. Conservatives define themselves in opposition to liberals/progressives, as is the case the other way round too. A Facebook group called “Singapore Muslims against Liberal Islam” regularly posts comments and articles warning against individuals who are deemed to be liberals.16 Many other respondents identified a few traits which they associate with being conservative. These include: paying particular attention to food consumption and eating only at halal-certified eateries; having familyoriented values; defining marriage as a union between male and female and being uncompromising on that; not shaking hands with members of the opposite gender, let alone giving them hugs which is semi-common amongst colleagues and friends in Singapore; inter alia. This is in addition to characteristics and beliefs which have already been explicated in the previous chapter, such as believing in the obligation of putting on the hijab for females, believing in Islam as the ultimate and exclusive path to God; and so on. There is also a misconception on the part of some that conservative Muslims are ‘literalists’. Liberal Islam has been contrasted with ‘Literal Islam’, with the former obviously being celebrated more than the latter (Rahim 2006). However, a clarification is due. Conservatives are not necessarily literalists. It is true that some Salafis-Wahhabis are more literalist than others; however, for other Salafis, and traditionalists-Sufis, to label them as ‘literalist’ would be slightly inaccurate. Traditionalists-Sufis and other Salafis (such as the reformists) do allow for the exercise of ijtihad, or independent reasoning, and do not interpret every single verse in the Quran and Prophetic tradition literally. In fact, one can make the argument that even the staunchest of literalists could never interpret all of the Islamic texts literally (Jackson 2002). Rather, they differ from liberals in this regard on 14 Muhaasabah means self-introspection. 15 See his comments on this website, https://miftahuljannah.forumotion.com/t5-ilm-firstpillar-of-da-wah-lesson-on-adab?f bclid=IwAR2gFO03mzNuVzjmsDClu9mGwEQJqlg94B ac427-UOCewc7cmD1tyOZZFLc. Accessed 9 October 2019. 16 The group is a closed group and has about 2000 members.

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two counts. First, liberals are definitely less literalist than conservatives. The example of Scott Kugle’s reinterpretation of the story of Lot comes to mind. While conservatives are not literalists all the time, they are more careful in construing scripture, whereas liberals/progressives allow for more interpretative leeway. At the same time, even though conservatives believe that figurative and metaphorical language are used in the Quran and hadith, they do believe that some verses can only be interpreted literally. As a respondent noted: Liberals like to say traditionalists are literal all the time. This is obviously not true. The Ashaaris,17 who are the majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia, do not believe in the literal attributes of God. Traditionalist ulama adopt sophisticated modes of tafseer (exegesis), but they accuse us of being simplistic […] But also, some verses are indeed literal, and one reading would prove that. How metaphorical can “you shall not worship a God other than Allah” be?18

Second, conservatives are stricter in ascertaining who can exercise ijtihad. For them, the ulama who are equipped with the tools of religious expertise should be the people who use their independent reasoning to deal with contemporary and modern issues which the classical religious clergy may not have, for instance in the field of biomedical science (stem cell research, cloning inter alia). Liberals are less restrictive in their criteria for determining who can conduct ijtihad. As mentioned earlier, some conservatives shun the term – much like their liberal colleagues – for a couple of reasons. First, the term may be problematic, as it can be used to delegitimize them and their brand of Islam. A ‘conservative Muslim’ may be equated to an ‘Islamist’ or ‘extremist’ by others, and as mentioned earlier, this is not a matter to be taken lightly as it may have real-life detrimental consequences. Chapter 4 had already discussed how conservative expressions of the Muslim faith may be conflated with extremism. Some conservatives lament that their choices and ideas about certain matters are similar to their Jewish and Christian counterparts – for instance, on the traditional family unit – but when 17 The Ash’aris are a theological school within Sunni Islam – which majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia, and perhaps the world – subscribe to Ash’ari thought, which is basically a compromise between Mu’tazilite rationalism and Hanbali literalism, as mentioned in the preceding chapter. 18 Correspondence with conservative activist, 20 September 2019.

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Muslims are referred to as conservatives, the term is accompanied by derision, if not suspicion.19 Second, many conservatives see their practices as mainstream or orthodox Islamic practices, which is why for some of them, there is no need for these ‘labels’.20 Labels are needed for those who are not part of the orthodoxy, and for those who are, the term ‘Muslim’ suffices. Third, the term ‘conservative’ itself can mean different things to different people. A respondent notes: To me, a conservative Muslim is someone who has very traditional views about Islam – no TV, daughters must wear hijab before puberty, someone who wears the niqab.21 So someone way stricter than how I practice. I believe I’m already quite liberal though I have had this discussion with my friends, and they think my family is quite conservative (between liberal and conservative).22

For this respondent, even though she believes in many things that conservatives typically do – and using the definition given earlier, she would be classified as a conservative – she believes that many of her actions are not ‘conservative’ enough. Just like the liberals, there is variation amongst conservatives too: some are more conservative than others.23 Thus, due to all of these factors and potential difficulties, while the term ‘conservative Muslim’ is less contentious than ‘liberal Muslim’, it still requires some nuanced comprehension.

6.2 (Potential) Areas of Clashes with the State As detailed in the previous chapters, the state has a preference toward more ‘inclusive’ expressions of Islam, which at times, can be at odds with certain conservative beliefs. The ‘Merry Christmas’ episode has been described in depth, and will not be repeated here, apart from saying that the incident 19 Correspondence with conservative activist, 29 September 2019. 20 It was mentioned a few times by conservatives that they did not like ‘labels’. This is probably because they regard their version of Islam as the default, and do not see a pressing need for additional descriptors. 21 The niqab is the face veil, which is worn by some female Muslims, although the numbers are rather miniscule. 22 Correspondence with conservative, 1 October 2019. 23 Even though self-identification is important, it is not the defining factor in determining the categories employed in this book.

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demonstrates how conservativism is not only frowned upon in this case, but can be conflated with extremism. Other areas of clashes include the hijab and Imam Nalla incidents, which have also been discussed in Chapter 4, but require more explanation since the centre of attention in that chapter was the ulama, and not the conservative activists per se. Potential areas of disagreement include the state’s stances on certain racial-religious policies or statements which have been made by government leaders will be described below. Hijab Saga The hijab episode, especially the one in 2013, was initiated primarily by activists who operated online. After the discussion was triggered by a question at a public forum, sentiments online spread quickly and soon enough, there was an organic movement which requested that the government reconsider its position. Conservative activists began writing Facebook posts which talked about how allowing the hijab would not affect social harmony whatsoever, but in fact, may even strengthen it since children would be exposed to differing faiths at an earlier stage of their lives; on how Sikh men were allowed to wear the turban and it has not resulted in any form of racial dissatisfaction, and pointed out the seeming double standards that Muslim women were not permitted to do so for some frontline jobs; and how the fears that non-Muslims would be uncomfortable with the act were unfounded.24 For these people, the hijab was a religious obligation that had to be fulf illed, and the state’s unwillingness to budge on its position was troubling. The hijab is of course a common point of disputation between governments and Muslim communities elsewhere too, since the hijab was not only a symbol of commitment to Islam, but for those who opposed it in the West, it was a symbol of oppression of women, or the intrusion of faith into the public arena (Edmunds 2012). In Singapore, the state has never made the claim that the hijab is a repressive symbol, but does invoke the ‘common space’ argument that resembles Western arguments against it. A conservative activist interviewed said: Honestly, how would wearing the hijab change anything? We already have numerous hijabis (hijab-wearing females) in prominent positions.

24 Interviews with multiple hijab activists.

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Our President is a hijabi! Many MPs are as well.25 It is not affecting social cohesion, is it? So why would school-going children wearing the hijab affect anything? Or nurses? Or policewomen?26

Another concurred, saying: For us, the issue is quite simple. We are not asking for a lot, or something which is not possible. We are realistic, and we know what is possible in this country. We are just asking for the tudung. That’s it.27

A Facebook page was started at the height of activism during the 2013-2014 episode, entitled “Singapore Hijab Movement”. Within a week, the page had garnered around 26,000 likes, which is a significant number given the country’s size and political scene (Teo 2019, 150). The page was mysteriously shut down soon after. Nevertheless, the conversations kept going online and activists continued to pursue the matter. It is worth iterating that the activism took place largely online, simply because the political space was restrictive for this issue. The state jealously guards its authority as the arbiter on all racial and religious affairs (Tan 2016, Velayutham 2017). The mainstream media is largely government-aligned, and self-censorship is widespread amongst journalists, such that discussions on politically sensitive matters are not abound in newspapers and the TV channels (George 2012). As discussed earlier, the ulama were not involved too much in the online conversations, with a few exceptions, but many were privately supportive of the cause, according to the activists interviewed. In fact, Mufti Fatris Bakaram wrote a lengthy Facebook note in which he said the Muslim community essentially shared the same goal of wanting its adherents to be given the opportunity to don the hijab in these jobs.28 In the same note, however, 25 For the record, in the previous Parliament, there were two hijab-wearing MPs: Dr. Intan Azura and Ms Rahayu Mahzam. Rahayu is still an MP while Intan is not. 26 Interview with conservative activist, 1 October 2019. 27 Interview with conservative activist, 2 October 2019. 28 See his Facebook Note, “Isu Tudung dan Media Sosial: Membela Maruah dengan Memijak Maruah? (The Tudung Issue and Social Media: Defending Honour by Trampling on Honour?”, 28 October 2013. https://www.facebook.com/notes/fatris-bakaram/isu-tudung-dan-media-sosialmembela-maruah-dengan-memijak-maruah/10151948546233480/?fref=mentions&__xts__[0]=68. ARD-4hUmWtXSBDbOdq-hn6PoDBnH_MesH_vozhhaZcf6YgGll0kvUuMWlFOTkiZ6mAN4BTGh9_aqatqcMZNwrZT5L8nuO20PG_iQBdCNViSh-q52I6KlVBCPhRqxwUKHqhsMsVmmDsqm8Ki1RsOT3dHRcAV6uTc1ATLwH3s9Pl-o8DYQGqtvWH7_lSfLAHMgf8hHv83boXHokppN8kGmN8HT_RcKHmjWgg1OB4e_5hCWnXQLddiBBxUU1-BBhd4pLPKbOt08-OonWFeCVDi2RlvjbdhdzlJKu_cQCTWkrhlwQq6Fdmybe9_o4w544M0qQqg&__tn__=K-R. Accessed 2 October 2019.

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he began chastising activists who had displayed rude and unbecoming attitudes towards his predecessor, Shaykh Isa.29 Although his piece was basically supporting the hijab cause, the fact that it began with such a castigation meant that the message was lost on some people; indeed, media outlets picked up on the first part of the note more than the second. One such headline in a mainstream media outlet covering Dr. Fatris’ note was entitled Mufti Criticises Online Vitriol over Tudung Issue.30 The piece of course did not highlight his actual support for the cause. The state responded publicly to the online demands, demonstrating its cautious approach toward anything religion-related, and simultaneously, its recognition of the groundswell associated with the movement. MP Zaqy Mohamad took issue with the online petition on the hijab, saying that it permitted fake e-mail addresses to be used.31 Zaqy was of course conveniently ignoring the numerous people who actually used their real accounts to champion the issue, and did not really address the demands properly, choosing instead to cast aspersions on the online petition. The fact that this was not the first time the matter was raised was further not acknowledged by him. Then-Minister of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim claimed that it was ‘problematic’ to allow the hijab for some jobs, especially in the uniformed groups.32 Then-Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that ‘every community, when it presses for its own concerns, must bear in mind how that affects other communities and how others might see it… That is the reality of living in a multiracial, multi-religious society that we all have to internalise.’33 Citing the example of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not believe in National 29 Some of those activists had labelled Shaykh Isa a ‘stooge’ or a ‘sell-out’ for not pushing the matter with the government during his time as Mufti, and brought up the 2002 incident in which he had said seeking knowledge was more of an obligation than covering the aurah. This was after Shaykh Isa gave an interview to Berita Harian which seemed to indicate he was not fully supportive of the online movement. See “Mufti Raps Netizens over Tudung Issue,” AsiaOne, 30 October 2013. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/mufti-raps-netizens-over-tudung-issue. Accessed 2 October 2019. 30 Tham Yuen-C, “Mufti criticises online vitriol over tudung issue,” The Straits Times, 29 October 2013. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mufti-criticises-online-vitriol-over-tudungissue. Accessed 2 October 2019. 31 Ibid. 32 Robin Chan, “Personal attacks on Muslim leaders over hijab issue uncalled for: Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim,” The Straits Times, 31 October 2013. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ personal-attacks-on-muslim-leaders-over-hijab-issue-uncalled-for-dr-yaacob-ibrahim. Accessed 2 October 2019. 33 Kok Xing Hui, “Hijab Issue: Govt Must ‘Balance Community Requirements’,” Today, 6 November 2013. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/hijab-issue-govt-must-balancecommunity-requirements. Accessed 2 October 2019.

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Service because they do not want to carry weapons, MP Zainal Sapari argued that ‘We cannot underestimate […] that other religious groups might make similar demands if the Government were to give leeway to the requests of a particular community.’34 The government’s arguments were premised upon a few notions: the ‘common space’ must be protected; if the government acquiesced to Muslim demands it would have to do so for others, and the door would never be shut for religious communities to pressure the government; and that other communities may view Muslims to be too aggressive in their demands, causing tensions between the various faith-groups. Conservative activists were not particularly assuaged by the explanations of government leaders. The President of the Fellowship of Muslim Students Association (FMSA), Hairudin Hamid, responded: However, we feel, respectfully, the comments did not explain the reason (justifying) the Government’s view that a change of policy (would) affect overall social harmony, which is being implied. In our statement (on Monday), we explained that there is much evidence in other advanced societies to show that allowing Muslim girls to wear the tudung […] does not affect integration and social cohesiveness. And, in the case of nurses, who don the hijab in Western countries […] they are able to perform their (duties) professionally […] The Muslim community deserves a more open and objective explanation and we appeal again for the Government to allow for a forum to discuss this matter directly and openly.35

Others continued to ask questions on how allowing the hijab to be worn would open the door to requests from other communities, as MP Zainal Sapari asserted, and enquired as to what these demands are. Even after the Prime Minister personally held a dialogue with 100 selected representatives of the community, the issue did not die down immediately. Online activists continued to pursue the matter. This is not unexpected. Of the 100 representatives chosen to engage with the PM, none of them were amongst the vocal online activists. A dialogue which excluded them would not have abated their dissatisfaction, but in fact may have accentuated it. As noted by one of these activists: If they (the government) was sincere in understanding the matter, they should have gotten people who were going to give a different viewpoint. 34 Ibid. 35 Ibid.

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Instead, they selected the Muslim “representatives”. Well, they do not represent me […] How do I know it was not an echo chamber in there?36

After the Singapore Hijab Movement page disappeared, other similar pages such as I Want Hijab, Embrace Hijab, World Hijab Day Singapore and others popped up, demonstrating that the issue remained a sore point of contention between some Muslims and the government. Aljunied likens the online hijab activism to movements elsewhere, especially the ‘velvet jihadists’ talked about by Shirazi, as they believe that ‘agitating for women’s rights is a step towards widening the scope of cosmopolitanism in a society.’ (Shirazi 2009, Aljunied 2017, 121) An activist says: The hijab is a garment that is a part of a Muslim woman and how she feels wearing it is only for herself. Not people to tell her how she should feel. A woman should have all the freedom on what she wants to wear, not to be dictated by men or society […] Have you seen Mendaki award presentations? So many of those smart girls are wearing hijab and what is going to happen to them if they are denied of jobs? Isn’t that a waste to our motherland, Singapore?37

The hijab episode reveals many things about the nature of Muslim activism. Firstly, as to be expected, liberals or progressive Muslims were not generally involved in the championing of the hijab cause. For progressives, the hijab is not the most important aspect of a Muslim’s existence, and in fact, many of them criticize the conservative obsession with the hijab. Additionally, some of them do not even consider the donning of the hijab to be compulsory for female Muslims. Secondly, from the strategies and rhetoric of the activists, it is manifest that they utilize language which invokes state symbols, displaying their eagerness to portray themselves as good citizens and the cause as in line with national interests. Conservative activists changed their Facebook profile picture to a silhouette of a lady wearing a hijab which bore the colours of the national flag (Abdullah 2016c, 219). The quote by a hijab activist given earlier, where he/she talks about benefits to the ‘motherland’ further typifies this point. Thirdly, the state was quick to react to online sentiments on the issue, underscoring the gravity of religious dissatisfaction, if kept unchecked, in the government’s eyes. Its interventionist approach was apparent from the outset. Not only did government leaders such as 36 Interview with conservative activist, 1 October 2019. 37 Correspondence with conservative activist, 15 October 2019.

