Better grasp of Internet needed to fight ISIS

Better grasp of Internet needed to fight ISIS

A friend of mine likes to joke that he rediscovered his faith through technology.

Google is his Islamic religious teacher, or ustaz. On his smartphone, he swipes between Instagram and an app loaded with translations of the Quran.

It is a world away from the days when, as a child, he learnt about Islam from a stern-faced ustaz who lived two doors from his home. Now 28 and working 12-hour days at an accounting firm, my friend is like some other young people who go online for religious guidance.

This new way of getting information about religion is not all good - not when terrorist groups are also reeling supporters in by spreading the ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) online, bringing a brutal battle raging in the Middle East closer to home.

ISIS has two advantages over proper religious leaders.

First, it offers an attractive - if deviant - ideology, promising action and glory to those joining the cause.

Then, it is sophisticated in marketing its cause online, using social media. It puts out cutting-edge, slickly edited videos, has an army of Twitter accounts spreading its propaganda and posts battle summaries on JustPaste, audio recordings on SoundCloud and pictures on Instagram of fighters brandishing guns.

ISIS fighters have also been in direct contact with would-be fighters over Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm, and even via video calls.

In comparison, the efforts of religious teachers trying to counter radical ideology come across as scattered, not least because of their shaky grasp of social media.

Islamic leaders in Singapore have taken their first steps online, which is promising. But a lot more must be done - and soon.

It has become urgent for religious teachers to tap technology and better engage those going online to learn more about their faith.

The Religious Rehabilitation Group, formed over a decade ago to curb the Jemaah Islamiah threat in Singapore, has set up a website with readings countering radical ideology. But, for now, it is mostly a repository of information.

It is time for religious leaders to open up their own two-way channels online, so people can ask questions and get answers from credible sources.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) is already doing this with its halalSG Twitter account, where it frequently - and candidly - responds to users asking if certain eateries are halal-certified.

This can be replicated to address the ISIS threat as well. A welcome start would be a dedicated Twitter account or Facebook page - with the weight of respected religious teachers and authorities like Muis behind it - to drive home the message that ISIS' actions are un-Islamic and to clear doubts.

And social media's virality is a force religious leaders should seize as deftly as the extremists have.

The power of hashtags and re-tweets cannot be underestimated. Over the last few weeks, for instance, young Muslims worldwide have used the hashtag #notinmyname in tweets condemning ISIS, putting up a united front.

As the battle wages on in the Middle East, religious leaders need to get a firmer grip on the Internet, or risk losing more people to a terrorist group that has so skilfully filled the Web with misinterpretations and untruths.


This article was first published on September 28, 2014.
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