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1. US Security from Michael_Novakhov (88 sites): Eurasia Review: Breaking Byte Of Religious Extremism – Analysis

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Contemporary societies exist in challenging times because of internal schisms and intra-state conflicts where religious extremism is a significant contributing factor, harming religious harmony and social cohesion. Singapore’s updating of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act will empower it to respond swiftly to threats on the religious front.

By Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman*

Religious extremism poses a grave threat to religious harmony and public peace in diverse societies. This threat is further exacerbated by the proliferation of extremist content on the Internet and social media.  Faith-based extremism, with its denigration of other religions and incitement of violence, aggravates the “us versus them” attitude that perpetuates misunderstanding, bigotry and hate. It “dehumanises” the “Other” and legitimises their persecution.

If left unchecked, religious extremism – online and offline — leads
to hate crimes, terrorism and violent conflicts between religious
communities, and in some situations, confrontations between religion and
state. In cosmopolitan societies with high Internet penetration, the
problem worsens when it intersects with xenophobia and racial and
religious fault-lines. While soft measures such as inter-faith
dialogues, multi-religious events and digital literacy education are key
to preventing religious extremism, hard measures such as strengthening
legislation are necessary to address three categories of risk factors
that can counteract the effectiveness of soft measures.

Category #1: Individual

The efficacy of soft measures is contingent on the individual’s
education, socialisation and openness to multiculturalism. It also
depends on the individual’s metacognition, which is the awareness of
one’s biases, thought processes and online habits. It should be noted
that not every individual is open to religious tolerance and moderation.

Such individuals may turn a blind eye on soft measures that promote
narratives of critical thinking, digital literacy, peace, compassion,
moderation and shared humanity. For example, in Sri Lanka, various online rumours
of Muslims harming Buddhists had caused ethno-religious biases in
individuals to flare up into riots in 2018 (clashes erupted again after
the church and hotel bombings in April this year).

In Europe, ISIS terrorist attacks and Muslim migration have sparked
off Islamophobic attacks by far-right extremists spurred by their online
hate groups. In Singapore in July this year, online vitriolic views
falsely framed public engagements between police officers
and madrasah students as religious profiling that targets Muslims in
Singapore. These online misrepresentations, rantings and criticisms can
disrupt religious harmony, cast aspersions on security forces, and
create distrust towards the state.

Strong measures are therefore necessary to deter the occurrence of
religion-related incidents and violence as a result of online hate
speech and incitement. This would ensure a climate that is free from
fear, and allow soft measures to work with minimal impediments.

Category #2: Community

The religious community – offline and online — provides the
individual with socio-psychological and spiritual support to deal with
the challenges in life. Shared religious beliefs and behaviour result in
a shared identity that on the one hand, can emphasise inclusiveness and
universal values with other communities. The result is a strong and
cohesive society.

On the other hand, the shared identity can promote internal schisms
by firstly emphasising religious differences with other communities.
Secondly, the identity frames these differences as theologically
inferior and the cause of existential threats to the survival of its
community. For example, the rise of “militant Buddhism
in Sri Lanka and Myanmar is driven by the narrative that Muslims had
taken over traditional Buddhist lands. The result is identity politics,
which drives many intra-state conflicts in the past and the present.

A critical factor that influences the shared identity of a religious
community is charismatic figures who have a wide following, online and
off-line. The community trusts and reveres charismatic and influential
figures who interpret and curate religious texts to provide answers to
the challenges in life.

Religious extremism takes root when charismatic figures provide
answers that call for religious exclusiveness and supremacy while
demonising other religions. It can be difficult to persuade some
individuals in the community to reject answers that are purportedly
sanctified by religious texts.

It is therefore essential to have laws to prevent hate speech or
provocative remarks against other religions from spreading or sparking
off hate crimes or riots. In Singapore, the authorities had proscribed
foreign preachers after they made insensitive remarks against other

While laws cannot stop individuals from following such charismatic
figures in the online space, enforcement action against these figures
firstly assures other religious communities that society’s common space
remains safe. Secondly, it sends the message that the survival of
religious communities and maintenance of public peace require harmony
instead of hostility.

Category #3: Global Village

The online space makes the world a “global village
by mentally and emotionally connecting societies across borders. Global
developments increasingly influence religious narratives both at the
individual and community levels. These developments can either encourage
individuals and communities to be amicable despite religious
differences or promote hostility and undercut soft measures to promote
religious moderation and peaceful co-existence.

The numerous terrorist attacks by jihadists, for example, are
underpinned by global extremist narratives relating to alleged
oppression of Muslims, occupation of ‘Muslim lands’ and the need to
resurrect the Caliphate to establish sharia law. Similarly, Western
far-right extremists, particularly white supremacists involved in hate
crimes and terrorist attacks like the shootings in Christchurch, New
Zealand, are influenced by far-right extremist propaganda.

This includes the “Great Replacement
theory, that assert that non-whites, particularly Muslims, are
“invaders” that cannot co-exist as “good neighbours” in the same village
with white Christian individuals. The shootings had the global impact
of spreading fear and shared trauma among Muslim communities, and
amplifying the extremist narratives in Jihadi chatrooms that Christians are an existential threat to Muslims.

Critical Peace Among Religions

In sum, laws such as Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act
would have the effect of deterring inflammatory and provocative
statements, especially on the widely-used digital platforms. They also
support soft measures that aim to imprint religious harmony in the
politico-cultural DNA of societies that make up nations.

The importance of curbing religious extremism – especially online —
is far-reaching and as Swiss theologian Hans Küng once said, there is
“no peace among the nations without peace among the religions”.

*Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Eurasia Review

1. US Security from Michael_Novakhov (88 sites)