by Marilyn Peh on

You may have seen dramatic changes in someone’s dressing, or observed an aggressiveness in their tone and views that didn’t seem to be there before. Or perhaps, you knew they were facing difficult circumstances, feeling hopeless and even removing themselves from their social circles.

While these may be some warning signs that a person may have become susceptible to radicalism, spotting them and raising the alarm are not always easy to do.

In 2013, 18-year-old Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari began following the Islamic State after viewing their propaganda materials online.

Just one year later, she was sporting black clothing and donning the niqab, a facial veil that reveals only the eyes. As she fell deeper into extremist ideology, Izzah began spreading their messages on her social media platforms, and even used a picture of the ISIS flag as her profile photo on Whatsapp. Her parents, both Quranic teachers, confronted her but let the matter rest when she stopped wearing the niqab and started listening to music again.

Unknown to them, Izzah had only become more radicalised and made plans to move to Syria with her young child, where she hoped to marry a militant and even serve in combat. Before she could put her plans into action, however, she was arrested in Singapore last month, becoming the first Singaporean woman to be charged for radicalisation.

Born and raised here, Izzah was a childcare assistant at the time of her arrest. Along with the arrests made on two Singaporean auxiliary policemen just a week later, these cases of radicalisation here sent shockwaves across Singapore, where we have long felt insulated from the scourge of terror taking place in other parts of the world.

Suddenly, extremism and terrorism seemed a lot closer to home.

Many wondered — why would Singaporeans, living in the relative safety and harmony of Singapore, aspire to join a war happening on the other side of the world? And, if the problem of radicalisation is indeed real, how can we stop it from taking root?

A man wearing a white shirt stands with his hands folded
Ustaz Tarmizi Wahid, founder of Safinah Institute, a centre for Islamic education in Singapore. Image Source: The Pride

For Ustaz Tarmizi Wahid, the conversation on radicalisation is a timely one, given the state of world events today. Speaking to The Pride, the founder of Safinah Institute observed: “I think it’s a very, very small figure of Muslims here who may become radicalised, but it’s still a risk because you don’t need many people to cause a major terrorist attack.”

With a closely knit network of Islamic experts and religious leaders under the watch of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), extremist ideology has been stringently guarded against on the ground.

But the same lines are much harder to draw online, as Ustaz Tarmizi explained: “What makes it high-risk and difficult to control is the influence that comes in from the outside because of the Internet. Something can be put up online and anyone, including Singaporeans, can access it.”

Those who are lost, lonely or marginalised more likely to be misguided by extremism

A macro shot of a dictionary page that points to the synonym for the word 'Extremist'
Image Source: The Pride

By and large, Ustaz Tarmizi believes the majority of local Muslims fall under three broad categories – those who are well-versed in Islam, those who are less in tune with the religion but are nonetheless well-educated and worldly aware, and others who are casual believers in the faith.

By his measure, all three groups are unlikely to fall prey to radicalism, but the same cannot be said for a smaller group of individuals who could be facing difficult circumstances that make the false promises of extremist ideology appear attractive.

Often it has little to do with the religion itself, as Ustaz Tarmizi explained: “It could be that their lives are in a mess, they could be jobless or struggling as a single parent, being in a vulnerable state and not getting the help they need.”

A man stands in a balcony with his right hand placed on his forehead
Image Source: The Pride

“When you have no one around, when you are vulnerable and have the mindset that there is nothing to lose, that’s when (radical ideology) is most appealing.”

Many are drawn to the idea of “a quick fix” for their problems and that makes it easier for them to be misled. Extremist groups like ISIS are notorious for misrepresenting their cause as a legitimate form of jihad, or the practice of becoming a better Muslim, by claiming that their fighters are guaranteed access to paradise when they die in combat.

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Ustaz Tarmizi said: “It’s seductive because these are people who may have committed sin all their lives, and feel like they have never done enough for their faith. So to be told that one act is all they need to redeem themselves, it’s very attractive. It’s an easy ticket to paradise — or at least that’s what they are led to think.”

A misguided understanding of Islam aside, extremists also sow seeds of guilt in their targets by framing their fight as standing up for fellow Muslims who have been persecuted in various conflicts around the world.

On record, ISIS has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims, countered Ustaz Tarmizi.

