Is Islamophobia rearing its ugly head in the South?

opinion May 20, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Incident of a school objecting to the wearing of hijab by students is a serious provocation



Anti-Islam sentiment seems to have reared its ugly head once again in Thailand, and this time, of all the places, in Pattani province – the heart of the Muslim-majority South where Malay is the mother tongue of a majority of local residents.

Administrators and teachers at the Anubal Pattani School prohibited the wearing of the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, in classes, saying allowing such a practice would require a lot of paperwork to change the regulations.

It is not clear why this was even an issue. Thailand went through this phase of Islamophobia two decades ago and the central government got involved and settled the matter about the Muslim headscarf by passing  legislation to accommodate the wishes of the Thai Muslims.

If anything, this incident in Pattani is a testimony that a state cannot regulate love, respect and reconciliation. It must come from the society and unfortunately, in this case, the teachers themselves were the problem.

The fact that it is even an issue now is an embarrassment for the country, particularly the current military government that likes to boast how far it has come in winning the hearts and minds of local Malay Muslims in this historically contested region. Needless to say, this fiasco plays nicely into the hands of the separatist insurgents who share the same sentiment with local Muslims that their Patani Malay identity, cultural space, dignity and historical narrative have been ignored by the Thai state.

With nearly 7,000 people killed and the fact that the current wave of violence – which erupted 14 years ago – was not the first time that Malays of Patani had taken up arms against the state, one would think Thai educators and public servants in the Muslim-majority region would have learned a lesson or two about the nature of the conflict by now.

The recent dispute illustrates the indifference and ignorance of the teachers of this school about pluralism, multiculturalism and state-minority relations. Numerous academic papers and reports have been written about the conflict in the far South. The attitude of the Thai school teachers to these findings point to an indifference to educate themselves about the region, or they are pushing an anti-Islam agenda that we have seen in other provinces in the North and Northeast of Thailand.

If these educators think they can’t be bothered to learn new ideas, perhaps they should not become teachers in the first place. Moreover, with this kind of attitude, one has to wonder about their whole approach to the children in their classrooms. 

It is a scary irony that Islamophobia should have reared its ugly head in the far South where Muslims comprise over 80 per cent of the population.

Perhaps these teachers see themselves as guardians of the Thai way, or Thainess, locally referred to as “kwam pen Thai”. Perhaps they need to rethink what is Thai or what Thai should be. If they will take the time to explore their family tree, many will find that they are descendants of ethnic Lao, Mon, Tai, Khmer, Chinese, Indians, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese and so on. It is sad that these educators have permitted this state-constructed “Thainess” to corrode their hearts and soul to the point where their judgement has been corrupted. This is very unlike a place like Pattani where the local Muslims do not hide the fact that they are Malays, and that they embrace a different historical and cultural narrative. 

If we don’t take this incident in Pattani seriously, we might wake up one morning and find Thailand no different from Myanmar where Buddhist nationalists, politicians, the military and monks have joined hands to drive out its Muslim citizens. Bigotry has no place in Thailand. Our government has been paying lip service to pluralism to tackle the colour-coded political disputes. This is their chance to put their money where their mouth is.