How I got him out

The challenge

Some bang tables, while others hurl insults.

And few are receptive to counselling at the start, said Ustaz Mohd Feisal Mohd Hassan. (Ustaz is the title for an Islamic teacher.)

The 40-year-old has been involved in counselling Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) detainees and self-radicalised individuals.

Among the people he has counselled is Ali, a former polytechnic student with the smarts to make it to university.

A combination of restlessness, righteousness and depression drove the young man to seek out radical teachings online.

And once Ali was detained, it was Ustaz Mohd Feisal's job to pull him back from the brink.

Ustaz Mohd Feisal is part of the volunteer-staffed Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), which provides religious counselling to radicals in detention, those placed under restriction orders and their families.

Since its beginnings in 2003, the RRG has held more than 1,200 counselling sessions. The group has around 30 counsellors.

Ustaz Mohd Feisal has been with the group since its inception.

Like others before him, Ali challenged his counsellor at first: Who are you to talk to me?

"I've never seen you in my life. Now you want to tell me the truth?"

That is often what they feel about talking to him, said Ustaz Mohd Feisal.

In a recent interview with The New Paper, the counsellor said he was disheartened at first because he could not get through to Ali.

But he kept seeing him every week.

"As a counsellor, I have to build in myself the belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel."

It took a few months before they understood each other.

Ustaz Mohd Feisal said Ali was a typical young person.

"He wanted to find avenues people had not ventured into. It was an issue of adventurousness. He also wanted to fill a vacuum, wanted to become something or someone," he said.

The breakthrough

Slowly, Ali showed he was committed to change, said Ustaz Mohd Feisal.

The two met once a week, for 1½ to two hours each time.

"He understood he had taken from the wrong sources. It wasn't about me telling him he was wrong, it was about him realising he had made a mistake.

"He regretted (it) and he wanted to make amends," said Ustaz Mohd Feisal, who added that there was open discussion between them.

"It was productive. He asked many questions and I imparted other versions and values. Through that, he showed his interest."

They worked on differentiating the truth from falsehood and critically analysing online material.

Ustaz Mohd Feisal said he also helped Ali develop an understanding of the Islamic intellectual and spiritual heritage.

Ali said that bit by bit, the discussions dispelled his misconceptions.

"I felt that the proof provided by the scholar was overwhelming... He did not criticise me but rather listened to me attentively... These sessions left a lasting impression on me. The message that was put across to me was that it was not too late to understand what I had done," said Ali.

Changing their ways

After the initial anger, some of those being counselled start crying. Ustaz Mohd Feisal said he often sees tears when they repent.

"Sometimes, you can't believe these radicals have their soft side. There's power in human engagement.

"Whereas in online engagement, you just see words. You don't know who is sitting there and his intent. You don't see the soul," he said.

Ustaz Mohd Feisal was overjoyed to see Ali's life change.

"From being under a detention order, he was released from prison. He started doing things with his family and they got closer. You see the effect of time and the changes a person can make."

Ali lives with his parents and has an older brother who is married.

The counselling does not stop after the person is released. This way, the ex-detainees know they can turn to the RRG if they are tempted to go back to their old ways, he said.

"We know each other already. In a way, we have become brothers."

He added that getting them back to the right path is a long process.

"All these (individuals) have shown us the darkness of the pit (of radicalism). Getting them to life is a long process."

"(Ali) is an excellent person and very smart. But he wasted that intelligence and has to start over again."

Fortunately, apart from his intelligence, Ali also has the support of his family, said Ustaz Mohd Feisal.

"But we do not want other people, especially those who do not have these qualities, to fall into this pit. Its darkness is the inability for those in it to realise they are in darkness."

Challenges

He said the counselling sessions can be draining.

"Volunteerism is about giving, and you do feel the pain of giving. When you start counselling, you need to know you're going to see this person for years," he said.

One detainee started talking to counsellors only after six months. After another six months, he returned to stubborn silence.

And some hurl insults.

"Still, we believe in what we do. Our responsibility as Ustaz is to ensure the correct teaching, and (people like Ali) come to recognise that we sincerely want to help them," he said.

Differing views

Another challenge he faces is that self-radicalised individuals do not follow a standard set of principles.

This is unlike JI members who have a hierarchy of thought. For example, the concept of Al Wala' Wal Bara' (loyalty and enmity) is central to their ideology and can be found in all their members, he said.

"Every (self-radicalised) case is unique as they pick up their beliefs from various sites."

This knowledge is gained without the understanding that there is an intellectual history, he said.

But giving the right perspective to things they have learnt is not so easy.

"They already believe in a particular person whom you're now saying is wrong," he said.

There is also self-denial and unwillingness to admit they were wrong.

"They are also very passionate. They feel they must defend their faith."

So he uses his credentials to built rapport by showing them that he has a good understanding of religion.

But he also learns a lot during counselling because with each detainee, he has to understand their belief system by listening and doing his own research.

When RRG first started counselling, there was little literature on counter-radicalisation, so it produced its own manuals.

Who is he?

Ustaz Mohd Feisal Mohd Hassan is a secretariat member of the Religious Rehabilitation Group and is a religious rehabilitation counsellor.

He holds two master's:

Master of Arts in Islamic Thought from the International Islamic University Malaysia

Master of Science in International Relations from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

He is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Melbourne.

His PhD discusses moderation in Islamic thought, especially in minority communities.

Family taken by surprise

Some families are completely surprised when radicals are arrested, said Ustaz Mohd Feisal Mohd Hassan.

Others may have seen the changes without realising that it had become dangerous.

"They think, 'Oh, he's become religious now', but they do not know from whom he is learning," he said.

For example, the family members may have seen the person spending more time online.

"He will start having his own understanding of Islam, different from the mainstream understanding. That will show in how he projects himself."

An individual's transformation into a radical - and when he decides his thoughts should become action - can take a few months or years, he said.

He said parents, religious teachers and the community have to be aware of what children are attracted to online.

If parents find their children suddenly going against mainstream beliefs, they should refer them to the Religious Rehabilitation Group or Muis (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore).

"Our youth also need to understand that life is precious. You do not want to waste your life because of this mistake," said Ustaz Mohd Feisal.

Attributes of radicals

Self-radicalised individuals seen by Ustaz Mohd Feisal Mohd Hassan range from their mid-teens to their 40s.

They are also typically middle-class Singaporeans, he said.

While there is no one profile for a person who turns radical, he identified two common features across his cases:

Lack of formal religious education. Most of them were not taught in religious schools.

Events in their life have left a void. For example, a person's girlfriend left him, or another's parents died. Radicalism was part of finding something to fill the vacuum inside their souls.


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