“Every act of terror committed by ISIS gives us more problems. In Australia and in the UK, Muslims face backlash and discrimination because of these acts. (Extremism) doesn’t help us in any way. We are also victims.”

Spotting the warning signs and how to act

Ustaz Tarmizi observed that it’s very hard to pinpoint and say that a particular Muslim is likely to be influenced or radicalised. But in his experience, there are certain profiles that will set his alarm bells ringing, and he always makes it a point to speak to them to understand their motivations better.

If someone is becoming influenced by radical teachings, some changes in behaviour could be telltale signs.

A man subjected to radicalisation sitting on a bed
Image Source: The Pride

Firstly, their personalities and interests may morph overnight. Ustaz Tarmizi said: “It could be a 180-degree change where someone who used to go clubbing or drinking suddenly starts wearing the long garb and growing a long beard.”

Or, they may have started becoming more hardline and aggressive in their views.

“They could be finding fault with aspects of life here, saying this or that is haram (forbidden under Islamic law), and saying they cannot live here because Singapore is a secular country.”

While he doesn’t think that everyone who thinks this way is sure to become radicalised, Ustaz Tarmizi believes that harbouring these sentiments leads to bigger problems in future, saying: “Terrorism and radicalisation start from holding extreme views.”

To identify those with radical leanings and seek help for them, friends and family must learn to spot these warning signs and take action if necessary.

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“We need to take notice if our loved one has suddenly become fanatical about a particular scholar or school of thought. Or maybe their postings are very sympathetic to certain groups that they feel are being oppressed. We need to understand more, and do the right thing, which is to make a report.”

If someone is believed to have become radicalised or has radical leanings, Ustaz Tarmizi encourages those in the know to call a mosque, where an imam would be able to step in. Or, if the threat is believed to be serious or imminent, the police or the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) should be alerted.

Knowledge leads to understanding and empathy

A muslim gathering formed towards Islamic education
Ustaz Tarmizi conducting a class. Image Source: Facebook/Safinah

Although terrorism today is largely committed by a few black sheep misrepresenting Islam, the issue has often been framed as a problem that needs to be solved by the Muslim community, even if they themselves are also victims.

On the fairness behind this expectation, Ustaz Tarmizi said: “It does not feel fair for Muslims, but I think that if it were another faith, we would also want them to speak up and provide assurance that their community is peace-loving and non-threatening.”

“The first ones to speak up should be Muslims themselves clarifying their stand, assuring people that believers of Islam are not like this, and that the problem will take time to solve.”

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For Muslims, having a solid foundation for their faith is the first step. Describing Islam as dynamic, Ustaz Tarmizi encouraged Muslims to study different sources so that they have a deeper and richer understanding of its teachings.

Non-Muslim students gathered at Safinah Institute, Singapore
Safinah Institute organises learning journeys for non-Muslim students. Image Source: Facebook/Safinah

In addition to diverse programmes being run by mosques and other Islamic entities here, many groups are also starting to put their materials on social media, in a bid to counter the radical ideology being spread online and offer a positive alternative.

So, when faced with the curiosity of non-Muslims about Islam, Ustaz Tarmizi believes that Muslims should be more open to addressing these questions to help quash misconceptions that breed Islamophobia.

At the same time, that’s not to say that non-Muslims have no part to play in the equation. Sharing anecdotes of Muslims who found it difficult to answer accusatory questions that drive them into a corner, he felt that non-Muslims need to ask questions tactfully in order for the conversation to be a meaningful one.

 Non-Muslim students seated in a mosque to learn about the culture and religion
Non-Muslim students are brought to mosques and madrasahs where they learn more about the culture and religion. Image Source: Facebook/Safinah

At Safinah Institute, Ustaz Tarmizi’s team builds the bridges of understanding for youths by bringing non-Muslim students from mainstream schools on learning journeys to madrasahs and mosques where they get to interact with their Muslim counterparts.

Describing how the barriers are broken and friendships formed, he said: “They become friends, they take selfies together… It’s a great opportunity for them to suspend their judgment and meet each other face to face.”

In a similar vein, the first steps towards preventing both radicalisation and Islamophobia may come from a place of friendship, where understanding and empathy are bred.

Ustaz Tarmizi said: “If you don’t have any Muslim friends, make friends with Muslims, and vice versa. Muslims should also be making friends with non-Muslims more.”