The Curious Case of the “Christian” Terrorist

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How missing facts feed the rumour mill

In January, the arrest of a self-radicalised teen made headlines. He was not the first youth to have acted on extremist ideology, but what caught the public’s eye was his religion – he is “Protestant.” According to the Internal Security Department, the Indian youth was inspired by Brenton Terrant, a terrorist who attacked a Mosque in Christchurch and killed over 50 Muslims.

The boy had prepared two statements, which were not made public. What we do know is from the ISD statement, which quotes selectively from his writings to give a sense of his hatred of Muslims, support for violence, and attack strategy. As for any links to Christianity, the closest reference would be the teen’s description of Tarrant as a “saint,” a word with religious connotations. 

What is also interesting, is what was not said. Authorities stopped short of saying that the boy’s religious beliefs influenced his hatred for Islam and his terrorist plans. 

However, by identifying the teen as a Protestant Christian, and by releasing selective bits of his manifestos, including language with religious overtones has led the public to form associations between the boy’s Christian beliefs and his plans for violence. 

Commentators and several Christians have already made this association publicly, and authorities have not stepped forward to clarify if Christian beliefs were linked to the youth’s motivations. For example, veteran journalist Chua Mui Hoong, and a number of people she interviewed, have argued that Singaporean Christians ought to own the fact that radicalisation can exist within their community of believers. Her foundational premise was that this episode linked Christianity to radicalisation. After describing how some Christians may be attracted to teachings on the superiority of Christian values and questioning whether exclusivism in the faith was conducive to religious harmony, she went for the jugular.

“Do some branches of Christian teachings smoothen the spread of exclusivist, extremist ideas that are harmful to multi-religious harmony?”

There was also an inter-religious dialogue titled “Confronting Extremism Within Our Own Faith”. From its title, and having a Methodist Pastor as a panellist, suggest that Christian teachings were part of the problem. The Humanist Society also jumped in to underscore that Christianity has strains of extremism based on the episode. Without harder evidence, this key association remains a rumour, albeit one inadvertently encouraged by the lack of further information from the ISD. 

On the other hand, many have asked for more details. How do we know he is a protestant Christian? Was he a regular, or religious churchgoer? What was the evidence that his actions were motivated by his Christianity? All valid questions that have not been asked or answered. It is understandable that some Christians are slow to assume that his terrorist plot was religiously motivated, and some others have found Chua’s indictment of Christianity misplaced, based on the lack of evidence. Afterall, even though authorities made it clear that anyone, from any religion, can be radicalised, it seemed as if an entire community was being singled out for an isolated incident of self-radicalisation that had no disclosed links to local religious communities. Beyond going to the mosques as a public display of solidarity to promote religious harmony, why should Christians have to repent for an act they did not cause, or one which we cannot say they were negligent of.

If this was an attempt to minimise religious division, the strategy seems to have failed. Chua’s article has the natural consequence of stirring suspicion against all forms of exclusive belief as potential seedbeds of fundamentalism and extremism. It has also divided the Christian community, with some people criticising her loose linkages between Christianity and violent extremism, while others have criticised fellow Christians for being defensive in their reactions.

Bandwagoning on the trend of sowing suspicion against fellow Singaporeans for their faith, Pritam Singh insinuated that the religious beliefs of ministers or civil servants may result in policy biases.

With associations like these being bandied about, it is likely that the conflation of right-wing extremism with Christianity is likely to continue, in the absence of intervention.

ISD should release more information to the public to clear the air. There are two possibilities. Either the boy did not cite Christianity as a motivating factor, or he did. If the former is true, more information will only serve to strengthen arguments that Singapore’s model of managing interfaith relations has sound fundamentals, and churches should continue to do more of the same. It will also be difficult to link Christianity to extremist ideology in this case. And if there were really links to the religion, Christians who have been unwilling to concede that the boy was motivated by faith must stand corrected. The Singapore church as a whole then can and should unite to issue theological and pastoral statements addressing the unorthodox or deviant aspects of the boy’s beliefs.

But until we know more, the rumours will continue to swirl, to the detriment of Singapore’s well-being. More possibly religiously divisive commentary may emerge. Releasing the documents or elaborating on his motivations will shed light on whether they flowed from his religious beliefs.

If the memoranda can be sanitised by sunlight, we may finally see religious leaders step up to meaningfully address the facts of the case. And perhaps more transparency will actually strengthen the social compact.

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