Monday 12 January 2015

Masagos Zulkifli: Radicals don’t represent a country’s Muslims

When the first terror arrests were made here in 2001, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli was head of Muslim welfare group Perdaus. He saw close-up how Singapore came to terms with the terror threat by working closely with the Muslim community. As radicals pose a global threat, most recently in the Paris attacks, he tells Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh about the key role the Islamic community and society play in keeping extremism at bay.
The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2015

What are your thoughts on this week's terror attack in Paris and how communal relations might be affected?

The collateral damage is clear. Distrust and dislike between communities in France have clearly spiked. I've heard radio reports of mosques being attacked.

We're looking at a tragic conflict in a society where one part values freedom of speech and has licence to be irreverent and even insulting to all religions, and another that believes it has a divine licence to reply by spilling blood.

I'm glad that our society values religious and racial harmony and collectively does not tolerate anything that threatens this peace.We must take lessons from incidents like these and be proud of our own value system. We pace our changes ourselves and do not pine for alien ones that, when implemented abruptly, may be disruptive to the peace we know.

(Mr Masagos, who was this week co-opted into the People's Action Party's central executive committee, spoke to The Supper Club before the Paris shootings. His replies, in hindsight, are a prescient take on the threat of extremism by those who abuse Islamic teachings, and the damage terrorism can cause to religious harmony. In Singapore's case, a group of religious leaders helped to rehabilitate close to 60 terror detainees over the past decade, with only nine in detention today.)

Can you tell us more about Singapore's approach to countering terrorism?

I remember coming across this subject in 2001, way before I became an MP in 2006. Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong wanted to break the news that they had arrested radicals, people who were plotting to blow up Yishun MRT station. At that time, the Muslim community was not ready to confront the issue.

Questions would arise, including whether the Government was framing Islam. The Government did not want this accusation to linger or even come to anybody's mind. Secondly (they had to look at) how do you frame this situation in a way where you state the facts as they are, but also do not tarnish the good name of Islam?

So PM Goh then brought the community together. I was among them, representing Muslim voluntary welfare group Perdaus. He stated the stark reality of what had happened, the evidence. It shocked a lot of people.

The community leaders denounced this group. This is not Islam. We also wanted the Government to ensure they would frame it in a way that is not associated with Islam. So the word jihadist, the words Jemaah Islamiah were modified into, for example, JI operatives. Because terms like Islam, jihad, hold different meanings that are dear to many Muslims. These things came as a result of consultation with the community. So for the first time, in issues that dealt with security, the Government went out to the community to engage them, to make them part of the solution.

What happened next?

One, the community leaders came together and, without prompting from the Government, went to a hotel where Habib Hassan Alatas, the imam of renowned Ba'alwie Mosque, gathered Muslims to say this is not something we condone. This is not Islam.

The interesting thing was that other religious leaders who were part of the Inter-Religious Organisation, and good friends of the community, came out together the same day. They said: "We stand behind you, we embrace you as fellow brother citizens. This JI is a group of people who are lost and misunderstand their faith."

Two, our religious leaders (ustaz) themselves had doubts about the radicals.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) gave the religious leaders the opportunity to talk to the JI members. And the leaders were shocked at the doctrines and beliefs that were twisted and taught by the JI, in a way that makes it seem like Islam cannot exist with other people, that Muslims must destroy people around them to flourish again. Whereas Islam, from the very beginning, accepts the world as a very plural world, and accepts that people cannot be brought to submission to believe in the religion. But the JI members' doctrine, misquoting Quranic verses and so on, had a different conclusion altogether.

So a group of ustaz came together to say, give us access to these people, let us counsel them. They voluntarily formed a group called the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), and the ISD allowed them access to these people. The outcome is a good story.

The Government can't do this alone because this is about religion. The RRG came forward to help the detainees and their families to cope with the transition back to reality and understanding Islam in the right context.

How do you decide when a detainee is ready for release, needs to be placed under restriction orders, or kept behind bars?

Some are obvious. Some refuse to accept that Islam teaches peace, living with others, and that Muslims live in a variety of existing countries that are legitimate, there are kingdoms, there are democracies.

They disagree with that, and say there's only one doctrine: This puritan sense of what the world should be, and they have to get rid of whatever will corrupt the purity of Islam.

This is a very dangerous doctrine. And if they continue to hold this, it's a given that they will resort to violence and, therefore, we have to hold them for that belief.

And then there's the other extreme, where we know from the circumstances that they are just duped, or they know they are duped, and they prove themselves willing to conform to the restriction orders and to follow the conditions of their release. And then, on the advice of the counsellors, they will be permanently released. Usually they are not the leaders. These are the people who somehow went with the flow.

Are those still in detention usually higher up in the group, like leaders?

They're not necessarily higher in the hierarchy but, more importantly, have a deeply rooted belief in their doctrines.

