Monday, 9 June 2014

Use social media to fight extremism says Education Minister Heng Swee Keat at the Religious Rehabilitation Group’s 10th Annual Retreat

Counter radicals who use it to sway young minds, minister urges rehab volunteer group
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Sunday Times, 8 Jun 2014

Thousands of people from countries around the world have answered the call of extremists to join Syrian rebels in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and Singaporeans are "not immune" to this call, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

The extremists have been adroit at drumming up their cause and recruiting fighters on the Internet, posing a significant challenge to Singapore, he added at the 10th annual retreat of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).

This is especially so, he noted, because Singapore's young people have grown up on a diet of social media and see it as a trusted source of information and news.

But "radical ideologues" can use it as a weapon to manipulate young people's "spirit of altruism... to stir up emotional responses to the perceived oppression of Muslims in conflict zones, and to seed ideas of hatred", he warned, adding that there is a need to counter the misuse of social media by the extremists.

He urged the group to explore how it can exert a greater presence on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to "reclaim the discourse from the radicals".

"It will be an uphill task, but something necessary, so that there is a countervailing voice against the radical narrative being purveyed online," he said addressing about 30 people at the Holiday Inn Atrium on the second day of the group's three-day retreat focusing on the Syrian conflict.

The RRG, a voluntary group of asatizah, or religious teachers, counsel radicalised individuals here to get them to abandon their extremist beliefs.

Mr Heng praised the group for helping to rehabilitate those found to have "imbibed the terrorist ideology" and also for helping to reintegrate them into society.

When it was set up 11 years ago, the group was "ahead of its time", said Mr Heng.

But its method of counteracting the terrorist threat through stamping out radical ideology is especially relevant in today's "complex" terrorism landscape, he added.

Describing how the terrorism threat has evolved, Mr Heng said the "enemy" has become more "amorphous", comprising self-radicalised terrorists who pick up radical propaganda online.

The Syrian conflict, and the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, has also "fed into the terrorist narrative that there is a global jihad that Muslims must be a part of", he said noting that many governments anticipate it could breed a new generation of terrorists.

According to estimates by the Soufan Group, which provides strategic security intelligence services to organisations, about 12,000 foreigners have joined the Syrian conflict.


RRG's co-chairman, Ustaz Ali Mohamed, also raised concerns about this trend yesterday when he made his opening remarks at the retreat, adding that some Singaporeans are already "attracted to the Syrian conflict".

"The RRG is worried about the growing trend of individuals who are easily swayed by the narrative of performing armed jihad in Syria," he said.

In March, the Ministry of Home Affairs disclosed it was investigating Singaporean Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, 37, for allegedly going to Syria with the intention of taking part in armed violence there. The supermarket manager, previously an Indian national, became a Singapore citizen in 2008.

Ustaz Ali said individuals like Haja may have been influenced by the "doomsday narrative" online that perpetuates the belief that the Syrian conflict is a prelude to the end of the world, and a "holy war" against enemies of Islam.

"Such narratives are based on sayings of the Prophet (Muhammad) which are often misunderstood and taken out of context," he said.

He added that there is a need to counter the narrative with an in-depth study of the hadith, or Prophet's sayings, quoted widely on the Internet, to "prevent the peaceful messages of Islam from being misused".

Welcoming Mr Heng's suggestions for the group, Ustaz Ali said a public resource centre will be launched at Khadijah Mosque next month to provide research, information and counselling as part of the group's anti-terrorism efforts here.

"We have an... important role to proactively inoculate the community against the dangers of terrorist and radical ideologies," he said.

Singapore's 'Precious Treasure'
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Sunday Times, 8 Jun 2014

The racial and religious harmony enjoyed by people here is Singapore's "precious treasure", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday.

In a Facebook post, he said he had been reminded of this at a meeting with Egypt's former Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa and Anglican Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, who are in Singapore as keynote speakers for the inauguration of a programme on inter-religious relations at the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Mr Lee said he spoke with them about maintaining harmony in a multi-racial and multi-religious society.

"Singapore has worked hard at this, as has Egypt. Just from my little time with them, I could see that Sheikh Dr Ali Gomaa and Archbishop Dr Mouneer are good friends, working closely together to promote peace and harmony between Muslims and Christians there," he wrote.

He added: "They are a good example of how different faiths can work together for the common good."

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