Fewer Muslim sects here, but they are still a threat

Religious leaders say those ignorant of Islamic teachings and from dysfunctional families are more likely to fall prey

The Straits Times - Asia/May 25, 2004
By Azrin Asmani

The recent case of four children caught in a custody battle, who were missing and later found, has thrown light on the continued presence of unorthodox Muslim groups here.

'Just because they remain largely undetected by the authorities doesn't mean they don't exist.' - Muslim sect buster Embek Ali, former Perdaus president

While the number is much smaller today than in the 1970s, some religious leaders warn that their very existence poses a threat, primarily to the Muslim community. This is because Malay- Muslims who are ignorant about their faith and come from dysfunctional homes are more vulnerable to religious sects than other Muslims.

Their leaders tend to be charismatic teachers, who dress no differently from others but put their own spin on teachings - deviating from interpretations at mainstream mosques and schools.

Members may surrender their assets to the leaders and, in some cases, the group lives together in one location.

In the custody case, the aunt the four children went off with reportedly belonged to a sect. Members of her alleged group, Tarekat Cahaya Sakti or Mystical Light Organisation, chant in the dark, eat off coconut husks, live in communal settings and use the interpretation of dreams to guide their actions.

'It's like drugs. They know it's bad, but they keep wanting it because they're addicted.' - Khadijah Mosque chairman Ali Mohamed

Others join groups that promote the supernatural, though they know these deviate from Islamic teachings, religious leaders said.

'It's like drugs. They know it's bad, but they keep wanting it because they're addicted,' said Khadijah Mosque chairman Ali Mohamed.

They are drawn to such sects through informal gatherings, some of which promise them spiritual powers.

While not all those who join the groups leave their families, they may withdraw and mix only with other sect members.

Still, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) believes such groups are on the fringe thanks to better education among Malay-Muslims and greater awareness of Islamic teachings.

'We don't get a lot of feedback from the public about such groups these days, only about three or four calls a year,' said Deputy Mufti Mohamed Fatris Bakaram, the second highest Muslim figure here.

Muis investigates and counsels the groups, he said, and informs the relevant authorities if it suspects a crime has been committed.

Religious leaders suspect that, despite vigilance and awareness, there will be deviant groups that can operate largely undetected.

Muslim sect buster Embek Ali, 74, former president of the Adult Islamic Religious Students' Association of Singapore or Perdaus, said: 'There appears to be fewer of them now. But just because they remain largely undetected by the authorities doesn't mean they don't exist.'

While some leaders are confident these groups will wither when they lack the numbers to grow, others want them weeded out now.

'In the eyes of Islam, so long as they mislead people into believing something which is not true - the wrong interpretation of Islam - they are dangerous,' said Khadijah Mosque's Mr Ali.

However, others say it is difficult to break up such groups completely as they can resurface in other guises. Instead, they advocate a strategy of empowering the community with information and knowledge, so those involved will step forward and expose these groups.

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