MIDDLE EAST CRISIS

Singapore 'not immune' from online extremism

But its experience in tackling threats can help keep danger at bay: Experts

Religious leaders and academics have cautioned that Singapore is not immune from extremists using the Internet to influence and recruit foreign fighters to join conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

But they said Singapore's experiences in tackling the threat of radicalisation and extremist ideologies should help stave off the danger of some Muslims in Singapore being influenced to join the causes in the Middle East.

Research fellow Fanar Haddad, at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, said: "It is worrying that sectarian entrenchment and sectarian hate emanating from the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts have had an echo as far away as South-east Asia, though thankfully not in Singapore."

Dr Haddad also said it was important to note that differences in beliefs are not what fuelled the tensions in Iraq. "The real drivers of sectarian tensions in Iraq are issues of power, politics and representation," he pointed out.

The conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East have reportedly attracted several thousands of foreigners to join the fighting, giving rise to concerns that it could impact nations in this part of the world.

In Iraq, an extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is trying to carve out a purist Islamic state on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

When asked about the situation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last Friday that Singapore was carefully watching it.

"You may think it's a long way away, but things in the Middle East have a way of sending out long-distance vibrations and reverberations which can affect us in South-east Asia," he added.

With reports of Malaysians and Indonesians joining the fight in Syria, PM Lee cautioned that there was a chance Singaporeans might also be led astray.

He said the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or Muis, has issued statements to guide Muslims on the right path.

Mufti Fatris Bakaram has also stressed the importance of education in preventing religious misinterpretation. In an April interview, he said it was crucial for Singapore Muslims to be able to discern what is being said online about the conflicts.

Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Ministry is investigating a 37- year-old Singaporean, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, for allegedly going to Syria to take part in armed violence there. A former Indian national, he became a Singapore citizen in 2008.

Self-radicalisation, however, is a real possibility, said Dr Haddad.

"The twisted jihadi ideology has proven attractive to young Muslims from just about every walk of life and every part of the world, so there are no hard and fast rules about who is liable to become radicalised and who is not."

Still, Singapore's economic situation, social cohesion and levels of tolerance help reduce the risk of violent extremism, he added.

Agreeing with the Mufti, Dr Mohamed Ali, secretary of the Religious Rehabilitation Group which counsels extremists, said the best way to prevent self-radicalisation is through education.

The group's work has given the community valuable experience in dealing with extremist ideology, he said.

The Singapore Muslim community understands the threat well, "but we must to continue to prevent the occurrence of religious misinterpretation and self-radicalisation", added Dr Mohamed, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Worries that the political strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims could raise tensions among Muslim groups in Singapore are also unwarranted, the experts said.

Most of Singapore's 700,000 or so Muslims are Sunni. About 5,000 are Shia Muslims.

Ba'alwi Mosque's Imam Habib Hassan, a Sunni, said the two groups have prayed, lived and inter-married without fuss or fanfare in Singapore for more than 100 years, he said. "We identify ourselves as one," he added.

Agreeing, Ustaz Mohammad Rosli Hassan, president of Shia organisation Jaafari Muslim Association Singapore, said "people living here are more educated, peaceful, harmonious and civilised".

More importantly, he added, the Government is secular and "we trust it is capable of tackling any extremist group or individual".

maryamm@sph.com.sg

asyiqins@sph.com.sg