The reactions of Singaporeans to the troubling assault of three madrasah students, allegedly by a 48-year-old man, attests to the maturity of a society that embraces all faiths reflexively. People were generally aghast, quick to condemn the actions and sceptical of calling it an Islamophobic incident. The suspect was swiftly arrested and charged later, and the authorities asked for him to be remanded for psychiatric observation. In another period of Singapore's history, an unprovoked attack of this nature on teenage girls of a different race and religion could have led to an outpouring of emotions. But today's Singaporeans aspire to go beyond just tolerating other religions (which might imply a grudging concession) and to fully accept the presence of all beliefs as part of the multicultural tapestry that is an integral part of the nation.
Gratifyingly, broad generalisations were shunned and responses reflected personal concern for the victims of the attack, while the brother of the suspect, who happens to be a Muslim convert, expressed his regret over the incident. The issue was also discussed openly with Singapore leaders when they met various representatives of different religions and clan associations in a closed-door session recently.
Such a spirit of mutual trust and engagement will be constantly sought to combat the threat of Islamophobia facing many societies as radicalised Muslims distort the true meaning of Islam to justify their brutal acts of violence against all, believers and non-believers alike. The images rendered by jihadist groups, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, are so overwhelming that their faith and terrorist impulses are often conflated in the public mind. That perversion of religion is projected so insistently in their group names, ideology and social media representation that the term "Islamic terrorism" has entered general discourse. Therein lies the insidious threat of stereotypes. Harmful associations are propagated in casual conversations, e-mail chatter and misguided humour to the extent that it might take a conscious effort to remind oneself that terror has its own name, whatever the religious pretensions of its followers.
Indeed, by helping to plant divisive generalisations in popular culture, terrorists aim to make societies vulnerable to the impact of the overtly racial and religious crimes that are committed from time to time. Ordinary citizens should not unwittingly heighten this risk by condoning Islamophobic chat in their circles. More importantly, they should ensure that the message they send to their children is always one that reinforces the racial harmony and equality that underpins this society. Singaporeans have seen how divisive race and religion can be. They must stand united against those who would exploit these faultlines.