Managing Diversities
Dealing With the Dangers of Polarisation

In the second of a two-part essay, Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib looks at how society can address the polarisation wrought by extremist discourse. In his first essay, he offered several reasons for why extremists have been able to influence and condition the discourse that they want.

Extremist discursive strategies are dangerous because they seek to polarise communities into two opposing camps with no compromise for dialogue and mutual learning. Over the decades, we have seen this play out in the Muslim community. This polarisation occurs at two levels.

First, there is polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims in society. Second, there is polarisation within the community, between Muslims along sectarian lines. Examples of the first type of polarisation are widely known. Muslims are distinguished from non-Muslims who are described as kuffar (infidels) and segregation is cited as necessary to maintain purity of the former against the defilement or treachery of the latter.

Examples of the second type of polarisation have been less acknowledged but are increasingly gaining attention through its violent manifestation such as in Syria where the target of ISIS is not only non-Muslims, but Muslims of the Shi’a sect. In many parts of the world, traditional ways of relating to the faith, such as Sufistic practices, are under assault in the name of puritanical cleansing of accretions to the faith. In other words, the present climate of sectarianism is a manifestation of extremism — the goal of which is to sow hatred and discord, which eventually will lead to extremists inching in as an authority amidst confusion, distrust and fear.

Keeping guard against polarising discourses is important in keeping extremism in check. Of course, a diversity of views and opinions are necessary. But polarisation is not a robust engagement with differing views; it is an attempt to silence the opponent, to dehumanise those who hold differing views, and to reject ways of engaging that are open to mutual learning and understanding.

In religious discourse, the problem of polarisation is particularly acute since a critique of the extremist position is often equated with a criticism of the religion. Islamists, for example, are able to protect themselves from criticism in the eyes of the general public, by equating their interpretation of religion as equivalent to God’s. It is unsurprising to see emerging profiles of religious extremists as those not steeped in religious learning, but as rather unsophisticated believers, who are seeking absolutist certainty more so than a discussion of complex and diverse theology. This could explain why counter-theological discourse, combined with rhetorical messaging that Islam is a “religion of peace”, has not met with much success in curtailing support for extremist ideas.

Addressing the Effects of Polarisation

When the London bombing occurred in 2005, Singapore saw that social cohesion would be severely tested should something similar happen on our shores. The launch of the Community Engagement Programme (CEP) soon after was a step ahead to build resilience that could withstand acts of terror that had the potential to tear Singapore society apart.

Since then, political, grassroots and religious leaders have rallied together under the framework of the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) to ensure social connectedness that can bridge communities together. One essential element is to combat rumours. Rumours are a major push factor in the downward spiral to inter-group violence.

When Christian-Muslim conflict flared up between 1999 and 2002 in Ambon and Maluku in Indonesia, rumours were significant in fuelling enmity on both sides. Extremists do know the effect of rumours and misinformation, particularly in an age of social media. Thus, having a framework to curtail rumours and correct misinformation is crucial. The battle against extremism has gone beyond traditional security responses to the virtual world of global mass communication.

But social media has its limitations, and the battle for hearts and minds cannot be won solely through online platforms. What youth, in particular, need is a sense of community that can provide them with meaningful interaction. There is an urgent need for safe spaces to carry out difficult conversations offline in frank face-to-face discussions.

The lack of such credible spaces is precisely the reason why many would go online to engage in conversation with others or to seek answers as a way of responding to flashpoint issues they have encountered in society. One benefit of an intimate face-to-face discussion is that it humanises the interlocutors. It also allows for presumptions to be clarified and prejudices to be discarded. In combating extremism, addressing prejudices is critical. One objective of a spectacular act of terror is to create confusion, distrust and fear. It is not unfair to expect that prejudices would be acted upon in culturally heterogeneous communities. Suspicion towards the “Other” may be heightened, and if not managed, may spiral into a blame game which might physically manifest in violence towards innocent parties. We are currently seeing this across Europe with rising incidents of hate-crimes targeted at Muslims after the Paris attacks.

This leads us to another critical aspect of confronting the terrorist threat — that is, no single community should bear the burden of dealing with this. One of the goals of the extremists is to sow discord and prevent a true alliance of diverse people and communities along shared values of humanity. Such humanistic views are at odds with the violent and constrictive views of the extremists. Inter-religious solidarity, for example, will be something decried by the extremists. Therefore, one must be vigilant not to fall into the extremist strategy in keeping communities apart to engage in the blame game. Instead, religious communities should rally together and equally condemn terrorism in the name of humanity. The Community Engagement Programme, which aims to widen and deepen social linkages as a united front against the threat of terrorism, is an example of how Singapore views terrorism as a national issue beyond the Malay-Muslim community.

A day after the recent Paris attack, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam reiterated that “everyone plays a part to keep Singapore safe and secure.” This ought to be the proper response to the dastardly acts of violence wrought by ISIS or their affiliates like Boko Haram. It must be underscored that Muslims alone do not own the problem, especially when one takes into account the fact that ISIS has killed more Muslims than adherents to other faiths. A collective voice is therefore needed to condemn extremism and terrorism as enemies of everything that humanity stands for. One should therefore begin by forging greater solidarity across the various divides to counter the polarising effects of extremism in all its various forms and manifestations.

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an interfaith activist and founding member of Leftwrite Center, a dialogue initiative for young professionals. Read the first part of his essay here.

Top Photo from Twitter: Theworldface

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