- The Whitehatters
A REFLECTION BY A PARTICIPANT “Not if, but when,” had been drummed into my head so often that I thought I would be able to maintain my emotional equilibrium in the face of a terrorist attack in Singapore. But my reaction to Christchurch thousands of miles away proved I was in denial.
The White Supremacist terrorist attacks (15 March) on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, took me by surprise. I recall furiously posting on Facebook, sharing and re-sharing posts, comments, website links, what have you.
In hindsight, that was not an appropriate response as I was perpetuating the frenzy online. I could not resist watching a clip of the attack, a recorded snapshot of the killer’s livestream of his deeds making its way through messaging apps.
Innocent people were gunned down like characters in a video game, robbed of dignity and value: To the average person like me, there is no equilibrium to be had in the face of a rising tide of emotions. Clearly, my woeful preparation would not stand the emotional storm should – god forbid – an attack happens at home.
This led me to accept an invitation to the The Preppers on 21 March, a pilot programme to train young Muslim leaders on how to respond when a terrorist attack happens. When a terrorist attack happens in Singapore, “like it or not the Muslim community would be viewed with suspicion” given the global climate, said Ms Shahrany Hassan, co-founder of The Whitehatters, an NGO committed to building social cohesion in Singapore and the organiser of the programme. How do Singaporeans stand united in the face of it, she asked.
It was a somber start at the Village Hotel Bugis. We held a minute of silence for the victims in Christchurch, but the mood lightened shortly after with icebreakers and introductions. Soon, discussions were underway.
There were over 30 of us in the beginning, split into smaller groups of six to eight. Unlike me, most of the participants were young accredited asatizah (religious teachers) from various Muslim organisations. Our facilitators identified with different faiths, which I thought was a good thing as it brought a perspective beyond my usual Muslim circles.
Lead facilitator Farid Hamid had earlier set the tone for everyone and said that there are times during the conversation where we might be confronted with some uncomfortable ideas, that there might moments were sense some tension in the air given the nature of the topics at hand.
How then to navigate it? Should we avoid the tension so that no one felt uncomfortable? But that would make the session superficial. This led to a discussion and subsequently a group commitment to abide by Chatham House rules, to be honest in our engagements, tactful in speaking, and compassionate even as we voiced critical, uncomfortable opinions.
Our first discussion dealt with our personal feelings on the state of religious harmony in Singapore. We were to give a score on a scale of one to five, where one represented a complete failure of inter-religious harmony and five was basically heaven.
All my group members gave scores of three or four, as they felt there was always room for improvement given that stereotypes about Muslims abound and are left unaddressed. A man who managed weekend madrasah classes for children and youth shared that when he first heard about the Christchurch attack, he had assumed the attacker was Muslim.
If “even me a Muslim” immediately jumped to that conclusion, what more in the case of non-Muslims, he asked. Hence there’s much work to be done to assuage our wider communities, he reflected.
Danial, 27, a grassroots leader, said his view of religious harmony differed from the rest in his group. Danial gave a score of eight out of ten but his group mates who were mostly asatizah gave a four or five out of ten, he said. It was not that he had a particularly unique experience growing up as a Muslim in Singapore. Rather, it was down to his practical outlook compared to the idealistic outlook that he felt the asatizah in his group had.
Said Danial: “For me, (a score of) 10 is the best of what we can have based on what human history has to offer. Given that reality, we did well (in Singapore).” For the rest in his group though, they had a “different 10” which represented the ideal situation one could imagine.
The next segment was particularly interesting for me. Numerous mahjong papers were put up around the room. Farid asked everyone to shout out various categories of Muslims that we hear being used.
A chorus of voices shouted out what became the titles of each paper: LGBT, Liberal Muslims, Shia Muslims, Muis, Salafi, Women who wear the hijab, women who don’t wear the hijab, ex-Muslims, Madrasah students, and so on.
The task was to spend about 90 seconds rushing around the room to write, not our opinions, but instead the words we have heard others outside the room use to describe the various categories of Muslims.
It seemed to me that there were more negative words than positive. In the categories of madrasah students and asatizah there were views that both groups were out of touch with reality. Minorities like LGBT and Shia Muslims were associated with being deviants or at least misguided. The list goes on.
This segment was the most memorable for a young Ustazah who has been teaching for about two to three years. She said: “It truly opened my eyes to the reality that we may have been trying to ignore... the reality of how the people under the mentioned categories are perceived by members of society. I feel that people tend to ignore the not so nice things people say about each other and pretend we are all harmonious.”
She said that she is now thinking of working with other attendees of The Preppers to develop programmes that minister to underserved minority Muslims. The Ustazah added: “I hope many more asatizah from diverse inclinations attend such events as I think it will help them open their minds to different perspectives on issues our community is facing.” To that end, she found Muhammad Imran’s presentation particularly valuable. He showed participants their blind spots when it came to dealing with others, especially minorities.
