SINGAPORE - As extremist interpretations of Islam gain ground around the world, Islamic religious teachers in Singapore can do more to keep the Muslim community from falling prey to such influences, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli on Saturday (Aug 12).
They must continue to hone their efforts at preaching moderation and teaching Islam in line with the country's multi-cultural, multi-religious context, he said.
And, they must also walk the talk, he pointed out, as he urged them to stay active not just in Muslim bodies, but in grassroots organisations and non-Muslim welfare groups as well.
"This will make you ambassadors of Islam who contribute to the good of all," Mr Masagos told about 300 asatizah, or religious teachers, in a speech in Malay at a convention of religious teachers organised by the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) with the support of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).
Religious leaders must work with those from other communities, and be involved in the wider society, he said.
And it is the local asatizah who will provide a bulwark against the exclusivist and divisive interpretations of Islam that may be taught and practised overseas, he added.
"To understand and practise Islam in Singapore, the community needs the guidance of local asatizah to ensure they are not led astray from the foundations religion sets for all aspects of our lives," said Mr Masagos.
His comments come a week after a group of local Islamic teachers launched a Support Local Asatizah Movement, which hopes to encourage the Muslim community to turn to local asatizah for religious advice instead of just going online or listening to charismatic preachers from overseas. Such preachers may not be as well-versed in Singapore's multireligious context, and there is concern that some propagate views that are at odds with or could affect religious harmony.
Mr Masagos, a former president of the Association of Adult Religious Class Students (Perdaus), stressed that moderation is a key trait of Islam, which calls on its followers to practice their faith in a way that suits their surroundings and the local circumstances.
Extremist interpretations of Islam in Singapore can divide the country, he said.
He noted that outside elements have already started to change and influence the way some are going about their religious lives in Singapore.
"Among other things, they have succeeded in eroding our cultural characteristics and values as Malay/Muslims in the region - the Malay heritage that we should be proud of and continue to preserve," he said. "These elements can divide our community, and even family members."
He made a similar point at a gathering of Malay/Muslim grassroots leaders two weeks ago, when he spoke on the need for Malays in Singapore to preserve their unique culture.
This special Malay identity, he said then, can guard against foreign doctrines that are harmful to the country's multiracial society. In fact, he noted, some local traditions have come under attack by extremists who seek to "first supplant our confidence in our identity, both in our religious practice and culture, before they can replace it with one of their own".
He urged the community to have confidence in its own longstanding cultural and religious practices.
On Saturday, Mr Masagos said that youth, for one, are easily influenced by religious practices and cultures that may differ from those in Singapore - "what more if these are reinforced by local ustaz".
He was therefore pleased to see that asatizah here are making sure that the Islam that is being taught embraces peace and harmony among the different races and religions, and cited the mandatory Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) as playing an important role in ensuring that Islamic education in Singapore keeps the country's context in mind.
Pergas president Hasbi Hassan in his speech said Saturday's conference was a timely opportunity to discuss what moderation means in Islam, especially with radical and sectarian elements on the rise.
He cited how differences between the Sufi and Salafi interpretations of Islam - which have given rise to bloody conflicts in some parts of the world - has riled some members of the public, turning them against each other, instead of fostering an appreciation of diversity.
The one-day conference, which is also attended by Mufti Fatris Bakaram, comes 14 years after Pergas organised a similar event to discuss moderation in Islam in the context of the Singapore Muslim community, which has helped counter extremist misinterpretations.
The group also published a book that spelt out a charter of moderation for the Muslim community here, and Pergas hopes to refresh the ideas behind the charter and align it with the Code of Ethics developed by local asatizah as part of the ARS.
Throughout the day, asatizah will discuss issues such as sectarianism and diversity as well as how they can strengthen the moderate practice of Islam in Singapore.