Sterling work against lure of terror

The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) was befittingly honoured recently with the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year Award, the first organisation to win an accolade that had hitherto been given only to individuals.

It was a timely reminder of the great service that the voluntary group has done to Singapore by using the credibility of Muslim religious leaders to counter the fallacious interpretation of Islam for terrorist ends. Formed in 2003 in response to the 2001 detention of several Singaporean members of the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), it brought together Islamic scholars and teachers to provide counsel to the detainees and turn them away from a radical ideology that misrepresented conflicts as a war against Islam and a call to arms.

What is particularly heartening about the RRG is that it came from within the Muslim community. It was born out of a desire of moderate Muslims to rehabilitate the extremists in their midst and bring them back to the mainstream fold. The volunteers developed from scratch a religious rehabilitation programme and put it to work, even though it meant enduring at times criticism that they were "agents of the Government" and "hypocrites of Islam".

Taking ownership of the issue helped with social cohesion by reducing suspicion and hostility towards Muslims as a result of the JI arrests as other communities saw the Muslim community dealing with them in a constructive way. The RRG's success can also be seen in the rehabilitation of two-thirds of the more than 30 detainees whom it counselled. The group later extended its programme to family members of the detainees and reached out to the wider Malay-Muslim community, including students, to inoculate it against falling prey to extremist ideology.

Much as the group has found success, it may yet have to adapt to the changing and no less challenging times of today. In 2007, Singapore detained its first "lone wolf", a do-it-yourself terrorist who became radicalised through trawling jihadist websites on the Internet. About a dozen self-radicalised individuals have been identified since then. Indeed, social media has been used to great effect by Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, attracting thousands of foreign fighters from different parts of the world - including at least two from Singapore - to their cause of building an Islamic caliphate. Closer to home, the Malaysian authorities recently caught up with several militants aiming to establish a similar caliphate in South-east Asia that includes Singapore. Social media provides an important platform for countering such subversion as the RRG and the Malay-Muslim community respond to new threats.