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5 - Liberal Activists: Playing by the System and Making Gains

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2021

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Summary

Abstract

This chapter analyzes the relationships Muslim ‘liberal’ activists have with the state. Just like the ulama, the liberals are not a monolithic group, with various approaches taken by different actors. However, by and large, the liberals, again like the ulama, play by the rules of the game set by the state. In fact, I argue that liberals have managed to maximize their space the most as compared to conservatives, for reasons which are explained in the chapter.

Keywords: liberal Muslims, progressives, liberal-conservative divide, LGBT rights

In this, ‘critical Islam’ as Muslim thinker Ziauddin Sardar argues, can be a counter narrative for the Muslim public against the dominance of fundamentalist Islam. Where the latter generated an intellectual mess and a stagnation of Muslim sociopolitical thought, critical Islam can salvage the situation by reconstructing a new, cosmopolitan vision of Islam that is ethically grounded, socially committed, politically progressive and intellectually sound for today's world.

The statement above was written by two Muslim thinkers in Singapore, Nazry Bahrawi, a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and Imran Taib, a prominent Muslim activist who is active in inter-faith dialogue circles. Both can be said to be liberal-leaning Muslims; Imran in particular has been the subject of much ire and consternation by conservative Muslim activists, and has been identified as the face of ‘liberal Islam’ in Singapore. But what exactly is ‘liberal Islam’, and who is a ‘liberal Muslim’? Is liberal Islam synonymous with ‘critical Islam’, as used by the two authors in the above-mentioned quote, or ‘progressive Islam’, as is often heard in contemporary Muslim discourse?

This chapter analyzes the relationships Muslim ‘liberal’ activists have with the state. Just as the ulama, the liberals are not a monolithic group, with various approaches taken by different actors. However, by and large, the liberals, again like the ulama, play by the rules of the game set by the state. In fact, I argue that liberals have managed to maximize their space the most as compared to conservatives, for reasons which will be outlined later. Examples of liberals who are more willing to take on the state will also be explored, to provide a fuller picture of the activist scene in Singapore.

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Chapter
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Islam in a Secular State
Muslim Activism in Singapore
, pp. 161 - 212
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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