Thursday, 21 August 2014

Religious rehab group is Berita Harian Achiever of the Year 2014

Group honoured for role in countering religious extremism
RRG plays crucial part in battle for hearts and minds, says PM Lee
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 20 Aug 2014

WITH conflicts in Syria and Iraq feeding a terrorist narrative that is drawing fighters from around the world, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) plays a key role in offering a robust ideological counter to the jihadists, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after he presented the group with the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year Award.

The RRG is the first organisation to win the award, which the Malay daily has given out for the last 15 years.

The group of Islamic scholars and teachers first came together in 2003, in the wake of the Jemaah Islamiah arrests, to counsel those influenced by radical misinterpretations of Islam.

Speaking in Malay and English, Mr Lee said at last night's gala dinner: "RRG's work has been invaluable not only in fighting extremist ideology, but also in maintaining religious and racial harmony in our society, strengthening trust between government and the community and keeping Singapore safe."

And the group's work remains important today, with continued turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa causing some Muslims to become self-radicalised based on what they see and read online, Mr Lee said.

Thousands of foreign fighters have joined the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Malaysians and Indonesians have joined the cause, even carrying out suicide attacks. A few Singaporeans have also gone to fight in the Middle East, while others were planning to go when they were stopped by the authorities.

"The danger is that they learn the techniques of terrorism, they are infected with this radical ideology, and they forge an international brotherhood of fighters and produce a new generation of terrorists," Mr Lee said.

The RRG, he said, plays a crucial role in "the battle for hearts and minds", providing proper religious guidance, and preventing vulnerable Singaporeans from being led astray and drawn into the conflicts.

He also thanked the RRG's pioneer members for stepping forward 11 years ago, saying: "They worked closely with the Government, putting their reputations on the line, knowing the risk of being misperceived as doing the Government's bidding."

RRG's co-chair, Ustaz Ali Mohamed, said he and his volunteers had at times been labelled "agents of the Government" and "hypocrites of Islam".

The award, he said, was a welcome surprise, after their quiet work over the past decade. "We don't work for awards. We really work for the betterment of our community and, of course, for our nation."

Last night, Mr Lee also presented the Berita Harian Inspiring Young Achiever Award to national rower Saiyidah Aisyah Mohammed Rafa'ee - who last year won Singapore's first gold in the sport since 1997. He said she had achieved this with "true grit and plenty of sacrifice".

Berita Harian editor Saat Abdul Rahman, who headed the panel of judges, said both the RRG and Ms Saiyidah reflect the can-do spirit.

"We'd like many more young individuals like Saiyidah Aisyah, and this is also the work of RRG, to reach out to (the youth) so that the future generation will live as model Singaporeans, moderate Muslims, which is good for the community as a whole."

Award-winning group widens scope to fight terror
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 20 Aug 2014

FROM counselling Jemaah Islamiah (JI) detainees led astray by radical teachings, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) has expanded its scope.

It now reaches out to the wider community, and engages schools and netizens to deal with new threats on the horizon.

The voluntary group of Islamic scholars and teachers, formed in 2003, is the first organisation to win the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year Award.

Ustaz Hasbi Hassan, co-chair of the RRG, said that of more than 30 JI detainees the group has seen over the past decade, about two-thirds have been successfully rehabilitated.

"You can see the change. You don't worry about their old habits any longer. And you don't worry about their families as well, that they may be angry or want to seek revenge against the people who captured their fathers or husbands," said Ustaz Hasbi in Malay yesterday. "Now, their wives and children accept and understand what we had to do."

Since 2007, the RRG has worked with schools to raise awareness on the threat of terrorist ideology.

The group has organised an inter-junior college dialogue on extremism, and has also collaborated with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies to conduct counter-ideology talks in secondary schools.

Earlier this year, it launched a resource centre in Khadijah Mosque to showcase its work. Countries both in the region and beyond have turned to the RRG for advice on how to deal with extremism in their communities.

And the RRG's efforts have also moved online: The group now has a Facebook page where it distributes information on Islamic teachings and seeks feedback.

"Social media is an influential tool, especially for the young," said Ustaz Hasbi.

"Sometimes, they are misinformed by social media, so we have to use that same platform, use it to get the right information out."

And as news of crises in the Middle East - such as the Syrian war - spreads, some Singaporeans are drawn to playing a role in these conflicts.

