Singapore has reiterated an important principle of religious tolerance, which lies at the heart of both state and society, in response to the case of an imam who allegedly spoke ill of Christians and Jews. The general point, which bears repeating, is that no nation should tolerate religious preaching that seeks to pit one religion against another or to encourage violence against particular groups. No mainstream religion would endorse such words. Hence, any reference to holy texts to justify hate amounts to a deliberate attempt to misguide others and to incite disorder. Such acts deviate from the norms and laws of a secular and religiously plural society like Singapore.
The dangers of potentially inflammatory speech cannot be underestimated. What begins life as a word can lead to actions that threaten the health of the body politic ultimately. A telling example is provided by the firebrand Indonesian cleric, Habib Rizieq Shihab. He had been jailed for having incited violence, but still succeeded in mobilising the masses against popular Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama on alleged grounds of blasphemy. On the other side of the fence, the Dutch far-right and anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders had been convicted of having violated laws against inciting discrimination. However, his views prospered electorally, and pose a challenge to the Dutch liberal mainstream today.
What such examples prove is that fringe opinions can and do infiltrate the mainstream when conditions permit. The fear is that these might begin to influence the agenda of centrist parties and politicians driven along by the obsession to garner votes. Such a scenario might appear to be far-fetched in conservative societies, but it was once so in countries where religiously-motivated politics has become a fact of life today. Every pre-emptive step that is taken against the spread of religious intolerance would shore up the peaceful status quo, which has served multicultural nations for many decades.
This national effort can draw on the fundamental fact that state secularism is not anti-religious, but religiously impartial. The state has no religion of its own. Precisely because of this, it takes no position on the religious beliefs of its citizens. The caveat is that those beliefs must not impinge on the freedom of religion of any other community.
It was in this spirit that action was taken here, a few years ago, against a couple who had distributed anti-Muslim booklets; and more recently, against a blogger who had wounded Christian and Muslim feelings. The strict impartiality practised by state institutions - particularly the judiciary and the police - in applying anti-hate rules has fostered trust in the workings of secularism. That will be undermined if those who show religious intolerance expect different treatment because they hold a religious post.