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Zaqy try to delegitimize the online petition, they simultaneously engaged with community leaders in a bid to mitigate the visible discontent. While the statement from PM Lee which said that the government’s stance was ‘evolving’ was perhaps amorphous,38 if not evasive, it still represented an attempt by the government to quell any form of religious disgruntlement, through dialogue and persuasion. Interestingly, the state’s approach is to engage with the community through its selected leaders, ignoring the heterogeneous nature of the Muslims in Singapore. Since Muslims did not elect these individuals, there is no guarantee that Muslim leaders, as anointed by the state, are truly representative of the varying aspirations of a diverse collection of Muslims. Most importantly, what this incident demonstrates is that in spite of the constricting political opportunities, space still exists for some dissent, especially when it occurs in such an organic manner. The 2002 episode described in Chapter 4 was different as a leader, Zulfikar Shariff, was identified, and subsequently vilified, putting a temporary halt to the activism on the hijab issue. After such a stern admonition from the state, the message was abundantly clear that the state was not going to let activism in this sphere go unchecked. When the matter resurfaced in 2013, however, the online movement was leaderless, and therefore it was doubly difficult for any punitive action to be taken toward the activists. However, the drawback of such activism is that without proper leaders, there is a tendency for the demands to be disparate and unsustainable, as people’s interest in the matter fizzles out. That is essentially what happened here. After a while, activism on the matter died down. The attention span of activists, in this age of instant gratification, and a 24-hours news cycle where focus shifts from one story to another in a heartbeat, is not easily maintained. Lupia discusses the problems of attracting and maintaining the attention of citizens for political issues, since ‘human attentive capacity is extraordinarily limited’ (Lupia 2016, 66). I argue that the problem is made more acute when activism does not yield immediate reward, and people become either discouraged or more ambivalent toward it, as is the case in the hijab issue. It becomes easy for people who champion a cause to adopt a defeatist attitude when they do not see their efforts bearing fruit. The phrase ‘what is the point’ was commonly heard in conversations with conservatives who believe that the hijab should be allowed for frontline positions, but simply did not see the state budging on its stance. Furthermore, the ulama were not as vociferous as 38 Amir Hussain, “Govt’s Stance on Tudung Issue Evolving, says PM Lee,” Today, 25 January 2014. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/govts-stance-tudung-issue-evolving-says-pm-lee. Accessed 2 October 2019.

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they were during the first incident, and without the support of the religious leadership, it was even more tenuous for the movement. It is important to recall that the first hijab incident drew active interest and support from Pergas, and thus the activists had significant religious legitimacy lent to their cause. A hijab activist comments: I think right now the tudung issue is dead. The only way for it to happen is if something significant changes in the political scene, which I doubt it will […] Many of us (Muslims) are still government supporters.39

To say that the issue is ‘dead’ is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, since it is likely that as long as the matter remains unresolved, it would be raised from time to time, depending on critical occurrences. Opposition MP Faisal Manap’s raising of the issue in Parliament described earlier, which drew Minister Masagos’ unyielding refutation, represents one such occasion. Nonetheless, the activist’s point is valid in that sustained activism on the hijab is difficult to achieve for reasons mentioned above. The difficulties of maintaining activism here are associated with the problems of Collective Action, where each person’s rational behaviour prevents him/her from participating in collective action which would have benefitted everyone. In the absence of selective incentives or disincentives, and/or leaders who could rouse people toward a cause, collective action becomes unlikely (Oliver 1980, Muller and Opp 1986, Tee, Paulsen and Ashkanasy 2013). Imam Nalla Episode The Imam Nalla incident was another signif icant point of contention between conservative activists and the state, though the dynamics were slightly different as compared to the hijab episode. In the latter, government leaders sent mixed signals, wavering between understanding that the hijab was a genuine concern for Muslims, and taking issue with the way the demand was articulated. For the Imam Nalla episode, however, the state was unequivocal on the unacceptable nature of the Imam’s prayers. The fate of Associate Professor Khairudin Aljunied, a prominent conservative Muslim intellectual, has already been discussed in Chapter 4. Even though he was let off with a warning by the police, and his position at NUS was reinstated, the fact that he was investigated by the police and named in Parliament as a provocateur made many conservatives upset. It was documented earlier 39 Correspondence with conservative activist, 2 October 2019.

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that Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim acknowledged many Muslims felt troubled by the episode. Khairudin’s satirical post was ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ by many people, giving credence to Yaacob’s observation. 40 An activist interviewed said: I feel that Dr. Khairudin was treated unfairly. He was merely pointing out that many Muslims who heard the Imam’s du’a (supplication) did not interpret it as a command to hate others. Which is true! I think he was misunderstood. 41

After investigations began on Khairudin’s Facebook post, conservative activists online displayed much more circumspection. There was no massive uproar, nor was there any significant criticism toward the state or discussions on whether the government’s call was the right one. Unlike the hijab episode, this incident directly involved the nation’s security and well-being, or so it was said. The state was not willing to budge on its strong-arm approach toward any potential threats to social harmony, which in its estimation, the Imam’s supplication palpably was. Conservative activists realized that the stakes were different this time round. An activist said: I was active during the hijab incident. But for Khairudin, I just kept quiet. I knew that the government had already decided […] Khairudin was investigated by the police, so it is very different. 42

Another agreed: He (Khairudin) did not receive the support from the community because of a confluence of factors. First, the issue can be linked to racial harmony, violence, and of course terrorism. Second, the Minister chastised him. As a community, we are averse to going against what a minister said. 43

The nature of the issues, and the manner in which the government reacted to both, determined the responses from conservative activists. When it was evident that the state was ready to wield its stick, conservative reactions were more measured, or even non-existent. Again, political opportunities 40 He subsequently removed his Facebook account, which is why the exact numbers cannot be ascertained. However, I did closely follow the episode and saw his note gaining traction online. 41 Correspondence with conservative activist, 2 October 2019. 42 Interview with conservative activist, 1 October 2019. 43 Correspondence with conservative activist, 3 October 2019.

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matter most in determining, and perhaps predicting, activism; and not a person’s ideological convictions. While the conservative activist may have been equally passionate about the right to wear the hijab for Muslim women and the right of Khairudin to articulate his displeasure at the person who uploaded the video of the Imam’s supplication, the former was a cause that was far easier to champion, whereas the latter was thornier. The support Khairudin did not receive in this incident can be contrasted with another incident, in which Khairudin was again the main protagonist, which will be discussed later. In the latter, conservative activists rallied behind Khairudin in large numbers, including the ones quoted above. In a sense, the state had drawn the boundaries of acceptable activism via the rhetoric it employed. When Khairudin was singled out in Parliament by name, and his actions were deemed unacceptable, conservatives knew precisely where the state stood, and what it was willing to tolerate or otherwise. Merry Christmas: To Wish or not To Wish? The jurisprudential opinions of the ulama on greeting others on their religious occasions have been discussed earlier. To summarize, there are differing opinions on the permissibility of such an act. In fact, a few decades ago, one could perhaps safely say that the majority opinion amongst the ulama was that such greetings were not permissible. However, in today’s environment where religious pluralism is expected to be the norm and exclusivity is discouraged, especially in a context like Singapore’s, the ulama have revisited the issue and updated their guidelines. Nonetheless, there remain some who are adamant that Islam does not permit the exchanging of greetings. Note that the ulama who forbid giving such greetings do not claim that Muslims cannot be nice to their neighbours and friends, or should not respect them; rather, the debate is about the precise wording of the greetings. Mufti Menk said Muslims should replace the term ‘Merry Christmas’ with ‘Happy Holidays’. The idea propounded by these individuals is that wishing Christians ‘Merry Christmas’ would be tantamount to tacitly accepting that Jesus is the son of God, a belief which Islam fundamentally rejects. A conservative activist concurs: The Quran says that the heavens and earth is almost rent asunder because of the enormity of what they claim: that Allah has a son. I feel that is a strong enough reason not to acknowledge the kufr (disbelief). 44 What is 44 The respondent is referring to the final few verses of the 19th Chapter of the Quran, which is incidentally entitled the Chapter of Mary (mother of Jesus), where God rebukes the belief

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wrong with (saying) Season Greetings? But this issue is probably one where there is genuine khilaf (disagreement amongst the scholars). I will try my best not to wish it. But I would not criticise a Muslim who does that. 45

For this person, the problem was not that other Muslims were wishing Christians ‘Merry Christmas’; even though he personally did not believe in doing so, he had no problems if other Muslims wanted to. The problem was that it was considered to be wrong to not exchange greetings with others. Another activist said something along similar lines: The main issue the government telling us what is okay and what is not […] and Muslims not respecting that there are differences in opinions on that matter […] The Minister gave the impression that it was either their way or the highway. And to even say that there are multiple views in Islam with regard to this would be challenging the government because of the way they have set up the discourse in public. That is why many people who disagreed with the stance remained silent too. 46

Remarkably, this activist actually says ‘Merry Christmas’ to his/her Christian friends, and subscribes to the opinion that it is permissible to do so. The problem he/she had with the government’s approach was that people who did not agree were branded as exclusivists. This person also identified the reason why many in the community did not dissent with the narrative. Their perception was that the government had taken a decidedly clear and forceful stance, which was non-negotiable. Another respondent interviewed sarcastically quipped that the government had issued a fatwa on the matter, closing the door to any contestation. The activist further adds: Do you really think people had a choice to disagree, once the government had linked this (not wishing others) to extremist tendencies?47

that He has a son in the harshest terms. The verses in question are from 88-93, which can be translated as: ‘And they say, the Most Merciful has taken (for Himself) a son. You have done an atrocious thing. The heavens almost rupture therefrom and the earth split open and the mountains collapse in devastation. That they attribute to the Most Merciful a son. And it is not appropriate for the Most Merciful that He should take a son. There is no one in the heavens and earth but that he comes to the Most Merciful as a servant.’ See Quran, Sahih International. 45 Correspondence with conservative activist, 3 October 2019. 46 Correspondence with conservative activist, 14 October 2019. 47 Interview with conservative activist, 1 November 2019.

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As these responses and that of the ulama explained in Chapter 4 show, there were conservatives who were not on board with the government’s stand. However, many of them chose not to say anything in public, out of fear that a counter-narrative was not acceptable. These individuals did not have the backing of organizations such as Pergas, and thus felt they were not in a position to go against the state. The matter in question was, rightly or wrongly, linked to extremism, which made it much harder for dissent to be openly expressed. Conservatives were unsure if they would themselves be labelled as ‘extremists’ if they were to challenge the state’s narrative. This response is similar to the Imam Nalla incident. In both cases, where ‘security’ and ‘harmony’ were invoked to an extent which is not always seen, the political opportunities for contrarian views were exponentially reduced. Conservatives have to then keep their preferences to themselves, and not act on them in public. In other words, they could not have been overtly conservative in these instances. The nature of their ‘conservatism’ had to be moulded by the political realities: conservative activists could be conservative if, and only if, the state allowed it.

6.3 Strategic Advance and Retreat of Conservatives: Pragmatism in Practice Moving on from the previous section, I will now discuss the areas in which conservatives have shown resolve in championing issues which they hold dear, and at the same time, deftness in avoiding topics which they otherwise would have liked to discuss. Some of these decisions have already been touched on in the preceding section, but will be made more explicit. First, however, a discussion on the conservative response to the LGBT rights and Section 377A debate is due. LGBT issues and the Section 377A Debate It was said earlier that the topic of homosexuality has quite possibly become the defining debate between liberal and conservative Muslims. Even non-Muslim societies outside the Western world grapple with the issue of homosexuality. Asian countries such as India and Taiwan have made strides in the realm of LGBT acceptance: India decriminalized gay sex in via a Supreme Court ruling,48 whereas Taiwan’s parliament passed a bill allowing 48 “India Court Legalises Gay Sex in Landmark Ruling,” BBC News, 6 September 2018. https:// www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-45429664. Accessed 4 October 2019.

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gay marriage.49 Both decisions did not come about without opposition from within the countries, however, showing just how contentious the issue can be. In many other countries, the topic of gay marriage and LGBT rights still evokes strong sentiments, as various forms of justifications based on religious and cultural values are invoked to oppose liberal activism. In Muslim societies, the debate on this matter is probably even more intense, since there is scholarly consensus by the ulama on the impermissibility of gay relationships. Modern thinkers and progressive activists of course challenge this opinion in multiple ways, as already discussed. Conservative Muslims find the efforts by progressives to redefine traditional Islamic jurisprudence in this regard as simply intolerable. An activist commented: You know, our ulama disagree on so many things. It is quite difficult to get ijma’ (scholarly consensus) on Islamic rulings, except for instances in which the evidences are crystal-clear. And there is ijma’ on the topic of same-sex relationships.50

This view was shared by many respondents, in terms of how they saw the topic of gay relationships as one on which there is little ambiguity. For them, resistance toward established rulings on the matter represented something alien: an attempt to discard the Islamic tradition entirely. The genesis of the Section 377A and LGBT debate in Singapore was discussed in detail in the previous chapter, and does not need repeating. What is necessary here is to detail the conservative Muslim response to the issue, and place it within the understanding of political opportunities. As previously stated, the initial backlash to the push for LGBT acceptance came from conservative Christians, such as Professor Thio Li-Ann who expressed her view in Parliament as a Nominated MP, and from churches and pastors such as Lawrence Khong. Thio was cacophonous in her description of homosexuality saying: Anal-penetrative sex is inherently damaging to the body and a misuse of organs, like shoving a straw up your nose to drink […] Opposite-sex sodomy is harmful, but medical studies indicate that same-sex sodomy carries a higher price tag for society because of higher promiscuity and frequency levels […] 377A serves public morality; the argument from 49 “Taiwan Gay Marriage: Parliament Legalises Same-Sex Unions,” BBC News, 17 May 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48305708. Accessed 4 October 2019. 50 Correspondence with conservative activist, 14 October 2019.

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community reminds us we share a way of life which gives legal expression to the moral repugnancy of homosexuality.51

The argument put forth by Thio was based on the premise of both the immorality of homosexuality, and its consequences for public health. That is to say, conservatives opposed repealing Section 377A for both moral and instrumental reasons. Khong’s thoughts on the subject were documented previously. A point to note here is that conservative Muslim activists were not really involved in the public discussions in the early days of the public discourse, and instead, left the pushback to their Christian counterparts. That situation changed in February 2014 when Associate Professor Khairudin Aljunied was embroiled in a controversy regarding a Facebook post he made entitled “Liberal Islam, Lesbianism, and the Likes of It.” Being a Muslim professor at the country’s top university, Khairudin had amassed quite a following in the Muslim community, especially among the more conservative/ traditionalist Muslims.52 He had, up to this point, been regularly invited to give talks at mosques or Muslim organizations. Khairudin had a website, ‘Deen Revival’, which purported to share ‘his reflections on the history and social life of Muslims to help us Reflect, Rejuvenate and Reform our way of life.’53 The Facebook post which generated the controversy in 2014 reads: Question: Dear Prof, could you share about what we should do with this new development called liberal Islam which is now supporting the lesbian movement? Answer: We must adopt a comprehensive and systematic strategy in dealing with such phenomenon which would inevitably affect our children’s faith and social lives. Here are my recommendations: 1) Scholars and religious teachers (asatizahs) must speak up and write against these ideologies and practices. They are obligated to explain to the public the true meaning of what Islam is and sexuality as defined by the Quran and Sunnah. When the scholars and asatizahs are silent about these issues, corruption will spread like wild fire. 2) Parents and school teachers must be made aware of these challenges. They must detect early signs of waywardness from their children and 51 Singapore Parliament No. 11, Session No. 1, Vol. 83, Sitting No. 4, 22 October 2007. https:// sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic?reportid=024_20071022_S0004_T0007. Accessed 4 October 2019. 52 Liberals interviewed were not particularly fond of Khairudin’s past statements and actions, with one even referring to him as an ‘Islamist’. 53 See http://www.deenrevival.com/. The last post on the website is dated 2 May 2017, however, indicating that it is dormant.

