A House for Humanity
What do you expect when you enter a mosque in Singapore?
You walk in. You’re excited for the calm solemnity of it. You’re excited to see the pakciks beaming at you - you know you can ask them if you’re not sure where to go. You’re excited for the makcik who smiles as you sit next to her for solat, extending her hand to salam.
Yet, these days, things look different. You have to scan the SafeEntry QR code at the entrance, as you leave your shoes on the rows of shelves in front of you.
These days, you don’t expect to see throngs of people during Friday prayers. You don’t expect men to be praying outside the soft carpets and tiles of the mosque, to fulfil their obligations. You don’t expect to stay in the mosque for extended periods of time. You don’t expect to borrow the telekung neatly hung in the cupboards hidden at the corners of the prayer halls.
And despite this, there is still a hidden familiarity and peace in the building. You can still expect every pakcik, makcik, toddler and youth to smile at each other - although only with their squinted eyes now. You can expect the Azan, echoing through the prayer hall and into the chambers of your heart. And you can even expect your shoes to miraculously wait for you, sitting patiently in the hole you’ve tucked them into.
In Singapore, when we think of mosques, we think of all these pleasant memories. And we think of how grateful we are that we can once again visit these places of sanctitude after the chaos the pandemic has thrown us into. We’ve come to expect the routine peace these little moments bring us, beyond our actual prayers.
None of us would have ever expected, though, to never return after visiting a mosque.
Unfortunately, two years ago, on 15th March 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand, our fellow brothers and sisters in Islam were confronted with this reality. Sons and daughters bid their fathers goodbye, to have a pleasant Friday prayer, not knowing those were the last moments they’d share with them.
I remember Muslims around the world being shook to the core by the news. I remember the general horror as Muslims grasped that this unspoken contract we had signed, to maintain mosques as a safe haven, a retreat from duniawi and its unfathomable mess, had been shredded by a man perverted by his bigoted views.
And it was devastating.
We watched as Muslims and non-Muslims alike banded together. We spoke of the gunman’s cruelty, of his absolute disregard for humanity. We spoke up in our poetry and our dance as we mourned our losses but hoped for better. We spoke of how we as a community, as citizens of this planet we call our home, cannot tolerate such acts of sheer hate.
Yet somehow, these cries for compassion, for understanding, for conversations to avoid such atrocities, eluded the walls of one sixteen-year-old boy living in the North, right here in our sunny island of Singapore.
“16-year-old Singaporean detained under ISA after planning to attack Muslims at 2 mosques”
Now, I’m not sure how you reacted when you first heard the news of the sixteen-year-old who had come up with a detailed plan to attack Masjid Asyafaah and Masjid Yusof Ishak. It may have been in horror of how a boy that young could be filled with that much hate. Maybe of relief that the plans were stopped before anything could have happened.
I can, however, tell you how I felt: complete and absolute fear.
Not necessarily for myself. No, somehow that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was of all my friends and family I knew living in the North. All the ones who frequent these mosques. I have friends who went to Asyafaah for madrasah and friends who volunteer as a bilal for Yusof Ishak. It genuinely scared me to think of the possibility that they could’ve been there. And worst of all, that they could’ve been a victim of this heinous act.
My heart wrenches at this thought. And although it may have been prevented, although we could say the shock and fear we experienced will not compare to that of the families in Christchurch, it was enough to tug at our heartstrings.
I remember how in 2018, I stumbled upon this quote:
“The words you speak become the house you live in.”
By Persian Poet, Hafiz
When in a mosque, the dominant utterings floating through the halls are Allah SWT’s beautiful words. Words of peace, of love, of rahmah and syukr. We find comfort and solace in His words, His attributes, His house that reminds us of a hope for tomorrow and the hereafter.
And perhaps that’s the most unsettling thing about such attacks on mosques. This inability to reconcile how a place cemented with such tranquil words could be even vaguely conceived as a threat and therefore, threatened.
But maybe the unfortunate truth here is that while we lay down each brick, we can’t always be sure if others’ see the building blocks of unity or a red flag. And in all honesty, the boy probably saw these mosques as a flashing danger sign because he himself had built his house out of words of hatred. We read how he watched multiple videos of ISIS and poured over Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto against Islam. We also know how he spent most of his time online, becoming self-radicalized by such videos and content. And as these videos played before his eyes, these extremist webs spun a web of irreconcilable differences in his head. He saw such content and was eventually adamantly convinced that Muslims were so maliciously different from himself, that something - and something violent - had to be done against them.
Ironically, I wonder how different he actually is from the people he detests so much in the videos when he himself had carried out actions that resembled theirs.
In Surah Al-Hujarat, Allah SWT says:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Aware.”
The problem never really was of religion. In fact, more often than not, difference of any kind, of faith, race, gender or class, is not the issue. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we will most likely be constantly living in a world marked by difference. The solution was never to create one uniform human race. Rather, it is to acknowledge these differences. It is to plainly see that, especially for this instance, grabbing a gun does not erase these differences but rather leads to another man finding a machete instead. That contrary to what the boy said, violence should be solved with peace. And that we need to create a safe space to have conversations about these differences so that we can better handle them together as a society.
One way we can move forward is if we think of what happened here as cracks in the ceilings of our house. We could choose to paint over it, but we run the risk of erasing its history. We risk telling our children that this house is perfect, only for them to accidentally throw a ball and yet again fracture that crack with words and acts of hatred. Or, we could perhaps learn from the Japanese art of kintsukuroi. We could mend those cracks with the golden words of tolerance. We could let conversations about how “our Muslim friends visit the mosques on Fridays much like how our Christian friends visit churches on Sundays” trickle down to our children. Teach them how people may perceive a certain group of people in one way, but we should not let that determine our interactions with such groups. We fix these cracks with lacquer in hopes that we join these fissures history has separated us by, so we may InshaAllah create a unified home for humanity.