Fri, 18 Jul 2003

Muslims must protect religion from radicals

Balaji Sadasivan, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

There are significant Muslim populations in countries like China, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

More than 10 million Muslims live in America and Europe. Although there is but one Islam, Muslims are of many different races and different cultural background.

There are Berbers, Turks, Indians, Malays, Africans and even black Americans like boxer Muhammad Ali who are Muslims. Yet very often, the non-Muslim population associates Islam with only the Middle East and the political turmoil of the region.

Not all Arabs in the Middle East are Muslim and Muslims consist of more than just Arabs.

But Islam is linked to the Middle East and to the terrorist violence in the region.

This is due partly to the news media, which cover the Middle East conflicts extensively and often term Arab acts of terrorism and violence as Muslim acts of terrorism and violence.

It is due partly to the movie industry. After the fall of communism, the bad guys are often South American drug lords or Middle Eastern Muslim terrorists.

When violent acts are carried out by Irish Republican Army terrorists, we do not call them Catholic terrorists but IRA terrorists. This is because Christianity does not preach the killing of innocent people. In the same way, if violent acts are carried out by Arab terrorists, we should not call them Muslim terrorists.

Non-Arab Muslims have also contributed to this stereotyping. A very small number have joined organizations like the Jamaah Islamiyah and associated themselves with its violent agenda.

Some non-Arab Muslims, by changing their fashion and customs to make them more Arab-like, have unintentionally reinforced this stereotyping.

Occasionally, we see non-Arab Muslims dressing like Arabs in long flowing robes. Arabia is a hot and dry desert area -- and the clothes fit the climate.

All these actions reinforce each other and increase the ignorance among Non-Muslims about Islam. Most Malays in Singapore are Muslims and most Muslims in Singapore are Malays -- so Muslim life in Singapore has a strong Malay cultural backdrop.

With this emphasis of Islam on knowledge, it is no surprise that soon after the emergence of Islam and for more than 500 years, the Arab Muslim world was the center of learning and science, and led the world in scientific achievement.

But the Muslim culture of learning and science continued to flourish for several hundred more years in Spain, until the end of the 15th century, and in India and Turkey until the 18th century. Today, most Muslim countries have lost their leadership position in science.

But Muslim communities in developed places like the United States, Singapore and in Europe continue this tradition of learning, and so Muslims hold high positions in these societies.

Because Muslims in Singapore place great emphasis on knowledge and education, like the rest of Singapore, they have moved from Third World status to First World status -- in one generation. Many of the Muslims in the Middle East countries have not been so fortunate, even though they have so much oil wealth.

The economy of all the Arab Muslim countries combined is only equal to that of Spain -- a mid-level economy in Europe. Saudi Arabia which started with a per capita income equal to the U.S., today, about 30 years later, has a per capita income that is similar to the level of Mexico.

The Muslim population of Singapore can be proud of its success and achievements.

When I lived in the U.S. and trained in neurosurgery in the 1980s, one of my teachers was a superb neurosurgeon who I greatly respected for his wisdom, and he was a Muslim.

In 1991, we invited him to teach in Singapore for a few days. I took him to the Sultan Mosque and to the Housing Board heartland to visit the mosques there and to meet Singaporean Muslims.

Last year, I met him in the U.S. He is now one of the leaders of the Muslim community in the U.S. and a leader of the Muslim Doctors' Organization in the U.S. I asked him if there was a backlash against Muslims in the U.S. after Sept. 11.

He told me there was a backlash in many states in the U.S. but not in his state, and he explained why. He went to the U.S. in the early 1970s and trained in neurosurgery. At that time, there were few Muslims in the state and there was no mosque.

He and the few other Muslim doctors decided to build a mosque. They each donated a portion of their salaries to do this. Soon after they started, they had a call from New York. A big charity, located in New York but funded by a Middle East country, agreed to donate half the cost of building the mosque.

They accepted the money and built the mosque. Then the New York office called and said they were sending an imam from Yemen to visit, and asked them to take care of him. They said: "Sure."

When the imam came, they entertained him and expected him to leave after two weeks. Then New York called and told them he would stay on for half a year. The Muslim doctors met and decided to send the Yemeni imam back. They returned the money to the charity and took personal bank loans to finance the mosque, because they wanted to control their mosque.

They decided they did not want a Middle Eastern imam because they felt that the priority of the mosque should be the teaching of Islam. They did not want their mosque to be hijacked by the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the many Arab-Arab conflicts in the Middle East. They did not want an imam from South Asia either because they did not want the Kashmir conflict to dominate their mosque.

So they got a Malay imam from South Africa. They were so happy with their choice that all their subsequent imams have been Malays, and he has been an admirer of Malay-Muslim culture ever since. He said the Malay imams are educated, hardworking, tolerant, and know how a multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious society works, and most important of all, they speak English well.

As a result, they are able to communicate with political, business, and civic leaders, as well as leaders of other religious groups in the community. Over the years, they educated Americans about the true values of Islam.

So when Sept. 11 occurred, the many years of reaching out to other communities and building trust between Muslim Americans and non-Muslim Americans in the community paid off.

There was no backlash in that state. In fact, the other communities rallied in support of Muslim Americans and ensured that there was no discrimination against them.

Dr Balaji Sadasivan is Minister of State (Health & Transport). This is an excerpt from his speech at a function held by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) on July 5.