27 April 2015

If at home we don’t have any tolerance for people who disagree with us, how do we explain how IS treats differences in beliefs and views so violently?

A BRIGHT spark in our Cabinet recently said that women joined the Islamic State (IS) because they were lonely. Actually women join all sorts of things if they are lonely – gyms, clubs, mosques and churches, amongst others, that are usually within their own vicinity. It doesn’t explain, however, why there are a lot more men joining IS than women. Could they be even lonelier?

The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has declared that they will now go on an all-out war against IS’ influence. Of course this is a good thing and should be supported. But for any outside observer, it is too easy to see how Jakim’s good intentions will fail. The gap between such intentions and reality is simply too large.

Jakim may think that issuing a fatwa against IS is the right move. In fact, it makes hardly a dent. For one thing, most people are not aware of any such fatwa. Secondly, such a fatwa is going to be ignored by IS recruiters because they obviously do not respect Jakim’s authority anyway. And their own fatwas, or opinions, on why it is a good thing to join IS are far more seductive to certain impressionable people, male or female.

Saying that it is unIslamic to take up violence is certainly correct. Wanting to die a martyr’s death, especially by suicide and killing others at the same time, is also forbidden in Islam. But it is not enough to stop at defining a terrorist merely as one who takes up arms and violence. We need to look more holistically at the issue of IS and who it directs its terror at.

For a start, who is IS fighting and inflicting violence on? Thus far they have terrorised just about anyone who disagrees with them, whether they are other Muslims especially Syiahs and other Sunnis who don’t agree with them, non-Muslim civilian populations such as the Yezidis and Christians, foreign humanitarian workers, journalists and just about anybody who refuses to pledge allegiance to their cause.

So, the first thing we have to teach young people is to learn to accept that people have different views and beliefs. How do we do this when every day someone of a different opinion or faith is being persecuted just for disagreeing with the dominant faith or government or, for that matter, just being different? If at home we don’t have any tolerance for people who disagree with us, how do we explain how IS treats differences in beliefs and views so violently?

What is the difference between the way IS treats Syiahs in Syria, for instance, and the way we do here, except for the degree of violence?

This violence has forced huge numbers of ordinary Syrians to flee their homes. More than three million have fled to neighbouring countries, increasing the burden on their already strained societies.

Another six million people are internally displaced, meaning that they are forced to leave their homes to look for shelter from IS within their own country. But as IS expands the territory under its rule, these people have to constantly move to look for safety.

Think of what this feels like, to be constantly afraid, to be unsure of how to feed their children, to have no access to healthcare, schools and jobs. IS has also done a good job of destroying infrastructure in Syria so that humanitarian aid cannot even reach these beleaguered civilians.

Why have we said nothing about these refugees? Why have we not extended help to them? And while we extend our sympathies to similar situations nearby, why then do we treat refugees in our own land so badly?

Then there’s the way IS treats women. There is a horrific Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with women and girls who have escaped IS, telling of the systematic abductions, rape, torture and murder of women in the IS-held territories.

Most of the women were Yezidi, a small community in Syria, but some were also Muslim. Some of the horror stories involved girls as young as 12, raped by gangs of IS fighters. Many were sold as slaves, with IS claiming it is Islamic to do this to prisoners of war.

To counter IS at home, we thus need to teach our young to respect women and girls. We should have zero tolerance for violence against women and girls, regardless of what they wear, say or do.

How do we do this when Jakim is silent when women are threatened with rape for giving a different opinion on issues? Why are women constantly attacked just for speaking up?

This is why Jakim’s ‘war’ against IS will fail. As the Malay saying goes, ‘cakap tak serupa bikin’ or ‘not walking the talk’. But there is another word for this: hypocrisy.

10 April 2015

When children spend most of their waking hours only around those who are similar to them, they tend to believe that this environment represents the world.

OCCASIONALLY I get nostalgic about my school days and how different things were then. When I was growing up in a small town, my parents sent me to the local mission school because it was known for its high academic standards. The school was run by Catholic nuns and not many Muslim girls went there because some parents were concerned that their daughters might be “influenced”.

They were partially right, though not in the way they expected. As far as I know, all the Malay girls who went to the convent school remained devout Muslims. But we did absorb enough of Christianity to not fear it.

To this day I know the Lord’s Prayer but I don’t find it superior to the Alfatihah, just different. When I did my A-levels in History and studied the Reformation, I already knew enough about Christian history to know what they were reforming from. Most of all, the nuns drilled in us a strict discipline in behaviour, according to our motto, “Simple in virtue, steadfast in duty.”

I then continued my secondary education in an all-girls boarding school. The school was an elite one, all of its students creamed off from various schools around the country through an entrance exam.

Superficially all the students were racially homogenous. In reality, I had never come across so much diversity despite having come from a more heterogenous school in my hometown.

In my old school, everyone spoke the same way and knew the same things in our limited small-town experience. But at boarding school I came across girls who not only came from very different circumstances than I but also spoke with accents so different that sometimes I could not understand them.

There were all sorts of characters, from the natural leaders to the shy ones to the sporty and the musically talented. They were all academically smart or they would not have been there.

But what was new to me was to meet girls who were super-smart, with multiple distinctions in a time when 7As really meant something. I was also used to a certain sort of face, darker perhaps with traces of the subcontinent. But at boarding school I met some real beauties and a vast array of faces denoting ancestral origins from continents far different from mine.

It was there that I learnt that while we may be outwardly the same because of race and religion, in fact each individual had a different story to tell. My history was similar but also dissimilar from all the other girls’.

The school gave us many opportunities to bond with one another despite our different stories, through healthy competition in academics, sports, music and theatre and many of us stayed connected over the years through alumni get-togethers. Whatever our origins became immaterial.

One thing I recall, that is worth remarking on because it is rare these days, is how mixed our teachers were. The whole spectrum of peninsular Malaysia was represented in our teachers.

There was a Mr Tan who taught us Physics, Miss Aru who taught us English, Cik Khairiah who taught us Bahasa Malaysia and Mr Yan for Mathematics. What was more, there were also foreign teachers who were placed in the school.

Miss Bryers, from the United States, had the bluest eyes and wore the sarong kebaya very fetchingly. Miss Ida came from the United Kingdom and Mr Alcock from Australia taught us to play softball. And a music teacher came every week to train our national prize-winning choir.

Thus besides academics, my schoolmates and I benefited from being exposed to all sorts of different people, both from among ourselves and among our teachers. We accepted that diversity as given, because that was what it took to turn out many generations of high-achieving girls ready to take on the world. And indeed many of my chums went on to excel in their careers.

I don’t know what it is like nowadays in that school. But I do know that in terms of exposure to difference and diversity, our schoolchildren’s experiences are far more limited today.

Not only do they mostly know others within their own ethnicity but also within their own social class. Those who can afford it have left for schools they considered more academically rigorous, whether vernacular, private or international. The national schools have become depleted of diversity.

When children spend most of their waking hours only around those who are similar to them, they tend to believe that this environment represents the world. Little prepares them for a life where different races, religions, classes and creeds mix. Unsurprisingly, this lack of preparation coupled with the stereo­typing born of unfamiliarity, is a recipe for potential conflict.