Earlier this year, a video of a woman hitting a gong loudly and repeatedly while a man conducted a Hindu prayer routine went viral. While many were quick to condemn her for what appeared to be an act of intolerance, social harmony activist Nazhath Faheema has a different take.
“Any situation calls for a deeper analysis. We have a responsibility to go through that process as we cannot just be emotional about it or it becomes more divisive,” says Faheema, the founder and president of hash.peace, a youth-led advocacy group that aims to foster social harmony.
In fact, she suggests that “gong lady” might benefit most from having a friend reach out to her. This act of reaching across the aisle, one conversation at a time, lies at the heart of her advocacy. Inspired by her role as a Muslim Youth Ambassador of Peace, an initiative led by Jamiyah Singapore, she launched hash.peace in 2016. The group aims to contribute to social harmony by sparking conversations and developing relevant programmes.
It starts by talking to each other with genuine good intentions, she says. “It helps to move the needle from tolerance to understanding because you can be tolerant but still carry prejudice. To clear prejudice, you need understanding, which you achieve by talking,” says Faheema, who is currently a postgraduate student at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies pursuing a Master of Science in Asian Studies.
In a recent hash.peace-organised intra-ethnic Zoom conversation on the diversity of the Indian community, for instance, participants began discussing the origins of the term mama shop, which refers to a sundry store in Singapore. While the term is derived from the Tamil word for uncle, maa-ma, it can sometimes take on a derogatory meaning.
“People were having a human-to-human discussion on whether or not this word had an effect on them, and this allowed participants to gain a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives,” Faheema reflects.
In her personal capacity, she discusses these topics as widely as she can, whether it is via direct messages with individuals on Facebook or via her popular TEDx talks on multiculturalism and inclusivity. She even had the chance to converse with the UK’s Prince Harry when he participated in an iftar meal at the Jamiyah Children’s Home during a visit to Singapore in 2017.
While she is optimistic that fostering dialogue can help to break down barriers, she is realistic that this process takes time—in the case of one of her Facebook exchanges as it can sometimes take months for them to reply to each other. She says, “You need patience, that is the commitment to the work. If you care about it, you have to do it.”
Her hope is that society will evolve so that issues around racial and religious harmony need not always be handled by the law. “Can we not immediately look to the government or the law and can civil society, for example, a collective body of arbitrators or experienced people in society handle them instead? We have grown as a people and have made progress in other ways but if we keep taking an adversarial stance, to me, that’s not progress.”