The RRG members speak to people at risk to clarify the situation in Syria, "stepping on the brakes" so they do not get influenced and inflamed.

And there is a long road ahead for the group, said Ustaz Ali Mohamed, also RRG's co-chair. "We can't stop at the moment... not in five years, nor 10 years. I think it will be a very long way to go and there are other challenges."

Rower goes against the tide to bring glory to Singapore
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 20 Aug 2014

IN THE last year, rower Saiyidah Aisyah Mohammed Rafa'ee, 26, has gone from struggling underdog to SEA Games gold medallist and now, the winner of the Berita Harian Inspiring Young Achiever Award.

The winner of the women's 2,000m lightweight single sculls race at the South-east Asia Games in Myanmar last December said she was surprised to be so honoured by the Malay newspaper, because in going for gold, all she sought was to prove her detractors wrong - those "who didn't believe an ordinary Malay girl could bring glory to the country".

She has since become a role model to others, some of whom stop her on the streets to tell her she has inspired them to pursue their dreams in spite of obstacles.

But staying afloat has been hard. Ahead of the SEA Games, she took three months of no-pay leave from her job as a student development manager at Ngee Ann Polytechnic to train in Sydney, Australia. The Singapore Sports Council had cut funding for the sport and last year, she spent $10,000 on training expenses and rowing equipment.

At home, her 56-year-old mother Sumiati Buang questioned the choices made by her only daughter, and worried about her not doing housework or knowing how to cook.

Ms Saiyidah's drive also came from wanting to show her mother that "it's okay if I can't sew or cook, as long as I bring glory to the nation - which is not what many daughters can do".

When rowing - still an overlooked sport - was initially excluded from next year's SEA Games which Singapore will host, Ms Saiyidah convinced the Singapore Sports Council to include it, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last night after he presented her with the award.

Mr Lee said: "I think Aisyah was driven not just because she was rowing for herself, but for the future of the sport in Singapore."


Battle to protect Islam from untruths of 'jihad'
Ten years ago, a group of Islamic religious leaders came together to begin rehabilitating terror detainees and counter their misinterpretation of certain concepts. In August, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) received the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year Award. As countries around the world grapple with a resurgent terror threat, RRG vice-chairman, Ustaz Mohamed Ali, 41, talks to Tham Yuen-C about the group's work.
The Straits Times, 4 Oct 2014

How did the founders of the RRG hit upon the idea of using rehabilitation to counter extremist ideology?

When some Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members were arrested here in 2001 and 2002, Ustaz Ali Haji Mohamed and Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi Hassan (RRG co-chairmen) were given the opportunity to talk to the detainees. They discovered these individuals used religion to promote their political objectives, and had misunderstood religious narratives. When asked why they wanted to attack Singapore, the detainees said: "This is my jihad."

As religious scholars, it is our duty to correct them and reflect upon such extremist ideology. The best way is to talk to them, to guide them, and re-educate them, to clear any confusion they may have. That is why the idea of counselling and rehabilitation was mooted.

How are the counselling sessions carried out?

We have a three-step process.

First, we talk to the detainees to identify the misinterpreted religious concepts they hold. Then, we provide the correct and proper understanding of these concepts. Last, we try to help them understand and appreciate living within Singapore's multiracial, multi-religious society.

Are they receptive?

In the earlier sessions, they generally don't trust us. They perceive us as "government ustaz". So we explain that we are volunteers. If our religion is being threatened, hijacked, used wrongly, then it is our duty to correct it.

Usually, slowly, after months and sometimes years of counselling, they begin to be receptive and understand we are there to help them, and they request more advice.

How can you tell someone has been successfully rehabilitated?

Ideology, thinking, and orientation are something non-physical and unseen. So, to be honest, we cannot be 100 per cent sure.

But we make an assessment using several indicators.

For example, these individuals previously believed that Islam required hate and violence of its adherents. After counselling, they must demonstrate resilience against these ideas, and realise that terrorists have been misinterpreting Islam.

We also look for whether an individual has reflected on his past actions and understood that the move by the JI members to create chaos in Singapore tarnished the good name of the Muslim community here.

You can tell by the way they speak, and their actions. They integrate well, they begin to speak positively, and better understand what it means to be living in multicultural Singapore.

They are also put through a supervision programme by the authorities which prevents them from going back to old JI friends.

So, can they really change?

