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Fighting the War Against Terrorism: The View From Singapore

Can the key to fighting terrorism lie with who delivers the message?

June 28, 2006

Can the key to fighting terrorism lie with who delivers the message?

The fight against terrorism has become a fight over the core elements of the Islamic religion. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, sheds some insight on the threat radicalized Islam poses to the youth of Southeast Asia — and how to best combat the root causes.

The fight against terrorism is a long-term ideological struggle for the soul of Islam. Terrorist leaders have attracted, indoctrinated and mobilized new recruits by propagating an ideology that is infused with an implacable hostility to all secular governments.

This exploits deep historical and contemporary grievances of the Muslim world, especially sympathy for the plight of Palestinian Muslims and rejection of American policy and actions in the Middle East.

It is easy for young people without a good knowledge of Islam and searching for answers to be drawn to these ideas and become radicalized.

This is why terrorism remains a threat in Southeast Asia. Regional governments have substantially disrupted the operational capacity of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a regional terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. But dangerous JI operatives are still at large, recruiting and training new members in pursuit of their violent agenda.

For example, Noor Din Mohd Top, who played a key role in major terrorist attacks in Indonesia, has repeatedly evaded arrest and now appears to be heading his own splinter group called Tanzim Qaedatul Jihad (Organization for the Basis of Jihad). In a video-tape recently recovered by the Indonesian authorities, he has threatened more attacks against the "enemies of Islam".

Governments and secular institutions cannot refute the religious distortions propagated by the terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam. Only Islamic scholars and religious teachers can do this.

Fortunately, many of them are speaking out. For example, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, visited Southeast Asia recently.

In Singapore, he urged Muslims to respect the law of the land and work with their fellow citizens to promote social justice. He also condemned terrorism in unequivocal terms: "Islam rejects totally terrorism, extremism and aggression…Don't believe those who commit terrorism and pretend to do it on behalf of Islam — they are liars. They will be punished in the strongest way and God will determine their punishment."

We are fortunate that Muslim clerics, teachers and scholars in Singapore have come forward to combat erroneous teachings of the extremists, and rehabilitate those who have gone astray. They have formed a Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) which has provided religious counselling for JI detainees and their families.

These counselors have also been speaking against extremist ideologies in mosques and public forums to reach out to the broader Muslim community. These initiatives have guided Muslims on the proper interpretation of Islamic concepts such as jihad, and will help to prevent others from being led astray or tacitly condoning the extremists.

Other countries are undertaking similar efforts, too. The United States, for example, is developing a rehabilitation program for Islamic clerics to counsel the extremists who have been detained.

In Indonesia, Muslim clerics have set up a task force to counter the influence of extremists and are reaching out to scholars and teachers of Islamic boarding schools in a national effort to weed out deviant teachings.

If countries are to win the war against terrorism, they must continue to work with moderate and peace-loving Muslims to condemn and disown the extremists and their distorted ideologies.

This Globalist Document was adapted from the Shangri-La Dialogue 2006 Keynote Address by Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister and Minister for Finance of Singapore, at the IISS Asia Security Summit, June 2, 2006.