Last week’s announcement of the arrest of Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff under the Internal Security Act was significant.
Zulfikar had been known to be a hardline social activist for years, ever since the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) arrests of 2001/2002 in Singapore.
Back then, as founder of the short-lived but controversial website fateha.com, he gained notoriety for asserting that the Government’s geopolitical alignment with the United States and Israel was partly to blame for the JI members’ behaviour.
His narrow, parochial worldview was on further display when he agitated on behalf of a few Muslim parents for their daughters to be allowed to wear the tudung, or headscarf, to school, in violation of the policy of having a common uniform.
The fact that many Muslim Singaporeans did not agree with his perspective did not appear to have moved him. When the police began investigations into his activities following his ill-advised hosting of politicians from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to discuss the tudung issue and his own speaking engagements on the same topic across the Causeway, he left for Australia with his family.
THE RADICAL ZULFIKAR
It was there, in March 2003, that I met him for the first and only time.
He was in the audience at Monash University in Melbourne, listening intently to a lecture on JI that I was delivering at the invitation of the Australian government. After the lecture, organisers introduced us and we had a chat over coffee.
Zulfikar, who came across as a highly intelligent, widely read individual, intimated that he was doing research and hoped one day to complete doctoral studies.
But what really left an enduring impression on me was his hardline views towards Singapore, in particular its Muslim community leaders. He suggested that in his view, they were not doing enough to promote the rights of the community in Singapore, as exemplified by the tudung, and other, issues.
I tried to politely suggest in general terms that in a multicultural society, the community leadership of any ethnic and religious group would by definition have to be moderate, but he stuck firmly to a parochial, us-versus-them mindset.
While at no time did he give any strong indication that he unequivocally supported the violent JI agenda, I remember coming away from the meeting thinking that I had just been in the presence of a disaffected individual: One best described as a religious radical.
In academic literature, a “religious radical” is someone who wants to effect fundamental, structural change in society in line with a preferred vision based on a particular interpretation of religious texts.
The religious radical can do so in several ways: Blogging on social media; forming interest groups to lobby for the adoption of his agenda, or even forming political parties to actively shape government policy accordingly.
At times, some religious radicals, when faced with sustained political, legislative or other roadblocks, may lash out in violence, but this need not be the case. This is because religious radicals do not, in general, possess a systematic ideology that justifies violence in pursuit of their goals.
Examples of former religious radicals who have gone back to the mainstream include British commentators Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain, who co-founded the Qulliam Foundation in the United Kingdom, a counter-extremism think tank.
THE EXTREMIST ZULFIKAR
Reading about Zulfikar’s arrest for his support and glorification of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or IS), however, stopped me cold in my tracks.
It was clear that since our meeting, he had transitioned from being a religious radical to a religious extremist. Academic research suggests that while one can have a dialogue with a religious radical and perhaps eventually even integrate him or her back into the mainstream, with an extremist this is much harder. This is because the extremist possesses a non-negotiable, rigid, us-versus-them worldview.
To the extremist, you are either right or wrong; good or evil. There is only one correct interpretation of the holy texts and one trusted set of religious authorities. There should be no commingling with unbelievers for fear of “contamination” — and importantly, violence is fully justified in pursuit of one’s goals — although this latter element of the worldview is often kept under wraps when the political balance is unfavourable.
Looking at Zulfikar’s Facebook postings, clear signs of extremism are sadly apparent: His support for the barbaric practice of IS beheadings; encouraging fellow Muslims to take up arms in overseas conflict zones as a religious duty — and most tellingly, his desire to start his own training programmes to socialise young Singaporeans into his extremist agenda of replacing Singapore’s secular, democratic system with an Islamic state, using violence if necessary.
The fact that he had built up a Facebook following of a few thousand and was said to have radicalised two Singaporeans into the ultraviolent IS worldview meant that the authorities had to act before his threat to Singapore’s social fabric grew even worse.
The radicalisation of Zulfikar from religious radical to religious extremist between 2002 and 2016 bears asking: Are there other intelligent, well-read “radical Zulfikars” among us in various sectors?
Like the Zulfikar of 2002, they may well be disgruntled with what they perceive to be community leaders who, in their view, do not adequately safeguard religious, educational and political interests. The concern is that if there is no early intervention by suitable stakeholders to identify and engage such “radical Zulfikars” in frank heart-to-heart discussions, they may soon mutate into the more “extremist Zulfikars”.
The latter, perhaps developing their own social media followings, may transform into strategic online extremist threats to Singapore.
This potential constituency of “radical Zulfikars” must therefore be reintegrated back into the mainstream as far as possible through a systematic programme of early identification and effective intervention.
Such interventions cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all model. Instead, to be effective they must be tailored to address the specific grievances of each “radical Zulfikar”, and involve a judicious mix of family members, religious counsellors, grassroots leaders and other stakeholders as the case may be.
Certainly, resources will have to be set aside for such a programme. To do any less, however, may well be asking for trouble downstream.