SINGAPORE - Human history has shown that religion can be a force for good. But in the hands of some, it has been abused to encourage intolerance, bigotry and the denial of another person's right to pray to a different God, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (Jan 19).
Those who spread these ideas are motivated by power, and while their ideas will not win, the cost in terms of blood and misery will be high, he said, in outlining the use of religion for political ends.
Mr Shanmugam was speaking at the opening of a two-day symposium organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, on how religion can contribute to expanding the common space.
Citing the examples of the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Muslim conquests in India, and conflicts between Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists in Asia, he said all religions have featured in conflict.
But the real reason for strife "was the basic human lust for power, profit, control of people and lands".
In the last 15 years, he added, religion has once again "risen with renewed vigour: as a force for good, and also, in the hands of some, as a tool for terror".
In particular, some have capitalised on issues that Muslims are concerned about to achieve their political ambitions, and to cultivate an us-versus-them mentality in the region over the last few decades, said Mr Shanmugam.
He cited a recent survey in Malaysia that showed that 60 per cent of Malays identified themselves as Muslims first, rather than as Malaysians or Malays, and over 70 per cent said they support Hudud, a set of Islamic criminal laws that punish theft with amputation.
The current situation has been shaped by deliberate choices made over decades, about how public discourse on religion should be conducted.
Against this backdrop, a section of society has begun to support extremist ideology.
Meanwhile, Islamic boarding schools and madrasahs in Indonesia have become conduits for money to the Middle East, and some are suspected to have terror links.
The lack of preventive detention laws in Indonesia also mean that hundreds of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) linked terrorists, including those previously involved in plots against Singapore, have either been released back into society or will be by this year, said Mr Shanmugam.
And Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar also face the possibility of inter-religious strife, with the socio-economic conditions and grievances of their Muslim populations adding to the potency of the terrorism threat.
These conditions have arisen because of failure of leadership in the past, a cynical exploitation of race and religion by some secular and religious leaders, the relative lack of focused development and education, and a lack of strong commitment to multiculturalism.
Mr Shanmugam warned that these developments in this region have now been aligned with events in the Middle East, such as the rise of terror group ISIS, "fusing perfectly with fertile conditions in this region to beget violence and terror".