For simplicity’s sake, I will, at various points in this article, refer to an almost proverbial ‘minority experience’. It is not my intention, nor is it my belief, that we can ascribe congruency between the experiences of various minority groups; let’s leave such sweeping takes to those shot through with the confidence and certainty that comes with majority privilege. In any case, my use of ‘minority experience’ is predicated on a knowledge – or perhaps belief is a better term – that there are points of commonality, chief among them the inherent Other-ness of our being, not because we are ultimately different on some fundamental, genetic or intellectual level from our counterparts, but because there is a mathematical truth to minority. Somehow, by being fewer, we become lesser. Or so it seems.
Moving swiftly on, then. I myself am a Muslim. My faith is a core component of who I am, and constitutes the basis of much of my character, many of the things I do, my cultural identity, and my perceptions. Contrary to what has very strangely become a popular belief though, it is in fact possible to be Muslim without being Malay. I can’t tell you how many times I have been met with outright disbelief when I tell people that I am, in fact, Indian. I suppose it can be a little tricky, granted, seeing as I studied Malay in school – my parents were convinced that this would be the easier language to learn and the more useful one, in the long run, for a Muslim to be fluent in. While this has all proven, at least to an extent, to be true, there have been some unforeseen outcomes.
‘Culturally stateless’ is how I sometimes describe myself. By not speaking any of the Indian languages (admittedly, shamefully, not even my own Mother Tongue), I have often found myself on the fringes of social settings chiefly occupied by my fellow Indians. Speaking Malay, though, never really gave me an alternative place to belong. Having learned Malay almost entirely for academic purposes, the way I speak it is often off-putting to more colloquial speakers – I’ve been told that I sound like a newscaster. I suppose I do. Islam, though, has formed the backdrop of a whole host of shared practices and experiences, all of which transcend the ostensible differences that arise from race.
Islam, then, and Islamic literature, has been the basis of much of my reading and my searching for understanding and perspective on many things. The day I started writing this piece, in fact, I attended a session with other members of my University’s Muslim Society. One thing in particular from the session sticks in my mind.
The speaker raised an interesting point in relation to one of the other speakers, an asatizah, who had conducted a programme some months prior. Rather than taking the popular view that being able to secure this asatizah, extremely sought after as they are, was a major coup, rather than taking the popular view that the excellent event attendance statistics from the programme conducted by the asatizah confirmed success and efficacy, today’s speaker instead challenged us to think about whether we needed such sessions at all. This sounded, at first, rather surprising, but when the speaker elaborated on this view, it came into sharp focus, and has been on my mind since.
“Feel-good Islam”, he called it. I’ll explain.
Much of the discourse that has become popular in Islamic circles centres around sentiments which remind us of our own worth, of the value of things such as humility and gentleness, of the value of keeping our faith at the heart of all that we do. We are called to believe in God’s plan and to remember that, whatever befalls us, He knows best – and that in itself should be enough to carry us through.
This is all well and good – I do in my heart believe in every single one of those things. But the trouble arises when head and heart are not in harmony. Faith may start in the heart, but it finds a home in the mind. Emotion, self-love and good vibes only go so far when the seeds of doubt, of frustration, of resentment start to take root.
There is no doubt a time and place for this “feel-good Islam”. But it must, it must come hand in hand with intellectual engagement which allows for faith to establish itself as a cognitive process, rather than simply an emotional process. And asatizahs who, charismatic as they may be, deliver their content purely in the domain of lifting spirits and reaffirming faith, only fight half the battle toward progress, toward belief, toward long-term spiritual development.
In my experience, I have found that more of the same can be found when exploring Islamic literature, particularly in the Singaporean context. Searching, as a Muslim growing up in the post 9/11 world, for works which engage with the finer details (though there is nothing fine about any of this) of our experience, results, almost inevitably, in disappointment. No one, as far as I could tell, had written, has written, what I needed to read. First, much of the work written by Muslim poets in Singapore is in Malay. While I can engage with these poems in their original Malay, and while translations do exist, the predominantly Muslim constitution of the Malay community means that much of the work produced is by Muslims, for Muslims. This applies fairly frequently, too, even among the handful of Muslim writers who write, in English, about Muslim issues. There appears to be some form of inexplicable temptation, some form of inexplicable tendency, to supervene on, as we’ve been calling it, “feel-good Islam”.