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students. Give advice, send them to proper religious classes and seek help from counsellors, if necessary. Win over the hearts of the misled youths and explain to them what’s right with knowledge and wisdom. All social issues must be dealt with at home, if not, in schools. 3) The youths must assist scholars, asatizahs, parents and teachers to spread the message of true Islam in all media platforms. They have the power of technology in their hands and could play the crucial role of alerting groups and movements that are spreading the ideologies of liberal Islam and lesbianism and all other ideologies. Make the pure message of Islam viral to cleanse liberal Islam and lesbianism from the hearts of the faithful. Together, we will stop these developments in their tracks through education and reasoned arguments.54

Khairudin’s post requires some unpacking. First, he explicitly made the link between liberal Islam and lesbianism, and identified both as threats to the message of true Islam. The conservative emphasis on purity of message is on display in this posting. It is obvious that, for conservatives, liberal Islam is an abomination to ‘true’ Islam. Second, he identified the ulama as bastions of the faith, placing the responsibility of declaring the faith’s true teachings, including on gay relationships, on the religious clergy. This is consistent with conservatives’ adherence to the religious hierarchy. Third, he had no qualms describing lesbianism as ‘waywardness’ and ‘corruption’, using language akin to Thio Li-Ann’s. Initially, the post had even alluded to lesbianism as ‘cancers’ and ‘diseases’, but was amended to the one above, as he later acknowledged the original post reflected ‘poor judgment’.5556 Predictably, Khairudin’s post sparked a backlash from many liberals, with many condemning him as being irresponsible, if not outright bigoted. Three NUS students (past and present, at the time) – one of whom was a Muslim – wrote a letter of protest against him, saying that what he posted was ‘tantamount to hate speech’ and displayed ‘hostility toward sexual minorities, and which we 54 Pearl Lee, “NUS Prof’s Comments on Lesbians Spark Protests from Past and Present Students,” The Straits Times, 1 March 2014. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/nus-profs-commentslesbians-spark-protests-past-and-present-students. Accessed 4 October 2019. 55 Jeanette Tan, “NUS Prof Acknowledges ‘Poor Judgment’ in FB ‘Lesbianism’ Posts,” Yahoo! News, 1 March 2014. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/nus-professor-controversially-likens-lesbianismto--cancer---sparks-protest-letter-from-graduates-014042548.html. Accessed 4 October 2019. 56 It is unclear why Khairudin mentioned lesbianism specifically and not male homosexuality. One could only assume that the question that was posed to him specifically asked about lesbianism, which is why he singled it out.

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believe is unbecoming of a university professor.’57 A back and forth then ensued online between conservative Muslim activists – who were backed by their conservative Christian counterparts – and liberals, comprising both non-Muslim and Muslims. A counter petition was set up in support of Khairudin, and the hashtag #supportkhairudinaljunied was used. The petition took issue with the students’ attempts to stifle Khairudin’s right to express his views on homosexuality, via ‘intimidation’ tactics.58 After a meeting between Khairudin and NUS’ Provost, Professor Tan Eng Chye, Tan said that Khairudin had been ‘counselled’, and that he himself agreed that his post ‘contained provocative, inappropriate and offensive language.’59 The stance taken by NUS did little to calm the situation online, as conservatives felt that Khairudin had been hard done by.60 Even though Khairudin himself had admitted poor judgment in the choice of language, he did not apologize for the broader point made in his post, which is that lesbianism and liberal Islam are antithetical to pure Islamic teachings. It was also clear that Khairudin had the support of many members of the Muslim community (Radics 2019). Throughout these developments, state leaders stayed away from the fray, and did not take any particular side. They did not explicitly endorse or condemn Khairudin, nor did they abandon their politically neutral approach toward the issue of gay marriage and same-sex relationships in general. The Khairudin episode dominated headlines for many days, online and in the mainstream media, which makes it all the more intriguing that state elites, who normally comment on every national issue, did not participate in the controversy. Amid this backdrop, another incident occurred which heightened Muslim involvement in the Section 377A debate. The promotional video for the Pink Dot event, which was to take place in June the same year, included a Muslim woman wearing the hijab. The event was supposed to coincide 57 Pearl Lee, “NUS Prof’s Comments on Lesbians Spark Protests from Past and Present Students,” The Straits Times, 1 March 2014. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/nus-profs-commentslesbians-spark-protests-past-and-present-students. Accessed 4 October 2019. 58 “Letter of Concern Regarding Benjamin Seet, Melissa Tsang and Khairulanwar Zaini,” https://www.thepetitionsite.com/357/463/602/concern-over-academic-expression-and-religiousfreedom-jeopardized-by-lbgt-activist-singapore/?src=referrer&campaign=https%3A%2F%2F www.facebook.com%2F. Accessed 4 October 2019. 59 June Yang, “Nus Professor Acknowledges ‘Poor Judgment’ in Posts on Sexuality,” Today, 5 March 2014. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/nus-professor-acknowledges-poorjudgement-posts-sexuality. Accessed 4 October 2019. 60 While conservatives may not have been comfortable with the language Khairudin used, they agreed that the normalization of homosexuality, which was what Khairudin was taking aim at, was not acceptable in Islam.

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with the first day of Ramadhan, a month which Muslims consider to be holy. Having just been through the Khairudin episode, many conservative activists felt that the video and the timing of Pink Dot were signals that the gay lobby had its sights on the Muslim community, which meant that a response was urgently needed. Ustaz Noor Deros launched the ‘Wear White’ campaign, a movement which was intended to urge LGBT Muslims to ‘return to fitrah’. Fitrah is the Arabic word for ‘natural’ or ‘original’; for the Wear White activists, the ‘natural’ state for a human is to be attracted to persons of the opposite gender. According to Ustaz Noor, ‘The natural state of human relationships is now under sustained attack by LGBT activists,’ and the fact that Pink Dot was to be held on the first day of Ramadhan showed gay activists’ ‘disdain for Islam and the family.’61 The campaign had its own website, urged Muslims to don white on the first day of Ramadhan, and released videos discussing the issue of homosexuality in Islam. Wearing white was supposed to symbolize the ‘purity’ of Islam and the natural state of humanity. The idea was supported by many Muslims, as many did turn up in white on purpose in mosques throughout the country.62 The message of protecting the traditional family unit, and the idea of heterosexual marriages as integral to the Islamic concept of the family, resonated with the supporters of the movement. The fact that Khairudin’s brush with the progressives came just before the Wear White-Pink Dot controversy helped in mobilizing conservatives too, as there was a sense either of injustice, and/or fears of an impending resistance to traditional Muslim lifestyle. MUIS issued an advisory to mosques ‘not to be seen as being involved in the crossfire’, in a bid to appear neutral. This was in spite of its stand, which is also stated in the same circular: We do not agree (or) approve (of) the pervasiveness of the LGBT lifestyle and we cannot agree to the efforts in promoting such a lifestyle. Nevertheless, we have to plan for something which will not only strengthen the resilience of our community to the LGBT lifestyle, but also help those who have been leading this lifestyle abstain from it and, at the same time, 61 Rachel Au-yong and Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “Religious Teacher Launches ‘Wear White’ Campaign Online,” The Straits Times, 20 June 2014. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ religious-teacher-launches-wear-white-online-campaign. Accessed 4 October 2019. 62 Not all who turned up in white were supporting the movement, however. Muslims have traditionally believed in wearing white as it is part of the Prophetic dressing too. See Maryam Mokhtar and Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “Muslim Turn Up in White – For Many, It’s Tradition,” The Straits Times, 1 July 2014. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/muslims-turn-white-manyits-tradition. Accessed 7 October 2019.

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help those who have inclinations towards this lifestyle overcome those inclinations by providing support to them.63

Soon after Wear White was founded, Lawrence Khong announced that he was supporting Wear White, and urged Christians to turn up in white for their church events, the week of the Pink Dot occasion. In subsequent years, Wear White and Pink Dot continued to battle it out in the court of public opinion. Khong later said of his decision to stand in solidarity with conservative Muslims: I want to pray that we will continue to wear white as long as there is pink, and we will wear white until the pink is gone, and even if the pink is gone we will continue to wear white. My prayer, my dream is that the day will come where in this weekend half or three-quarters of Singapore’s population will be wearing white as a statement of commitment to the family.64

Again, throughout the conservative-liberal battle which took place on the national stage, the state did not clearly take sides, and projected itself as a neutral arbitrator. The fact that the government did not rebuke any one side for the stance it took, and that the issue was not framed as a security concern, emboldened both sides to pursue their causes vigorously. In other words, the state’s more permissive stance on LGBT rights and Section 377A, provided more political opportunities for activists to manoeuvre. Conservative Muslims have displayed a particular aversion to attempts by others to argue for the acceptance of gay relationships. A few supporters of the Wear White movement expressed their views: This is a slippery slope. It (the gay lobby’s demands) will not end with the repeal of 377A. LGBT has a radical agenda of undermining the traditional family unit as the building block of society. Also, there are end time prophecies of men marrying men and women marrying women. Supporting this may inadvertently impact one’s aqeedah (creed/belief system).65 63 Laura Elizabeth Philomin, “Muis Urges Mosques Not to Take Confrontational Stand on LGBT Lifestyles,” Today, 21 June 2014. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/muis-urges-mosquesnot-take-confrontational-stand-lgbt-lifestyles. Accessed 7 October 2019. 64 Kintan Andanari and Ng Yi Shu, “Pastor Lawrence Khong: ‘We Will Wear White Until the Pink is Gone,” Mothership, 14 June 2015. https://mothership.sg/2015/06/pastor-lawrence-khongwe-will-wear-white-until-the-pink-is-gone/ 65 Correspondence with conservative activist, 3 October 2019.

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Since the law is not enforced, and the LGBT community is not discriminated, and society is conservative, just retain Section 377A.66 We should not repeal the section since it is the first step toward gay marriage. I do not support legalizing gay marriage because it is not natural.67

The replies above were typical and repeated by many other conservative activists. In general, the conservative opposition to the repeal of Section 377A is predicated upon a few arguments: 1) Singapore society is largely conservative; 2) it would harm the traditional family unity; and 3) homosexual relationships are not natural. To be sure, conservative Muslim activists believe that gay relationships are not allowed in Islam, but in their public discourse, being fully aware of Singapore’s status as a secular state and the reality that Muslims are a minority, they invoke other justifications as well. For these conservatives, the LGBT issue represents the starkest example of modern-Western ideologies taking root in Muslim societies, to the point of usurpation. The worry for these people is that if something as blatant and unambiguous as the impermissibility of gay relationships in the Islamic tradition is being undermined, it was a matter of time before other matters were challenged too. In fact, many of these conservatives view the challenge to traditional Islamic understanding of same-sex relationships as part of a package: rarely, did a person only challenge the conservative interpretation of the story of Lot by itself. If there was a call for a reinterpretation of this Quranic narrative, there would be concomitant demands for re-examining other aspects of the tradition. In this regard, the conservatives are right: liberals do not just want a critical re-examination of the Islamic stand on homosexuality; usually it comes with other requests, as discussed in the previous chapter. The conservatives’ passion on this subject, and their dynamic defence of Professor Khairudin, someone whom they consider to be a leading conservative Muslim intellectual, can be juxtaposed with their reactions in the Imam incident. In this instance, after Minister Shanmugam had taken a decisive stance and had rebuked Khairudin in public, the ulama did not publicly support the academic, and neither was there conservative activism in his favour. This was in spite of private grumbling at the heavy-handed approach of the state. In contrast, when Khairudin was the target of the liberal activists, the conservatives were galvanized and threw their weight behind him. 66 Correspondence with conservative activist, 23 September 2019. 67 Correspondence with conservative activist, 23 September 2019.

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The protagonist was the same in these two issues, but the conservative response was different. Evidently, they had made the calculation that the LGBT matter was one in which there was wiggle room, where the state was concerned, while in the Imam Nalla saga, there was little to none. The government had after all indicated that it had a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to religious exhortations which were harmful to societal fabric, in reference to the comments made by the Imam and Khairudin.68 The Section 377A and LGBT debate is not one which is likely to fizzle out anytime soon. Conservatives and liberals will probably stay in their corners, and in fact, harden their positions on the matter, in the face of stiff opposition. Such polarization is more accentuated in the case of liberal and conservative Muslims, as they have differing theological approaches toward the acceptance of same-sex relationships. The conservative activist quoted above mentioned that the progressive position on the matter can pose a threat to the Muslim’s aqeedah, or creed. This is because for him/ her, liberals are advocating a position which has clearly and unequivocally been denounced by God. To dispute that would be tantamount to challenging God himself.69 Progressives have long argued that the conservative obsession with condemning same-sex relationships has resulted in younger Muslims turning away from the faith altogether (Minwalla, et al. 2005, 113). Conservatives maintain that they can ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, and in fact, must do both. For them, if they do not make it clear that Islam does not permit homosexual acts, younger Muslims would be even more confused and may think that Islam is amenable to such behaviour. A Facebook group “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” (WAAPD), which comprises some Christians and Muslims, is at the forefront of the conservative side of the debate. Members of the group actively post information or statuses which are critical of the progressive position. These range from disparaging the notion of gender fluidity and neutrality, to underscoring the importance of traditional, heterosexual relationships.70 The group still exists, unlike the Singapore Hijab Movement, in spite of its critiques toward certain elements of state policy. Again, the continued existence of the WAAPD Facebook group highlights the non-critical nature of the LGBT issue, from the perspective of the state. The Christian opposition to the repeal of Section 377A and the 68 Kelly Ng, “ ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Religious Preaching that Fans Violence: Shanmugam,” Today, 3 March 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/shanmugam-chides-nus-academiccomments-over-imam-incident. Accessed 7 October 2019. 69 Correspondence with conservative activist, 3 October 2019. 70 See https://www.facebook.com/groups/waapd/. As of 7 October 2019, the group had over 7000 members.

