The Straits Times says

Pulling back youth from ISIS abyss

By harnessing young volunteers as befrienders (called youth ambassadors of peace), several Muslim organisations have taken a useful step to update the ways of countering the appeal of radicalism among loners and others. The number of volunteers is small to start with. Just 20 of them cannot possibly hope to match the proliferating entrapments of the virtual world. It is hoped that more young Muslims will join this pioneering batch to help prevent terrorist and extremist organisations from twisting young minds. These groups are cybersmart, they know how to prey on the vulnerable, and they're adept at putting a spin on dark causes. Stout Singaporean hearts will be needed to defeat such baneful influences.

Unlike organised networks which can be dismantled once their operational structure and key personnel are known, young people who cross over ideologically to groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) via the Internet are difficult to monitor. Hence, it falls on family members and friends to be alert to behavioural changes that suggest the need to get help from religious and community leaders. Putting endangered youth in touch with well-grounded peers can be more effective sometimes than having them face authority figures. As youthful friendships develop, so might the willingness to see wholesome perspectives communicated in the language and social contexts that they can easily relate to.

Counselling by mature volunteers alone might not always work to defuse the growing pressure within the misguided who have been exposed to online propagandists. Subtly, youth ambassadors can also be helpful in resolving their mental conflicts and keeping them from harming others and themselves.

The importance of such work cannot be overstated. Take the case of the teen who planned to join ISIS in Syria, failing which he wanted to attack key facilities and assassinate the Prime Minister and the President. Although he was stopped in time, other egregious examples might arise to drive a wedge of suspicion between communities. That could a create a vicious circle of mistrust that will harm all should social divisions multiply.

That's why other communities can, and must, help their Muslim counterparts tackle this challenge. The work of youth ambassadors and others can be undone if alienated youth face discrimination and rejection in the real world. And online hate speech that fuels Islamophobia explicitly might drive embittered Muslim youth to seek global "solutions" to local issues.

Most of all, no group must be allowed to question the presence and practice of equal opportunities, which have established multiracial meritocracy as the Singapore norm. Against the divisive tactics of terror recruiters, Singapore must preserve its secular centre and multi-religious core.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Pulling back youth from ISIS abyss'. Print Edition | Subscribe