Commentary: Why Singapore needs to keep out Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad’s extremism
Singapore’s decision to deny entry to Abdul Somad Batubara has been stoked assiduously by the Indonesian preacher on social media.
Singapore’s decision to deny entry to Abdul Somad Batubara has been criticised assiduously by the Indonesian preacher on social media.
It has certainly generated considerable controversy, not least because he appears to enjoy a huge social media presence, with 6.5 million followers on Instagram, 2.7 million subscribers on YouTube and in excess of 700,000 followers on Facebook.
His supporters even protested outside the Singapore embassy in Jakarta and the Singapore consulate-general in Medan last week.
Interestingly, institutional figures in Indonesia such as parliamentarian Fadli Zon called Singapore’s treatment of the religious figure “very inappropriate”, while a senior Islamic Council of Indonesia (MUI) figure, Cholil Nafis, advised Singapore not to be “prejudiced against the citizens of its neighbouring countries".
Like many Islamic folk preachers in Indonesia, Mr Somad’s popularity lies in the fact that his online sermons are easily accessible and cover a range of daily issues concerning ordinary Indonesian Muslims.
A charismatic preacher, his messages are said to be witty and humorous, if not exactly theologically sophisticated. Additionally, there does not appear to be any evidence that he supports terrorist groups such as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).
All this begs the question: Why keep him out? Why would his presence in our community have been inimical to our multi-religious social fabric?
ABDUL SOMAD’S EXTREMISM EXAMINED
The first thing to note is that extremism is not always expressed in terms of physical violence at the outset.
As the Ministry of Home Affairs explained, Mr Somad is "known to preach extremist and segregationist teachings, which are unacceptable in Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society".
The dissemination of explicitly segregationist messaging in an urbanised, densely packed, social media-savvy, multi-religious society like Singapore is simply a very bad idea.
This point is driven home by Mr Somad’s particular brand of segregationist pronouncements.
As reported, he has referred to non-Muslims as "kafirs" or infidels, called the Christian crucifix the dwelling for an "infidel jinn" (spirit or devil) and declared that infidels and the Chinese are seldom possessed because "fellow demons" are not allowed to "tempt" each other.
Such rhetoric not only seriously offends non-Muslims, especially Christians, it falls afoul of the Penal Code, which criminalises activities, including hate speech, aimed at “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race”.
More insidiously, scientific evidence has shown that the dehumanising rhetoric embedded in hate speech, over time fosters a climate of rigid intolerance that can soften the ground for violence.
The German-Egyptian scholar Hamed Abdel-Samad argues that to “utter a word like kafir is to embark on the first step to violence, treating those with different beliefs or ideas like animals and paving the road to acts of terrorism and murder”.
Hence while the likes of Mr Somad “may not openly endorse violence”, their “social views” tend to “legitimise” and strengthen “the spiritual framework behind Islamist terrorism”, according to Mr Abdel-Samad.
Little wonder then, that violent extremist imagery at times does seem to creep into Mr Somad’s oratory and even that of his followers.
Thus, while he has claimed that suicide bombings are legitimate martyrdom operations, and that non-Muslims could conspire to oppress Muslims and "slit their throats", his followers since the May 16 incident have called for Singapore to “be bombed and destroyed”.
Facebook parent company Meta even had to take down a post threatening to "send Islamic defender troops” to “attack” Singapore “like 9/11 in New York 2001”, while another comment warned that “with just one missile” Singapore would be “finished".
Most tellingly, it was revealed that Mr Somad’s online sermons had helped radicalise a 17-year-old Singaporean detained in January 2020, who was influenced into believing that if he fought for ISIS as a suicide bomber, he would die as a martyr.
One more relatively under-appreciated element of Mr Somad’s extremism is his conception of Singapore as "Tanah Melayu" (Malay land) that is part of the Indonesian Riau islands, as well as a "Temasek Malay Kingdom".
This view of Singapore is extreme in the sense that it represents a clear deviation from the internationally recognised, legal, constitutional status of the country as a sovereign, independent country.
Given how the Russians, prior to their incursion into Ukraine, appeared to justify how the latter has always been an integral part of the Russian civilisational space, Mr Somad’s subtle portrayal of Singapore as perhaps a lost Tanah Melayu is unhealthy, to say the least.
TWO KEY QUESTIONS
In assessing the recent Abdul Somad episode, therefore, it may be useful to ask two key questions.
First, have the authorities been biased against any religion in its policy on foreign extremist preachers?
In fact, it seems clear that they have been even-handed in their approach to maintaining religious harmony and stability in Singapore.
Hence, not just foreign Muslim religious figures like Mr Somad but Christian ones have been barred from entering Singapore if they are deemed to have engaged in extreme comments about Muslims or any other religious group in the country.
Earlier this month, the authorities banned the movie Kashmir Files precisely for its “provocative and one-sided” views of Muslims in the ongoing Kashmir conflict.
Allegations of Singapore being “Islamophobic” for its stance on Mr Somad thus appear thoroughly contrived.
Second, has Singapore’s approach to Mr Somad really been universally opposed in Indonesia?
It is worth noting that even in that country, more sober voices have also taken Mr Somad to task.
Ahmad Nurcholish, from the Centre for the Study of Religion and Peace, argued that while there should be freedom of expression, if any preacher’s words “threaten the unity and integrity of the nation”, any country — like Singapore — “has the right to take protective actions”.
Brigadier General Ahmad Nurwahid, of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency or BNPT, even asserted that Singapore’s example in dealing with Mr Somad is actually an “important lesson for Indonesia” in taking “upstream” preventive action in prohibiting extreme “ideologies that can lead to acts of terror and violence”.
Most authoritatively, Ahmad Fahrur Rozi, chairman of the executive board of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest and most important Muslim association in the country, delivered what seemed like a mild but clear rebuke to Mr Somad.
He observed wryly that while Mr Somad was “still young”, a “pious person” with a “smart sense of humour” and “many fans”, he really should “give lectures with a cooler delivery” and emphasised that there certainly should be “no hate, extremist or radical teachings”.
In sum, it behooves Singaporeans — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — to keep clear minds and cool heads in evaluating this Abdul Somad affair.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna is provost’s chair in national security studies, associate dean in charge of policy studies, as well as head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is also the author of a new book Extremist Islam: Recognition and Response in Southeast Asia.