Editor’s Letter: Monolithic

by Diana Rahim

It is not surprising that the term ‘Monolithic’ can have negative connotations. It brings to mind an understanding that is reductive, and absolute. A sweeping, generalised way of perceiving a reality that is much more complex and nuanced.

Not all Muslims are Arabs after all, or even from the same denomination, or necessarily share the same cultural practices. Not all women have the innate quality of being gentle or nurturing nor are men necessarily tough and pre-disposed to supposedly more ‘analytical’ thinking. Malays are not essentially lazy. Any kind of essentialism; any kind of belief that a person by virtue of belonging to a certain subgroup is innately anything is bound to be not only unscientific and untrue, but indicative of a serious lack of understanding. It could also be an indication of a refusal to understand, since present evidence is always available to debunk myopic, flimsy stereotypes.

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The trouble with insisting on a singular, or monolithic, understanding or interpretation, is that it is almost always accompanied by an admonishment or even a hostility to diversity. We often hear it, for example, when some perceive the immense tradition and diversity of Islam in a simplistic and reductive way. They might call you a terrorist. They might call Islam a barbaric, patriarchal religion that endorses stoning and head-chopping. But of course we’re thinking, which Islam? The Islam of ISIS? The Islam revealed in patriarchal 7th century Arabia? The Islam that had gay and intersex custodians in Mecca? The Islam of the Nusantara (the Malay world)? The Islam of the Uyghurs?

But Muslims too, despite being subjected to Islamophobia, can be guilty of believing, or demanding that Islam is a Monolithic tradition. A monolithic mode of understanding or belief in Islam can lead not only to a loss of diversity, but also cause damage for interfaith, and especially intra-faith relations.

Since we’re on the topic then, let’s consider the issue of Monolithic perception when it comes to Islam. As a monotheistic religion, the centrality of the concept of Tawhid (oneness) may lead one to think that there can only be a single ‘true’ way. That in order for us to be as authentic as possible, it necessitates a ‘sameness’ or a single prescribed way of worshipping, or living, as a Muslim. This might explain why some Muslims even find themselves influenced by a creeping Arabisation, stemming from the perception that adopting the lifestyle, language or even the garb of a foreign community would make one closer to “true” Islamic practice. 

Simply said, the urge may be strong to perceive and understand Islam as monolithic, leading one to shun everything that does not fit the narrow and restrictive view that is seen as the only legitimate way. But such a view simply cannot hold for a religious tradition spanning over 1400 years and 1.8 billion adherents. Any kind of obsession for a ‘purist’ form of ideology is a red flag for dogmatic thinking. It also leads to a disinterest in communities or people who do not practice the same way as you do, since they are not considered ‘legitimate’ and therefore not worth knowing. This may be as benign as ignorance, but even as hostile as outright rejection and demonisation.

For example, if you are Sunni, which most Singaporean Muslims are, think of how much you actually know about your fellow Muslims from the Shi’a sect. What little Sunni Muslims know of the Shi’a sect is often from untrue stereotypes that insinuate, or directly accuse them of being ‘orang sesat’ (deviant). The image of Shi’ism is often crassly reduced, for example, to an image of a group self-flagellating themselves during ashura (a practice, which by the way, is condemned and outlawed by the highest Shi’a religious authorities).

Rarely do Shi’a-hating Muslims get over the fear of difference, the fear of seeing a group that practices Islam in a way that seems so different (regardless of whether it is really so different), to actually find out and read a basic article that explains Shi’ism. But then, people rarely respond rationally to irrational fears that have, more often than not, been socially conditioned through the language and imagery employed by the dominant community. It would feel easier after all, if all Muslims were to follow the same path that you believe is the ‘right’ one.

Recently, a letter called for MUIS to debunk Sunni-Shia fallacies, citing the fact that a fatwa supported by 500 Muslim scholars that accepts Shi’as within the fold of Islam. But if such a strong statement of the validity of Shi’ism is not enough, one wonders if the endorsement by a religious body is enough too. It may seem natural, in Singapore, to appeal to the authorities when it comes to a problem rooted in group differences. But perhaps it would be more powerful if we could envision another way. The option is always open to debunk those fallacies ourselves. To do the work on the ground of reaching out, sharing stories, information, and debunking stereotypes. Hopefully, that’s what we can do in our small way with the upcoming blog posts. And let’s keep the momentum when it comes to sharing marginalised voices, supporting them, and giving them visibility and space

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There is this prevalent belief and almost instinctive conviction that peace is to be found in ‘unity’ or ‘sameness’. That a feel-good idea of ‘unity’ where conflict is not visible is the ideal situation we want in society. But these are just kinder, vague, and camouflaged ways of desiring for some kind of hegemony, and hegemony almost always comes with an abuse of power. In order to enforce the dominance of one social group, or one dominant framework instead of another, others are necessarily subdued, whether through coercion or through direct violence. In other words, Monolithism is enforced.

There is a tendency towards a kind of universalistic ethics when it comes to our conception of peace. We can be so discomforted by diversity that we think that an imposed hegemonic order that breeds monolithic views is one that is preferable. But dominant consensus is not necessarily indicative of peace, especially if such a consensus was enforced instead of being arrived at together. Such an order, if it is peaceful for us, almost always means that it is harmful and painful for others. True peace is perhaps a situation where we are unafraid of disagreement.

For this reason, if our understanding of something, whether it is religion, ideology, or a group of people, is monolithic, it is often a cue that our understanding has been the result of power dynamics. To insist that a group of people can be reduced to a single story or image is an act of dehumanisation, and it is often a group with power that has the ability to dehumanise. To recognise that we might be given an impoverished, reductive view is thus a cue for us to seek more truthful, nuanced answers that will restore humanity to our society and relationships with different communities.

The reality of our world — our communities, our countries, our religion, our gender, the experience of being part of any sub-group or identity — are often complex things that are difficult to reduce to a single image, word, or even a sentence. No person who understands this would feel comfortable to be made representative of a whole community. Yet those who insist on monolithic understandings, ways of seeing, and being, often do that for whole groups of people, beliefs, and experiences. It is perhaps time to consider that peace is perhaps not to be found in pressure to conformity and sameness, but instead in the acceptance of the diversity that is natural to the human experience.

Perhaps we are not pure white light, we are the full spectrum of colour. There’s beauty in that too.

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illustration by Wan Xiang Lee

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