New network prepares asatizahs for online war against the Islamic State [TODAY Online]

With social media acting as a fertile ground for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to disseminate its propaganda, local Islamic religious teachers are gearing for an online battle of influence by beefing up their knowledge on radicalisation and learning tactics to counter extremism online, including through workshops by Google.
Eleven asatizahs in their 20s and 30s with “presence and influence, both online and offline” are in the first batch of trainees picked by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis). The 11 hail from youth groups, mosques and madrasahs, and have gone through various programmes to learn how to counter extremist and exclusivist ideologies online.
In May, for instance, they attended a two-day workshop organised by Muis in collaboration with public security agencies.
The session was meant to give asatizahs insights into the radicalisation process and touched on certain Islamic teachings that are commonly misinterpreted by terrorist groups such as Isis as well as exclusivist ideas.
These include concepts such as jihad (armed struggle), establishing an Islamic caliphate, as well as the misguided notion that Muslims can only forge relationships with other Muslims, and that non-Muslims are viewed as “enemies”.
A few weeks back, two asatizahs from the network were also sent to a Google-YouTube Summit in Jakarta to learn skills such as how to customise content to better reach the target audience as well as understanding some of the weak points in Isis’ narratives.
On Thursday, Google will also hold a workshop for all of the asatizahs in the network to share information about the tools they are using to combat terrorism. Google declined to comment for this story.
But one example is the tech firm’s initiative called the Redirect Method, which was launched in June. YouTube has already rolled out this feature.
This initiative involves redirecting users searching for specific keywords relating to terrorism away from violent extremist propaganda. Instead, they are steered towards videos debunking extremist narratives.
Other plans, which are underway, also include a potential collaboration with more tech firms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Muis also said a training session will be conducted by popular YouTube channel Ministry of Funny to guide asatizahs on how to produce video content that appeal to the masses.
On its website, Ministry of Funny said that it creates “comedy content that uses humour to tell stories, challenge stereotypes and tackle everyday issues”.
The channel is signed to Maker Studios – the world’s biggest Multi-Channel Network owned by Disney, and has produced videos touching on subjects such as xenophobia.
Muis has announced the setting up of this network of asatizahs to combat extremist ideology online in June. Sharing more details with TODAY on its future plans, Muis said they expect to have 50 asatizahs to be part of the network in the coming years.
Asatizahs in the network will act as the “first touch-point” for members of the community to approach when in doubt about Islamic teachings, said Muis, especially since some concepts have been misconstrued by ISIS to suit their agenda.
Waging an online war against Isis propaganda has become crucial, evident by the fact that a number of Singaporeans arrested by the authorities were radicalised by the terrorist group’s radical narratives on the Internet.
For instance, infant care assistant Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, who was detained under the Internal Security Act in June this year, was radicalised at the age of 18 by ISIS online propaganda. Asrul Alias, 33, a technician who was arrested last August had watched Isis videos of its fighters in combat as well as online religious sermons by radical preachers.
Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, Muis’ director of religious and policy development told TODAY that the training sessions are meant for asatizahs to truly understand religious ideologies and the radicalisation process.
The next step is for them to gain technical online skills, such as making use of search engine optimisation so that their content goes viral.
Only then can they effectively create content such as videos to counter ISIS narratives, he said. This will come in the form of either a “direct rebuttal” of the misconstrued Islamic concepts or inculcating positive messages about the religion like how Islam is merciful and promotes peace.
Dr Nazirudin acknowledged that some youth, who have been exposed to online extremist messages, “are starting to be confused or to a certain extent influenced but not radicalised”. There have been instances where those in doubt have approached asatizahs for guidance, he added.
“They (the youth) have not accepted the IS ideology but they do ask ‘Is it true that as a Muslim I must believe in an Islamic state?’ At the moment, there are not that many (asatizahs) who can engage with these youth on these ideas,” said Dr Nazirudin.
“So, the two-pronged approach – content as well as technical skills – is meant to help asatizahs advise youth in a convincing manner,” he added.
Asatizahs will also be trained to counsel youth in doubt – either through online or offline channels. Dr Nazirudin noted that without proper training, some asatizahs might approach the issue from just a religious angle.
But he noted that there could be other underlying factors involved such as personal challenges involving relationships. “And even the framing of questions and the tone being used is important,” said Dr Nazirudin.
“If you don’t have those skills, then you only have part of the solution.”
For one, Muis plans to tap on the expertise of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) to provide guidance. The RRG was set up in 2003 with the objective of rehabilitating detained Jemaah Islamiyah members and their families through counselling.
Religious teachers here said that the new network gives asatizahs a much better direction on how to counter online extremist propaganda.
Ms Liyana Musfirah, 25, who is the head of business development in Safinah Institute which conducts Islamic courses, said the network sends a signal to the Malay-Muslim community that “we have a line of experts that they can refer to when in doubt of such serious issues”.
Currently, asatizahs are using their own individual approach to counter Isis’ narratives but having a “larger voice” through the network would be of a greater advantage, said executive director of private Islamic education group Andalus Corporation, Mr Fathurrahman Dawoed, 39.
Noting that ISIS is “winning the ideological battle through social media”, Mr Fathurrahman said that asatizahs need know how to deconstruct the terrorist group’s ideology and produce content that appeals to millennials.
“If ISIS can do a ‘power’ video, asatizahs also need to be able to do something similar on the subject to guide the young. But they need support in terms of budget and manpower,” said Mr Fathurrahman.
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