As a philosophy, secularism seeks to interpret life based solely on principles derived from the material world. As a political system, secularism is commonly defined as the separation of religion from the state. Arguably, this is diametrically opposed to Islam, which maintains that religion regulates and instructs all aspects of a person’s life.
However, on a practical level, secularism does not necessarily mean the complete exclusion of religion from the public life of a society. Instead, it will be more productive to discuss secularism as it is actually understood and experienced by different societies, each in its own unique context.
Certainly, due to Islam’s outlook as a way of life, minority Muslims are bound to experience a number of challenges with regards to their relations with the secular state. In this respect, where and how should they get their religious guidance from? In return, what is the nature of the existing secular system? Some states limit the role of religion in its affairs, due to historical reasons. In other states, religion is recognized and valued within a more accommodative secular state.
In this respect, how does Singapore measure up?
Singapore is a young secular state where religion is not accorded any effective role or position in the political administration of the state. Yet, it provides people with the right to follow any religion or not to follow any. Hence, the state acknowledges the importance of religion to Singaporean society, while asserting its responsibility to maintain neutrality in the matters of religion.
As discussed above, minority Muslims may perceive secularism as a challenge with respect to values that obstruct them from practicing Islam as a way of life. Muslims may struggle to be good citizens of the state while being good Muslims as well.
In recent years, the contrast has sharpened due to the globalization of ideas brought about by aspirations to revive Islam and Islamic identities. Indeed, the objective – to become better Muslims – is good, but Muslims live in a variety of context, including increasingly as minorities in secular states. When the desire to enhance Islamic identities is obstructed by their secular environments, the responses of Muslim minorities have been varied.
Some have chosen to disengage themselves from the secular society while some have chosen to abandon their identities and become more liberal. Yet others have entertained the extreme idea that for Islam to flourish and manifest fully, a political system is necessary to support and strengthen that aspiration.
This third group, a position broadly known as Islamism, is an ideology that seeks to impose a particular version of Islam over society by law. It is a belief that Islam (and Islamic law) should guide social and political as well as the personal life of Muslims. It is an aberration in Islam as it advocates literalistic interpretations of the sacred texts of Islam and the Islamic law. Furthermore, this political distortion of Islam engages with the sacred texts selectively to justify what it deems as remedies for the ailments of modern societies.
The way these modern day Islamists pursue and generate knowledge strays considerably from the path taken by traditional Islamic scholars. While traditionalists undertake a lengthy course of education, Islamists, by contrast, tend to ignore and criticize much of the established corpus of Islamic learning. In a simplistic manner and approach, they tend to interpret the Quran as they see fit, dismissing the traditions that run contrary to their objectives and applying their own rationalizations to the religious texts.
As such, Islamism, be it peaceful or violent, shares a central ideology that is foreign and counter-productive to the Islamic intellectual and spiritual traditions. Islamism has mutated the spirit of Islam from that of generosity, forbearance, and mercy into one that is characterized by harshness, rigidity, revenge, and intolerance.
Singaporean Muslims in a Secular State
How has the Muslim minority community in Singapore responded to the various challenges it faces? One of the initiatives it has embarked is the Singapore Muslim identity (SMI) initiative, which guide Muslims to be forward-looking, adaptive, and inclusive in their religious outlook. The SMI initiative reinforces the fundamental precept that as active citizens living in a secular state, they should embrace the modern world by being progressive, confident practicing Muslims with good social and religious values.
The most important asset for bringing along Singapore’s Muslim minority is its religious leadership. The religious clerics known as asatizah provide the moral compass to guide the community as they navigate the modern world whilst holding strongly to their faith. The community looks up for them in making moral decisions: how to lead their lives as good Muslims, and how to manage the multiple and often competing demands between life, on the one hand, and religion, on the other.
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new era in which a blend of proactivity and courage took centre stage in the issuance of religious guidance for the community. In 2020, due to the worsening situation of COVID-19, the Singapore Fatwa (religious ruling) Committee, which comprises asatizah, became one of the first in the world to permit the temporary closure of mosques and suspend the Friday congregational prayer in Singapore.
This reflected the progressive spirit of the minority Muslim community in Singapore, and highlighted the importance for religious scholars to be proactive, courageous, and open to working hand-in-hand with authorities to make decisions that are timely and accurate, yet do not compromise religious principles.
These fatwas provide a model of how Islamic teachings are not cast in stone and can adapt to change in a timely, yet religiously-aligned, manner. This requires wisdom, courage, and flexibility on the part of religious authorities. By adopting these values of the religion, an authentic yet progressive Islam can provide solutions to problems that Muslims face today.
Singapore’s Facilitative Secular State
Singapore’s experience has demonstrated that a secular state can both be facilitative of religious life and, at the same time, maintain its neutrality towards religions in general. Similarly, from the Muslim community’s perspective, Islam can thrive within the secular state without compromising its teachings and principles. In other words, both the state and the community can be mutually facilitative in order to achieve the best feasible outcome for all.
As a minority community, Singaporean Muslims live in a unique context and environment. They need to remain vibrant and adaptive to new environments. In ensuring this, Muslim scholars ought to formulate a more sophisticated understanding of Islam in their efforts to guide the Muslim community navigate their religious life in the modern world.
There are, and will continue to be, many difficult and complex issues and challenges. However, they must foster the courage to find innovative solutions inspired by their religious principles, values, and traditions.
The building of a robust and adaptable Muslim community needs to begin with strong religious thought leadership. This is a long process that requires capacity building strategies.
The experience of Singaporean Muslims living in a secular state is a compelling case that Muslims can exist and flourish in any environment. In fact, they exist not at the margins of society, as some would like to believe, but rather as full and active participants of both society and state.