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Terrorism is a political problem, not a religious one

When it comes to teaching Singaporeans about anti-terrorism, interfaith approaches to Islamophobia miss the point. What's needed is education on the post-Cold War geopolitical realities in the Middle East.

Recently, in the aftermath of attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Europe, Singaporean leaders warned against the danger of Islamophobia.

Mr K. Shanmugam, Home Affairs and Law Minister, expressed his fears that non-Muslims in Singapore could start developing a set of attitudes internally towards Muslims as a reaction to terror attacks elsewhere in the world, and noted that there were signs that this was already happening. He urged non-Muslims to reach out and engage Muslims here so as to maintain the nation's social cohesion.

In a similar vein, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, recently stressed the role of religious leaders in promoting understanding about "how Muslims and non-Muslims can live together side by side in peace and harmony".

This interfaith approach is not limited to the ministerial level. Teachers in secondary schools and junior colleges that I visit often ask me to include something about the importance of interfaith dialogue in my lectures about the Middle East.

Interfaith dialogue is aimed at keeping the peace in the wake of all the attacks and should be encouraged, but it is equally important that we help the young to understand and historicise the emergence of terrorism.

Singaporean students who I visit often ask me to explain the phenomenon of ISIS, or even of Al-Qaeda, which are in essence not a religious problem and cannot be understood using a religious approach. It is a political problem closely associated with the transformations of the role of the United States, as well as the global political landscape, from the Cold War to a post-Cold War era. Hence, we have to move beyond interfaith dialogue, and adopt a political lens to help young Singaporeans understand this political problem.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

European countries and the US have long been models for Singapore, but the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, not to mention the rise of racism and intolerance in the US, reflect most potently the failure of these societies to integrate their minorities.

An analogy may help illuminate the situation. When, for example, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump quotes from the Bible and portrays himself as an ideal Christian candidate for American evangelical voters, we do not try to understand the problematic phenomenon of Mr Trump only through the lens of Christianity. Rather, the economic problems faced by many working-class Americans and their disillusionment with establishment candidates, Republican or Democrat, are more relevant. Similarly, approaching Al-Qaeda or ISIS only through the lens of Islam misunderstands the nature of the problem completely.

POLITICAL ALLIANCES MATTER

Thus, apart from promoting interfaith dialogue, we need to teach students about how US Cold War-era policies and alliances took on new significance in a post-Cold War world.

For example, US interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia in the Cold War era empowered some parties who consequently turned against US interests in a changed global political context after the fall of the Soviet Union. While these interventions may have made strategic sense during the Cold War, they set in motion other elements that gradually came to acquire a different logic in the post-Cold War world.

A salient example to illustrate this point is Osama bin Laden, who once fought with US and Saudi aid against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to "turn against" his former patron on Sept 11, 2001.

In a similar vein, some of the US' Cold War-era alliances that previously held strategic value against the Soviet Union have transmogrified into strategic liabilities.

For example, Mr Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired US Army colonel and the former chief of staff to then US Secretary of State Colin Powell, has candidly shared his views in multiple interviews that the close alliance between the US and Israel, which made strategic sense during the Cold War era, was now a strategic burden for the US.

In his open letter to the US in 2002, Osama stated that Al-Qaeda's undertaking of the Sept 11 attacks was motivated by the Israeli occupation of Palestine - this was the first reason given in his letter, among a list of others.

However, Osama previously had few qualms fighting on the side of the US against the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 1980s. Why, then, was the Israeli- Palestinian issue not a priority for him at that time?

This shows that the resistance to the US that consciously promotes itself as, and claims to be, "Islamic" is not an eternal fact, but is of a very recent vintage that emerged in a changed post-Cold War world that reinterpreted US Cold War strategy antagonistically.

TERROR ATTACKS: POLITICAL, NOT RELIGIOUS, AT THEIR CORE

To understand the emergence of ISIS - an issue experts and specialists are fervently debating over - requires a prior understanding of the background of these developments.

Ultimately, there is no simple cause or reason for the post-Cold War transformations because every event emerged from a context that itself was constituted by a previous context. Nevertheless, the historical vantage point offered by the political framework sketched out above is needed if one wants to recognise that this new pattern of terrorist attacks - all of which should be condemned, whoever the perpetrator - is not religious at its core, but political.

What is missing in many pre-tertiary education systems around the world is this political and historical approach in teaching about the post-Cold War world. Such a curriculum should be implemented at a national level.

European countries and the US have long been models for Singapore, but the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, not to mention the rise of racism and intolerance in the US, reflect most potently the failure of these societies to integrate their minorities.

This makes it clear that Singapore has to strike its own path, and take a proactive approach to maintaining racial and religious harmony domestically. Singapore is a small and open society; while we cannot avoid the fact that Western media, with its predominance, overwhelms us with its own Islamophobic biases, we can - we must - train our citizens to be savvy in managing the daily influx of such information.

Since 2013, I have been making volunteer visits to secondary schools, junior colleges and the National University of Singapore to give lectures precisely on this topic. Over the years, I have collected hundreds of little feedback slips from the students I have lectured to and exchanged e-mails with their teachers, thereby refining my pedagogical approach and presentation content.

Based on my personal experience lecturing at over a dozen schools in Singapore over the past three years. I would say it is possible to implement this curriculum and for the Ministry of Education to design "just-in-time" resource packages to provide a timely response to this pressing topical issue.

If we are serious about maintaining racial and religious harmony in Singapore, as Mr Shanmugam and Dr Yaacob have exhorted us to do recently, then we have to start with our young, and proactively shift the paradigm for understanding the terrorist threats to the US-dominated world order from a religious one to a geopolitical one.

• Koh Choon Hwee is a PhD student in Middle East history at Yale University. Prior to this, she spent two years in the American University of Beirut in Lebanon working on her master's.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Terrorism is a political problem, not a religious one'. Print Edition | Subscribe