How did the founders of the RRG hit upon the idea of using rehabilitation to counter extremist ideology?
When some Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members were arrested here in 2001 and 2002, Ustaz Ali Haji Mohamed and Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi Hassan (RRG co-chairmen) were given the opportunity to talk to the detainees. They discovered these individuals used religion to promote their political objectives, and had misunderstood religious narratives. When asked why they wanted to attack Singapore, the detainees said: "This is my jihad."
As religious scholars, it is our duty to correct them and reflect upon such extremist ideology. The best way is to talk to them, to guide them, and re-educate them, to clear any confusion they may have. That is why the idea of counselling and rehabilitation was mooted.
How are the counselling sessions carried out?
We have a three-step process.
First, we talk to the detainees to identify the misinterpreted religious concepts they hold. Then, we provide the correct and proper understanding of these concepts. Last, we try to help them understand and appreciate living within Singapore's multiracial, multi-religious society.
Are they receptive?
In the earlier sessions, they generally don't trust us. They perceive us as "government ustaz". So we explain that we are volunteers. If our religion is being threatened, hijacked, used wrongly, then it is our duty to correct it.
Usually, slowly, after months and sometimes years of counselling, they begin to be receptive and understand we are there to help them, and they request more advice.
How can you tell someone has been successfully rehabilitated?
Ideology, thinking, and orientation are something non-physical and unseen. So, to be honest, we cannot be 100 per cent sure.
But we make an assessment using several indicators.
For example, these individuals previously believed that Islam required hate and violence of its adherents. After counselling, they must demonstrate resilience against these ideas, and realise that terrorists have been misinterpreting Islam.
We also look for whether an individual has reflected on his past actions and understood that the move by the JI members to create chaos in Singapore tarnished the good name of the Muslim community here.
You can tell by the way they speak, and their actions. They integrate well, they begin to speak positively, and better understand what it means to be living in multicultural Singapore.
They are also put through a supervision programme by the authorities which prevents them from going back to old JI friends.
So, can they really change?
No one is born a terrorist, a radical or extremist. It's through a process of radicalisation that these people become like that. They think they are doing something good, because they are led to believe that. From our experience, extremists can be rehabilitated. However, some people may need a longer time to be rehabilitated.
What experiences of the RRG are relevant in stamping out the threat of extremism posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?
We learnt that a robust and innovative counter-ideological approach is required to deal with such threats. The community, both Muslims and non-Muslims, needs to work together with the authorities to tackle the problem, and, more importantly, prevent people from being influenced.
Education and community participation are key, and, fortunately, this is our strength in Singapore. This approach is a huge hurdle and challenge for many countries. ISIS ideology developed from Al-Qaeda. What ISIS is doing today is not something very different from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Beheadings are not something new. In 2004, Al-Qaeda was doing it in Iraq.
But ISIS has become very brutal, very extreme. This July, RRG came up with a pamphlet to explain the Syrian conflict. Now, we are working on the ISIS phenomenon. RRG has formed a research team to discuss this. We will soon come up with the counter-narratives to provide the public with clear explanations to counter ISIS.