Perhaps this comes from an epistemic shared space, where we are familiar with and comfortable in the assumption that what we ourselves have experienced, so too have our fellow Muslims. While this may well be a positive sentiment, writing accordingly, and only writing accordingly, often results in the formation of an echo-chamber of sorts. The primarily Malay constitution of the Muslim community in Singapore, and the resultant apparent preference for the Malay medium when engaging with Muslim issues, has a similar effect. When we write for ourselves, for our peers, for people who share our experiences, we write what we wish we had been able to read. We write, then, to affirm, to uplift. Such writing serves to create a platform for mutual affirmation within a community uniquely attuned to its nuances. We create, in many ways, a safe space for ourselves.
But do we, in the process, create a comfort zone as well? Are we somehow establishing what is essentially becoming a gratification-chasing circlejerk, a cornucopia of mutual agreement, a long reverberating echo of “I understand”?
What exactly is our motivation here? Why do we write?
As I see it, writing for ourselves, for our own communities, is a beautiful undertaking. The trouble arises, though, when we all do it – and worse, when we all do it in the same way. If I make my fellow Muslims happy, if my writing makes them feel less alone, if it diminishes their inherent sense of Other-ness, then, make no mistake, that is a victory.
But it could be a far, far larger one if I write instead to break the wheel altogether and deconstruct the paradigms that result in that sense of Other-ness in the first place. Society needs surgery – and not the cosmetic kind. Yet here we are with conservative management, oral medication, plasters, antihistamines, here we are with our scalpels safely tucked in our back pockets.
Should we not, too, be looking to expand the horizons of our writing, of our communities, and, by extension, of our societies and their progress? When we write exclusively in our epistemic shared spaces, we do ourselves no favours in the long run. In order to engage in real discourse which has the potential to manifest itself in actual, tangible, social change, we must have the courage to step outside the boundaries within which we seem to cloister ourselves, to interact with people who have a different lived experience. We must have the courage, then, to engage with a majority that seems not to understand, that seems, at times, not to care, and not to want to engage with us in return.
Because we make them uncomfortable. So we tiptoe through the tulips, dance around the truths of our experience, and comfort ourselves in the warm embrace of a group-hug. In the case of Muslims, for instance, should we not, too, be looking to expand our horizons and produce pieces of writing, pieces of art, that force even non-Malays, and more importantly, non-Muslims to engage with the realities we face? If this makes them uncomfortable? Good. We all know that fleeting discomfort from hearing the Truth is a drop in the ocean as compared to living that same truth. If you feel ill-at-ease in hearing about the plight of minority groups, of groups that are less privileged than your own, perhaps that is, on some level, natural. But if your response to that unease is to stick your fingers in your ears or to speak louder and drown it out, then you are part of the problem.
If I, a man, feel ill-at-ease hearing about the experiences of women, about systemic sexism, about sexual assault, then my logical next step should not be to silence them to allow my discomfort to dissipate – no, my next step should be to realize that this (secondhand!) unease that I feel is nothing, nothing, nothing, compared to what it’s like to actually grapple with these issues on a daily basis. And the step after that should be to figure out how I can help to make things right.
So, too, for the minority experience. If hearing the truth of the gritty underbelly of what it is like to live with a disadvantage of any sort makes you uncomfortable? Get over yourself, suck it up, and use your voice to sort it out. Don’t silence opposing voices; join the chorus.
And as for us, as for the minorities – for so long we have operated within our own spheres, and worked hard to accept what’s what and to make ourselves feel better about it. But perhaps, perhaps we should at the same time make the majority feel just a little bit worse. If we share our pain, the overarching message should be that this pain is so incredibly abundant that we have some to spare. And if we hope to build a society together, then we all have a part to play, regardless of race, language or religion.
We’ve long heard that in order to make an omelette, we need to break a few eggs.
But we’ve been making bullseyes instead. We break the eggs, yes, but by cracking them ever so gently, keeping the yolk pristine, we move it gently, lest we break its fragile bounds and get its contents all over ourselves. Why do we care so much? Why is the yolk so central? Why don’t we dare to apply a little pressure on the yolk around which we somehow deign to revolve?
Perhaps by allowing our work to be accessed by the majority, we may make them uncomfortable. But if the mere act of reading about the truths of minority experiences makes them squirm, let them squirm, let them experience that microscopic discomfort, and let them reflect on whether it compares at all to the discomforts that arise from the minority experience. Perhaps we may disagree, but disagreement is a function of diversity. Disagreement results in the sharpening of our rhetoric. And the sharpening of rhetoric can only be a positive in establishing the underpinning truths on which we build our social progress.