On 11 January 2023, the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme organised a roundtable discussion titled “Global Competition for Muslim Minds”. The discussion is part of a broader research project exploring the use of religion by Muslim-majority governments to further domestic and foreign policy interests, and the impact that this religion-politics interplay has had on how Islam is understood and embraced by global Muslims, especially those who live as minority communities. The discussion was led by Professor Abdullah Saeed, Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, and Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. It was moderated by Assistant Professor Mohamed Bin Ali from SRP. The closed-door session was attended by 19 religious-trained researchers from SRP, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
Prof Saeed began discussions with a short presentation on the evolution of how Muslims identified themselves – or markers of “being Muslim” – from the early 20th century to the present. In the early to mid-twentieth century, Muslims could be classified and self-identified along traditional “schools” of religio-political, legal, theological, and mystical thought. This resulted in categories such as being Sunni or Shia; or being followers of Shafi’i or Maliki schools of jurisprudence; or Ash’ari or Mu’tazili schools of theology; or being part of the Qadiri or Shadhili sufi orders, and so on. Several historical developments in the Muslim world have broadened the range of markers of being Muslim to include, inter alia, neo-traditionalists, modernists, secularists, puritans, feminists, Islamists, and militants. These historical developments include — but are not limited to — the fall of the Ottoman Empire; colonisation and de-colonisation the Arab Gulf oil boom; Saudi-Iran geopolitics; and the need to counter extremism following the events of 9/11 and the emergence of the ISIS terrorist group.
To add to the drivers of transformation of what it means to be Muslim, various Muslim-majority countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Indonesia, have embarked on Islamic moderation projects in the past few decades. They sought to respond to the extremism and violence that posed a threat to domestic security and stability, as well as international reputation and trade. In the face of shifting trends and constant global exchange of Muslim ideas in a digital world, discussants were unanimously confident that the best strategy was to develop Singapore’s own conception of being Muslim, such as the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) project, and to adapt ideas that were suitable to Singapore’s religiously and ethnically plural society, rather than to blindly adopt a foreign model or framework.