They will not listen. They will not engage. Our ustaz tell us they won't even want to talk to them. The process of engaging detainees is still ongoing.

Sometimes, I pity our ustaz. They tell me sometimes they get accused of being infidels, government dogs. And the ustaz still try and talk to them. And sometimes, the detainees refuse to talk to them. They shout at them. It's very hard. But I know that the ustaz try again and again.

Is there a difference between the JI days and now - with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) the dominant terror threat?

Both Al-Qaeda and ISIS are terror groups that espouse violence to achieve their political goals. But ISIS' deft use of social media has definitely helped it to spread its ideology and recruit members to fight in Syria, or inspire "lone wolves" to carry out attacks in their own countries. This has made it more challenging for security agencies.

ISIS is at least four different groups - those who believe in the re-establishment of the caliphate, thinking that without it Muslims are downtrodden; former soldiers in Saddam Hussein's army; people who feel they don't belong in a country; and those who think they have sinned and hope to redeem themselves and die a martyr.

Groups of different people with different objectives in their lives are coming together. Syria is a magnet.

Whatever their purpose, they go to Syria, they get trained, indoctrinated, changed by battle.

They will come back and God knows what goes on in their mind or what they will do. That is why we are worried. We want to prevent people from going there, and we probably have to detain those that come back.

In terms of the ISIS threat right now, the RRG has said it has counselled some people who have been browsing material online. Can you tell us about these concerns?

There is so much material online that is very compelling and sometimes, as simplistic as it is, attractive. Because of the Internet, the material is so easy to convey and spread through WhatsApp, Facebook. Sometimes, some of it is irresponsible. They propagate things and convolute them with issues that have nothing to do with terrorism.

For example, they might say that the Government's stand against terrorism is wrong because the Government's stand against minority rights is also wrong and, therefore, the Government is wrong. Instead of talking about terrorism, in the end, they're talking about their grievances. There are a lot of people who take advantage of this confusion, especially online.

At the same time, they also solicit for funds online... sometimes people don't check who is behind all these advertisements, and they don't really know where the money is going.

And therefore we always say, please make sure if you really wish to help people in the Middle East, there are conduits like Muis and Muslim charity Bapa, who know exactly who they can trust so that the money goes to the right people.

It's a question of people who get swayed because of the attractiveness of the online material and then get involved in it, and there are also people who contribute money unwittingly, not knowing that it's going to buy a rifle to continue ISIS' fight.

Is there anything new that the Government will do to counter the growing influence of terrorist groups through the Internet?

The first thing is to create awareness. And that's why we're going out again and again. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has met community leaders of all races and religions to get them to understand the issues, why ISIS is a threat to the world.

We need Singaporeans to understand the issue and also why Singapore needs to get involved. And this is part of being a responsible global player who has to walk the talk. So we can't just go say "Yes, yes, we are concerned about ISIS, go ahead and fight. We wait and see". We can't do that. So we are sending out a refuelling tanker, we are sending imaging experts to add to the resources that the allies can contribute.

I went to Jordan (last October) and met Singaporean student leaders (studying there). We had a good talk about what ISIS is about and why we need to take a stand and indeed they're worried and say, look, if you go out and actually send a unit, in whatever form, then Singapore becomes a target.

The argument is not true because we are a target whether or not we send troops out there. We have to get our fundamentals right. Singaporeans have to make sure our society stands with the Government in this, that we reject the doctrines, we reject violence.

After the Sydney siege, you mentioned in a Facebook post that you could understand the children of victims "growing up angry with Muslims". What if an act of terror happens here? How sure are you that the communities here will stay together?

Security agencies work hard to prevent and deter a terrorist attack from taking place in Singapore, but we cannot guarantee that such an attack, like the "lone wolf" attack in Sydney, will not take place in Singapore. A radicalised "lone wolf" is difficult to detect and the attacks they carry out require little planning or resources, making it difficult to prevent such attacks in the absence of specific intelligence.

It is crucial to build up community resilience in peacetime so that, should a terrorist attack occur in Singapore, it does not adversely impact on our communal relations, and suspicions and mistrust between the different communities do not arise.

We have laid the foundations for good social relations with the establishment of the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles and the Community Engagement Programme in the wake of the JI arrests in 2001/2002, and the continuing effort by our communities to strengthen community bonds. The real test will come in the event of a crisis.

Are there any lessons Singapore can learn from how the Australians handled the siege?

The Australians came together and won widespread admiration for the way that they responded. The "#illridewithyou" hashtag offered solidarity with Australia's Muslims, and reflected the wider Australian public's awareness that the acts of a "lone wolf" did not represent the country's Muslims.

Similarly, it is important for Singaporeans to recognise this, and for all communities to understand the importance of preserving our multiracial, multi-religious society in times of crisis.

'Radicals don't represent a country's Muslims'
Supper with Masagos Zulkifli -RazorTV

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