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‘normalization’ of LGBT lifestyles not only predates conservative Muslim activism, but is also more ubiquitous. Both the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), a body of churches which states that its primary task is evangelism, and the Catholic Church, for example, took issue with the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, in which there was a ‘gay moment’.71 The NCCS said that Christian leaders saw the scene as ‘an attempt to influence young children and socialize them at an early age into thinking that the homosexual lifestyle is normal.’72 Such culture wars are likely to continue, and one can expect both conservative Christians and Muslims to be leading the charge against the normalization of homosexuality. No doubt, the conservative enthusiasm on this topic, while motivated from ideological and religious predispositions, is tactical and strategic too. Conservative Muslim activists are evidently thoroughly aware of the pitfalls involved in their activism, as evinced from the interview responses. Here, conservative passions are a result of pragmatism: because the state allows for contestations of the Section 377A issue, and is even willing to tolerate criticism of itself, conservative activists display boldness in entering the public sphere. WAAPD, for instance, is a publicly accessible group, which means that the posts usually can be seen even by non-members of the group. Wear White represented a coordinated and concerted effort by conservative Muslim activists to resist progressive attempts to redefine the traditional Islamic notions of morality, and it was willing to take part in the national debate. Such dedication is not displayed by these activists when it comes to issues such as the Imam Nalla and Merry Christmas incidents, demonstrating the importance of political opportunities as a conceptual tool via which we can understand Muslim activism. Defining the Muslim Identity: Side-lining Conservative Expressions Throughout this book, the state’s official approach toward religion has been explained. The state makes no apologies for its ‘social engineering’, as its worldview which perceives racial and religious differences as perpetual fault-lines requires shrewd management of faith and ethnicity. The state also has no qualms in prescribing the Muslim identity which good Singaporean Muslims are supposed to adhere to. The ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ narrative 71 Kelly Ng, “ ‘Gay moment’ in Beauty and the Beast totally unnecessary: National Council of Churches,” Today, 14 March 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/gay-moment-beautyand-beast-totally-unnecessary-national-council-churches. Accessed 7 October 2019. 72 Ibid.

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was introduced in the preceding chapter. States with both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority populations have sought to define the features of a ‘good Muslim’ and a ‘bad Muslim’. This is in servitude of multiple political purposes, be it the pursuit of votes, to bolster a developmental agenda, or simply to put potential opposition in check (Mamdani 2008, Al-Rasheed 2015). In Singapore, the defining of the Muslim identity is done in a particular way because the government is obsessed with maintaining racial and religious stability. The state would always err on the side of caution, to the point of introducing laws which ostensibly could deter citizens from engaging in productive debates on religious differences. The previous chapter dealt with the changes made to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), which criminalizes the act of wounding the religious feelings of others. This piece of legislation could be problematic for some conservatives, since they believe in the exclusive truth of Islam (in totality). If a Muslim says that Jesus is not the son of God or divine, and a Christian feels offended, would that be an offence? Such a concern was actually raised in Parliament by PAP backbencher and former Minister, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, who said: Insults are clear. But what about genuine differences of opinion or views? I adopt a certain religion because I believe it to be the truth and everything else to be untrue. And if I utter my views about what I understand and believe to be untrue of other religions publicly, will I be guilty of an offence? And what if the “wounded person” can claim publicly on social media that his religion has been insulted and others from his religion feel equally wounded, would that make it an offence?73

Minister Shanmugam’s response was not particularly elucidating, as he pointed out that: People are free to express their views. This has to be done responsibly. Statements that denigrate another religion will of course cross the line.74

It is unclear how the propagation of theological exclusivity would be interpreted under this act, or whether it can be considered as ‘denigrating 73 Zhaki Abdullah, et al., “Concerns Raised about Separation of Religion and Politics, Foreign Influence under MRHA,” Channel News Asia, 7 October 2019. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/ news/singapore/concerns-raised-separation-of-religion-and-politics-mrha-11978926. Accessed 9 October 2019. 74 Ibid.

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another religion’. The fact that Dr. Yaacob, a former Minister and member of the establishment, raised this point demonstrates the concern that some Muslims have on the vague wording of the bill. Nonetheless, one could quite easily discern the state’s preferences when it comes to theological exclusivity and certain conservative expressions. The ‘Merry Christmas’ and Imam Nalla incidents highlight that the PAP government will not tolerate any whiff of religious disharmony, even if conservative Muslims may have a different perspective on the issue. In the former, conservative Muslims were not saying that Islam forbids its adherents from being nice to non-Muslims – in which case there would be serious problems for the entire societal fabric of the country – but rather, were just expressing discomfort with the specifics of the greeting itself. Interestingly, some conservatives interviewed stated that they had no problems at all wishing their Chinese friends ‘Happy New Year’ on the occasion of the Lunar New Year, but would not say ‘Happy Deepavali’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ to their Hindu or Christian friends. This is because the former is a cultural occasion whereas the latter two are religious festivals. Nevertheless, everyone interviewed agreed that it is perfectly acceptable to say ‘Happy Holidays’ or something to that effect, for others’ religious festivals. For the state, the prohibition of exchanging specific greetings was something it had to put a stop to, since it could bring Muslims down the slippery slope of exclusivism and extremism. Bans of speakers such as Mufti Menk (who has a significant following in Singapore, as evinced from the huge crowds at events which he spoke at in the country prior to his ban, and from the constant re-sharing of his Facebook posts by Singaporean Muslims), were necessary to send a message that the state would not tolerate certain forms of Muslim expression. The Imam Nalla incident was similar in this regard. Even if Muslims were to say that the supplication made was not understood by them as a call for action against Jews and Christians, for the government, the fact that it could be misconstrued by some Muslims and non-Muslims was enough for it to be a major problem that had to be promptly dealt with. Minister Shanmugam outlined the government’s concerns in a speech he made at the International Conference on the Role of Muslim NGOs in Promoting Culture of Peace organized by Jamiyah Singapore. An excerpt reads: So one of the practical things that conferences like these with moderate Islamic religious organisations can give guidance on, is the practices. To what extent should we become more and more exclusive?

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To what extent should we become more and more integrated, without compromising our religious principles? For example, how do we eat together? How do we sit? If communities are distanced, they don’t eat together, they don’t mix, they can’t shake hands, they can’t exchange greetings, and there are some Islamic scholars who say that you cannot say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Deepavali”, to what extent do we have those policies within Singapore?75

The state is worried not only about extremist forms of Muslim understanding, but ‘exclusive’ ones as well. He views the acts of not eating together with nonMuslims, not mixing with others, and not shaking hands – presumably with the opposite gender – as potential problems toward achieving an inclusive community. Elsewhere, Minister Masagos had highlighted similar examples (Razak 2019). The concern for these state officials is not the ‘authenticity’ of Islamic teachings, but rather, whether certain understandings of the faith lead to exclusivism. PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech praising the ‘progressive’ Singaporean Muslim identity had already been referred to in Chapter 4. For the government, the ‘good Muslim’ is one who is ‘inclusive’, which denotes particular characteristics which have already been discussed, and prioritizes national interests above all else. A good Muslim is a good Singaporean, and thus someone who is not a good Singaporean cannot be a good Muslim. Projects like the Singapore Muslim Identity illustrate the efforts to portray the ‘Singaporean’ and ‘Muslim’ identities as congruent and not at odds with each other. Of late, another thread to the Muslim identity debate has been the ‘Arabization’ narrative which has been propounded by individuals such as Bilahari Kausikan. As mentioned earlier, he identifies ‘Arabization’ as a threat to the local Muslim identity. To be sure, the ‘Arabization’ narrative as articulated by Kausikan is rather flawed on several levels. Firstly, he talks about the ‘Arabization of Islam’ as a problem, seemingly neglecting that Islam did come from and to the Arabs first, the Prophet of Islam was an Arab, the language of the Quran is Arabic, and societies which embrace Islam have always adopted some facets of Arabic culture (such as using the term ‘Allah’ to refer to God, eating dates to break their fast, inter alia). Secondly, the examples he gave were rather superficial and did not seem to indicate Arabization as a threat to the country, as he avers. Kausikan 75 K. Shanmugam, “Fostering Closer Inter-Religious Ties Has to Be an Effort By All: Shanmugam,” Today, 7 March 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/fostering-closer-inter-religiousties-has-be-effort-all-shanmugam. Accessed 9 October 2019.

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points out that some of the evidence for Arabization includes more Muslim women donning the head-scarf, Malays referring to the headscarf as ‘hijab’ instead of ‘tudung’, and Malays saying ‘Eid Mubarak’ instead of ‘Selamat Hari Raya’ on their festive occasions. Muslim women donning the head-scarf can actually be better understood as a rise in Islamic consciousness, while Malays using ‘hijab’ and ‘Eid Mubarak’ are, in reality, reflective of globalization and Anglicization of language rather than Arabization: hijab and Eid Mubarak are words/phrases that are used throughout the English-speaking world, and may in fact reflect Malay-Muslims’ desire to be more inclusive, since not all Muslims speak Malay. Kausikan’s diagnosis was that Malays were becoming more Arabized because of a ‘lack of cultural confidence’ may be even more puzzling, since there has been no data given to support the claim, and that in the past, elements of the cultural deficit hypothesis was actually propagated by state elites (Rahim 1998). But what is perhaps most noteworthy is that the ‘Arabization of Islam’ is described as a threat to social cohesion: an explicit link is made between how Muslims practise their faith, and the social and religious fabric of the nation.76 To be fair to Kausikan, he was not the first voice to discuss Arabization as a problem. Minister Masagos had earlier identified a similar trend too. He argues that the ‘cultural erosion’ of Malays was a problem that had to be addressed, as the worry is that if the trend persists, Malays may become more exclusivist and in the worst case scenario, more extremist.77 While the causal link between a Malay using the word ‘hijab’ instead of ‘tudung’ and becoming an exclusivist is tenuous, to say the least, the point here is that the government officials have identified certain forms of Muslim expression as problematic, not only because they are exclusivist – in the case of the Merry Christmas example – but because they can potentially lead someone to exclusivism and extremism. To somehow link using Arab words and wearing the thobe to extremism and terrorism is bizarre. Where does it end? Should we dispense of Arabic terms like arnab (rabbit) and kursi (chair)? What about Arabic numerals? And coffee even? Doesn’t make sense. Also, it is okay to be anglicised and wear coat and tie, use English […] Absolutely no logic. Knee jerk 76 Adrian Lim, “3 Forces Could Challenge Social Cohesion in Singapore: Bilahari,” The Straits Times, 25 July 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/3-forces-could-challenge-socialcohesion-bilahari. Accessed 8 August 2019. 77 Norsharil Saat, “Arabisation and the Threat to Singapore Culture,” Today, 14 August 2018. https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/arabisation-and-threat-singapore-culture. Accessed 10 October 2019.

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reaction […] Decoupling all things Arabic may lead to a dilution of Quranic understanding too.78

The state concern over ‘Arabization’ but not ‘Westernization’ was raised by many conservatives. If the issue at hand was the preservation of Malay culture, one could easily make a more potent argument on how Westernization has been more detrimental to Malay culture, yet, it is never described in such terms. The fact of the matter is since Westernization, which one could argue is no less hegemonic than ‘Arabization’, is not accompanied with religious connotations, which is why it is not deemed as too problematic by a government who is at times singularly focused on snuffing out threats to racial-religious harmony. Furthermore, as the respondent above points out, the Malay ‘culture’ has been infused with Arabic and/or Islamic elements ever since Malays embraced Islam many centuries ago. Many words in the Arabic language are adopted and adapted into Malay, many Malay cultural practices have Arabic and/or Islamic elements to it, and all Muslims are required to learn some Arabic (for the recitation of certain prayers). The ‘Arabization’ narrative is in fact not new, even if the terminology may be. In 2011, then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew created quite a stir amongst Muslims when he commented on the Muslim community. He said: I have to speak candidly to be of value but I do not want to offend the Muslim community. I think we were progressing nicely until the surge of Islam came and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration – friends, intermarriages and so on, Indians with Chinese, Chinese with Indians – than Muslims. That’s the result of the surge from the Arab states […] I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam […] I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate. The generation that worked with me – Othman Wok, Rahim Ishak – that was before the wave came sweeping back; that generation integrated well. We drank beer, we went canvassing, we went electioneering, we ate together. Now they say, “Are the plates clean?” I said, “You know, same washing washing.” Halal, non-halal and so on, I mean, they are all divisive. They are distinguishing me from you: “I’m a believer, you are not.” […] (To integrate, Muslims need to) Be less strict on Islamic observances and say, “Okay, I’ll eat with you.” (Kwang, et al. 2011, 228-229) 78 Interview with conservative activist, 10 October 2019.

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Although Lee did not use the term ‘Arabization’, it is apparent that his views correspond with Kausikan’s, or the other way round, in that the rise in Islamic consciousness is due to the ‘surge from the Arab states’. Similarly, Lee views these forms of Islamic expression as problematic to social cohesion. For Lee, however, the issues he identified were actually more ‘Islamic’ than ‘Arab’: not drinking alcohol is a clear Quranic injunction on which there is no debate amongst the ulama in Islam, as is eating halal food (though Islamic scholars do differ on what constitutes halal). After a pushback from the Muslim community, with many taking issue with the comments Lee made, the government distanced itself from Lee’s comments, marking one of the rare moments where PAP cabinet members publicly disagreed with each other. PM Lee Hsien Loong said that Kuan Yew’s views were his own, and not the government’s. He added that the community ‘has made great efforts to integrate with the other communities and with Singapore society to join the mainstream’, though at the same time, he cautioned that religious norms ‘evolve so that differences in food, dress, customs, and so on keep us apart or reduce our common space.’79 What is clear from all the comments of these state elites is that Muslim expressions of piety can be a problem if they are not in line with the norms of Singapore society, which are of course, determined by the state. Stringency in adhering to Islamic principles is thus seen as problematic by some state elites. More significantly, conservative expressions of faith are described as inimical to societal integration. The connection is made – sometimes implicitly, often explicitly – between these forms of understanding Islam, and extremism. Conservatives are thus often caught in this bind. On one hand, if they challenge the state’s narrative of conflating conservatism and extremism, they run the risk of state reprisal, as had happened with Khairudin in the Imam episode. On the other, if they do not, they have to accept that the narrative would slowly but significantly shift against them, so that what they consider as ‘normal’ Islamic practices would be described as ‘Arabized’, or worse, ‘exclusive’. The responses by conservatives are thus predictably mixed, dependent on the political opportunities. Where conservative activists sense that the state is unwilling to tolerate dissent, there is no significant or sustained pushback. In the Imam and ‘Merry Christmas’ incidents, the state did take punitive action toward individuals (Mufti Menk, Imam Nalla and 79 Kenny Chee, “MM’s Views on Muslims Not Govt’s,” My Paper, 31 January 2011. https://www. asiaone.com/print/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20110131-261196.html. Accessed 10 October 2019.

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Khairudin), signalling its intent and resolve, and thus conservatives largely remained silent after the message was sent. For the ‘Arabization’ narrative, there has been some dissent, though not to the level of the backlash against the gay lobby. Some conservatives have written Facebook posts criticizing the idea that Malays are becoming more ‘Arabized’. A forum letter was published in The Straits Times, where one Osman Sidek argued against Bilahari’s points, stating that striving to understand ‘Islam from original sources’ should not be deemed as Arabization.80 There is more room for dissent for several reasons. Firstly, as influential as Bilahari is, he is not a senior member of the cabinet or anything of that sort, and thus, perhaps more conservatives are able to disagree with him. Secondly, and more importantly, no one has been reprimanded openly by the state for challenging the narrative, which gives some licence for conservative activists to manoeuvre. Nevertheless, because the issue has been framed in security terms, they still have to navigate carefully around it, which explains the reticence on the part of some activists. For many conservatives, the identification of certain traits as ‘progressive’ and celebrated represents a worrying development. They express concern on whether some basic tenets of Islam, as they view it, are going to be acceptable in the future. Here are a few responses to illustrate this anxiety: The way we are going, one day, we cannot even say Islam is the true religion! I don’t understand why they want to say all religions are the same. If they (religions) are all the same, why don’t they (people from other faiths) become Muslim?81 The fact of the matter is that there are differences between the religions, which is why there are different religions. I am a Muslim because I believe Islam is true and other religions are not. That does not mean I disrespect others. I just disagree with them.82 I believe Islam is a peaceful religion. Islam teaches me to be kind to my neighbours […] So if today, they tell me I must wish ‘Merry Christmas’ to others, I cannot recite certain du’as (supplications), I have to attend religious events organized by others (non-Muslims), tomorrow, what will 80 Osman Sidek, “Understanding Islam From Original Sources Not Arabisation,” The Straits Times, 31 July 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-on-the-web/understandingislam-from-original-sources-not-arabisation. Accessed 10 October 2019. 81 Interview with conservative, 18 October 2019. 82 Correspondence with conservative, 23 September 2019.

