Amid Tensions, Southeast Asian Nations Counter Threats to Religious Harmony

Chinatown in Singapore. Photo: Marco Verch, foto.wuestenigel.com

SINGAPORE – Religious hardliners are not welcome in Southeast Asia: the region is battling the rise of extremism and inter-communal conflict by hardening laws against religious leaders and groups.

Citing the need to preserve religious harmony, Singapore has banned two well-known Islamic preachers from taking part in a religious-themed cruise that was set to depart from the country in late November. The city-state’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has also denied entry to two Christian preachers about a month ago.

In both cases, the MHA called the teachings of both Muslim and Christian parties “unacceptable in Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-religious society.”

Zimbabwean Muslim preacher Mufti Ismail Menk and Malaysian Islamic teacher Haslin Baharim were planning to lecture during a five-day cruise organized by a Malaysia-based tour agency. But in Singapore, a foreigner has to be granted a Miscellaneous Work Pass (MWP) in order to address public on matters related to religion, race or politics.

Singapore’s officials called Mr. Menk’s assertion that it is wrong for Muslims to wish others “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Deepavali” (the Hindu festival of lights) a view that runs counter to the idea of religious tolerance. They also cited Mr. Baharim’s alleged description of non-Muslims as “deviant” and his belief that non-Muslims should be made subservient to Muslims in multi-religious societies.

The Christian preachers were barred from entering Singapore due to comments described by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam as Islamophobic.

According to the MHA, one of them said Allah (“God” in Arabic) was “a false god” and appealed for prayers to be made for those “held captive in the darkness of Islam.” He had also described Buddhists as “Tohuw people,” which in Hebrew means those who were “lost, lifeless, confused and spiritually barren.”

Dr. Dicky Sofjan, a doctoral faculty member in the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), told The Globe Post that being a meritocratic society, “Singapore has every right to ban whomever they justifiably suspect of sowing the seeds of hatred to religious communities here or importing extreme foreign religious viewpoints that may be incompatible with the core values of the nation.”

“Having said that, one must remember that all religions are transnational in nature. After all, religions have flourished long before the existence of the modern nation-states,” he added, noting that despite a physical ban on preachers, the natural mobility of religious ideas and ideologies coupled with today’s advanced technology make them much more available to the masses.

Singapore’s close neighbor, the state of Johor, has followed the suit and banned both Mr. Menk and Mr. Baharim even though Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister had said that they would still be allowed to preach in the country. In Malaysia, each state has authority over issues pertaining to religion, water, and land.

Both preachers have a strong following in Southeast Asia and have worked in the region. Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Zahid told Bernama news agency that Malaysia was not banning them from speaking in public as their teachings had “not suggested anything that goes against our understanding of cultural and religious diversity to the point of causing social, racial and religious tensions in Malaysia.”

However, religious tensions have recently arisen in Johor after the sultan, who rules over the state and also acts as its Head of Islam, barred a Muslim-only launderette.

Not far away, Indonesia has passed a law to ban hardline groups unaligned with the nation’s secular Pancasila ideology. Pancasila enshrines values such as belief in one god, national unity, and democracy.

Under the new decree signed by President Joko Widodo, a civil organization deemed illegal by the government would no longer have the right to represent itself in court. Hence, those regarded in opposition to national ideology could be disbanded without legal procedure. The law directly targets hardline Islamic groups and has received criticism from Muslim organizations, civil associations and human rights groups.

Dr. Paul Hedge from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies told The Globe Post that he had mixed feelings about the tightening of laws against hardline organizations in the region.

“On the one hand, religious extremists do foment social unrest and even violence and so acts to suppress their speech and activity can be useful. On the other, it is hard to distinguish those we may label extremists and those who are simply conservative in various ways, and with much grey area in between,” he said.

Hizb-ut Tahrir, an Islamist organization that aims for an Islamic caliphate, was banned in July during the Indonesian government’s first swift move to crack down on extremist groups. The organization was actively participating in mass protests against former Christian governor of Jakarta Busuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is now in prison for blasphemy. While Indonesia is known for a more moderate brand of Islam, Hizb-ut Tahrir has a significant following across the country.

In an interview with the New York Times, Andreas Harsono, Indonesia director of Human Rights Watch, had called the ban “a sad day for Indonesia’s fledgling democracy,” adding that the group “should have the right to appeal the banning” despite its controversial history.

Earlier this year, a country that continues to be mired in inter-religious strife placed a year-long ban on a well-known, anti-Muslim monk. Myanmar’s top Buddhist authority barred Ashin Wirathu from further preaching his hateful speech as the country descended deeper into deadly violence. Mr. Wirathu, known as “the face of Buddhist terror,” has spread Islamophobic rhetoric and been blamed for worsening turmoil between Myanmar’s Buddhists and its Muslim minority.

Two hundred and fifty million Muslims, 150 million Buddhists, 120 million Christians make up Southeast Asia’s diverse populace. The region is also home to significant Hindu, Confucian and Taoist communities, as well as those of indigenous faith. While religion-ethnic tensions have existed in Southeast Asia for centuries, recent inter-communal conflicts and the rise of religious identity politics has been tearing at the seams of the region’s patchwork population.

Dr. Sofjan stressed the importance of involving religion as opposed to excluding it from efforts to counter radicalization and promote social harmony.

“We need to engage religious leaders, groups and movements that are doing good in society, whilst providing social services to the poor, downtrodden and marginalized communities,” he said. “In this respect, governments should not shy away from engaging religion or religious issues. The context in our region is very different from Europe with their long history of religious wars that ultimately ushered in the Renaissance era.”