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Freelancing in Syria

I learnt a new term lately: Freelance jihadists. It was used to describe Malaysian Muslims who suddenly take off to Syria, fire off weapons at people in the name of their religious cause and then return home (or not?) to lead their former lives. Sounds like a holiday filled with adventure – in which you can maim and kill or get maimed and killed.

Here in Singapore too, it seems, the jihadist call, however misguided, is gathering adherents. Of course, as usual, a lot of the blame is put on social media and the proliferation of radical sites and “selfies’’ that making posing with a machine gun look sexy.

But I also noted something quite interesting when DPM Teo Chee Hean talked about this in Parliament recently. He said there was a whole family of husband, wife and two children, who had decamped there. The husband is a foreigner. But his nationality was not given. An earlier freelance jihadist named is a naturalised Singaporean of Indian origin. He also took his wife and three kids along with him. So it looks like a family affair? Is there a “foreign’’ element in this?

Then there were three others now detained under the Internal Security Act. All locals but there’s no information on whether they wanted to bring their entire family with them.

Said DPM Teo: “There are others who have expressed interest to go Syria to join in the fighting, and are presently under investigation. We have established that they were radicalised by videos, articles and social media postings online. They subscribed to the sectarian-religious or ideological rhetoric that calls for engaging in militant jihad in Syria.’’

Ooh. Which videos, articles or postings? Have they been taken down? Blocked?

We haven’t heard from the Singapore born-or-bred jihadists but the Malaysians have been hearing from their own: One blew himself up in Iraq and took along with him another 25 lives. Another 15 died fighting in Syria. It seems that Malaysian freelance jihadists number as many as 100 and the authorities have detained at least 18 people, including two who belonged in the Malaysian Navy. Apparently, they were drawn by the clarion call of correcting “injustice to Muslims’’ more so than any identification with the formation of the Islamic State that has taken form in Syria. Another theory for the fan following: the puritan form of Sunni Islam called Wahabism that is at odds with Shi’ite teachings is taking root in this part of the world (Yup, yup. Different strands of the Muslim community fight each other too…)

Why would Muslims in this part of the world want to go so far away to fight someone else’s battle? Do they consider this a religious obligation or feel they should have some sort of solidarity with their fellow Muslim brothers, at least a strand of them? I mean, they are shooting at fellow Muslims aren’t they? I am not Muslim, so I don’t know and I don’t understand.

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Or would anyone say this is not unlike how the overseas Chinese felt during the communist/nationalist tussle in China early last century or how the Tamils here feel during the civil conflict taking place in Sri Lanka a couple of decades ago? The pull of religion, race and old country is still prevalent everywhere it seems.

The problem appears to be bigger in Europe, with its large and relatively more recent immigrant Muslim populations. ST reported that the Netherlands, with a population 900,000 Muslim citizens, has produced 130 fresh terrorist recruits. Belgium, with an even smaller 630,000 Muslims, turned out 300 volunteer fighters. France, home to 7 million Muslims, has 900 volunteers in Syria alone.

You wonder if many of these people who go on military adventures come back or stay there. If they do, how will they fit in the nice, normal routine of home life? The worry the G has is that they won’t and bring in their extreme views/actions to home ground as well, like the Frenchman who shot dead four people at the Brussels Jewish Musuem. BTW, he travelled through Singapore to get from Syria to Europe, apparently to avoid detection.

Said DPM Teo: “This threat is magnified if these returnee fighters are Singaporeans. Indeed, any Singaporean who assists violent organisations like the Al-Nusra Front, IS or any other violent group, has demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support, or resort to, violence to pursue a political or ideological cause. ‘’

I wish he had said more. Like what did those captured by the ISD say? What were their key influences? And if radical websites are the key recruiting tools, why not block access to them like the French are doing? Would this be too controversial a move? Surely not. Or do the authorities think it better to just monitor interest levels on the site and nab people thinking of a Syrian holiday?

I read an ST commentator talking about the counter-measures adopted by Malaysian religious authorities. He said these had been “largely confined to relatively tame expressions of disappointment about misguided thinking and the lack of proper education’’. He preferred the feisty, plain speaking of ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad who suggested that more people go wrap themselves in bombs and blow themselves up if they want to go to heaven quickly. But the writer makes no comment of the response of authorities here, which looks to be led more by the G than the Islamic leaders.

Today, though, it was reported that mosques, religious teachers and madarasahs will be roped in to put the “right message about the Syrian crisis’’ which, I suppose, would be that the rebels call for jihad do not fulfill the teachings of Islam.

I wonder if this is too lame/tame to counter the romanticism of a foreign adventure fuelled by religious fervour. Remember the Crusades of old when the Europeans flocked to the middle east to fight “infidels’’ so as to guarantee themselves a place in heaven? So many stories, movies, books on them! More fiction than fact! So glam.
I hazard a guess (don’t shoot me) that it is probably more adventure and emotion and less religion and rationality that draw people to Syria and Iraq. And the Internet can be a greater preacher with a greater following than any uztaz that we have here.
So I am straining against every fibre of my being to say this: Go block the sites. Sure, more will pop up. But why make it easy to recruit freelance jihadists?

I wish the Muslim leaders all the best in your efforts.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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