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they say? I have to believe in gay marriage? I cannot believe in one God? Where will this end?83 I think the hijab issue has been politicized, and my worry is that it is used to control and determine the identity of a religion.84

Nonetheless, in spite of their reservations, conservatives do not actively adopt the state’s narrative on these matters, once the government has decisively clarified its stance. A conservative activist attributes this to the following: Singaporeans have a very low tolerance for troublemakers. Even lower tolerance when the issue can be somewhat linked to the dreaded words: extremism and terrorism.85

The activist in question candidly explains the tentative approach conservatives like him/her undertake. When it comes to matters pertaining to the Islamic faith which have been securitized, much more caution is needed in proceeding with activism. The point here is that the activist believes that not only would the state be unhappy with certain forms of activism, other Singaporeans would be too. One need only to look to the reaction from Singaporeans towards the protests in Hong Kong. While many in Southeast Asia were lauding the demonstrators’ resolve in standing up to a powerful entity, many in Singapore were either mocking the protestors or even calling for the Chinese government to take castigatory action against them.86 The idea put forth by these Singaporeans is that the demonstrators were disrupting the public peace and consequently, the economic potential of Hong Kong, with some even suggesting that they had no jobs and were funded by the Americans to engage in the protests. No doubt, there were some Singaporeans who were supportive of the civil disobedience in Hong Kong, but these were in the minority.87 Generally, there was more criti83 Correspondence with conservative, 15 September 2019. 84 Interview with conservative activist, 15 September 2019. 85 Interview with conservative activist, 10 October 2019. 86 Bhavan Jaipragas and Phila Siu, “Scoffing in Singapore, Praise in Philippines: How Asia sees Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill Protests,” South China Morning Post, 22 June 2019. https://www. scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3015618/scoffing-singapore-praise-philippines-how-asiasees-hong-kongs. Accessed 11 October 2019. 87 It is my assessment that Singaporeans’ attitudes toward the Hong Kong protests corresponded with their support toward the establishment. The more one was supportive of the PAP, the less likely one would view the Hong Kong protests favourably.

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cism of the protestors than there was support. Cherian George writes that ‘Singaporeans have peculiarly low tolerance for troublemakers’. Citing the family feud between PM Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings over the will of their late father, Lee Kuan Yew (a dispute which was played out in public to the point that a special Parliamentary session was called by the PM to address allegations of impropriety made by his siblings),88 George notes that many Singaporeans were criticizing the PM’s siblings for questioning him in public, and hurting the reputation of the country, with one online commenter even likening the siblings to Islamic State terrorists (George 2017). If that is the case for ‘troublemakers’ in general, the situation is even more problematic for Muslims. The potential for being deemed ‘Islamists’ or ‘extremists’ is real. One instance is the exchange between MP Faisal Manap and Minister Shanmugam in parliament on the role of religion in politics in October 2019. Faisal had said that since Islam is a complete way of life, nothing can ever be truly separate from religion, from the perspective of Muslims. Minister Shanmugam repeatedly cornered Faisal and asked him to answer whether he thought religion and politics should be separate, to which Faisal eventually said yes. Online commenters began to proscribe Faisal for insinuating that religion and politics should not be separate. Examples of comments read: Abrahamic religion are constantly at war regardless internal or external. Any gov under such influence has and will continue to contribute hostility towards non believer. We cannot allow such mentality to sprout here All religion must be regulated under the law to prevent misuse or abuse.89 Things that people are really concern about especially costs of living should be brought up rather than talking about religion whereby all the different faith is being practised freely in peace n harmony […] didn’t he understand that in the first place that Singapore is a secular country […] really stupid n unnecessary things to be debated […] 88 The incident created a national buzz after Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, the PM’s younger brother and sister, alleged that the PM used his position as leader of the country inappropriately, after he asked a ministerial committee to look into the options for the late Lee Kuan Yew’s property at Oxley Road. The siblings are still on antagonistic terms. See “Running Dispute over Oxley House,” The Straits Times, 8 January 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/ running-dispute-over-oxley-house. Accessed 15 October 2019. 89 Mathhias Ang, “Shanmugam Repeatedly Questions WP’s Faisal Manap over Separation of Religion from Politics,” Mothership, 10 October 2019. https://mothership.sg/2019/10/newsparliament-shanmugam-faisal-manap-religion-politics-separation/. Accessed 11 October 2019.

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In western Europe, religion and politics are not allowed to be mixed. Religion is meant to act as a guide. If religious happen to control political, religious influencing rules will restrict everything harshly. Look at good example: Aceh of Indonesia and Malaysia.90

Such comments were by no means isolated.91 The notion that Singapore was a secular state and any form of interference of faith in politics had to not only be guarded against, but swiftly dealt with, was ubiquitous. The ‘peaceful’ socio-political situation in Singapore was often juxtaposed with the more chaotic and fractious political scenes in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, which commenters attributed to the mingling of politics and religion in the two countries. As I have said previously, Singaporeans have generally internalized PAP’s ideologies, with secularism being one of them. Even though technically, Singapore’s brand of secularism does involve the meshing of politics and religion in some areas – the existence of MUIS, the appointment of the Mufti, AMLA, ARS and others are examples of this phenomenon – Singaporeans still have an aversion toward the idea that religion should involve itself in politics. This background is one which conservative activists are fully aware of. Conservative activists realize that in a country where around 85% of the population is not Muslim, where the government adopts an interventionist approach toward religion and is wary of any challenges emanating from faith adherents, and where the ruling party has the support of the overwhelming majority of the people, Muslim causes are not always easy to pursue, and if done so wrongly, public opinion could turn against them quite easily. The absence of allies in wider society affects political opportunities adversely, as described in the theory chapter. A recent incident which further contributes toward shaping the prudent nature of conservative activism is the arrest of Zulfikar Shariff under the ISA. Zulf ikar was of course the leader of the hijab protest in 2002, and went into self-imposed exile in Australia following the incident as he was worried that he was going to be arrested (Mutalib, 2012b, 38). He returned to Singapore occasionally subsequently, and was involved in the 2013 hijab movement, and the Wear White initiative as well, even though he was 90 See the comments on Mothership’s Facebook page covering the article above. Similar comments were found on articles from other news sites covering the incident. 91 For more online comments, see Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, “Netizens React Strongly over the Heated Debate on Politics and Religion by Law Minister and WP’s Faisal Manap,” The Online Citizen, 10 October 2019. https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2019/10/10/netizens-react-stronglyover-the-heated-debate-on-politics-and-religion-by-law-minister-and-wps-faisal-manap/. Accessed 11 October 2019.

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not the one leading those efforts. Online, he had a large following, and his Facebook posts regularly attracted a few hundred ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. Zulfikar continued to agitate on Muslim issues, and was seen as a prominent conservative activist. His arrest in 2016 shook other conservatives. Although he was arrested on security grounds and not because of his activism per se – he had written Facebook posts in 2014 which seemed to indicate his approval of ISIS –,92 the arrest nonetheless made conservative activists more careful. An activist said that ‘post-Zul, the situation has regressed,’ in reference to non-Muslims’ perceptions of Muslim activism.93 The fact that Zulfikar was the most prominent conservative activist meant that his arrest did conservatives no favours. Zulfikar was also not only associated with the conservative cause, but many conservative activists themselves. Now, the feeling they have is that they must be extra vigilant when they are pursuing a particular cause. The contrasting conservative activism seen in the LGBT debate on one hand, and the Muslim identity, on the other, reflects their pragmatism. For the LGBT rights and Section 377A debate, activists were more vocal, more willing to justify their opposition to repeal Section 377A on religious grounds, and were more active in organizing against the liberal camp. When it came to the state’s demarcation of acceptable Muslim practices, however, conservatives were more circumspect. The difference can be attributed to two reasons. One, the LGBT debate was not one in which the state had a clear stance on, and since the issue does not affect the PAP’s core governing ideologies, it allows for disagreement. Conservative Muslims, like other conservatives, took advantage of the state’s non-intervention, as did liberals. For the Muslim identity discourse, however, the state made manifest its preferences, and hence had outlined the boundaries of acceptable activism. Two, the LGBT debate was not accompanied by potential security complications. The fact that the divide is based on a longstanding difference, even outside the Muslim community, between two camps, and that conservative Christians too lobbied against Pink Dot and the repeal, meant that Muslim activism could not be misconstrued as assertiveness of Muslim religious expressions. However, the issues surrounding Muslim identity can, and were, linked to security, and hence, political opportunities were much narrower 92 Lim Yan Liang, “Singaporean Zulf ikar Mohamad Shariff, 44, Detained under ISA for Promoting Violence and ISIS, Radicalising Others,” The Straits Times, 29 July 2016. https:// www.straitstimes.com/singapore/44-year-old-singaporean-detained-under-isa-for-promotingviolence-and-isis-radicalising. Accessed 11 October 2019. 93 Interview with conservative activist, 10 October 2019.

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for conservative activists. Disagreements were not always legitimate in this sphere, from the perspective of the state and possibly, even from some non-Muslims. In the Imam Nalla episode, for instance, many non-Muslims expressed incredulity online at the supplication after it was made public. A non-Muslim who hears a prayer being recited calling for victory over Jews and Christians would be entitled to some uncertainty, since he would not know the context and how Muslims would understand the meaning of the prayer. Muslims, on the other hand, may view the prayer differently, and in fact, many do. Thus, even though conservatives may have been sympathetic toward Khairudin, or even the Imam, once the government said their behaviour was unacceptable, and additionally, non-Muslims were exhibiting unease at the entire situation, they had to make some pragmatic decisions. Their hearts may have been with Khairudin and the Imam, but their efforts most certainly were not, as they choose to play by the rules set by the state. Conservatives were therefore not truly conservative, but pragmatically conservative.

6.4 Ceding the Public Space to Liberals The previous chapter has already outlined the gains liberals have made in the public domain. Just a couple of decades ago, there would have scarcely been a problem if Muslims chose not to exchange specific greetings on the occasion of other religious festivals. Now, however, the situation has completely changed. Again, the claim here is not causal: it is not that liberal activism has caused the state to favour progressive interpretations of Islam, though of course, it does help. Rather, what I am asserting is that the state’s preference toward more inclusive practices confers advantages on the liberal cause, and provides a ripe space for progressive activism to flourish. This is not due to conservatives being less pragmatic than liberal Muslim activists, or the latter being more strategic than the former. Rather, as these two chapters have shown, both sets of actors demonstrate ample pragmatism in their forays into the public sphere. They are under no illusions as to which causes would be likely to get them into trouble, and which ones are more plausible for them to champion. Rather, in spite of pragmatism from both sides, the political opportunities are more favourable for progressive activists. This is especially after the discovery of terrorist cells in Singapore, the advent of ISIS, and the phenomenon of self-radicalized individuals in Singapore, which has resulted in numerous arrests including that of Zulfikar Shariff. These events have constricted political opportunities for conservative

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activists in multiple ways. The ulama have become more scrupulous in their relationship with the state, generally preferring a cooperative dynamic, rather than a confrontational one which was evinced in the past, especially in the stances taken by Pergas during the madrasah and hijab controversies. Without the public support of the ulama, conservative activists have to be even more judicious. The rise of home-grown extremism has further affected the way conservative activists operate, since the wider Singaporean society is now even more hesitant of any incursions of religion into the public space. The state’s conflation of conservatism and extremism has also contributed to this apprehension. Zulfikar’s arrest was further detrimental to conservative activism, not only because he was associated with many of the activists, but because he was involved in the causes as well. On the matter of Muslim identity, there is little doubt that the state has a preference for progressive interpretations of the Muslim faith. Liberal interpretations of the faith intersect with the state’s worldviews on religious harmony and potential threats to societal stability. The earlier chapter had talked about liberal enthusiasm in conducting inter and intra-faith activities. The preservation of religious harmony is crucial for the state, as it is an existential matter. Intra-faith dialogues, an arena where progressive Muslims are more likely to dabble in compared to their conservative counterparts, become more important in an age where sectarian conflicts are taking place around the world. Government leaders have warned about the importation of the Sunni-Shia conflict into the country.94 Even if conservatives may display apprehension about not being able to publicly express their concerns about Shi’ism, increasingly, the political opportunities for them to do so are limited. The updates to the MRHA essentially further cement this fact.95 Conservatives are then left championing particular causes, which are not as important to the state in the grander scheme of things, such as the liberal zeal to repeal Section 377A, while they have all but given up in some areas, such as the ‘Merry Christmas’ issue. In spite of some murmurs from conservatives on the subject of exchanging greetings, the dominant narrative still persisted that wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ was not only encouraged, but it was almost a marker of an integrated Muslim. Even on Section 377A, where conservatives find some room to manoeuvre, it is quite apparent 94 See speech by Professor Yaacob Ibrahim on the MRHA bill in Parliament, https://www. channelnewsasia.com/news/parliament/videos/october/yaacob-ibrahim-on-maintenance-ofreligious-harmony-amendment-11976270. Accessed 14 October 2019. 95 As said, most Sunni conservatives consider Shi’ism to be part of Islam, even though they disagree with many tenets of Shi’ism and find them to be false or problematic. Most Sunnis (and Shias), however, consider Ahmadis to be outside the fold of Islam.

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that the state is gradually adopting a more progressive approach, in spite of its attempts to remain as neutral as possible. A few examples over recent years would illustrate this. Apart from the explicit guarantee given by the PAP that Section 377A would not be enforced, PAP leaders such as Minister Shanmugam have had dialogues with LGBT activists.96 The fact that there is state engagement with these activists implies a certain recognition of their cause, and that the government has in some way legitimized LGBT activism. This is a marked change from approaches in previous years. In addition, even though the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Section 377A was not unconstitutional, in 2018,97 a ruling was made which allowed a Singaporean father to adopt his surrogate son, whom he had fathered in America.98 The court’s judgment was described as a ‘landmark move’,99 and was celebrated by the LGBT community. For the amendments to the aforementioned MRHA legislation, an Explanatory Statement was added to specify that targeting persons ‘who share a similar sexual orientation’ would be an offence.100 Naturally, the move was lauded by LGBT activists. These show that the state has indeed shifted ever so slightly on the particular matter of LGBT rights, even if these movements are not nearly enough from the perspective of LGBT activists. For conservatives, however, these signify an erosion of traditional values, perhaps in a way which no other change does. One can expect conservative activism – both Muslim and non-Muslim – on Section 377A, to be even more intensified over the next few years. As long as the law is not repealed, conservatives will try their hardest to ensure it remains that way. For them, since the state allows for differing opinions on this matter, and the fact that they believe these gradual changes are an affront to their religious and/ or moral compass, they can and have to preserve the current way of life. 96 Tessa Wong, “Shanmugam Meets Gay Activists,” The Straits Times, 7 January 2013. https:// www.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130105-393573.html. Accessed 14 October 2019. 97 Multiple challenges to the constitutionality of Section 377A are put forward in court. See Shaff iq Alkhatib, “Gay Rights Champion Makes Legal Challenge Against Section 377A,” The Straits Times, 23 January 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/ gay-rights-champion-makes-legal-challenge-against-section-377a. Accessed 14 October 2019. 98 K. C. Vijayan, “Landmark High Court Case Allows Singaporean Gay Dad to Adopt Surrogate Son,” The Straits Times, 17 December 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/ landmark-high-court-case-allows-gay-dad-to-adopt-surrogate-son. Accessed 14 October 2019. 99 Ibid. 100 Matthias Ang, “Shanmugam: LGBTQ Community Will Be Protected from Religious Violence, By Law,” Mothership, 12 October 2019. https://mothership.sg/2019/10/shanmugamlgbtq-community-mrha-protection-from-violence/. Accessed 14 October 2019.

