Syrian conflict: Seeding next round of jihad violence?

Syrian conflict: Seeding next round of jihad violence?
The war-torn Syrian city of Homs. The three-year-old Syrian conflict has acquired an apocalyptic edge in recent times, with both sides – Sunnis and Shi’ites – appealing for fighters to join their cause.

The toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not the only reason foreign fighters are flocking to the country. The apocalypse and other end-of- the-world prophesies are also providing a powerful if less obvious call to arms there.

At one level, the three-year- old conflict that has left some 150,000 dead is a sectarian power struggle pitting Sunni Muslims against Mr Assad, who is backed by Iran, the dominant Shi'ite power in the region.

But this conflict has acquired an apocalyptic edge in recent times as both sides appeal for fighters to join their cause. South-east Asia has not been immune to this call.

In Malaysia, cleric Lotfi Ariffin exhorted his followers in a mosque in Selangor's Shah Alam last November to go fight in Syria. The reason he gave: The end of the world is near and it is the duty of Muslims to join battle against the West and other anti-Islamic forces.

"You will fight on the Arabian peninsula and Allah will grant you victory. You will fight the Persians and Allah will give you victory. You will fight the Romans and Allah will make you victorious. Then you will fight Dajjal, and Allah will defeat him for you," said the cleric, whose remarks were recorded in a video clip on YouTube. He was quoting from a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad.

Dajjal is the equivalent of the antichrist who will appear before the end of times.

In the view of some Muslims like Lotfi, the "Persians" are a reference to Iranians and their Shi'ite allies while the United States and other Western forces are the modern-day Romans.

Other preachers from Indonesia - such as Ustaz Abu Fatia Al Adnani of Jemaah Islamiah, and Ustaz Bachtiar Nasir, leader of a group aiding Syrian Muslims - also play on this apocalyptic theme to persuade young Muslims to join the war in Syria. Their message is conveyed through books and YouTube videos.

In Islamic eschatology, besides Dajjal, two other characters would appear before the Day of Judgment or the Yawm Al-Qiyamah: the Mahdi, as the Islamic redeemer; and Prophet Isa Ibn Maryam, or Jesus, son of Mary.

In several videos, the preachers linked their take on the Syrian conflict thus - in the coming apocalypse the Dajjal would proclaim himself as the Messiah in Jerusalem and establish his rule over the holy land and much of the Arab/Muslim world.

The Mahdi would then make his appearance in front of the Kaabah, the sacred house, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, proclaiming himself as the redeemer.

Support for him will come from an Islamic army bearing black banners. This army is said to hail from Khorasan, the region covering present-day north-west Pakistan, north-east Iran and Afghanistan.

The final confrontation between the Mahdi and Dajjal is said to take place in Damascus, the capital of Syria. It ends with the defeat of the latter and the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate led by the Mahdi.

In the view of those convinced by the message, the conflict in Syria is a "one-way ticket jihad" that would allow them to see for themselves Islam's final victory.

However, Sunni militants are not the only ones exploiting Islamic eschatology to buttress their cause.

For the Shi'ite fighters from Iran, Lebanon and Lebanon's Hizbollah, the war in Syria is a necessary precondition for the appearance of Imam al-Mahdi, the ultimate saviour of humankind.

Shi'ite militants are told it is their duty to spread unrest as the so-called Hidden Imam will only emerge in a world of chaos and disorder.

Associate research fellow Navhat Nuraniyah of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) says the end-of- the-world narrative is powerful because "in jihadist interpretation, the sequences of events as they are unfolding in Arabia and Syria seem to match the Prophet's prediction".

Scholars, however, point out problems in latching on to this doomsday narrative.

Dr Mohamed Ali cautions that Muslims without a good grounding in the religion would not know if the hadith being cited by these preachers are authentic and even if they are, whether they are being used in the right context.

"Who is to determine that the army carrying black banners is the one referred to in the hadith as the army from Khorasan?" asks Dr Mohamed, who is secretary of the Singapore Religious Rehabilitation Group, which provides counselling to detainees of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist group.

It is not a coincidence that Al-Qaeda and another terrorist group in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, carry black flags as their symbols.

Indonesian terrorism analyst Noor Huda Ismail says people travelling to Syria to wage jihad would be disappointed to find bitter fighting even among those supposedly on the same side. What's more, anti-Shi'ite sentiments fuelled by the Syrian conflict are rising in Indonesia and Malaysia. There is even a Facebook group calling itself "Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah" or "Malay Singaporeans reject Shi'ism".

There are two main ways to deal with this problem. First, by physically stopping the jihadists from travelling to Syria and detaining those who return from the war zone.

Second, by rebutting the arguments being put out by the doomsday preachers. In order to do so, Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna of RSIS suggests that religious leaders in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia pay close attention to what's being said on social media.

South-east Asia has mercifully been free of the sort of terrorist attacks that used to rock Indonesia a decade ago. But that peace cannot be taken for granted.

In the words of Indonesian terrorism researcher Solahudin: "The world may not end in Syria, as the jihadists predict, but enthusiasm for the Syria conflict could sow the seeds for the next generation of jihadi violence."

This article was published on May 14 in The Straits Times.

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