No one is born a terrorist, a radical or extremist. It's through a process of radicalisation that these people become like that. They think they are doing something good, because they are led to believe that. From our experience, extremists can be rehabilitated. However, some people may need a longer time to be rehabilitated.

What experiences of the RRG are relevant in stamping out the threat of extremism posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

We learnt that a robust and innovative counter-ideological approach is required to deal with such threats. The community, both Muslims and non-Muslims, needs to work together with the authorities to tackle the problem, and, more importantly, prevent people from being influenced.

Education and community participation are key, and, fortunately, this is our strength in Singapore. This approach is a huge hurdle and challenge for many countries. ISIS ideology developed from Al-Qaeda. What ISIS is doing today is not something very different from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Beheadings are not something new. In 2004, Al-Qaeda was doing it in Iraq.

But ISIS has become very brutal, very extreme. This July, RRG came up with a pamphlet to explain the Syrian conflict. Now, we are working on the ISIS phenomenon. RRG has formed a research team to discuss this. We will soon come up with the counter-narratives to provide the public with clear explanations to counter ISIS.

How does misinterpreting religious concepts lead to extremist actions?

It's not a straightforward connection. Ideology plays an important role in shaping the action. But the act of planning to bomb, in the case of the JI detainees, also arises from hatred towards Singapore, the United States, and its allies.

Ideology provides some kind of justification. We need to understand the psychological aspect too.

That's why in the Singapore rehabilitation programme, there are three major components: religious, psychological and social. The RRG is involved in only the religious component.

RRG also has to help detainees come to terms with living in a multiracial and multi-religious society. Why is this so?

I think they would like to live in an Islamic system, but Singapore is a secular state. We tell them that Islam can be practised anywhere. Also, Singapore is an open society where Islam is being practised well without any problems.

We have Muis (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), we have a minister for Muslim affairs, the Syariah Court (for family law) and Amla (Administration of Muslim Law Act).

Islam also promotes integration among the different religious communities. In the Quran, there is a verse that says God created human beings in different tribes, different religions, languages so that we can get to know one another.

Everyone can look at the same verses and give a different spin. How do you convince them your interpretation is right?

You can have a different orientation, but when it comes to religious understanding, you have to depend on the established scholars. Not everybody is eligible or has the ability to interpret. Yet, they have their own interpretations and don't want to refer to the scholars. You cannot have your own interpretation.

But these groups have their own scholars and preachers, so how would people know their teachings are not legitimate?

It's very clear in Islam that violence cannot be accepted. There are many orientations, and even if you want to pray, there are several versions of prayer. Every version is correct. But Islam condemns and forbids violence.

So, why do the people who join ISIS believe that their actions are sanctioned by their religion?

It is because they are misinterpreting the verses in the Quran. If you refer back to the interpretation of the scholars, you will see that these verses are not about the killing of non-Muslims. They speak about the battlefield or war fought by Prophet Muhammad during his time. That is a legitimate battlefield.

But how can you put on a suicide vest, blow up yourself in public, killing yourself, killing others and call it a jihad? Is that a jihad?

Obviously it's not. That's violence. Islam forbids you to kill yourself and others.

They believe that what they do is jihad, a holy war, and it's a religious obligation. But Islam and the Prophet did not teach that.

There have been reports of Singaporeans travelling to Syria to join ISIS. Why are they attracted to the conflict there when they are not directly affected by it?

Many people do not understand the nature and context of the conflict in Iraq and Syria. But it has been widely portrayed as jihad and a religious duty of Muslims, thus helping attract many foreign fighters from across the globe.

In addition, many also believe the conflict in Iraq and Syria is a prelude to the anticipated end of time (Judgement Day) and feel anxious - that they need to be "better Muslims now". Hence, they feel they need to respond to the ISIS call for "jihad".

The truth is far from this. The conflict is very tribal and political and there is no religious requirement for anyone to get involved. Those who support it are confused about their religious obligations. They fail to seek proper advice or clarification and are too impulsive in making their decision.

You said people who become radicalised are often those wanting to be more religious. What is the difference between a holy person and an extremist?

The difference is crystal clear. A true holy man will never commit any indiscriminate and unjustified violence and will use religion to bring peace in himself, his family, community and the world.

Militants, on the other hand, use religion to justify violence and use it as a tool to attract people to their cause. Many of them are not religious individuals and have shallow knowledge about religion.

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