'Radicals don't represent a country's Muslims'

'Radicals don't represent a country's Muslims'

What are your thoughts on this week's terror attack in Paris and how communal relations might be affected?

The collateral damage is clear. Distrust and dislike between communities in France have clearly spiked. I've heard radio reports of mosques being attacked.

We're looking at a tragic conflict in a society where one part values freedom of speech and has licence to be irreverent and even insulting to all religions, and another that believes it has a divine licence to reply by spilling blood.

I'm glad that our society values religious and racial harmony and collectively does not tolerate anything that threatens this peace.We must take lessons from incidents like these and be proud of our own value system. We pace our changes ourselves and do not pine for alien ones that, when implemented abruptly, may be disruptive to the peace we know.

(Mr Masagos, who was this week co-opted into the People's Action Party's central executive committee, spoke to The Supper Club before the Paris shootings. His replies, in hindsight, are a prescient take on the threat of extremism by those who abuse Islamic teachings, and the damage terrorism can cause to religious harmony. In Singapore's case, a group of religious leaders helped to rehabilitate close to 60 terror detainees over the past decade, with only nine in detention today.)

Can you tell us more about Singapore's approach to countering terrorism?

I remember coming across this subject in 2001, way before I became an MP in 2006. Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong wanted to break the news that they had arrested radicals, people who were plotting to blow up Yishun MRT station. At that time, the Muslim community was not ready to confront the issue.

Questions would arise, including whether the Government was framing Islam. The Government did not want this accusation to linger or even come to anybody's mind. Secondly (they had to look at) how do you frame this situation in a way where you state the facts as they are, but also do not tarnish the good name of Islam?

So PM Goh then brought the community together. I was among them, representing Muslim voluntary welfare group Perdaus. He stated the stark reality of what had happened, the evidence. It shocked a lot of people.

The community leaders denounced this group. This is not Islam. We also wanted the Government to ensure they would frame it in a way that is not associated with Islam. So the word jihadist, the words Jemaah Islamiah were modified into, for example, JI operatives. Because terms like Islam, jihad, hold different meanings that are dear to many Muslims. These things came as a result of consultation with the community. So for the first time, in issues that dealt with security, the Government went out to the community to engage them, to make them part of the solution.

What happened next?

One, the community leaders came together and, without prompting from the Government, went to a hotel where Habib Hassan Alatas, the imam of renowned Ba'alwie Mosque, gathered Muslims to say this is not something we condone. This is not Islam.

The interesting thing was that other religious leaders who were part of the Inter-Religious Organisation, and good friends of the community, came out together the same day. They said: "We stand behind you, we embrace you as fellow brother citizens. This JI is a group of people who are lost and misunderstand their faith."

Two, our religious leaders (ustaz) themselves had doubts about the radicals.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) gave the religious leaders the opportunity to talk to the JI members. And the leaders were shocked at the doctrines and beliefs that were twisted and taught by the JI, in a way that makes it seem like Islam cannot exist with other people, that Muslims must destroy people around them to flourish again. Whereas Islam, from the very beginning, accepts the world as a very plural world, and accepts that people cannot be brought to submission to believe in the religion. But the JI members' doctrine, misquoting Quranic verses and so on, had a different conclusion altogether.

So a group of ustaz came together to say, give us access to these people, let us counsel them. They voluntarily formed a group called the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), and the ISD allowed them access to these people. The outcome is a good story.

The Government can't do this alone because this is about religion. The RRG came forward to help the detainees and their families to cope with the transition back to reality and understanding Islam in the right context.

How do you decide when a detainee is ready for release, needs to be placed under restriction orders, or kept behind bars?

Some are obvious. Some refuse to accept that Islam teaches peace, living with others, and that Muslims live in a variety of existing countries that are legitimate, there are kingdoms, there are democracies.

They disagree with that, and say there's only one doctrine: This puritan sense of what the world should be, and they have to get rid of whatever will corrupt the purity of Islam.

This is a very dangerous doctrine. And if they continue to hold this, it's a given that they will resort to violence and, therefore, we have to hold them for that belief.

And then there's the other extreme, where we know from the circumstances that they are just duped, or they know they are duped, and they prove themselves willing to conform to the restriction orders and to follow the conditions of their release. And then, on the advice of the counsellors, they will be permanently released. Usually they are not the leaders. These are the people who somehow went with the flow.

Are those still in detention usually higher up in the group, like leaders?

They're not necessarily higher in the hierarchy but, more importantly, have a deeply rooted belief in their doctrines.

They will not listen. They will not engage. Our ustaz tell us they won't even want to talk to them. The process of engaging detainees is still ongoing.

Sometimes, I pity our ustaz. They tell me sometimes they get accused of being infidels, government dogs. And the ustaz still try and talk to them. And sometimes, the detainees refuse to talk to them. They shout at them. It's very hard. But I know that the ustaz try again and again.

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