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A tale of two Singaporeans

In the wake of the tragic Nov 13 attacks on Paris, for which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility, two Singaporeans have created quite a stir on social media, each for a very different reason.

The threat of violent extremism, like that which ISIS presents, is a complicated and complex problem that demands a solution. The first step to solving any problem is to accept that there is a problem. Mr Sulaiman Daud appeared to do just that in his commentary on the Paris attacks posted on his Facebook. 

As Muslims worldwide attempted to distance themselves from the work of violent extremists, Mr Sulaiman did the opposite by identifying ISIS as a Muslim problem. It didn't take long for that post to go viral, as it was picked up online and on social media platforms, and it spilled into mainstream media outlets around the world.

It is easy enough to recognise that violence in the name of an extremist ideology is a problem. It is also easy to cast ourselves as bystanders, individually powerless and collectively blameless. And if we aren't to blame, then surely it can't be our responsibility to provide, or even begin to look, for a solution. One of the reasons Mr Sulaiman's message resounded so well was that for the rest of us non-Muslims, it appeared as if we were being absolved of any responsibility none of us wanted in the first place.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

We have a responsibility to reject stereotyping one another, to refrain from giving offence and to resist taking offence. And we can start at home, with our neighbours.

Not surprisingly, many have argued that extremism and, specifically, the ISIS brand of extremism, is not purely a Muslim responsibility. These arguments point to root causes in the aftermath of the Iraq War and the Syrian civil war. Simply put, the conflicts, according to this view, created destabilising conditions for extremist ideologies to flourish. Since the primary actors in the conflicts were non-Muslim Western powers, the West is responsible for these actions, and should shoulder some of the blame and be held responsible for what is happening today.

Both arguments have merit and are, in fact, complementary, rather than opposing. When responsibility is shirked, things become undone. If each of us, regardless of where blame is apportioned, takes responsibility for a problem, then the collective load is lightened for everyone involved.

I hold the view that the necessary first step to take in fighting extremism is to stand up and be counted to take ownership of the problem. But a first step is still only just one step. All the steps that follow are equally important.

ALIENATION AND ACCEPTANCE

The modus operandi of extremist organisations is not unlike that of a cult or gang. It fixates on our feelings of discontent and weakness. It amplifies our sense of alienation and isolation. At the same time, it offers power and security, a soothing balm of community and solidarity, where one can be understood and appreciated by like-minded others.

It is a curious quirk of human nature that makes it easy for us to feel like we are being excluded or discriminated against. There is always something to complain about, even when our lives are otherwise going well. Things can always be better and when they aren't, well, surely it must be someone's fault, mustn't it? 

These competing forces of alienation and acceptance serve to divide us into two camps - into us and them. And if you're not with us, then you must be against us.

One obvious solution to the threat of extremism is to prevent radicalisation by making at-risk individuals feel more like us, and less like them.

Just last week, another Singaporean, Mr Calvin Cheng, created a ruckus when he suggested that the families and children of violent extremists should pay a fatal price for the "sins of their fathers".

I believe that each of us have a right to an opinion, and the freedom to express that opinion freely. We will inevitably hurt each other with our words and our actions, but as long as we are slow to take offence, and even slower in giving it, different opinions can co-exist peacefully.

But I also believe that this right comes with an attendant responsibility. Our past is littered with examples of individuals who have overstepped the bounds of good taste and been deliberately offensive or hateful. In a multicultural and multiracial society, a delicate balance must be struck so that we might all benefit from the continued peace we all enjoy.

It is an interpretation of the law to say if such comments about the killing of children overstep the legal boundaries we have established for ourselves. On the face of it, it is certainly extreme, insensitive, inappropriate and offensive. It only adds fuel to the fire.

It is talking points like these that alienate individuals and provide further ammunition to the same extremists we are looking to defeat.

POWER IN KINDNESS?

At the Kindness Movement, we often speak of the value in being other-centred, in being sensitive to the feelings and needs of others. It is an admirable goal, but one that can be difficult to accomplish in practice. We may be other-centred at times, but probably not all the time - and not equally with everyone.

At the same time, we know that when strangers find common ground and bond, it becomes easier for them to treat each other with kindness and respect because they are no longer strange and unfamiliar.

When it comes to the safety and security of our people and our nation, we all have a stake. And if extremist ideologies like those of ISIS and others present a threat to our nation, we all have a responsibility to be part of the solution - to reduce our capacity for alienation and to increase our acceptance, so that fringe ideologies can find no fertile soil on our island and in our people.

We have a responsibility to reject stereotyping one another, to refrain from giving offence and to resist taking offence. And we can start at home, with our neighbours. How often do we talk to our neighbours, share meals with them or attempt to bond? Do we reach out to appreciate and accept by word and action? Do we bond only with those with whom we have things in common, or do we also celebrate our differences and diversity?

It may be too idealistic to think that something as simple as kindness can cure extremism. It can't. But a little kindness can sap its strength, slow its progress, make the fields less fertile for subversive messages to germinate and grow.

And, in this, we can all play a part.

• The writer is General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'A tale of two Singaporeans'. Print Edition | Subscribe