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The alterations that progressives are suggesting when it comes to gender and sexuality matters are simply not acceptable to conservatives. Yet, they are able to act on their conservative inclinations because the political opportunities are there for them do so. One can expect the liberal-conservative dispute of Section 377A to be louder and not dissipate. It is unlikely that the state’s preference for progressive interpretations of Islam would abate anytime soon, which further widens the political opportunities for liberals, and narrows them for conservative activists. To be clear, the state’s method of making sure that a certain form of Muslim identity dominates is not wholly reliant on draconian legislation and strong-arm tactics, though it has no problems utilizing those means too. The state relies on co-optation, both of Muslim elites and the ulama, and on persuasion as well. The PAP is adept at making arguments which appeals to the average citizen’s sense of reason, by invoking points which are in line with its ideological predispositions. It must be reminded that many of these ideologies have been accepted by most Singaporeans as the natural state of affairs, and how life (and politics) should be structured. Minister Shanmugam’s exchange with Faisal Manap, and Singaporeans’ responses to it, demonstrate this. Singaporeans’ aversion to public dissent further means that conservatives’ have less room to operate. Since conservative Muslims are more likely to differ with the state on certain interpretations of Islam than progressives, they have more to quibble with. Yet, without the support of other Singaporeans, the minority Muslim population cannot effectively pursue any cause. The majority of Singaporeans have a penchant for ‘self-preservation in authoritarian environment’ (George 2017, 106). Cherian George argues that Singaporeans, even those who claim to not support the government, are always quick to turn on those who are dissidents, either by casting doubts on the character of the person in question or by dismissing him/her as too idealistic. Therefore, ‘anyone who stands up to the government must expect not only punishment by the state but also social condemnation and isolation’ (George 2017, 107). He attributes this to a ‘psychological defence mechanism’, where there are Singaporeans who ‘know deep down that there’s something wrong in our politics, but who won’t do anything about it’ (George 2017, 107). This is an important observation to note, especially in the context of discussions on Muslim activism. The moment conservative activists step out of line, they can expect to face ostracism not just by the state and its supporters, which is to be expected, but even by people who say that they are not establishment allies. The messenger is always never good enough, and the message is often secondary. Activists are acutely aware of this. They know that in many of

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the causes they champion, they cannot rely on support from those outside their circle. Even from within their circle, the fear of admonition from the state may make activists self-censor, as evinced from the Imam episode and activists’ reluctance to publicly defend Khairudin. The end result is the pragmatic retreat of conservatives in these spheres, ceding the public space to the liberals.

6.5 Conclusion Just as with the other two categories, the nature of conservative Muslim activism must be understood within the larger political system of the country. Conservatives, like liberals and the ulama, tend to play by the rules of the game. The political opportunities for the conservatives are even more constricted than the others for a couple of reasons: one, the state favours progressive interpretations of the faith in some areas – inter and intra-faith engagement, exchanging greetings, ‘inclusive’ identities, inter alia – and consequently, conservative expressions are either side-lined or discouraged completely; and two, they do not have the gravitas of the ulama. Although the term conservative is not as contentious as ‘liberal’, there are still some complications in using it. Some Muslims dislike ‘labels’, even if they may use them in other contexts. Some conservatives see conservative Islam as the norm, and other forms such as liberal Islam as a deviation, which is why they do not like the term. Nevertheless, this chapter has chosen to utilize the term ‘conservatives’ as a valid category, with the associated characteristics. The liberal-conservative divide, as made clear elsewhere in this monograph, is a real cleavage, and liberals and conservatives do compete for the same crowd. In Singapore, they additionally are in competition for the state’s attention. When conservative activists go outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour, as in Khairudin’s case, and face state censure, the message is sent to others that the particular issue against which such reprisal occurs is not one in which the state is willing to tolerate dissent. Conservative activists, more often than not, duly fall in line subsequently. The interviews with these individuals, as is the case with the ulama and liberals as well, demonstrate clearly that activists are not unaware of the potential pitfalls associated with their choices. Their acts are rarely random and irrational, but rather, are usually calculated and thought through. Just like the liberals, conservatives cannot be said to be ‘pure’ conservatives, since they are guided not only by their ideological predispositions, but by their pragmatic considerations

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as well. That is, they are conservative insofar as the state allows them to be. The fact that conservative activism is loudest in the gay rights debate highlights this very salient point. The next chapter will conclude this book, with some thoughts on the implications of the nature of Muslim activism in Singapore – as has been described – on the concept of civil society, the broader lessons one can learn from this book beyond the case of Singapore, and some suggestions for areas of future research, considering the limitations of this study.

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OonWFeCVDi2RlvjbdhdzlJKu_cQCTWkrhlwQq6Fdmybe9_o4w544M0qQqg&__tn__=K-R. Accessed 2 October 2019. Campagna, J. (1996). ‘From Accommodation to Confrontation: The Muslim Brotherhood in the Mubarak Years.’ Journal of International Affairs, 50(1), 287-304. Chan, R. “Personal Attacks on Muslim Leaders over Hijab Issue Uncalled for: Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim,” The Straits Times, 31 October 2013. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/personal-attackson-muslim-leaders-over-hijab-issue-uncalled-for-dr-yaacob-ibrahim. Accessed 2 October 2019. Channel News Asia, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/parliament/videos/october/ yaacob-ibrahim-on-maintenance-of-religious-harmony-amendment-11976270. Accessed 14 October 2019. Chee, K. “MM’s Views on Muslims Not Govt’s,” My Paper, 31 January 2011. https://www.asiaone. com/print/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20110131-261196.html. Accessed 10 October 2019. Edmunds, J. (2012). ‘The Limits of Post-National Citizenship: European Muslims, Human Rights and the Hijab.’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(7), 1181-1199. George, C. (2012). Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press. George, C. (2017). Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. Singapore: Ethos Books. Hassan, M. (2010). ‘Modern Interpretations and Misinterpretations of a Medieval Scholar: Apprehending the Political Thought of ’Ibn Taimiyya. In Y. Rapoport, & S. Ahmed (Eds.), Ibn Taimiyya and His Times (pp. 338-366). Karachi: Oxford University Press. Holland, S. “Trump Tells Sisi U.S., Egypt Will Fight Islamist Militants Together,” Reuters, 4 April 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-egypt-idUSKBN1751WT. Accessed 1 October 2019. Hussain, A. “Govt’s Stance on Tudung Issue Evolving, Says PM Lee,” Today, 25 January 2014. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/govts-stance-tudung-issue-evolving-says-pm-lee. Accessed 2 October 2019. “India Court Legalises Gay Sex in Landmark Ruling,” BBC News, 6 September 2018. https://www. bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-45429664. Accessed 4 October 2019. Iqtidar, H. (2011). Secularizing Islamists? Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa in Pakistan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Jackson, S. (2002). On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abū Ḥāmid Al-Ghāzalī’s Fayṣal Al-Tafriqa Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqa. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Jaipragas B. and Siu, P. “Scoffing in Singapore, Praise in Philippines: How Asia Sees Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill protests,” South China Morning Post, 22 June 2019. https://www.scmp.com/ week-asia/politics/article/3015618/scoff ing-singapore-praise-philippines-how-asia-seeshong-kongs. Accessed 11 October 2019. Kok, X. H. “Hijab Issue: Govt Must Balance Community Requirements,” Today, 6 November 2013. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/hijab-issue-govt-must-balance-communityrequirements. Accessed 29 August 2018. Kugler, M., Jost, J. T., & Noorbaloochi, S. (2014). ‘Another Look at Moral Foundations Theory: Do Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation Explain Liberal-Conservative Differences in “Moral” Intuitions?’ Social Justice Research, 27(4), 413-431. Kwang, H. F., Ibrahim, Z., Hoong, C. M., Lim, L., Low, I., Lin, R., & Chan, R. (2011). Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. Singapore: Straits Times Press. Lee, P. “NUS Prof’s Comments on Lesbians Spark Protests from Past and Present Students,” The Straits Times, 1 March 2014. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/nus-profs-comments-lesbiansspark-protests-past-and-present-students. Accessed 4 October 2019.

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Lim, A. “3 Forces Could Challenge Social Cohesion in Singapore: Bilahari,” The Straits Times, 25 July 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/3-forces-could-challenge-socialcohesion-bilahari. Accessed 8 August 2019. Lim, Y. L. “Singaporean Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, 44, Detained under ISA for Promoting Violence and ISIS, Radicalising Others,” The Straits Times, 29 July 2016. https://www.straitstimes.com/ singapore/44-year-old-singaporean-detained-under-isa-for-promoting-violence-and-isisradicalising. Accessed 11 October 2019. Lupia, A. (2016). Uninformed: Why People Know So Little about Politics and What We Can Do about It. New York: Oxford University Press. Mamdani, M. (2008). ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism.’ American Anthropologist, 104(3), 766-775. Miftah al-Jannah Halaqah, https://miftahuljannah.forumotion.com/t5-ilm-f irst-pillar-ofda-wah-lesson-on-adab?fbclid=IwAR2gFO03mzNuVzjmsDClu9mGwEQJqlg94Bac427UOCewc7cmD1tyOZZFLc. Accessed 9 October 2019. Minwalla, O., Rosser, B. R., Feldman, J., & Varga, C. (2005). ‘Identity Experience among Progressive Gay Muslims in North America: A Qualitative Study within Al-Fatiha.’ Culture, Health & Sexuality, 7(2), 113-128. Mokhtar, M. and Salleh, N. A. M. “Muslim Turn Up in White – for Many, It’s Tradition,” The Straits Times, 1 July 2014. https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/muslims-turn-white-manyits-tradition. Accessed 7 October 2019. “Mufti Raps Netizens over Tudung Issue,” AsiaOne, 30 October 2013. https://www.asiaone.com/ singapore/mufti-raps-netizens-over-tudung-issue. Accessed 2 October 2019. Muller, E. N., & Opp, K.-D. (1986). ‘Rational Choice and Rebellious Collective Action.’ American Political Science Review, 80(2), 471-487. Munson, Z. (2001). ‘Islamic Mobilization: Social Movement Theory and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.’ The Sociological Quarterly, 42(4), 487-510. Mutalib, H. (2012). ‘Singapore’s Ethnic Relations’ Scorecard.’ Journal of Developing Societies, 28(1), 31-55. Ng, K. “‘Gay Moment’ in Beauty and the Beast Totally Unnecessary: National Council of Churches,” Today, 14 March 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/gay-moment-beauty-andbeast-totally-unnecessary-national-council-churches. Accessed 7 October 2019. Ng, K. “‘Zero Tolerance’ for Religious Preaching that Fans Violence: Shanmugam,” Today, 3 March 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/shanmugam-chides-nus-academiccomments-over-imam-incident. Accessed 7 October 2019. Oliver, P. (1980). ‘Rewards and Punishments as Selective Incentives for Collective Action: Theoretical Investigations.’ American Journal of Sociology, 85(6), 1356-1375. Philomin, L. E. “Muis Urges Mosques Not to Take Confrontational Stand on LGBT Lifestyles,” Today, 21 June 2014. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/muis-urges-mosques-not-takeconfrontational-stand-lgbt-lifestyles. Accessed 7 October 2019. Radics, G. (2019). “‘First World problems’ in the ‘Third World’? LGBT Rights in Singapore.” In P. Ciocchini, & G. Radics (Eds.), Criminal Legalities in the Global South: Cultural Dynamics, Political Tensions, and Institutional Practices. London: Routledge. Rahim, L. Z. (1998). The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press. Rahim, L. Z. (2006). ‘Discursive Contest between Liberal and Literal Islam in Southeast Asia.’ Policy and Society, 25(4), 77-98. Razak, M. A. (2019). “‘World-Class Muslims’: Examining the Discursive Construction of a Singapore Muslim Identity.” The Muslim World, 109(3), 417-430. “Running Dispute over Oxley House,” The Straits Times, 8 January 2019. https://www.straitstimes. com/politics/running-dispute-over-oxley-house. Accessed 15 October 2019.

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Saat, N. “Arabisation and the Threat to Singapore Culture,” Today, 14 August 2018. https:// www.todayonline.com/commentary/arabisation-and-threat-singapore-culture. Accessed 10 October 2019. Shanmugam, K. “Fostering Closer Inter-Religious Ties Has to Be an Effort by All: Shanmugam,” Today, 7 March 2017. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/fostering-closer-inter-religiousties-has-be-effort-all-shanmugam. Accessed 9 October 2019. Shunmuganathan, R. “Netizens React Strongly over the Heated Debate on Politics and Religion by Law Minister and WP’s Faisal Manap,” The Online Citizen, 10 October 2019. https://www. theonlinecitizen.com/2019/10/10/netizens-react-strongly-over-the-heated-debate-on-politicsand-religion-by-law-minister-and-wps-faisal-manap/. Accessed 11 October 2019. Sidek, O. “Understanding Islam From Original Sources Not Arabisation,” The Straits Times, 31 July 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-on-the-web/understanding-islamfrom-original-sources-not-arabisation. Accessed 10 October 2019. Singapore Parliament (2007). No. 11, Session No. 1, Vol. 83, Sitting No. 4. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/ search/topic?reportid=024_20071022_S0004_T0007. Accessed 4 October 2019. “Taiwan Gay Marriage: Parliament Legalises Same-Sex Unions,” BBC News, 17 May 2019. https:// www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48305708. Accessed 4 October 2019. Tan, J. “NUS Prof Acknowledges ‘Poor Judgment’ in FB ‘Lesbianism’ Posts,” Yahoo! News, 1 March 2014. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/nus-professor-controversially-likens-lesbianismto--cancer---sparks-protest-letter-from-graduates-014042548.html. Accessed 4 October 2019. Tan, K. Y. (2016). ‘Law, Religion, and the State in Singapore.’ The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 14(4), 65-77. Tee, E. Y., Paulsen, N., & Ashkanasy, N. M. (2013). ‘Revisiting Followership through a Social Identity Perspective: The Role of Collective Follower Emotion and Action.’ The Leadership Quarterly, 24(6), 902-918. Teo, T.-A. (2019). Civic Multiculturalism in Singapore: Revisiting Citizenship, Rights and Recognition. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. Tham Y. C. “Mufti Criticises Online Vitriol over Tudung Issue,” The Straits Times, 29 October 2013. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mufti-criticises-online-vitriol-over-tudung-issue. Accessed 2 October 2019. The Petition Site. “Letter of Concern Regarding Benjamin Seet, Melissa Tsang and Khairulanwar Zaini,” https://www.thepetitionsite.com/357/463/602/concern-over-academic-expressionand-religious-freedom-jeopardized-by-lbgt-activist-singapore/?src=referrer&campaign=h ttps%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2F. Accessed 4 October 2019. Tibi, B. (2002). The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Berkeley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. Velayutham, S. (2017). Races without Racism?: Everyday Race Relations in Singapore. Identities, 24(4), 455-473. Vijayan, K.C. “Landmark High Court Case Allows Singaporean Gay Dad to Adopt Surrogate Son,” The Straits Times, 17 December 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/ landmark-high-court-case-allows-gay-dad-to-adopt-surrogate-son. Accessed 14 October 2019. Wong, T. “Shanmugam Meets Gay Activists,” The Straits Times, 7 January 2013. https://www. asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130105-393573.html. Accessed 14 October 2019. Yang, J. “NUS Professor Acknowledges ‘Poor Judgment’ in Posts on Sexuality,” Today, 5 March 2014. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/nus-professor-acknowledges-poor-judgementposts-sexuality. Accessed 4 October 2019.

