BY ANISAH SHUKRY
Rabia Mustafa Ali mourns by the grave of her son who was killed during clashes with Isis in Kobani, Syria. Experts say, among other things, people must be made to realise that Isis has killed thousands of Muslims. – Reuters pic, November 8, 2014.
The militant group known as Islamic State (Isis) successfully recruited hundreds of Muslims, including Malaysians, for its terror attacks by capitalising on social media and online propaganda, but experts believe that civil society can reclaim the Internet and beat the terrorist group at its own game.
“The challenge of the Isis propaganda is that it is appealing, sexy, counter-cultural, anti-establishment,” said Abdul-Rehman Malik, a London-based journalist, educator and organiser.
“The role of us in civil society is to be savvier about what Isis is, and to subvert their narrative through humour, through bold moves.”
He told The Malaysian Insider that this responsibility did not have to lie with the government alone, but any person who had access to the Internet could join the fight against Isis.
Rehman has spent nearly a decade leading a British non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Radical Middle Way, which utilises Internet forums to engage British youths to counter the jihadist message.
“We need to tell everyone the truth about how many Muslims are killed by groups like al-Qaeda and Isis. People tend to pay attention to the Western journalists or the Western aid workers that were killed.
“But thousands of Muslims are being murdered by these people, and they have made it clear that when Bashar al-Assad falls, they will turn on other Muslims,” he said.
He spoke to The Malaysian Insider after taking part in a roundtable discussion on Setting Up of Task Force to Address the Issue of Extremism and Terrorism through Social Media at the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation yesterday.
Another participant Noor Huda Ismail, an Indonesian who has helped integrate over a dozen ex-terrorists into society through his NGO, Institute for International Peace Building, said that most of them were duped into fighting for the cause of Islam.
“Most people, who travel there, do not have a comprehensive picture of what is going on. They initially travel together to fight, to defend the Muslims.
“But when they arrive in the Middle East, they are split among groups like Jabhah al-nusrah and Isis and they fight among themselves,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
Rehman said that alternative narratives should exist in social media that would drown out Isis’s romanticised image of jihad.
The Internet is rife with blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of Muslims claiming to be in Iraq and Syria where they lure supporters to “make hijrah” and garner interest in their cause by detailing their daily lives in the Islamic State.
One such blog is “Diary of a Traveler” – in it, a self-professed Malaysian doctor named “Shams” chronicles her life married to an Isis fighter as well as the heartache and joy she experiences living in “the land of Khilafah”.
Rehman conceded that the narratives of humanitarian aid work may not be as appealing and sexy as that of taking up arms and waging war in a foreign country to achieve martyrdom.
“But let’s use our resources not just to make it appealing, but to tell the compelling stories of aid workers, people in camps, people who are doctors who have gone into Syria to treat others, or fighters that are not allied with Bashar al-Assad. We need to be more creative and bold.”
Ross Frenett, a terrorism analyst at the London-based think tank, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said it was important for the public, including the private sector, not to see the fight against terrorism as just a government problem.
“The government needs to focus less on taking content down, and more on empowering people to actually fight the battle of ideas,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
“NGOs need to be a bit more braver and more willing to challenge Isis and these kind of affiliated groups online, whether it’s through direct counter-messaging or education.”
He added that the private sector could get involved and empower the “credible voices”, rather than take a back seat in the fight against Isis.
The experts also suggested that the government look into engaging with terrorists who returned from Isis and were willing to speak against their former colleagues.
“These are not evil people, and a lot of them come back saying ‘wow, it wasn’t like what we thought it would be. We had such high intentions and hope, but what we saw was horrible’,” said Rehman.
“Instead of criminalising these people, we should be engaging with them. They are the best response to Isis. When they say ‘we went to Syria and we saw everything, and Isis doesn’t say what it actually is’, isn’t that much more powerful?”
Frenett agreed that the government should capitalise on such former terrorists, but stressed that criminal action should also be taken against them.
“When people get back, there needs to be an avenue through people who become disenchanted while in Syria and Iraq to face appropriate criminal action.
“But if they’re willing to come back and speak against their former colleagues I think we need to see some of these people as a resource rather than a threat. So, law enforcement must be involved, but we need to tweak our approach a bit.”
Noor Huda said that those who took up arms in the name of religion were usually below the age of 25, and were not “criminals” but driven to fight for misguided reasons.
His own former Muslim boarding school roommate was involved in the 2005 Bali Bombing, while three other former schoolmates carried out suicide attacks in Indonesia, Syria and Iraq. Noor Huda dedicates his time helping former combatants and after several failed attempts, he was able to open a café in 2009 that allowed the convicted terrorists to rehabilitate and integrate into society.
“Some of them who make the decision to get involved in violence are below 25 or even 20. They are still young. So the Malaysian government should only detain them as a temporary measure. “They were driven by religious reasons, they are not criminals. So we have to help them to integrate into society and find their calling in life,” he said. (themalaysianinsider)