Religion as a force for good and a tool for terror is a phenomenon with a long history and, yesterday, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam dug deep into the past to show the evil that men do today is not unique to any organised faith.
Whether it is the Christian Crusades in the Middle Ages, the conquests of the Muslim Mughals on the Indian sub-continent between the 16th and 19th centuries, or the Hindu-Muslim-Buddhist conflicts in Asia in more recent decades, their justification boils down to one factor: religion.
While religion did play its part, often it is just a vehicle and an excuse to achieve very old human urges, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister.
"Look closely and you may often see the real reason for the conflict was the basic human lust for power, profit, control of people and lands," he said in a speech to open a symposium that explores how religion can expand the common space for all.
The two-day meeting attended by more than 500 people, including religious and community leaders, is organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Mr Shanmugam, in relating the bloody history of religions causing untold suffering to millions, was seeking to explain, among other things, how the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group can be traced to charismatic preachers exploiting issues of concern to Muslims to achieve political power.
This poses a severe threat to Singapore's racial and religious harmony.
In the neighbouring countries, Islam in particular has been used over the last few decades as a tool in political power play and to cultivate an us-versus-them mentality, he said.
Citing Malaysia, Mr Shanmugam noted that it has become more Islamic and politics led the change.
A survey last year showed 60 per cent of Malays identified themselves as Muslims first, rather than as Malaysians or Malays, and more than 70 per cent of Malays support hudud laws that punish theft by chopping off the criminal's hands, and adultery by stoning.
In Umno-controlled Terengganu state, Muslims who skip prayers are paraded in a hearse around the city centre, while in Kedah they face criminal sanctions.
"The current situation (there) has been shaped by deliberate choices made over decades, about how public discourse on religion should be conducted," he said.
Against the backdrop of such changes, some Malaysians have begun to support extremist terrorist ideology. A recent study showed 10 per cent of the Malays had a favourable opinion of ISIS. "Consider the nature of the threat posed, if even a small fraction of these become radicalised," said Mr Shanmugam.
In Indonesia, Islamic boarding schools and madrasahs are suspected to have links with terror networks and serve as conduits for money to the Middle East, he added.
Also, the country's lack of preventive detention laws has led to hundreds of terrorists linked to Jemaah Islamiah being released back into society (or who will be this year). They include those previously involved in plots against Singapore.
Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar face the possibility of inter- religious strife too, he said, adding that the socio-economic conditions of their respective Muslim populations have added to the potency of the terrorism threat.
Mr Shanmugam believes the region becoming ripe for an explosion of religion-based terrorism points to three ways leaders have failed their people.
These are: the cynical exploitation of race and religion by some secular and religious authorities; the relative lack of focused development and education by governments in the past; and a lack of strong commitment to multiethnicity.
Coupled with developments in the Middle East, these have resulted in the rise and spread of dangerous ideas such as killing people is doing God's will and the killer will go to heaven, he said.
"These ideas will not win," he added. "But the cost in terms of blood and misery will be high."