I love the feeling of waking up from a deep sleep and wondering where I am. That feeling was arecurring theme these past three days in Singapore. Whenever I looked out the window of my hotel, I felt like I was watching a scene from “Beverly Hills 90210” — glistening high-rises, broad boulevards, too much traffic, late-model Japanese cars and lots of people shopping. But in this Century City of the East, I have been sitting with a group of women in hijab and men in tarbush and black Malay songkok hats at an international conference called “Muslims in Multicultural Societies.” That’s the official name of the conference. The reality is that this meeting is about how Muslims want to practice Islam in the real world today. It’s about an upgrade, something like “Islam 4.0.”
At least one third of the total population of Muslims in this world lives as religious minorities in multicultural societies. That’s about 500 million people in 149 countries around the globe, according to the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. They represent a very large living laboratory of people working out how to live as Muslims in multireligious, multiethnic environments. There’s no better place to work this out than the economic, multicultural marvel that is Singapore, and no better organization to host the meeting than one of God’s hidden miracles, MUIS (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura), the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.
Singapore is an island city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. While Malaysia, just across the Johore Strait, is a Muslim-majority country with a minority Chinese population, Singapore is precisely the opposite. Muslims make up about 15 percent of the population, and they have been excessively active in working out how to live as full and active minority contributors to the shared civic culture here.
It was not always so lovely. In 1964, there were riots during a procession marking the prophet Muhammad’s birthday that killed three dozen and injured hundreds. Muslim elders speak of the terror they felt as they feared for their lives. But they have figured out the equation for full participation as a religious minority in this thriving country, and now they are giving back by hosting this historic conference in partnership with Oxford University, the University of Melbourne and the National University of Singapore.
Unlike Judaism or Christianity, each of which eked out its early life for centuries under the pressure and domination of majority religions, Islam was a child prodigy that quickly found success and fame as the leading religious civilization. Too quickly, some would argue, because before long it became accustomed to being the big kid on the block. The Quran says nothing about empire, but quick success can easily blind one to the lessons of humble origins.
Rulers of the Muslim empires codified their authority to dominate other religions by “discovering” that the Quran and the Tradition justify political and military dominion. But the Muslim scholars and leaders attending this conference have gone back to basics to reclaim the original quranic message of multiculturalism and pluralism. Among the verses studied was Quran 49:11-13: “O you Believers! Do not let one community deride another. They may very well be better! ... O humankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. The noblest of you, in the sight of God is the most pious.”
It was unmistakable that the scholars and community leaders here are not simply citing platitudes. Among some 250 people from 23 countries, I was one of only two or three non-Muslims attending, and I was struck by the urgency I observed in their ambition to work with people of all faiths to save our world from imploding. They discussed the environment, the role of women, leadership, pluralism and how to apply jihad (that is, in the real sense of striving, not war) to the equivalent of what we call in Jewish terms tikkun olam (repairing the world). They are working through the issues according to authentic Islamic religious models and applying them to real life, and they hope that the Singapore experience will serve as an example for their brothers and sisters in Muslim-majority countries as well.
While here in Singapore, I gave a talk to high school students at a large madrasa (Islamic day-school) and attended a session at the Islamic Religious Council’s Harmony Center. My first thought when I heard “Harmony Center” was fortune cookie, but then I had the good fortune to experience it personally. I met Buddhists, Hindus, Christians of various denominations, Muslims and a smattering of others I couldn’t identify. In a spanking-new building that includes a mosque and a bustling service center for collecting and distributing zakat charities, the center was opened four years ago to encourage greater understanding of the true teachings of Islam (directed in part to the Muslim community) and to promote interfaith dialogue and engagement at all levels from youth groups to retirees. Their goal is to strengthen social bonding among the various faith communities of Singapore so they can work together as partners in building a strong civic culture.
And this is all organized and paid for by the Muslim community.
There is a lot bubbling up in the Muslim world these days, and contrary to the expectations of many of us, the news is not all bad. Don’t be put off by the hijabs and the turbans. Women make up a dynamic part of the young Muslim leadership in Singapore, and they challenged the scholars in the Q-and-A in a way that I would like to see in my own students. Speaking of waking up from a deep sleep and wondering where I am, we should all wake up and see the Muslim reality beyond the stereotypes. And we need to respond to the outstretched hands of the growing community of Muslims in the United States and abroad who are working toward making this world better for everyone.
Reuven Firestone is professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California (usc.edu/cmje). His books include “An Introduction to Islam for Jews” (JPS, 2008).