7 Conclusion Abstract The concluding chapter revisits the argument, and states its relevance beyond the city-state of Singapore. I further discuss the implications of my argument for our understanding of civil society in competitive authoritarian regimes. Recommendations for future research are also put forth. Keywords: civil society, future research, competitive authoritarian regimes, management of religion, Islam

This book has attempted to outline the various forms of Muslim activism, and Muslim identities, in Singapore, and has detailed their concomitant relationships with the state. In a state where dissent is discouraged, and at times, clamped down upon, religion is meticulously managed, and where the ruling party has a large electoral majority in relatively free but rather unfair elections (which basically translates as the government having the mandate of the majority of Singaporeans in enacting its policies and in support of its ideologies), political opportunities are limited for activists to make strides. Yet, limited opportunities do not mean no opportunities at all. Much in the vein of James Scott’s and Joel Migdal’s works, this book has tried to show that no matter how preponderant a state’s power is, other actors still have some cards to play, the government is never wholly insulated from public pressure, and ultimately, non-state actors can make gains in the political realm (Scott 1985, Migdal 2001). As with all works, this study faces some limitations as well. The first has to do with the general climate of self-censorship amongst Singaporeans, especially when it comes to issues which they perceive as even more sensitive than usual. It is common to get respondents saying that ‘I do not want this to be on the record’, even after anonymity has been guaranteed. Criticisms of the state, particularly those which are stinging and pertains to the state’s core ideologies, are in the first place rare, and in the second, preferred by

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interviewees not to be recorded. As frustrating as that is to a researcher, the wishes of the participants must be respected, and hence, any such request – of which there were many – was accommodated. Any academic who works on Singapore politics would have encountered such a problem, with the refrain ‘This is Singapore’ being used by respondents to explain their reticence in having their critical thoughts expressed. Whether the justification is grounded in reality, is a different matter. No doubt, there exist real problems facing those who are critical of the state, as has been documented in the incidents involving critics such as Alfian Sa’at, PJ Thum, and others. Nonetheless, it is also true that often, Singaporeans miscalculate the boundaries of permissible dissent, and believe them to be much narrower than they actually are, resulting in self-censorship (George 2012). Another obvious challenge is more academic in nature, and involves the contentious nature of definitions. Not only are there intellectual concerns about the parameters of the categories ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Muslims – which can be said of most definitions in the social sciences – but there are existential and political considerations too. The terms are not only used differently by various people, but are used as tools of de-legitimization. Nonetheless, the decision to apply them was made as, in my estimation, they still convey the characteristics of religious trends in a specific way, which other terminologies do not. This chapter will summarize the findings from the book, discuss the implications of my findings beyond the shores of Singapore, place this discussion within civil society in general, and suggest areas for future research.

7.1 Revisiting the Argument The utility of the concept of political opportunities has been argued for throughout the book. As I have posited, political opportunities provide an instructive lens via which Muslim activism can be understood. Four aspects of political opportunities have been identified: the state’s approach toward religion, especially Islam; the availability of allies within and outside the state; specific electoral contexts, or the level of political capital which the ruling party possesses at any particular time; and the capabilities of the actor in question. Generally, political opportunities are limited for non-state actors in Singapore, considering the state’s obsession with maintaining order and stability, and its worry that religious strife can be a potent source of division. The matter is compounded further considering that the ruling party has largely remained unified, and there has never been a major split

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since Singapore’s independence (Abdullah 2016a). However, for Muslim activists specifically, their causes can gain more traction if they get nonMuslim allies on their side, as previous chapters have shown. Furthermore, electoral conditions since 2015 have made the political space narrower, constricting the opportunities for activists. Yet, for liberal Muslim activists, they are able to take advantage of the state’s aversion toward certain conservative interpretations of Islam, and position themselves better within the political system. Thus, political opportunities vary from ‘actor to actor and situation to situation’ (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2009, 264). Even if political opportunities are limited, they are never non-existent, in any society, no matter how powerful the state is. No regime is ever omnipotent. Furthermore, even within the limited space actors have to operate within, some actors have more space than others. Liberal Muslim activists most definitely have greater room to manoeuvre than conservatives in the areas that have been outlined. What then does this book tell us about Muslim activism? Firstly, and obviously, Muslim activists are not a monolith. Muslim activists have various causes which they are passionate about, and many times, activists disagree on not only strategy, but principles as well. Secondly, following from the first point, amongst the multiple cleavages which exist within Muslim societies, the liberal-conservative divide is one of the most under-explored. Sectarian cleavages such as the Sufi/traditionalist-Salafi or Kaum Tua-Kaum Muda divide, and the Sunni-Shia strife have been discussed a lot in the literature and popular discourse, and as salient as these are, more contemporary cleavages need to be understood too. Liberal and conservative activism is explored in this book, within the context of Singapore, but with reference to the wider Muslim world too. Both liberal and conservative activists have reference points from other parts of the globe, and their stories cannot be understood without comprehending the bigger debates on authority, ontology and methodology in contemporary Islam. The liberal-conservative cleavage intersects with the others too, but warrant separate elucidation. Third, the book has teased out the relationship between religion and politics. No doubt, a person’s religious understandings are not solely affected by politics, since theology, upbringing, family and social environment, all play a role in shaping them, but so does politics. Politics often can and does have an impact on theology, as states do try to define the contours of what are acceptable religious practices. Thus, the notion of ‘Islam’ itself is affected by political developments. It is not just that states attempt to shape what faith is; religious actors themselves, in anticipation or estimation of what governments deem to be within the boundaries of acceptable normative

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behaviour. The reluctance of both conservative and liberal activists to champion certain causes is reflective of this. More significantly, the ulama’s prescriptions of certain recommended practices – such as the exchanging of greetings – are inextricably linked to socio-political circumstances. The question then arises as to whether there are ‘pure’ liberals or conservative activists in the city-state. Of course, one would be hard-pressed to find pure liberals or conservatives anywhere (Naverson 2000). Human beings are often complex creatures, and do not fit neatly into fixed categories (Horowitz 1978). One may be liberal on some issues but conservative on others. Moreover, within each category, there is variation too: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are both liberal, but one is decidedly more so than the other. One could then argue that to subject Singaporean liberal and conservative Muslim activists to a ‘purity’ test would be unfair. However, the point here is not that to challenge that liberal and conservative Muslims in Singapore have nuanced views on many issues, which they obviously do. Rather, the point here is to claim that liberals and conservatives do not pursue their causes even when they desire to or believe in them, precisely because they have accepted the state’s terms of engagement. In this sense, the activists are liberal or conservative to the extent that the state allows them to be. Of course, there are exceptions, but those cases are helpful in ascertaining the general rule, which is that activists play by the rules of the game. The activists who do not almost always face repercussions of some nature, and those instances help define the OB markers which other activists should not cross. Most activists, of whichever ideological inclination, understand where the borders of acceptable activism end, and operate within this framework. The ulama and their activism were also studied. One may question the choice of ulama as objects of study since they are not usually regarded as activists per se; however, as mentioned earlier, the ulama are not only an important bloc within any Muslim community, but they also engage in activism of their own. In Singapore, they have been involved in causes such as the hijab and madrasah, and thus deserve to be studied. Moreover, even though many of the ulama are conservative, they require a separate discussion from conservative activists since they possess a level of gravitas which the latter do not, by virtue of their status as the ‘custodians’ of the Islamic faith (Zaman 2002). Even within the ulama fraternity, some have more standing than others, and hence for these people, the political opportunities were wider. Ulama in Pergas had more leeway to disagree, even forcefully, with the state at times. However, after the discovery of terrorist networks in Singapore, political opportunities became narrower for activism

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from the ulama, and their priorities changed too as altering the perceptions others had toward Islam became the priority. The ulama in Pergas became partners of the state in the battle against Muslim extremism, through formal arrangements such as the Religious Rehabilitation Group. Cooperation and accommodation soon replaced confrontation, in what can be described as a conscious process of co-optation. It is often thought, especially by foreign observers and some Singaporeans too, that the Singapore state maintains its rule largely by wielding a big stick and resorting to draconian measures. My argument is that this perception is not entirely accurate. No doubt, while the state has no qualms in resorting to these harsh measures when needed, as evinced from multiple cases which have been described, that is not the first go-to tactic for the state, nor is it even the most prominent. The PAP employs co-optation, both formal and informal, at an astute level, and does this more so than resorting to heavy-handed action. The co-optation of the ulama illustrates this point perfectly (Abdullah 2016d). The PAP is not the only regime to have f igured the importance of co-opting the religious clergy, as numerous other governments, past or present, Muslim or otherwise, have done so as well (Islam 1981, Barraclough 1985, Pierret 2013, Al-Rasheed 2015, Lord 2017). Apart from bringing critics, or potential opposition, into the state mechanism, the PAP has essentially managed to shape Singaporeans’ preferences, and even tolerance for dissent, through many years of education, persuasion, and controlling the discourse. This means that it possesses signif icant ideational hegemony. Through this dominance, it no longer needs to consistently use its ‘stick’, and yet still have Singaporeans falling in line, and even when they disagree with the party, they do so on the PAP’s terms (Abdullah 2017a). Rarely does activism which utilizes the rallying call of individual freedoms and liberty garner much traction. Instead, many activists frame their causes using language which is palatable to both the state and other Singaporeans. Gay activists have attained the most success, in part because their cause is not too controversial from the state’s point of view, but also because they have done precisely this, and appropriated state discourses on inclusivity and stability (Chua 2014). Basically, even activists have been conditioned to pursue activism in particular ways. The adroit method of identifying the ‘bad activist’ and juxtaposing it with the ‘good activist’ is also used as a discipline. The Alfian Yale-NUS incident highlights this succinctly. Minister Ong Ye Kung outlined why the course proposed by Alfian was eventually not approved by Yale-NUS. In doing so, he talked about the type of activism that was not only acceptable,

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but encouraged among faculty members at local tertiary institutions. He said: To realise the impact of research and your work, faculty are encouraged to be active. So, translate your findings into patents, enterprises or, if it is in the social sciences, discuss with the Ministries your ideas and see if you can contribute to policy making […] In some societies, individuals are more concerned about how far can I extend my f ist; but in Singapore, Singaporeans worry when my f ist will reach your nose. I have tried to explain Singapore’s approach. In an increasingly globalised world, we must not try to impose one country’s values and culture on others, or unthinkingly import values and culture from elsewhere into our society. We must certainly work across boundaries and learn from one another, but we must do so while understanding and respecting each other’s contexts and norms.1

Indeed, Ong was accurate in depicting the state’s over-arching approach to activism. It is not activism that the PAP is opposed to per se; rather, activisms which are deemed to be foreign-influenced or not in line with Singapore’s values are disallowed. The ruling party is the ultimate adjudicator on what is good activism or otherwise. At the same time, one cannot deny that since the regime constantly gets the lion’s share of votes in elections, it can credibly claim to represent the will of the people, and therefore whatever it deems to be unacceptable is merely a reflection of societal sensibilities. It is further true that many Singaporeans do express concerns at activism which can be seen as affecting the stability of the country; many online commenters did agree with Ong, validating Cherian George’s observation that Singaporeans ‘do not like troublemakers’ (George 2017). Just as the ‘good activist’ and ‘bad activist’ are defined, so too are the ‘good Muslim’ and ‘bad Muslim’. Good Muslims are those who exchange greetings, attend the funerals of other faith adherents, dine at the same table with those who do not eat halal food, partake in inter and intra-faith activities, and proclaim their love for the country. The preferred Muslim identity is shaped both through discourse and legislation, both through engaging with Muslim leaders and communities and drawing the boundaries of acceptable jurisprudential opinions. 1 Singapore Parliamentary Official Report (2019), Parliament No. 13, Session No. 2, 7 October. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=oral-answer-2069. Accessed 31 October 2019.

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7.2 Relevance of Study beyond Singapore The arguments made in this book speak to wider debates in the literature, especially on the nature of non-democratic regimes and reasons for their persistence. To be sure, this book does not involve itself directly in the debate on what has been termed the field of ‘transitology’, a body of works in political science which deals with when, or if, regimes transition to democracies (Geddes 1999, Carothers 2002, Gandhi and Przeworski 2007, Greene 2007, Miller 2015). However, much of what has been discussed pertains to this work. In discussing the conscious strategies of activists to adhere to the regulations and norms set by the state, implications for the survival of the regime naturally follow. The next section will talk about how the state has actually been strengthened because of this. Activism within state-sanctioned boundaries is both an effect and cause of the competitive authoritarian state. Such activism is evidently the result of wariness toward state reprisal, and at the same time, it contributes further to the perpetuation of such a system since if there were no resistance to it, there would be no impetus for change. Scholars of comparative politics have identified many factors which contribute to the perpetuation of an authoritarian regime. Two broad categories of reasons have been argued for authoritarian durability: the first talks about the strengths of the regime, and the second deals with weaknesses of the opposition. These are, of course, two sides of the same coin, since weakness of the opposition is directly tied to the strengths of the ruling elites. Strengths of the regime include its ability to provide material welfare, or its performance-legitimacy, elite unity, its ideological stranglehold over the populace, and control over institutions (Mutalib 2003, Slater 2003, Gandhi and Przeworski 2007, George 2012, Osman and Waikar 2019). Weaknesses of the opposition involve its inability to project a unified front against the regime, and their failure to mobilize the people through sophisticated mechanisms (Epstein 1989, Wegner 2011, Gandhi and Ong 2019, Ufen 2019). When authoritarian regimes fail to deliver on material-economic welfare, are not unified, and do not maintain strong institutional control, they are more likely to be toppled. Similarly, when the opposition is capable of rousing sentiments amongst the populace to the point that they feel inspired to protest against the regime, in whatever way, and when they are united, they are able to mount a serious challenge to those in power. This book is, at least tangentially, related to the discussion in comparative politics about authoritarian longevity. Undeniably, the nature of activism in Singapore is the consequence of the PAP’s strengths: from its dominance over institutions, to elite unity, and even its ideological hegemony. Yet, the

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activists’ stances further entrench those forms of dominance, as already mentioned earlier. Broader lessons which can be learnt here involve how the effects and causes of authoritarianism are often causally linked in both directions. Comparisons between the types of activism between different authoritarian regimes, and different types of authoritarian regimes, can be made to further widen our understanding of authoritarianism. For instance, civil society within competitive authoritarian regimes – which is the subject of this book – could manifest itself in completely different ways to military, personalist or monarchical regimes. Even within competitive authoritarian regimes, activism may vary in states in which the ruling party has ideological hegemony, as is the case in Singapore, compared to others where they do not. In fact, this study could even tell us more about the very nature of ideological hegemony: what it is, how it is constructed, how it is manifested, how it is sustained, and how it could be eroded. The fact that Singaporeans, and even activists who are expected to be more politically conscious, have internalized the boundaries of acceptable activism, shows how successful the PAP has been in its ideological project. The unforgiving reactions of ordinary citizens toward activists who are deemed to have transgressed these frontiers further bolster this point. In this way, the ruling party has performed a remarkable task in shaping citizens’ preferences and beliefs. A few questions could arise from this observation. Is the PAP’s ideological hegemony a result of its performance-legitimacy, or is the converse true? Are the PAP’s ideologies – survival, meritocracy, multiracialism, secularism and pragmatism – more internally consistent and externally validated than other regimes’ ideologies, which is why they have withstood the test of time, to the point that even the most successful opposition party in the country propagates largely the same notions (Cunha 2012, Abdullah 2017a)?2 Although this book does not claim to provide the answers to these questions, it lays some groundwork toward answering them. Apart from comparative politics scholars, those with an interest in Islamic studies would be able to benefit from this study as well. Comparative studies can be made with other countries, both Muslim-majority and Muslim minority nations, to see how the definitions of ‘Islam’ shift, or are affected, 2 Compare this to the Barisan Nasional’s Malay-led multiracialism ideology in Malaysia, which was not entirely sustainable in a multi-ethnic population, especially for the third-generation Chinese and Indians who do not see themselves as immigrants. Even though BN only lost power in 2018, its ideological hegemony had been challenged by the then-opposition and had been on the wane since 2008. See (Abdullah 2017a).

