SINGAPORE: Multiple avenues are available for friends and family members to seek guidance and counselling if they suspect a loved one is close to being radicalised, said vice-chairman of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), Dr Mohamed Ali.
In a media interview, Dr Mohamed highlighted three platforms they could use: Any accredited Islamic religious teacher in Singapore at the various mosques, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) and the RRG.
The RRG is a voluntary group set up in 2003 to provide religious counselling to those arrested for terrorism-related activities, but it has since broadened its scope to engage the community through dialogues and seminars, said Dr Mohamed.
Since its Resource and Counselling Centre was set up in 2014, the RRG has also introduced new initiatives like a helpline (1800-774-7747) and mobile app, which allows the public to chat directly with clerics on issues of concern related to extremism and terrorism. Members of the public are also able to go directly to the Resource and Counselling Centre, located at the Khadijah Mosque in Geylang, on a walk-in basis.
“Through these platforms, there are members of the public who are able to get the guidance they need,” he said, adding that of the “fewer than 100” people who have approached them through these channels, most simply required clarification on religious matters.
“I think it is important that members of the public make use of the avenues that they have,” he said. “I think the public knows that RRG exists, that MUIS is there, and there are people they can talk to.
“Sometimes, they may feel embarrassed,” he added. “But if there is early intervention, something can be done ... and they do not need to be dealt with by the law.”
CASES OF EARLY INTERVENTION
Dr Mohamed cited three cases RRG had encountered, where friends and family members had approached them for help to counsel loved ones showing early signs of radicalisation.
In one case, a member of the public had alerted RRG to a teenage boy who was displaying an avid interest in global affairs, particularly in Middle Eastern politics. The boy was also convinced of the need to migrate to an Islamic caliphate. RRG also learnt that the teen had openly discussed religious issues that were contrary to mainstream Islamic teachings with his family and friends.
One of RRG’s counsellors met with the teen and explained the context of the Syrian conflict. “Many of these young people, they do not understand that the fight and conflict in Syria is a civil war that does not require the participation of Muslims as a jihad obligation. This is something that they are very confused about,” said Dr Mohamed.
He added that after a couple of sessions, the teen said he had benefitted as he was able to speak his mind freely and seek clarification on religious concepts he did not fully understand. He also said he felt he had a legitimate point of reference in the community.
In another case, a father of another teenage boy discovered that his son had penned several pro-ISIS slogans on his school books. The father called the RRG helpline and was referred to a counsellor. Upon the counsellor’s invitation, the father and son went to RRG’s Resource and Counselling Centre, where the counsellor engaged him on ISIS-related issues and its violent ideology.
Within one session, the teen realised the danger of supporting ISIS and regretted supporting the group, said Dr Mohamed. “We advised the father to continue monitoring him, and should there be any more help that the father requires, he can contact us.”
Dr Mohamed noted that all the cases he has seen are in the early stages of radicalisation. “When we met them, they are not those who were ready to use violence, but believe that violence is justified. Compared to someone who is ready to take up arms ... they have not reached that level,” he said.
RRG keeps the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) informed of tip-offs like this on a case-by-case basis, but Dr Mohamed stressed that this will be done as a last resort. As the cases RRG cited were detected early and the various individuals did not persist in their actions, RRG did not report them to MHA.
“During the course of counselling, if we manage to clarify the issues that he or she is confused about, and they understand and do not proceed to use violence, then we don’t report (them),” said Dr Mohamed. “But if they are still persistent, then I think we should take the next step of reporting.”
He added that people can also remain anonymous when seeking counselling.
“What is important is that we give them the guidance that they require,” he said. “If they call us and don’t want to use their own name, but they want to talk to us, then we will talk to them.
“The name is not important.”
EARLY SIGNS OF RADICALISATION
How, then, can friends or family spot these early signs of radicalisation?
The first tell-tale sign, said Dr Mohamed, is when a person begins to have a deep interest in global affairs, particularly the conflict in the Middle East.
“Out of the blue, when someone begins to be interested in Iraq, Syria or Palestine, and feels that something must be done, or feels that Muslims are required to be part of settling the problem,” he explained. “This doesn’t necessarily mean they will be radicalised, but that is usually the first step.”
He added that a further sign is when their loved ones start showing support or glorifying ISIS, as in the case of the teenager who wrote pro-ISIS slogans on his school books.
And in cases like this, Dr Mohamed stressed that friends and family must be the “first agent of investigators”. “They must really need to know what actually happened to their loved ones, in terms of what the websites that they browse, how long they have been browsing these sites, and how deep the radicalisation is,” he said.
“It is also important that they stop them, and give them advice on what to do,” he added. “If they don’t know how to advise them, they can consult one of the three avenues.”
But regardless of who they are counselling, the main message remains the same, said Dr Mohamed.
The first, is that groups such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda are not doing good for Islam, he said.
“Their teachings, especially the doctrines and concepts that they propagate, are against the teaching of Islam, so there is no reason for Muslims to support them.”
“For example, when they talk about jihad or migration ... these concepts exist in Islam, but the interpretation of these concepts are different,” he said, adding that the actions and existence of extremist groups do not represent Islam and Muslims.
And finally, Dr Mohamed stressed the importance of Muslims in Singapore understanding the context of living as Muslims in Singapore. “We are living in two unique contexts,” he said. “We are living as a minority community, and we live in a secular environment, with a non-Islamic system of governance. Islam is compatible with these two contexts.”