Muslim parents, clerics raise concerns about children's books from Saudi Arabia sold in Singapore

A prominent religious bookstore at Golden Landmark Mall is selling books for children that could be misunderstood by impressionable young readers and steer them towards violence and extremism, some Muslims say. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - Some Muslims, including parents and clerics, have raised concerns about a few children's books being sold in Singapore, saying their content could be misunderstood by impressionable young readers and steer them towards violence and extremism.

The English-language books originate from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and may not be suitable in multiracial and multi-religious Singapore, they say.

One of the books titled Men In Captivity is the tale of a 13-year-old boy who convinces his mother to allow him to perform a "jihad" or holy war against Christians.

It contains some troubling passages including a quote by the boy who says: "The teacher told us that we may join the Muslim soldiers in jihad... Do not forget my mother that we have been under training, for more than a year, in the use of swords and horse-riding."

Muslim clerics cited unsettling content in other titles such as The First Human Murder which provides a detailed account of the killing of Abel by his brother, Cain, the Old Testament story that is also mentioned in the Quran.

Another title, In Quest of Truth, contains phrases that could be read to be disparaging of other faiths.

These English-language paperbacks can be bought for a few dollars each from a prominent religious bookstore at Golden Landmark Mall in Victoria Street.

"These books should be banned. I wouldn't want my son to think fighting is needed in any way in these days. He will think it's his duty to fight when it's totally not," said Nurshida Hussin, 34-year-old housewife and mother of two - a 10-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter.

She adds: "Kids are still kids so it's best to protect them from questionable material because they are easily influenced and impressionable."

Muslim cleric Zahid Zin, chief executive of the Muslim Youth Forum in Singapore, agreed that the books should be removed from shelves, saying they are "very dangerous" and may spread the wrong understanding of Islam not only to Muslims but also to non-Muslims.

"Children tend to refer to narrated events in the present time. So when you talk about jihad, they may not connect it to wars during the time of the prophets, but to the present which is not suitable in the current climate," he told The Straits Times.

Another cleric, Muhammad Mazdiuky Md Ishak, agreed that these kinds of books "should not be sold in Singapore and other countries, especially in our region".

Dr Mohamed Ali, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), was concerned that Muslim miltant groups could make use of the narratives in such books.

He said: "Without proper guidance, young people can develop a sense of exclusivism and if left unchecked again, exclusivism could lead to extremism and extremism could lead to terrorism."

In Singapore, the publications industry is largely self-regulated. Book importers and retailers must ensure that publications distributed are not prohibited, obscene or objectionable under the Undesirable Publications Act or in breach of Content Guidelines for Imported Publications. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) steps in when there is public feedback.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, IMDA said it would be reviewing the books in question even though it had not received any public feedback on them.

The MCI banned four books last October for content it said could "cause social distancing, distrust, hatred and even violence among people of different faiths and religious views". Nine publications by Singaporean extremist preacher Rasul Dahri were banned earlier in June.

Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative Salafi-Wahhabi Islamic doctrines have been blamed for eroding traditional Islamic practices. Its textbooks have long been criticised for being intolerant and espousing violence. Human Rights Watch in September said that problematic texts remain despite promises by officials to revise them.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has vowed to return the country to moderate Islam. The Saudi Culture and Information Ministry has also said it will monitor interpretations of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings to prevent them being distorted and used to justify violence or terrorism.

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