We live in a time where there are forces that are determined to force us into perceiving the world in binaries. A time replete with malignant possibilities that are laying the seeds to build a precarious future for humanity. IS (Islamic State) is one of those forces driven by intolerance born out of a puritanical reading of religious texts to fulfil nescient messianic beliefs. So a natural question that begs to be asked is, what drives such individuals to commit extreme acts of ugliness? Countering Islamic State Ideology: Voices of Singapore Religious Leaders is an anthology of 22 essays that focus on refuting specific aspects of IS ideology written by local Singapore Muslim clerics.
The main aim of these articles is to provide a theological refutation of subversive ideas that have been operationalized to mobilize support from IS’ sympathizers and radicalize disenchanted Muslims.
As highlighted in the book, religious clerics play an essential role in delegitimizing extremism and disrupt its penetration to safeguard the social fabric that Singapore prides on (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, pp.140-141). However, as much as these ideas are couched in religious narratives, religion can be used as a powerful tool that rallies human agency for good and not to usher in death and destruction.
This book is an attempt that represents such good use of human agency to promote an understanding of Islam that is built on human flourishing. Against this backdrop, the intellectual project of this book can be divided into four key arguments.
Deconstructing the siege mentality
In recent years, Muslims have had to confront social and political realities that have inevitably pushed them to be preoccupied with attempts to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness by engaging in a theology of power that largely relies on unfounded claims about the particularities of a specific set of values and proceeds to classify it as either “Islamic or Western” (Fadl. 2001). As a result, this theology engages in a civilizational bifurcation to identify “One” against the “Other”. However, the essays in this book clearly show that this has to do more with one’s anxieties rather than an accurate account of the “Other”. Constructing the “Other” as the antithesis gives one control within his circle to shape normative beliefs that are seemingly pure, Islamic, and devoid of the dangerous “Other”. In this regard, it is unsurprising to see IS adopts a puritan understanding of the religion that incorporates a variety of normative religious assumptions that are exceptionalist at its core and radically diverge from the ethical values of Islam.
Moreover, their reading of religious texts (Quran and Prophetic traditions) against global politics telescoped time and transposed the medieval into the modern world (Brown, 2014, pp. 123-124). For this reason, we see the call for the re-establishment of the caliphate and the misrepresentation of classical terms such as jihad and hijrah that are disengaged from reality (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, pp.47-49). This defensive mode of thinking is dislocated from the Islamic civilizational experience that is rich and diverse. Unsurprisingly, it reduces Islam to a single facet, which is power. What prevails is an aggravated “siege mentality”, which leaves no room for analytical and creative thought that impoverishes the Islamic intellectual tradition.
Islam as a living tradition
Although the book’s objective is to contest the key components of IS ideological propaganda, the essays indirectly argue the need to see Islam as a living tradition that involves a strenuous engagement with both the tradition and the present without completely breaking with the past (Asad, 2009). The discourse on “loaded concepts” such as Jihad and Sharia in the Islamic tradition should be approached in this light (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, p.59). It must be interpreted in the light of the overall moral thrust of the Quranic and Prophetic message. Accordingly, such an approach will promote dignity over desolation.
In short, religious texts do not function in a vacuum as their functionality is contingent upon how their readers discern the texts. It assumes that readers will bring a pre-existing, innate moral sense to the text. Hence, the text will morally enrich the reader, provided the reader will morally enrich the text.
Our understanding of the text should not be defined purely by the literal meaning of its words, but it also has to be determined by the reader’s moral construction (Fadl, 2001). Without this moral construction, it will inevitably produce intellectual lethargy and radical belligerency.
Rejoinder to right-wing extremism
Early this year, it was reported that a 16-year old Singaporean student was detained for allegedly plotting to attack two mosques in Singapore, inspired by the Christchurch shooting (MHA, 2021). While it is not the book’s aim to discuss the rise of right-wing extremism, it does offer a compelling thesis that prevents right-wing extremists from exploiting Islam and Muslims. As highlighted in the book’s introduction, right-wing extremists take advantage of IS ideological propaganda to divide society. Like IS, it feeds on hatred and ignorance to drive a wedge in society and disrupt any attempts to build bridges necessary for nation-building (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, p. xi). It is in this area that people of faiths should work together. Religious extremism exists in all religions, even if we claim that it should not. Therefore, every community must be fully committed to fighting any forms of exclusivism and extremism.
The perils of non-violent extremism
While violent extremist acts and conduct can be easily identified and rejected, non-violent forms are not as quickly acknowledged and addressed. An example is the concept of Al-Wala’ Wa Al-Bara’ that radicalizes an individual to have an inverted sense of morality which can be harmful to society at large (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, p.9).
Even though IS has suffered from territorial losses, its ideological underpinnings still exist and aggressively penetrate our social fabric. Thus, we must continue to educate the significance of maintaining good relations between human beings regardless of race and religion to counter IS’ binary worldview (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, p.10).
Despite the essential points raised in the book, it is perhaps a little perplexing that women’s voices are missing from this important study. The ways violent extremism and terrorism affect women — both as victims and perpetrators-remain under-explored.
Radicalization is not gender-neutral. Men and women experience differences in the process of being, becoming and leaving terrorism. Although it has been highlighted in the book’s introduction that it is only focused on theological arguments yet recognized that terrorism is multifactorial, such an approach can be marginal and indirectly makes it counterproductive. Epistemological foundations must be interlinked with ontological realities. To put it simply, we cannot talk about theology without addressing the lived experiences on the ground.
Theology is both orthodoxy and praxis. An interdisciplinary approach would further enrich the intellectual project of the book. Additionally, due to the limited methodological approach of the book, it is inevitable that overlapping and repetition of arguments occur, which at times can make it challenging for the reader to follow.
As Muslims, we are consistently asked to condemn terrorism to prove our love for the country. It is essential to understand that violence is not a modern phenomenon and striking fear in the community for political gain is as ancient as civilization itself.
Terrorism is not a Muslim problem. However, because the ideological underpinnings of these virulent ideas are masked with classical theological arguments that can easily influence Muslims with limited religious knowledge, it becomes the responsibility of religious clerics to deconstruct and reconstruct religious thinking centred on human values.
This book is an attempt to not only amplify Muslim voices in confronting religious extremism, but more importantly, it reclaims the sacred from the ignoramus by drawing on the same tradition to play a positive role in nation-building and human development at large (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, p.12).
To echo the book’s conclusion, we must continue the legacy of the pioneers in keeping Singapore safe and serve as a role model for the international community (Hassan & Gunaratna, 2021, p.152).
Asad, T. (2009). “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam”. Qui Parle 17 (2): 1-30. doi:10.5250/quiparle.17.2.1.
Brown, J. (2014). Misquoting Muhammad. London: Oneworld.
Fadl, K. (2000). “The Use And Abuse Of “Holy War””. Ethics &
International Affairs 14: 133-140. doi:10.1111/j.1747-7093.2000.tb00059.x.
Fadl, K. (2001). Islam and the Theology of Power. Middle East Report, (21), 28-29.
Hassan, H., & Gunaratna, R. (2021). Countering Islamic State Ideology: Voices of Singapore Religious Scholars. Singapore: Pergas.