Speaking openly about Islamophobia

The panellists and moderator, U@live Chairman Mr Viswa Sadasivan, discussing Islamophobia and Islamic Radicalism at the second U@live Forum of the year

“This is what a mature society should be doing — to discuss sensitive topics like this in an open forum,” said Mr Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health. And it was on that note of openness that the panellists on the NUS U@live Forum titled “Islamophobia – Do Two Wrongs Make a Right?” commenced their discussion on 30 October before an audience of 300.

Across the board, the four panellists — Mr Tong; Head of NUS Malay Studies Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad; former US Government Special Representative to Muslim Communities Ms Farah Pandith; and Singapore Management University student and U@live essay competition runner-up Victoria Ivory Birrell — agreed that Islamophobia stems from ignorance and irrational fear about Islam and Muslims. In the essay that clinched her a seat on the panel, Victoria — a politics, law and economics student — argued that “Western structural Islamophobia fuels Islamic Radicalism’s cause. Acts of Islamic Radicalism also increase Islamophobia, revealing the vicious cycle of this divisive problem. Both labels thrive on fearmongering and rely on grossly unsubstantiated mistruths about the other.”


Mr Tong, flanked by Assoc Prof Maznah and Mr Viswa, answering a question from the audience of NUS alumni and members of the public

Acknowledging the problem with defining the term “Islamophobia”, Ms Pandith shared, “When I was Special Representative to Muslim Communities, I never used the term ‘Islamophobia’ precisely because no matter where in the world I went, it meant a different thing to different people.”

Ms Pandith also advised that it is important to consider the context in which Islamophobia is proliferating in the post-September 11 world. “We are reeling from an ‘us versus them’ set of ideologies, not just about Muslims, not just about one particular religion or one particular ethnicity. We are seeing a rise of hate globally... It’s not isolated. It is in the context of something much larger,” she said, noting that there has also been an increase in such rhetoric for minority ethnicities, races, genders and sexual orientations.

Additionally, violence and terrorist acts can be committed in the name of any religion or cause, Assoc Prof Maznah pointed out. She suggested using the term “Islamist terrorism” rather than “Islamic terrorism”; “Islamist” refers to a particular political ideology that supports militancy, while “Islamic” refers to the religion itself, which is peaceful. “It’s the ideology behind it, not the religion,” said Assoc Prof Maznah.

We have had to create our own rules. We have been doing that since we became independent... And so we set up a system that works for us.

In the context of Singapore, Mr Tong highlighted that the government has struck a balance in its management of inter-religious and inter-racial relations. Mr Tong continued, “We have had to create our own rules. We have been doing that since we became independent.... And so we set up a system that works for us… We have legislation that sets out the outer parameters. We have the Sedition Act, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. We have laws that govern what we can say.”

Within this framework, Singapore has implemented housing and education policies to prevent the formation of enclaves. The government also supports the Inter-Religious Organisation Singapore (IRO) and the Harmony Fund, he added.

The IRO was founded as an independent organisation in 1949 by leaders of diverse faiths to work together for religious harmony in Singapore. The Harmony Fund provides grants to non-profit organisations when they undertake projects that promote racial and religious harmony.


Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed — a former politician and NUS alumnus who now serves as Singapore Ambassador to the State of Kuwait — posing a question to the panel

Organised by NUS Alumni Relations, the biannual NUS U@live Forum seeks to encourage thought leadership and innovative solutions to global issues through robust engagement between eminent NUS alumni and top leaders and thinkers from Singapore and the world.