Imran, from the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, pointed out five realities. Diversity is natural, identity is constructed, each one of us have multiple identities, we negotiate our relationships largely through our identities, and finally depending on the context we can be part of the majority or minority identity. How then to deal with this reality? Imran then did a role play with the whole room, split into a minority and majority section. Through the exercise it soon became clear that as a community we could be exclusive, push for assimilation, or be inclusive.
Being inclusive and understanding was the fairest model for all. An Ustazah who has been teaching at a full-time madrasah for the past nine years was particularly struck by this lesson so much so that she plans to bring this back to her students. On a personal level, “I will strive to learn more about other communities and groups” like the Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Ahmadis, she said.
When asked if she wished for anyone else to attend The Preppers, the Ustazah replied that it would be good if “madrasah principals, non-Muslim youth leaders, and madrasah student leaders” could attend such a programme in the future. She added: “Oftentimes hatred stems out of a lack of meaningful interaction with one another... we (in madrasahs) should be more active in getting to know people from other communities and learn to be more appreciative of each other’s differences. This is because Madrasahs hold the responsibility of developing future Muslim leaders for the community.”
Lunch was a welcome break after all the thinking and reflection. Religious leaders from the other faith groups joined to break bread with us. It was also an opportunity to build bridges. One leader of a Buddhist Youth Group for example, exchanged contact details with the leader of another Muslim Youth Group leader when they realized they faced similar challenges within their respective communities on top of the inter-faith work they were both interested in.
Fruitful, thoughtful, and enjoyable as the day was, I was personally left wondering what everything had to do with my learning to respond to a terrorist attack when it happens in Singapore. My question was answered immediately after lunch during Harasha Bafana’s communications session on how to harness our influence for good during a crisis.
During a crisis, we should calm down, think clearly, and provide guidance to our networks by stopping rumours, calm people down, and urge patience to wait for official news. Good communication then would be fast responses, with short clear points in simple language grounded in facts.
We then proceeded to the main exercise of the day – scenario-based planning. The non-Muslim leaders who joined us for lunch also participated in this exercise. Each of the groups were presented with various possible terrorist attack scenarios involving different communities and methods. At the end of the session, the groups presented their responses with Harasha critiquing them for group-based learning.
Many groups suggested showing a united front with leaders and friends from other communities to collectively provide a calm and clear direction to our individual communities. That of course was based on the assumption that each of us had such friends to lean on in times of need in the first place.
This realization made us wonder how much weight our voices could carry during a crisis, especially amongst those who are considered “deviant” as shown in the exercise earlier in the day. How calmly could we respond to troublemakers purportedly from another religious community if the views we had of them fed into our unchallenged stereotypes?
I imagine the effect would be that much more disastrous if we didn’t even have a trusted friend from that community as a result of an exclusivist orientation. I shudder to think about the converse as well. Will my fellow Singaporeans who happen to be non-Muslim trust my voice if I’ve never made the effort to build friendships and trust?
Friendships and trust are forged in peacetime and strengthened in the crucibles of crisis. Conversely, distrust can also be forged in peacetime, only to convulse into conflicts in crisis. It became very clear to all of us that the ability to respond effectively during a crisis was highly dependent on the preparation we take pre-crisis.
My group’s scenario was of a Muslim attack on Pinkdot, the LGBT affirming annual event. We discussed about necessary it was to build bridges with the LGBT community pre-crisis even though most Muslims consider homosexuality a sin.
An Ustaz however pointed out that he is keen to reach out, but it’s difficult to do so because LGBT identifying Muslims in general are afraid to speak to asatizah about such issues out of fear.
The Christian pastor in our group then piped in to say that similarly most Christians have similar sentiments as Muslims regarding the LGBT community. However, members of his congregation have found ways to reach out to him.
When another group member asked how the pastor managed that, he replied that he spoke out against any negative comments regarding the LGBT community. When he spoke on the issues, he always spoke of love and forgiveness and understanding while staying true to the church’s stand that homosexual acts are a sin. Over time, the most affected of his LGBT identifying congregants felt safe enough with him to seek pastoral care and he was able to support them.
It was clear to me that the pastor’s words got the Ustaz into a reflective mode. The Ustaz was not alone. “We need to build and work harder on appreciating human dignity and value... to look beyond our identities to help each other in times of need,” said an Ustaz from another group. He has been teaching since 2008.
Appreciate “human dignity and value”. His words struck me. The reasons why the terrorist was able to do what he did in Christchurch was the same reason why terrorists like ISIS can do what they do. These criminals and their sympathisers have no appreciation for human dignity nor value.
For me to be able to respond calmly and responsibly not only requires the knowledge and skills of crisis communications but more importantly, it demands that I am able to relate to others with an appreciation for their dignity and value. That cannot be done without the “heavy-lifting”, as Harasha said, which is the building of bridges and friendships pre-crisis. To be able to build such bridges requires trust, which cannot be established until we stop to listen to the “lived experiences” of other communities and recognize the diversity within our own communities, said Imran. Only then, can the negative words that were listed in the earlier exercise lost its power.
At the end of the day it comes down to this: The way to maintain my emotional equilibrium and have a proper response to a terrorist attack starts now, before it happens.