Messengers Of Peace
In the unrelenting news cycle of racial attacks and ensuing online retaliations today, Roses of Peace (ROP) is nurturing a new generation of young leaders for a more harmonious tomorrow.
BY DESIREE KOH
rom more than 10,000km away in Paris, an incident kindled reactions at the Singapore Management University (SMU) halls. It was the 2012 deadly attack by Muslim terrorists on the newsroom of controversial French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
As worldwide outcry roiled against the attackers, the online release of anti-Islamic short film Innocence of Muslims instigated violent protests across the Middle East and beyond. Singaporean Mohamed Irshad, then a third year SMU business student, founder of the school’s Political Association and Islamic Business and Finance Society, was asked by a school friend to lead a silent sit-in demonstration on campus.
“Although my peers needed to express their emotions and showcase their ideals in a Singapore context against globally rising Islamophobia, I didn’t think a protest was the right avenue,” Irshad, now 30, remembers. “Prophet Muhammad was a messenger of peace, and I felt we should exemplify the Muslim values of compassion, mercy and harmony, instead of reacting negatively.”
Irshad’s idea: Present roses with postcards conveying peace sayings from different faiths – from Islam to Buddhism, Sikhism and Christianity – showing that Singaporeans can stand together in racial and religious harmony. Within six weeks, he had roped in two SMU and two National University of Singapore (NUS) friends and, using their own funds, put together 3,000 Roses of Peace. They mobilised 100 volunteers from all faiths to give these out to the public across 10 locations.
“You don’t say no to a rose, a symbol of love for many occasions,” says Irshad, who now runs his own agri-business consultancy and is a nominated Member of Parliament. “People are curious to know more about what we’re doing and why. There is always so much energy generated in engaging members of the public.”
UNITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY
In the eight years since, ROP’s educational and awareness outreach has expanded through the addition of youth forums, interfaith conferences and the Faith in Leadership Symposium, an annual initiative that brings together youth and religious leaders from around the world with the aim of boosting inter-faith engagement.
In 2018, ROP pledged support for a Fake News Bill and to develop a digital playbook to help Singaporeans identify and push back on misinformation spread through social media. Backed by Irshad in Parliament, the Bill was passed in October 2019.
DURING A VIGIL HOSTED BY ROP FOLLOWING THE CHRISTCHURCH MOSQUE SHOOTING IN EARLY 2019, A 9/11 SURVIVOR SPOKE ON THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY HEALING AFTER SUCH TRAGEDIES AND THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS.
The organisation also regularly engages grassroots constituencies, universities and schools, and youth religious groups for smaller scale rose distribution in neighbourhoods and campuses.
These year-round activities are driven by daily planning, training and partnership collaboration, capped off by ROP’s annual signature event. The largest campaign on its calendar takes place over a weekend, where volunteers in 20 locations from the Central Business District to heartlands further afield such as Tampines and Bishan hand out 10,000 roses.
On ROP’s Instagram (@rosesofpeace), rose recipients relate their positive experiences of harmony in Singapore, sharing how touched they are to have encountered such expressions of unity and harmony. During a vigil hosted by ROP following the Christchurch mosque shooting in early 2019, a 9/11 survivor spoke on the importance of community healing after such tragedies and the power of forgiveness.
From celebrating Vesak and Mother’s Days at the Bliss and Wisdom Monastery to reviving Singapore’s multiracial “kampung spirit” on National Day at the Istana, significant inroads have been made in bringing communities together.
At an interfaith iftar (breaking of fast ritual during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan) hosted by ROP, its work caught the attention of President Halimah Yacob, who became its patron, embodying her long-time support for inter-religious harmony. “It’s not easy bringing everybody we work with in sync.
A lot of trust is needed,” reflects Irshad, who relies on grants and collaborations with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, National Youth Council, the Singapore Kindness Movement and others to bring religious harmony programming to life. “Transparency is very important, and because we’ve proven that we can pull off our events successfully even at short notice, and that our volunteers are in it for the cause and not personal gains, our partners come on board with confidence.”
“ As we’re surrounded by divides caused by religious conflict both globally and closer, we must continue to help youths channel their passion for social unity both vocally and in action. When they come together and work towards this cause, it’s heartening, enlightening and inspiring. ”
Mohamed Irshad, founder, Roses of Peace
LEADERS OF TOMORROWS
Recognising that young people form the next generation of interfaith leaders, ROP launched a Peace Ambassador programme in 2018, which comprises a diverse crosssection of 18- to 35-year-olds of all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs and occupations.
Through an open call, ROP selects bright, driven and inspirational leaders who embrace new interfaith experiences in Singapore and advance such shared visions through collaborations. Across a year-long tenure, ambassadors are equipped with the skills to catalyse their own projects or further extend the ROP platform. Specifically, they are trained in contextual knowledge and communications, and in facilitating dialogues both within organisations as well as with the public and media. Coaching is led both in-house and via partnerships with Google, OnePeople.sg, REACH, Project Renaissance and more. To date, 56 have been appointed.
One such ambassador is 25-year-old Ruban Varma. With these new insights, he inspired fellow committee members from the NUS Hindu Society to set interfaith experiences as their top priority, progressing from simply focusing on cultural activities. The society has participated in more than 10 interfaith events in the last two years.
And heeding President Halimah’s call to “walk the talk ourselves” during the 2018 Faith In Leadership Symposium, Irshad and the ROP ambassadors wrote a “Letter of Peace” to all Singapore Christians celebrating Good Friday and Easter, pledging their commitment to a “harmonious multi-religious and multiracial social environment.”
“We have to work doubly hard in securing this demographic because of lack of empathy, career distractions, or simply because they shy away from sensitive issues,” he explains.
“But as we’re surrounded by divides caused by religious conflict both globally and closer, we must continue to help youths channel their passion for social unity both vocally and in action. When they come together and work towards this cause, it’s heartening, enlightening and inspiring.”
DELIVERING INTERFAITH DIALOGUE
Singaporean Roses of Peace Ambassadors contemplate how their work and training have enriched their interfaith perspectives, leadership and camaraderie.
Ruban Varma, 25, Hindu, Army Officer
Because there’s unnecessary violence in the name of religion now, we need to shift our mentality from religious tolerance to acceptance. To do that, we need to understand the spiritual behind the ritual, which happens when our minds are open to the teachings of other faiths. Interfaith harmony is also a practical realisation. For example, it’s integral to our country’s “Total Defence” framework. It ensures that when tragedy strikes, Singaporeans don’t turn against each other in fear and apprehension.
Dawn Chen, 35, Buddhist, Youth Programme Developer
I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and engage in difficult yet necessary conversations about the escalated effects of casual racism and unaddressed misunderstandings. My fellow ambassadors and I have visited places of worship of all faiths, and collaborated with partner organisations sharing our same vision. Not only have I developed a keener sense of organisational dynamics, I’ve become more sensitive to others’ cultures, contexts and concerns. Such openhearted exchanges help us respect and value how our faiths are a huge part of who we are.
Muhammad Abbas, 22, Information Technology and Business
Student, Shia Muslim I’ve realised that religion is personal to many, which makes it more important that religion builds bridges and isn’t misused for disunity. ROP training has made me more confident to have peaceful conversations on sensitive topics, and to be more thoughtful in listening to others. Such dialogues are more effective in nurturing mutual trust and respect, empowering interfaith leaders to help people of all backgrounds overcome the challenges they face.
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