Commentary: Lessons in unmasking the exclusivist ideology in terrorist networks

Commentary: Lessons in unmasking the exclusivist ideology in terrorist networks

Ideology that offers simple answers to complex issues in an uncertain world make extremism attractive. Moderates need to develop counter-narratives and reclaim their place, says Leftwrite Centre’s Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib.

SINGAPORE: The recent announcement of two foreign preachers Ismail Menk and Haslin Baharim being barred from entering Singapore has shone a spotlight on exclusivist teachings.

They were found to have contravened the code of ethics issued by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) that, among other things, stipulates that religious teachings must not “be prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups”.

Ismail Menk had been said to preach “segregationist and divisive teachings” and had, for example, taught that it was the biggest sin and crime for a Muslim to wish a non-Muslim Merry Christmas or Happy Deepavali.

This focus on exclusivist teachings should not come as a surprise, given the increasing threat of terrorism in the region, and the rising number of terror attacks worldwide.

The challenge at hand demands serious attention at home. In June this year, the Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report revealed that since 2015, 14 Singaporeans radicalised by the Islamic State had to be dealt with under the ISA – and more cases have been revealed since.

Given how fast radicalisation can spread, as radical materials are easily available online and threats to social cohesion can come from global developments, a slew of measures were put in place under SGSecure to build vigilance, cohesion and resilience among the population.

While the connection between exclusivist teachings and terrorism might not be obvious, it is clear that such teachings harm social relations, particularly in Singapore’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious context.

However, one must not conclude that exclusivist teachings will necessarily lead to terrorism, although terror ideologies do contain exclusivist thought.

Ultimately, exclusivist teachings can stir social segregation, especially when these preach the avoidance of social mixing and interactions with other religious or racial groups. More dangerously, these can sow ill will, inter-group tensions and communal conflict, making society ripe for the picking by extreme elements.

Terrorism often find fertile grounds in such conflict situations, when social tensions are high.

Ismail Menk, a foreign preacher who has been banned from entering Singapore. (Screengrab)
Foreign preachers Ismail Menk (left) and Haslin Baharim have been banned from entering Singapore. (Screengrabs from YouTube)


This was a lesson observed from the strategy of terror groups. “Every conflict is an opportunity,” said Sofyan Tsauri, a former member of several terrorist organisations, from the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) to Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid and later on, Al Qaeda Serambi Mekah in Aceh.

“This is known as the doctrine of miftahul sira (conflict as the beginning),” 41-year-old Tsauri explained, citing the radical text of Abu Bakr Naji, an Al Qaeda strategist.

Tsauri had been caught by the Indonesian anti-terror unit Densus 88 in Bekasi, Indonesia in 2010 and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment, but was released in 2015 after rehabilitation.

I met him in a recent workshop on Jihad Kiyai Menangkal Radikalisme Beragama (the clerics’ struggle to repel religious radicalism) organised by the Centre for Pesantren Studies based in Bogor, Indonesia.

The centre cultivates moderate and peaceful Islam – a tradition subscribed to by the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organisation with a string of pesantren (Indonesian Islamic boarding schools) across the archipelagic nation.

The former extremist disavowed his former ways through rediscovering his traditional religious roots via the NU.

“It was the NU tradition that brought me back to reality,” he said. 


Tsauri’s journey into extremism is as interesting as his exit. It was the global Muslim condition that first drew him into Muslim activism – including the Palestinian condition.

Like many youths who saw the issue as the West’s assault against Islam, and coupled with a sense of injury wrought by centuries of colonialism and imperial designs against the Muslim world, he wanted to do something about it.

But unfortunately, it was the extremist narrative that convinced him that there was some sort of a cosmic war being waged between Islam and the kuffar (infidels). This narrative was cultivated systematically through discourse within extremist circles.

FILE PHOTO: A fighter of the ISIL holds a flag and a weapon on a street in Mosul
The defeat of Islamic State in its de facto capital Raqqa may only be the start of a wider struggle by the US to contain any insurgency launched by the militant group and to stabilise the region. (File Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

One such discourse prescribes the need for an Islamic state (daulah Islamiyah) to be realised through active resistance and destruction of the Indonesian state (daulah Indonesiyah). The latter is seen as a taghut (evil and polytheistic) system.

“If we live in an unIslamic country,” he said, “we must display our resistance, such as by burning the (Indonesian) flag.” 

He showed me some printed Arabic materials from extremist ideologues within Salafi circles who formulated a “theology of struggle (for death)”. They called for the supremacy of Islam to be displayed against evil forces, including the West, Jewish and Christian agents in particular.

The takfiri framework dominates these texts.

Takfir is a Salafi concept of excommunication against those who disagree or depart from a puritanical and strict notion of what Islam is and should be. Extreme Salafists divide the world into two: Islamic versus unIslamic, the latter fashioned as anti-Islam. It is this binary thinking that makes up the Salafi worldview.

 “The takfiri attitude permeates our everyday life,” Tsauri recalled.

Even when he was in prison, he would question the halal status of the chicken served occasionally to inmates. He was obsessed with purity and saw what went into the body to be just as important as what went on in the Muslim world.

More than a fear of contamination, however, it was the belief that the enemies of Islam were always finding subtle ways of weakening and undermining the faith of Muslims that put him on guard.

Call it a conspiracy theory, but to him, it was a very real everyday concern which led him and others to distance and isolate themselves from wider society. They eventually carved their own segregated space in study circles in several mosques. Any imam who did not share their worldview was shunned.

