In Singapore, countering extremism involves supporting moderate voices among the asatizah (religious teachers), who are themselves social media influencers in the Malay/Muslim community.
The call for them to come forward is loud and clear, but there may be certain concerns at an individual level (S’pore asatizahs must wage stronger online battle for hearts and minds of youths; Sept 5). The emergence of emboldened, self-radicalised individuals who gravitate towards terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS) is almost always preceded by attempts on the lives of moderate scholars who seek to neutralise radical narratives.
In 2013, Sheikh Said Ramadan al-Bouti was killed in a suicide bombing by those who would later splinter from Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to join the IS. Last year, an attempt on Sheikh Ayed al-Qarni in Mindanao foreshadowed the rise of IS-affiliated militants and their aggressiveness in the region.
The radicalised narrative would usually begin with claims that these clerics were protecting their rice bowls by allowing the state to co-opt them. The narrative would then develop by declaring them as apostates.
Finally, they would be marked out for death. With moderate voices silenced, IS propaganda would remain unchallenged. With the battleground moving towards social media and territorial South-east Asia, IS groups in this region have moved up a gear and are becoming brazen.
At the same time, they have adapted and innovated attacks and have attempted to hide under the radar by posting seemingly innocent pictures on their social media profiles, used for recruitment, as a disguise to avoid social media monitors.
There is thus a need for a group of ustaz or asatizah with clout in the community here to revive the voice of moderation, an initiative started by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.
This could prove pivotal in the battle of ideas against IS propaganda, which is basically an information attack. Unfortunately, such responsibility comes with the question of their safety and that of their loved ones.
This is not far-fetched, as demonstrated by the detention of Singaporean Imran Kassim, 34, who was prepared to attack Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel for the IS cause (2 S’poreans arrested under ISA for terror-related activities; Sept 8).
An SAF soldier can be considered a hard target, and it may be a matter of time before IS groups set their sights on civilian asatizah.