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by political opportunities and conditions. In fact, within these countries, much can be said about the understandings of Islam propounded by differing groups of ulama and activists, to ascertain the intersection between politics and theology. This is not unique to Islam, which is why scholars of religion may generally find this study to be of some use. Definitions of religion and what it propagates, or what is the ‘true’ version of the faith, are always contested, from within and without. The point here is to detail how exactly politics could affect the very comprehension of what a faith tradition stands for.

7.3 Implications for Civil Society The conclusions derived from this book may paint a bleak picture of civil society. It has been mentioned earlier that as long as most activists do not provide a sustained and credible challenge to the boundaries of acceptable activism, and instead work within the set system, they end up strengthening, not weakening the state. However, I do not make a normative judgment on what civil society should be or do. I have merely attempted to explain the nature and implications of activism in Singapore. A reader who believes in the present system may think that it is a good thing that activism is of this sort, whereas someone who is more critical of the establishment may think otherwise. Either way, that debate is not the concern of this book, although I do accept that such judgments naturally follow from the arguments I have made. That is a conclusion, based on a prior ideological position, which the reader is entitled to arrive at. A conundrum for the activist would be apparent: if one challenges the state too much, one would suffer serious consequences; but if one does not, one makes gains but ultimately reinforces the system. Most activists choose the latter, either by overtly cooperating with the state, or just operating in uncontroversial spheres. As a result, the PAP’s hegemony is as secure as before, as there is no significant counter-narrative coming from the activist scene. A comparison to Malaysia can be made, since the two countries have been argued to ‘have long had authoritarian regimes that looked like no others in the world – except for each other’ (Slater 2012, 19). Malaysian activists had, for over two decades, engaged in street demonstrations and protests, subjecting themselves to arrests and other punitive actions by the government (Lim 2017). Similar draconian laws exist in Malaysia to those in in Singapore (Slater 2012). They have also been able to hurl all types of criticisms at the government, many of which would not be acceptable in

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the Singapore context. In the medium-term, in spite of the difficulties that those activists went through, activism of that nature became commonplace and perhaps normalized, and awareness of state excesses proliferated. Over two decades of activism culminated in the fall of BN to the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition in 2018. However, there are some differences between the two countries. Firstly, activism really took a turn in Malaysia after the expulsion and subsequent arrest of Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister, from the ruling party and government. Anwar was a charismatic figure who commanded significant support from Malaysians, especially the majority Malay community. Essentially, a major elite split allowed the widening of political opportunities, and emboldened activists and other opposition parties, who immediately threw their weight behind Anwar (Nadzri 2018). Such an opening has never existed in post-independence Singapore, due to the extraordinary unity the PAP has managed to ensure. Secondly, even though both BN and PAP had been ruling with super-majorities in Parliament since independence (BN only lost its two-thirds majority for the first time in 2008), the PAP has far more credibility amongst its citizens. BN had always been riddled with accusations of corruption and financial mismanagement, in spite of the rapid economic growth and modernization which the country had experienced, and thus there were underlying concerns about the ruling coalition’s standing (Dettman and Gomez 2019). The PAP does not face such problems. Even if there have been concerns about the party’s authoritarian bent, the government has largely remained corrupt-free, while maintaining high living standards. The strength of the PAP in projecting legitimacy thus constricts political opportunities for activists in a way that the situation in Malaysia does not. Finally, in Malaysia, there was a higher possibility of a dissident type of activism bearing fruit, simply because the opposition was stronger than in Singapore. Thus, even if activists were threatened with imprisonment and other forms of punishment, they could sense light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long the tunnel was. Singapore is radically different, as not many seriously anticipate that the PAP would lose power anytime soon. Activists are fully cognizant that they operate within a PAP-dominated system, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As such, they are typically more reticent than their counterparts in neighbouring Malaysia. However, it is also true that Malaysian activists’ willingness to go beyond what the state views as acceptable activism, or their willingness to be ‘bad activists’, caused a dent in BN’s hegemony. Likewise, Singaporean activists’ reluctance to do so protects PAP hegemony. Again, the nature of activism is

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both an effect and cause of the perpetuation of hegemony, or lack thereof, in both countries. How then could we assess the state of civil society in Singapore? As argued throughout this book, Muslim activism is simply a mirror image of civil society activism in general in the city-state. Even groups which have been traditionally regarded as more confrontational, such as Aware and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), have successfully been formally or informally co-opted by the state, and are more cooperative than quarrelsome today, as is the case with Pergas. Civil society has been regulated, through legislation, punishment, and opportunities for cooperation.

7.4 Future Areas for Research Much work still needs to be done in understanding the relationship between civil society organizations and the state in Singapore. For instance, the historical evolution of groups such as Aware and AMP are worth exploring, to document the difficulties of operating within a system such as Singapore’s. More ethnographic work could be done to ascertain the decision-making calculations of the activists involved in organizations such as these. The state’s usage of particular incentives or disincentives at particular points of time is also worthy of note. Perhaps more important is further identifying the various groups within the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Muslim crowds. The categories can further be refined and understood through even more nuance. It has been more than alluded to in the relevant chapters that the categories of liberal and conservative are not homogenous themselves; there exists much variety within each. Future studies can investigate these precise differences and offer new typologies. This is not an endeavour which should be unique to Singapore; in fact, such a study would be more useful in the wider Muslim world. I have emphasized several times that the liberal-conservative cleavage in Muslim communities is one which cannot be ignored, and will only become more relevant in the coming years. This study, while touching on the theological and jurisprudential differences between the two groups, has focused more on the political. Future works could further discuss the religious aspect of this divide, detailing the sources, methodologies, and justifications for different theological and jurisprudential attitudes between the two groups. More fascinating insights can also be derived from interviewing state elites on their perceptions of civil society, especially specific activists and

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organizations. Although the state’s official and public stances would not differ too much from what its leaders would say in interviews, it would still be advantageous to get their insights. More significantly, interviews can be done with PAP MPs who are not office-holders, as they may proffer views which are contrary to the party line in private, though of course, there is no guarantee this would be the case. It is hoped this book has made a worthy contribution to the literature on state-religion and state-Islam relations, social movements, Muslim identities, and Singapore politics. While it is often thought that Singapore politics is mundane, this study has attempted to show that there are plenty of interesting phenomena that warrant investigation, and politics in Singapore is far more vibrant than many believe. Politics may manifest itself in more ways than just in the electoral arena, and those must be studied. This book is a contribution toward demonstrating the vitality of Singapore politics.

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Index Abdel Fattah el-Sisi 40 ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia) 56 Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) 21-22, 252 Ahmad ibn Hanbal 40, 170 Ahmadi 28, 183, 186-187, 205 Alami Musa 22, 116, 121, 183 Al-Bukhari 40 Alfian Sa’at 94-95, 127-128, 181, 200-203, 267 Al-Ghazali 74, 116 Ali Gomaa 40, 104 Aljunied, Khairudin 149-150, 227-237 Amina Wadud 165 AMP (Association of Muslim Professionals) 22, 273 Amrin Amin 91, 126, 205 An-Nawawi 40 Anwar Ibrahim 37, 56, 175, 272 Arab Spring 89 Arabization 113, 115, 213-214, 245-249 Asatizah Recognition Board (ARB) 22, 76-77, 107, 113, 133 Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) 22-23, 105-107, 152-153 Asatizah Youth Network 119 Asha’ri 170 Baalwie Mosque 58 Barisan Nasional 23, 40, 86, 97, 270 cadre 85 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 56 Chinese Privilege 201 Christian, Christianity 19, 69, 71-73, 116, 143149, 168, 176, 193, 207, 221, 232-244, 253-254 civil society 9-11, 27, 30, 53-61, 73, 87, 90, 96-98, 180, 259, 263-273 companions 38, 42, 48, 115 Compulsory Education (CE) 135 co-optation 14, 22, 27, 37, 54-62, 88-90, 191, 257, 267 Critical Islam 161-162 culture wars 71, 242

Fatimah Lateef 22 Fatimah Mernissi 165, 195-196 Fatris Bakaram 21, 113, 119, 135, 144, 224 fatwa 20, 109, 117, 136, 166, 171, 175, 186, 197, 205, 232 feel-good Islam 93, 124-125, 128-129, 151 feminist 52, 165, 195, 198 First-past-the-post (FPTP) 86-87 George Yeo 59 Goh Chok Tong 14, 60, 135 Group Representation Constituency (GRC) 13-14, 24, 86, 121 Habib Hasan Alatas 58, 118, 122, 129-131, 144 hadith 11, 39-42, 73-75, 104, 110, 169-170, 173-174, 189, 196-197, 215, 221 halal 20-21, 23, 176, 220, 247-248, 268 Halimah Yacob 119, 205 Hamza Yusuf 40, 43, 92 Hanafi 74, 113 Hanbali 40, 74, 111 Harussani Zakaria 40 Hasan Al-Banna 44 hegemonic 85, 128, 133, 143, 247 Hijab/Tudung 8, 20, 24, 85, 89, 109, 121-122, 134-145, 173-181, 196-198, 220-255, 266 Ibn Taimiyyah 40, 111 Ijtihad 118, 220-221 Imam Nalla 148-151, 223, 229-254 Indonesia 15, 17, 28, 46-49, 55, 112, 133, 166, 171, 175-176, 208, 252 inter-faith 118, 152-153, 162, 178, 182-184, 217 Internal Security Act (ISA) 14, 59, 77, 95, 107, 136, 180 intra-faith 179, 182-187, 198, 255, 258 Isa Semait 20, 77, 92, 109, 113, 136 Islamist 28, 46-47, 55, 89, 109, 132, 215, 217, 221, 251

Dadah Itu Haram 91-92, 119, 138 Dawoodi Bohra 183-184 dominant one-party 80-81, 86

Janil Puthucheary 127 Jaringan Islam Liberal (Liberal Islam Network, JIL) 165 Jehovah’s Witnesses 225 jurisprudence 12, 40, 42-43, 49-50, 73-74, 81, 104, 111-113, 173, 188, 196-198, 215, 234

Ebrahim Moosa 165 exceptionalism 9-10 extremism 28, 51, 95, 120, 138, 246, 250, 255

Kaum Muda 113, 215-216, 265 Kaum Tua 113, 215-216, 265 Khaled Abou El Fadl 165

Facebook 93, 119, 122, 130, 140, 149, 201, 220, 223-224, 227, 230, 235, 241, 244, 249, 253 Faisal Manap 23, 84, 121, 229, 251, 257 Farid Esack 165, 167

Lee Hsien Loong 15, 18, 59, 122, 140, 191, 248, 251 Lee Kuan Yew 13-14, 16-19, 58, 120-123, 202, 247, 251

Index

LGBT 60-61, 71, 73, 85, 89, 92, 117, 124, 163, 170, 176, 179, 187-195, 198, 204, 219, 233-242, 253-256 Lot 164, 188-190, 221, 240 madrasah 76, 134-137, 145, 154, 171, 179, 185, 255, 266 Aljunied Al-Islamiah 105 Mahathir Mohamad 54, 56 Malaysia 14-18, 21-23, 28, 37, 40-43, 47-49, 54, 73, 83, 86-87, 97, 133, 165-166, 174-176, 208, 252, 271-272 Maliki (school of thought) 42, 74 Maliki Osman 23-24, 144 Martin Luther 69 Marxist Conspiracy 18-19, 120, 134, 199 Masagos Zulkifli 22, 24, 106, 129, 131, 140, 144, 205, 229, 245-246 Mawlid 50, 81-82, 113-115 meritocracy 15, 60, 88, 270 Merry Christmas 131, 143-148, 214, 222, 232, 242, 244-245, 249, 255 Moderate Muslim 70 modernist 215 MRHA (Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act) 19, 23, 206, 243, 255-256 Mu’tazilite 169-170, 180 Mufti Menk 143, 146, 199-200, 231, 244, 248, 252 Mufti 20-21, 40, 42, 77, 92, 104, 109, 111, 113, 119, 122, 136, 141, 144, 149-150, 224-225 Muhammad Abduh 113 MUIS (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) 21-23, 58, 76, 106, 109, 116-119, 122, 130, 133, 137, 140-144, 150, 186, 195, 197, 204-205, 215, 238, 252 Muslim Brotherhood 44, 217 National Council Churches of Singapore (NCCS) 242 National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) 57 Ng Eng Hen 23 niqab 222 Nisfu Shaaban 82, 114 Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) 13, 58, 191 Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) 13 OB (Out-of-Bounds) markers 23, 85, 93, 95, 142, 203, 266 Ong Ye Kung 203, 267 Operation Cold Store 83 orthodoxy 82, 184, 219, 222 Pakatan Harapan 175, 272 PAP (People’s Action Party) 8, 13-25, 57-61, 81-98, 106, 119-121, 137, 144, 151-154, 176, 181, 191-192, 202, 243-244, 252-257, 267-274

303 Party Block Vote (PBV) 13, 86 Pergas (Persatuan Ulama dan Guruguru Agama Singapura, Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association) 22, 58, 105, 113-114, 129, 135-154, 229, 233, 255, 266-267, 273 Pink Dot 192, 237-239, 253 populist/populism 15, 69-70 pragmatism 103, 233, 242, 253-254 progressive 73, 117, 140-142, 162-208, 214-227, 234, 238, 241-249, 254-258 Quran 11, 20, 37, 50, 73-74, 82, 110, 114, 122, 169, 173, 175, 188-190, 196-197, 215, 221, 231, 235, 240, 245-248 Raeesah Khan 23 Ramadan Al-Bouti 44 Rashid Rida 113 Reformation 69-73 reformist 111, 113, 167, 215-216, 220 Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) 91-92, 118-120, 129-130, 134-139, 150 RSIS (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies) 116, 118, 145 Salafi 10, 29, 48-51, 74, 77, 89, 110-117, 129-133, 137, 152, 175, 215-217, 220, 265 salvific exclusivity 116, 142, 146, 177, 207 Saudi 40, 50, 54, 111-112, 133, 175 Scott Kugle 164-165, 188, 221 Section 377A 85, 92, 176, 187-204, 233-257 secularism 16, 24, 58, 80, 84, 121, 142-143, 153, 166-172, 176, 252, 270, Shafii 74, 136 Shanmugam, K. 16-17, 93-94, 126, 144, 149, 205, 240, 243-244, 251, 256-257 Shia 10, 29, 49, 74, 81, 111, 117, 175, 183-187, 205 Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) 60 Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) 141-143 Southeast Asia 11, 19, 27, 40, 42, 46, 54, 94, 112-113, 165, 171, 215, 221, 250 Sufi/Sufism 10, 29, 48-51, 81, 109-117, 130-137, 152, 175, 216, 220, 265 Sunnah 48-50, 73, 111, 215, 235 Sunni 10, 29, 40-45, 48-51, 74, 81-82, 111-112, 117, 133, 145, 160-170, 175, 183-187, 255, 265 survival 15, 21, 61, 95, 200, 270 Syariah Court 21-22 Law 107, 152 Tan Cheng Bock 119 Teo Chee Hean 8, 225 terrorist/terrorism 19-20, 28, 46, 50-51, 70, 110, 132, 134, 137-139, 151-152, 154, 217, 230, 246, 254, 266 The Straits Times 22, 30, 117, 142, 249 traditionalists 29, 48-51, 73, 110-117, 129-131, 137, 163, 169, 175, 215-221, 235, 265

304 

Isl am in a Secul ar State

Umayyad 38, 48 Ustaz Ali 58, 113, 118, 122, 129-131, 138-139 Ustaz Hasbi Hasan 114, 129-139, 151

Yaacob Ibrahim 22, 148, 205, 225, 230, 243 Yaasin 114 Yusuf Qaradawi 42, 45, 168

Wahhabi 29, 50-51, 110-113, 129-133, 175, 216, 220 Wear White 238-242, 252 Workers’ Party (WP) 14, 60

Zaqy Mohamad 127, 225