Through daily indoctrination, it was not long before Tsauri became a full-fledged member of a terrorist cell that sought violence as a way of achieving their ideological project of establishing an Islamic state.

Nahdlatul Ulama
It was the Nahdlatul Ulama's tradition that brought me back to reality,” Tsauri shared. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry) 


But operating within Indonesian society was not easy, especially in times of peace where it was difficult to mobilise masses to take up the struggle against the purported “enemies of Islam”.

The window of opportunity appeared in 2009 when the Acehnese governor refused to implement the Syariah law in totality.

It was then that Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, contacted Osama bin Laden to seek consent to launch jihad in Aceh. Aceh was eventually declared a qaidah aminah or a “safe base” where takfiri ideas were to be disseminated.

Aceh was also selected because it was a convenient location for jihad with easy access to weapons. And Tsauri was responsible for the acquisition of weapons through the black market.

By then, the use of social media was on the rise, exploited by the leaders of Al Qaeda. By 2013, Indonesian members of Al Qaeda were debating online on the need to move the focus from the “far-away enemy” (the United States) to the “near enemy” (local governments).

This was part of wider debates within the central command of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which led to the emergence of a splinter group – now known as the Islamic State – who were shifting the battle territorially to Asia.

The theological basis of the focus was slowly formulated, in chat groups and online platforms, as members of the Al Qaeda in Aceh began adopting four positions: First, that ignorance was not an excuse not to be declared an infidel.

Second, a charge of apostasy should be brought against specific individuals or groups such as the police and military in Indonesia who were seen as defenders of evil.

Third, whoever did not call out or doubted the apostasy of a person was himself an apostate.

Fourth, those that practiced bid’ah (religious innovations) or evil acts were automatically considered apostates.

These formulations were derived from the fatawa (legal rulings) issued by second-generation Salafi clerics based in Saudi Arabia. “They form the modern concept of takfir that is at the root of extremist theological thought,” Tsauri said. 

An image taken from a propaganda video released on March 17, 2014 by the Islamic State group's
An image taken from a propaganda video by the Islamic State group's media outlet. The group has leveraged social media to spread its message. (Photo: AFP)

The concept of takfir has proven to be useful to terrorist groups. It widens the notion of kufr (disbelief) to include every Muslim who resides in a country that does not implement the totality of Syariah and does not fight for it.

In the text Inilah Aqidah Kami, Daulah Islamiyyah (This is Our Creed, An Islamic State), Mustaqim alias Abu Yusuf declared Indonesia to be a territory of the infidels who must be fought for.

Such formulations give terrorists a reason to launch jihad against fellow Muslims because these Muslims are not considered "true Muslims" because of their acceptance of syirk (polytheism) and bid’ah (wrongful innovations in religion).

These Muslims are also considered legitimate enemies because their lack of will to join the struggle against the enemies of Islam makes them complicit and implicates them as individuals no different from the infidels.

Unsurprisingly, Muslims remain the biggest casualty in terrorist acts. All this reveals a deep sectarian dimension to the present problem of terrorism.


Tsauri’s confessions reveal a first important lesson: Amidst the volatile geopolitical conditions, providing safe platforms for discussion and sense-making are necessary.

Just as how the Palestinian conflict has been exploited by extremists to serve their own agenda of inciting a religious war between the West and Islam, so has IS exploited ignorance over issues of the caliphate, conflict in the Middle East and underdevelopment in the Muslim world in general.

PM Lee iftar 3
Dialogue needs to be open and frank to curb  and prevent the exploitation of misunderstanding and ignorance by extremist groups. (Photo: MUIS) 

Second, people, particularly youths, must be equipped with ways to deal with rapid social change through constant dialogue so that they can navigate through their challenges.

Extremists often adopt a binary view of things and offer certainty in all matters, whereas issues are often complex, requiring constant negotiation.

Providing space for the negotiation of ideas amid diversity, and over controversial and sensitive issues, may be key. Not allowing active discussions – no matter how contentious these may be – would give extremists the monopoly to provide answers that people seek. 

That would be dangerous, given the propensity of extremist narratives to provide simplistic answers (for example, that the Muslim world’s problems are due to “anti-Islam forces” or that we are living in end times that require our loyalty to God’s army to defeat the dajjal or false messiah).

This is also the context to why radicalisation is now occurring rapidly online. Without avenues to discuss and engage in contentious issues, many youths in particular turn to the internet to seek answers; and many online platforms are now dominated by extremist views.

lawrence wong 1
Youth engagement is necessary in the fight against terror. (Photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

Third, we must not underestimate the power of ideology, which takes the form of religious theological thought. The modern doctrine of takfir – as a concept and a practice – is one such example. Providing counter-narratives, therefore, is as important as understanding the sociopolitical context that allows such ideas to thrive.

But counter-narrators must take a leaf from their extremist counterparts’ playbook and learn how to package and sell good ideas while helping people work through issues, and understand the psychology of their audience.

The battle is no longer in public face-to-face interactions, but increasingly, in the online sphere.

Last but not least, maintaining social cohesion in the present climate of terrorism is critical. But this is not an easy task. Early intervention through proscribing exclusivist and segregationist teachings are needed in the upstream battle against extremist ideologies.

More can be done. Beyond general awareness, various sectors of society must come together to strengthen relations that can provide a bulwark against attempts to sow tensions and conflict.

This is our only hope when a real crisis hits home.

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an interfaith activist and founding member of Leftwrite Centre. He writes on contemporary Islam in the Malay world and on issues of extremism and inter-religious relations.

Source: CNA/sl