Youth radicalisation. The subject is once against in the news, especially after the arrest of two Singaporean teenagers.
It is worrying, to say the least. And what’s more distressing are the comments that accompany some of these reports. As a young Muslim, it is unsettling to read comments that condemned the religion as a whole. Even though they were few and far between, there were comments that hinted at Islamic education being one of the catalysts for the radicalisation of youths.
As someone who has spent most of her formative years studying at an Islamic Institute in Pakistan, this hit a nerve.
Let me elaborate. I gained admission to an Islamic Institute when I was just thirteen. I left for Pakistan after a year as a secondary school student in Singapore. The main reason why I decided to pursue my education in that particular institute was because I wanted to learn more about my culture and embrace a sense of spirituality. And this was with my parents’ blessing and support.
The next four years were a whirlwind of adventure.
Everything seemed so new and unique compared to what I was accustomed to in urban Singapore. The sights, sounds and smells were a positive assault on my senses. Well, mostly positive. (I found out quite quickly that I couldn’t get my fix of fast food as often as I would have liked.)
Adapting to a totally different culture and environment was definitely challenging but I was relieved to discover that one aspect of life remained the same. Here I mean the people and their company.
I had a preconceived notion that the biggest difficulty for me would be making friends with my classmates, as they would come from different walks of life. What a misconception that turned out to be. We mostly got along like a house on fire. The fact that we came from various backgrounds and cultures did not make a difference at all.
Throughout the four years that I spent there, I forged many friendships that last till this day. My friends have all moved on after graduating and some of them have even started families of their own. I guess the point I am trying to make here is that from my experience, studying at an Islamic institution or having an Islamic education does not automatically or invariably lead to radicalisation.
However, it would be an act of denial to say that youth radicalisation is not becoming a pressing issue. The recent case of two Singaporean youths who were radicalised by ISIS and arrested, with one detained for planning terrorist attacks and only recently released, proves that this is indeed a case for national security concern. The primary question on people’s minds is this: How do young people get radicalised?
The first avenue is through the Internet. Youths are increasingly exposed to various forms of online platforms such as social media, blogs, forums, YouTube videos and websites in general. Terrorist groups reach out to impressionable minds by seducing them into believing that their brand of ideology is right, and violence for the cause is therefore justified. Moreover, cyberspace also exposes young people to like-minded communities, as was the case with one of the teenagers who was arrested. Also, the promise of salvation may strike a chord with certain youths who are not familiar with the actual teachings of Islam.
So how do we combat youth radicalisation?
The Ministry of Home Affairs has articulated the following: “Religious institutions and teachers have an important role to play in engaging young Singaporeans when they have questions on religious matters, and steering them in the right direction.”
I agree with this wholeheartedly as young people should be taught to tell the difference between the actual teachings of Islam and the false promises that terrorist groups make.
Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), formed in April 2013, is an example of such a group whose primary aim is “countering the ideological misunderstanding of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members through counselling.
Their centre has five zones. Each zone elaborates on a different point like how extremists have distorted the meaning of Islam to advocate violence and the ways the RRG counters that. It also talks about how Singapore has been affected and the importance of promoting a vigilant society and expressing our commitment to peace.
Support and supervision from family and close friends make a huge difference as well in protecting these youths from the dangers of radicalisation.
Finally, I would like to say that when harrowing issues such as youth radicalisation are brought to the fore, the first course of action should be to protect the youths from further entrapment and provide them with all the assistance they need to free themselves from the web of radicalisation — instead of making assumptions about the religion itself.