'Define better what secularism means'

It is one solution to issues of tension between a secular state and Muslim minority: Experts

In 2003, the French government set up a centralised body to represent the interests of its Muslim citizens, similar to existing bodies representing its Jewish and Catholic people.

But the move did not work, said French researchers at a Singapore forum yesterday on integrating Muslim minorities in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community.

Part of the reason was that Islam does not have a clergy or tradition of a central religious authority.

Worse, the move sparked resentment, with many French Muslims feeling that the state was trying to control the religion, said Dr Haoues Seniguer, a political scientist and an expert on Islam from Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Lyon.

DISCONNECT

There are very high levels of traditionalism and conservatism (in the Muslim community), and we feel this is one of the reasons there is a disconnect between behaviour and thinking. It goes to show that this whole idea of a world view of the Muslim living in the secular state is something which we need to develop, which we need to settle.

MR MOHAMMAD ALAMI MUSA, who heads the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Singapore had a similar problem, said Singaporean researchers at the forum organised by the National University of Singapore and its French partner, Universite Sorbonne Paris Cite.

They said religious leaders who work closely with the Singapore Government are viewed in some quarters of the community as less credible than those who distanced themselves from it.

One solution to this and other issues of tension between a secular state and a Muslim-minority community is defining better and communicating what secularism means, said both groups of researchers.

The concept also has to be effectively communicated to both the community and religious leaders, who may see secularism as a state religion or anti-religion, they said.

Yesterday's conference was the culmination of a one-year research project by 12 academics from Singapore and France.

The researchers decided to collaborate after they found many similarities between both countries' Muslim minorities.

The issue of Muslims in the navy was another key topic discussed at the forum.

The lack of halal-certified kitchens on Singapore naval ships is because space had to be prioritised for operational needs, Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman had said in Parliament 12 days ago.

But some Muslims, said Islamic scholar Mohammad Alami Musa, may feel deprived of job opportunities in sensitive areas in the public sector even though the state disagrees that there is discrimination.

Some Muslims here view it as "a loyalty issue", said Mr Alami, who heads the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

In the French navy, Muslim sailors get halal combat rations if they ask for them, and many accept the need for compromise, said Dr Eric Frecon, a research associate from the Asia Centre research institute.

"In France, like in Singapore, laicite is based on efforts from both sides," he said, using the French term for its version of secularism.

Mr Alami said: "There are very high levels of traditionalism and conservatism (in the Muslim community), and we feel this is one of the reasons there is a disconnect between behaviour and thinking.

"It goes to show that this whole idea of a world view of the Muslim living in the secular state is something which we need to develop, which we need to settle."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline ''Define better what secularism means''. Print Edition | Subscribe