S’pore asatizahs must wage stronger online battle for hearts and minds of youths

S’pore asatizahs must wage stronger online battle for hearts and minds of youths
Smoke rising from a fire at the Resorts World Manila complex in June 2. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, but this was swiftly dismissed by the Philippines authorities. Photo: AP
Published: 4:00 AM, September 5, 2017

The June edition of the Islamic State’s (IS) online propaganda magazine Rumiyah featured a photo of the aftermath of a fire at the Resorts World Manila entertainment complex. Accompanying the photo of the fire, which killed 37 people, was the headline: The Jihad in East Asia.

The IS claimed responsibility for the incident, but this was swiftly dismissed by the Philippines authorities, who said it was a botched robbery by a lone gunman.

Yet, the way the terror group went ahead to play up the incident in Rumiyah showed its skilled propaganda machinery at work.

Scanning past issues of the magazine for a recent article about the group’s recruitment tactics, I was astounded by how professional the publication looked.

What was also shocking was how, amid the glossy photos and infographics, the articles blatantly distorted Islamic teachings to suit the IS’ twisted ideology. Quranic verses were wrongly used to justify jihad (armed struggle) and to entice women into joining its cause and to nurture future generations of militants, with the claim that God will reward their sacrifices.

I cannot help but notice the contrast between the IS messaging and the ones put out by Singapore’s asatizahs, or religious teachers.

The most common posts the asatizahs make on social media invariably feature photos of food or the events they are attending.

Sporadically, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts carry messages that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy.

At other times, there are posts on the significance of praying. An Instagram post by one asatizah recently said that loving one’s country is part of Islamic teaching.

Given the comparison, the question is: Are our asatizahs doing enough to combat extremist messages online?

Mr Syed Huzaifah Alkaff, an asatizah in Singapore and a senior analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism research at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told TODAY that asatizahs’ efforts to combat radical messages are “definitely insufficient”.

A “firmer stand” is needed against the IS and other terror groups, especially against the core of their religious narratives, he added.

For instance, Mr Syed said, asatizahs need to come out stronger to explain that the idea of an Islamic state is unnecessary and that Hudud law — Islamic criminal laws that prescribe stoning, among other punishments, for certain offences — is inoperable in the Singapore context.

Presenting counter-narratives online is imperative, especially with youths in Singapore turning to the Internet for religious resources and shunning classes in mosques.

A few months ago, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim put it succinctly when he said that the “battle for the hearts and minds” of young Malay/Muslim Singaporeans is taking place in the online sphere.

He also urged asatizahs to continue to strengthen their online presence and produce more appealing content.

The question is, how?

For a start, their messaging should address any misconceptions youth might have or should explain the context of the Quranic verses misconstrued by the IS.

In June, a study by the Ministry of Home Affairs behavioural sciences experts found that some of the radicalised individuals here harbour the desire to be a “good” Muslim.

An individual might “identify the large number of sins he has committed, and feel the need to become a better person”, said the study.

It noted that these individuals may be attracted to the IS’ “untestable but attractive notions” about rewards in the afterlife.

Based on the study’s findings, asatizahs could be more forthcoming in addressing such perceptions on social media. For example, they could use Facebook live and tackle questions from youths who might ask whether being an IS martyr absolves one’s sins.

It is also useful to look at what neighbouring countries are doing. For one, Indonesian spiritual group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is working with the University of Vienna in Austria to sieve out IS propaganda targeted specifically at Indonesians. NU then responds to the messages and disseminates them through music videos.

Mr Yahya Cholil Staqful, secretary-general of NU’s ulama counsel, told TODAY: “Their propaganda will continue to spread if we don’t fight it. They will dominate the discussion about Islam. We have to use whatever we have to attack their narratives.”

To be fair to asatizahs here, they are trying hard to boost their online presence. But they are hampered by manpower and financial constraints.

Some say they do not have the resources of overseas preachers, who are aided by a team of professionals.

Last month, it was announced that Muis (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) will set up a network comprising asatizahs and other youth groups who will be trained in youth counselling and counter-radicalisation efforts. They will also be taught how to strengthen their online presence.

While it is heartening to learn of this new network, details are scant.

It raises some questions: Will asatizahs be assisted by skilled media professionals adept at producing engaging online content? What are the types of content being looked at? Or at the very least, will Muis commission such content, which can then be disseminated by the asatizahs?

To be sure, asatizahs here recognise the need to dispel exclusivist views and to educate youths that they can still be righteous Muslims even in a secular environment. Some asatizahs are subtly weaving in the messages without being too preachy, thinking this will work better.

They told me that the inclination to adopt subtle messaging is borne out of the concern that being too pronounced in addressing the IS head-on might trigger the forbidden fruit syndrome — the more they talk about it, the more curious youth will be about the group and its propaganda.

But this does not hold water, considering that youths have already been exposed to the IS and its actions, either via traditional media outlets or online platforms.

Surely, addressing rather than deflecting questions is a better approach in preventing extremist thoughts from fermenting?

Repeated calls have been made that Singapore must never be complacent in bolstering its security.

The message should also be stressed that the republic should not be lulled into singing a passive counter-narrative tune.


Faris Mokhtar is a reporter at TODAY.