In the last year, several cases of abuse perpetrated by Muslim religious figures have been widely discussed in Western Muslim communities. It is not relevant to comment too deeply on those cases in terms of specifics, that requires investigations that others are carrying out, but these examples brought up an interesting question. What do Muslim communities, particularly in the West, do when religious leaders are accused of carrying out ethical violations, which are not necessarily against the law, but are contrary to their commitments as religious leaders?
As part of a broader project around the engagement of the Islamic tradition with issues of fundamental rights, I was interested in looking at different models that sought to address how ethical violations were being dealt with in Muslim communities. To that end, a very interesting model – if very particular to its own context – is being developed in Singapore.
The inspiration for Singapore's religious regulatory framework came from neighbouring Malaysia, where religious activity for Muslim preachers and teachers has been regulated for much longer. Indeed, the initial regulatory instrument of Singapore for Muslim religious activity – the AMLA – was inspired to a very large degree by a similar law in one of Malaysia’s federal states.
That regulatory instrument brought the Majlis Ugama Islam Singafora (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) into life in 1968. Generally, that body did not really regulate religious leaders: it managed items such as zakat, mosques, the existence of a mufti and other administrative functions. That began to change in the late 1990s, when Pergas, an association for religious teachers, sought the establishment of a religious teachers recognition board. There was no particular appetite at the time, and thus it was left by the way side until the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
It’s unfortunate indeed that it was the threat of extremism that led to this renewed concern in what is essentially a far wider and less negative concern. But nothing induces political will more than threats and in 2005, the Asatizah Recognition Board was formed to oversee the Asatizah Recognition Scheme. It remained a voluntary association for much of its existence and only became a legally established body last year.
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It’s an interesting model. It engages in the training of imams and religious teachers for different skills; it provides for a recognition of religious qualifications that may not come from widely recognised university establishments; indeed, the religious teachers themselves stand to gain a great deal from the model. But the ARB is also a disciplinary institution. It is a place where religious teachers who have been accused of ethical violations may be questioned. It is made up of religious teachers who are widely respected in the Muslim community.
In that regard, the scheme operates much like a professional syndicate and officials engaged within it openly admit that they took a lot of inspiration from other professional syndicates in terms of what services the ARB ought to provide its membership. Regular skills training is provided and is a condition of membership. The skills are meant to ensure the religious training of the teachers in question are also contextualised to Singapore’s realities – much like how, for example, the Cambridge Muslim College in the UK, or the Zaytuna College in the US, are aimed at ensuring imams and religious teachers are fully aware of the social realities in which they live.
But here is the catch – membership of the ARS is mandatory for any religious teacher. Without it, they cannot teach. More than that, penalties can be imposed on teachers who have run afoul of ethical prescriptions – penalties that can include fines or even imprisonment. There exists no other such regime for other religious communities in Singapore.
I spoke to several officials and civil society activists engaged in the wider administration of Muslim religious life on a recent trip to Singapore – who, like me, seemed suspicious of any state power being utilised in the regulation of religious life in this manner. Some confided in me that to begin with they had opposed the compulsory nature of the scheme and weren’t entirely happy about certain aspects of how it was being imposed. And yet, at the same time, for those who were particularly engaged, they admitted there were problems with a few religious teachers, whom they thought required a certain heavy-handed approach. It’s clear there are teething problems, but almost no one I met in Singapore considered the existence of a compulsory syndicate for religious teachers to be a bad idea.
It’s an interesting model and one that cannot be lifted wholesale to other environments. In the UK, for example, a legally imposed syndicate for religious teachers would raise genuine concerns around religious freedom. But the idea of a religious teachers' syndicate is not so unusual. The main question is how to ensure it gains social credibility among the community it ministers to, and those who are to be its members, because legal compulsion of any kind may not be the answer in many contexts. How that is all to be done, particularly with such variety among Muslim Western communities, is yet to be seen and at the same time, given the clear problems that exist without regulation at all, it is probably only a matter of time before Muslim Western communities themselves create their own mechanisms. As they seek to do so, they might learn certain lessons from their Singaporean co-religionists.