Countering ISIS ideology more important than fighting them on battlefield: Parliament Speaker Halimah Yacob

Halimah Yacob speaking at the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah's seminar on 21 Nov, 2015.
Halimah Yacob speaking at the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah's seminar on 21 Nov, 2015.PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

SINGAPORE - Countering the ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is more important than fighting them on the battlefield, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said.

And young people have a crucial role, not only in being discerning about online information on religion, but also in generating content that is positive and appealing on social media.

"It's much easier to drop bombs on them rather than to fight them ideologically," she said on Saturday. "If you drop bombs, you don't kill the ideology ... Other groups will start forming. The ideology remains intact."

Speaking at the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah's seminar on how youth can act against the spread of extremist ideas globally, she said that as "digital natives" they can and should use their creativity and skills in new media technology "to come up with positive messages which can be made viral".

She also said Muslim Singaporeans must be unequivocal in "silencing those claiming to represent Islam with their hard line and radical approach which tarnishes the religion's image".

"It's important to communicate to the young why we're not ambivalent: we're clear that we're completely against this ideology. It leaves no room for any doubt about the work they do being evil."

The seminar was attended by 150 students from the six madrasahs and students from the School of the Arts, Nanyang Girls' High School and Hwa Chong Institution.

In her remarks, she said ISIS' hypocrisy was evident as it destroyed centuries-old statues and sculptures in order to appear righteous, but quietly sold smaller, more valuable artefacts on the black market to finance its activities.

Also reprehensible is the brutalisation of women by militants.

"What I hate the most about them is they claim to uphold Islamic values but rape, sell and kill women without any regard for the teachings of the Quran or the Prophet which respect and protect women," she said.

Despite this, ISIS' online outreach continues to persuade young women to travel to Syria, where the group wants to set up an Islamic state. But Madam Halimah said there is no such religious obligation to create an Islamic state.

Scholars established that Prophet Muhammad and successive generations of Muslims did no such thing. The idea of a sovereign state is an invention of the modern era.

She spoke of the dangers of extremism reaching here, pointing to cases of Singaporeans who were self-radicalised and wanted to join ISIS overseas or stage attacks here.

She also shared personal concerns. Citing the 2001 Jemaah Islamiah plot to bomb Yishun MRT station, she recalled that at that time, her school-going children used the station for their daily commute.

Attacks like Friday's hostage-taking in Mali and killings in Beirut and Paris have sowed distrust of Muslims worldwide, she noted.

There have been some incidents here too. She cited one which has been talked about online, where a Muslim woman said she was recently verbally abused by a man at Tanah Merah MRT station.

Madam Halimah told reporters later that debate about ISIS being a Muslim issue was not the right approach. After all, violence against Muslims in Myanmar fanned by radical Buddhists did not mean all Buddhists were responsible.

"This is not Islam. We condemn it. We disassociate ourselves," she said of terrorists' actions. "To say we should take ownership is as if Islam is the source of it. But it is not."

The seminar included talks by religious leaders and terrorism experts. Students also discussed how to build social resilience against distorted ideologies.

Hwa Chong Institution's Benjamin Tan, 17, said it was a good opportunity to interact with Malay-Muslim students and those from Madrasahs - something that he did not get to do in his school

ziliang@sph.com.sg