This commentary was also published in the Thought Section of AMPlified, A Quarterly Newsletter by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), January 2015, Issue 25.
Considering the sheer number of Malay/Muslim voluntary welfare organisations and self-help groups, and the events they organise each year, it could be argued that no other community devotes more time and effort at looking into its issues than the Malay/Muslim community. Yet, many of its problems – particularly in the social arena – are longstanding ones. Relatively youthful in terms of its population structure, the community has the added challenge of ensuring the strengths of its youth are harnessed so as to secure its future. One of the key challenges facing its youth today is the need to ensure they remain surefooted and pragmatic during times when ideologies are permeating various spheres of life, including socio-religious one.
The Straits Times reported on 7 October 2014 that a “handful of Singaporeans” are known to have left for Syria to “join the fight”, prompting a stern warning from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean that Singaporeans planning to join or help the Middle East terror group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), will face the full extent of the law. Discussions on the spread of radical ideologies have rarely failed to highlight youths and their purported vulnerability to extreme views, particularly those being propagated online. Terrorist organisations reportedly target impressionable youth through the internet and social media, using skilfully crafted messages and visuals to appeal to them, portraying their cause as a holy one and hence, the promise of glad tidings from the Almighty Creator.
In a paper entitled The Enduring Threat of Self-Radicalisation, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) explained that self-radicalisation is sparked by the desire to be a better practising Muslim. In an increasingly secularised world, there is a desire to go beyond material gains to fill the spiritual void. The search for an ideal world and self-image, according to RRG, is most prominent among youth and, when coupled with blind fervour and superficial understanding of Islam, make them extremely vulnerable to being exploited by extremists.
A search online would, however, reveal that there are as many messages condemning extremism as there are those glorying the ideologies and actions of the likes of ISIS. Some of those condemning are renowned or influential figures like Reza Aslan, a religious scholar who accused ISIS of fighting a war of imagination – a war that it thinks is between the forces of good and evil – and hence should be destroyed with military might, with no further need for diplomacy or negotiation. The self-radicalisation and subsequent detention of young lawyer, Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader, under the Internal Security Act in 2007, shattered several myths. He has the intellectual capacity to surpass a “shallow understanding of Islam” and be more discerning of ideas promulgated online, yet he was radicalised. It suggests that ignorance, though necessary, may not be a sufficient condition for one to be influenced.
There is a need to put things in perspective. To say that youth can be swayed ideologically online, leading to a massive undertaking such as putting one’s life at stake by fighting a cause in another country, is to imply they are utterly lacking in the ability to discern between the various messages they are exposed to. This may not be an accurate portrayal of the media literacy of youth. Why they are receptive to some messages online and not others, may be the result of a build-up, long before they hit the keyboard. Inclinations to certain ideologies and beliefs are a result of complex interaction between a person and his environment. The underlying motivation of a person of a particular nationality joining the fight in Syria, for example, may not be the same as someone of a different nationality. A landscape in which religious intolerance is condoned may breed inclination to extremism as would a landscape in which certain groups are marginalised.
It is therefore worth examining what are the developments taking place in Singapore and their unintended consequences. For instance, growing secularism does not mean declining religiosity but, paradoxically, may stoke religious fervour. In contrast to preserving the secular space, recognising and nurturing a common space that is inclusive of all faiths and philosophies may produce better outcomes in promoting greater inclusiveness, understanding and tolerance between communities.
Within communities, there is a need to promote intra-faith dialogues. In the Muslim community, for example, there are groups with various orientations and there have often been tensions among them, leading to problems such as one labelling the other in ways that foment suspicion and distrust.
Given the diversity in Singapore, it would be good to develop a model of inclusiveness and shared space so that no individual or group is marginalised and left vulnerable to extremism.
Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is the Researcher/Projects Coordinator of Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in the article are his own.
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