04 February 2002
A public school in Singapore has suspended a Muslim girl for wearing an Islamic headscarf. This is a sensitive time for the Singapore government, which recently arrested more than a dozen suspected terrorists with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.
Seven-year-old Nurul Nasihah was suspended from school indefinitely after she defied a ban on wearing a headscarf in class. Under public school rules, the scarves, called "tudung," can be worn to and from school, but they must be taken off in the classroom.
In early January, Nurul's family and the families of three other Muslim girls asked Singapore school authorities for permission to wear the headscarves. But the authorities told them the girls had to comply with the ban or face suspension.
The parents of one of the girls have decided to tutor her at home. The status of the other two students is not yet clear.
The Singapore government says it will not allow scarves to be worn in school because they underscore religious differences among students. A majority of Singapore's population of four million is ethnic Chinese and practice Buddhism. About 14 percent of the population is made up of Malaysian Muslims, and Indian Hindus make up most of the rest.
Sociologist Ern-Ser Tan at the National University of Singapore says given the city-state's history, he thinks the government is justified in enforcing the ban. In the 1950s and '60s, Singapore was nearly torn apart by bloody racial and religious riots.
"We live in a multi-racial, multi-religious society, and you never know whether a tiny spark can set a fire. We need to maintain a pretty fine balance. If you allow this, it is like opening up a floodgate. You do not what else is going to happen," he said.
Racial and religious tension in the Southeast Asian country has been on the rise since December, following the arrest of 13 suspected terrorists with links to al-Qaida. The men are accused of planning attacks on foreign embassies, U.S. Navy ships, and other Western interests in Singapore.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has been urging non-Muslim Singaporeans to not let fear spiral into suspicion and hatred of Islam and Muslims. But his refusal to bend on the headscarf issue has prompted sharp criticism from some Muslim leaders in Malaysia.
Malaysia's Minister for Women and Family Development Sharizat Abdul Jalil called the headscarf ban "unjust" and said the Singapore government had no right to restrict religious freedoms.