On Rehabilitation and Reintegration

The Syrian government’s declaration of victory over the Islamic State brings the issue of foreign terrorist fighters returning to their countries to the forefront yet again. The much publicised number of Malaysians who went over to Syria to join IS and the war would mean that the problem of returnees will also be something that Malaysia needs to manage. This then leads to the question on rehabilitating and reintegrating (R/R) these individuals, who have committed violent acts and are/or were a part of a violent extremist group, back into Malaysian society.The issue on R/R of violent extremists has recently emerged up in public discourse in Malaysia, albeit in a different light. The Malaysian media has been following a religious personality involved in R/R, and much of the discourse has been lopsided, if not ill-informed to say the least. Instead of conversations on how to manage the potential returnees , the debate was on the person in charge of rehabilitating these individuals, his series of statements on issues that were unrelated to violent extremism, which in turn has the public question his ability to “de-radicalize” and rehabilitate violent extremist offenders. The question now is how should we rehabilitate and reintegrate violent extremist offenders, and who should do it?

Current Scenario

Managing the return of Malaysian citizens who have travelled to conflict zones and were active participants in violence, requires programs that are effective and sustainable. This is essential not only for the returnees, but also crucial in preventing further incidences of violent extremism in the long run.

Currently, the Malaysian government, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), has an Integrated Rehabilitation Module for Detainees, administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs (KDN), Prison Department of Malaysia and the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM). The module outlines a rehabilitation program that involves three phases: orientation, reinforcing Sahsiah (good personality), and self-development courses. The module that is available for the public doesn’t explain much on the content of the program, only topics of discussions which range from anger management to positivity that will be held, and how each session will be conducted. However, the module suggests that the program applies a top-down approach whereby the facilitators will “correct” the religious understanding, thoughts and behaviour of offenders, and in the end the returnees will be evaluated based on how much have they internalized the teachings of the program. And this is where the problem lies.

Talking To Extremists

To have an effective R/R, we must first understand the individuals who were involved in violent extremism. There are many factors that contribute to persuading regular people to agree or believe in violence, and some more to make them actually commit them. As the wealth of research on preventing and countering violent extremism (C/PVE) has shown, there are a range of push and pull factors that make people join violent extremist groups. From personal grievances and history of violence, to ideology and disenfranchisement, people are motivated by different reasons. Therefore, efforts to rehabilitate them require programs that are tailor-made based on each individual’s history and needs. A one-size fit-for-all module is a little ill-suited.

The top-down, correctional approach to R/R has another problem. According to Iqbal Husaini, a former militant from Indonesia who is now involved in R/R programs in Indonesia, one of the problems of this approach is that the rehabilitators tend to patronise offenders, and they tend to be condescending. If we look at the R/R module that we have in Malaysia, a lot of effort or focus goes into correcting or restoring aqidah, or creed. Violent extremists, especially the ones who are ideologically driven, are very proud people with a very strong conviction to their beliefs. Starting off and emphasizing that their beliefs are wrong and that they do not understand the faith is not a good start in building trust and nurturing a healthy relationship between offenders and rehabilitators, which is a key aspect in having a successful R/R.

Then there’s the question on who should do the R/R. Will violent extremists be more receptive to conservatives like Ustaz Zamihan Mat Zin, liberals like Dr Farouk Musa, or academics like Dr Maszlee Malik?

First we need to differentiate and draw the line between violent extremists, and mere conservatives or so-called extremists of social morality, as it risks labelling anyone who doesn’t hold a liberal or plural worldview as violent extremists. They might be extremists, but definitely not violent extremists. Secondly, the public’s understanding of moderates and extremists might differ quite significantly from the State’s. For the State’s, the two ends of the religious spectrum are violent extremism, and liberalism (lumped together with human rights activists, the LGBT community, heterodox forms of Islam, secularists, and other dissenters against Malaysia’s official Islam). In this regard, conservatives are seen as moderates, and very well qualified to rehabilitate violent extremist offenders.

The point being is that dwelling on the qualification of rehabilitators will only lead to unnecessary debates on liberalism versus conservatism which in the end will not address the issue at hand. Of course, the worldview of rehabilitators is important. We surely do not want a violent extremist to be in charge with rehabilitating other violent extremists. But the process of rehabilitating and reintegrating violent extremists back into the society is a complex effort that requires a “whole society” approach that includes civil society and other local actors, not just the government and appointed individuals. Because R/R is an individual psycho-social process that requires the engagement and involvement of local communities, families, and other supportive social networks, it shouldn’t be left solely in the hands of the authorities.

What R/R Programs Should Be

Efforts in strengthening R/R programs all over the world are ongoing, and experts are looking into this matter more seriously, and looking for more creative and non-traditional ways in rehabilitating and reintegrating former fighters into mainstream society. Many programs that have been created differ from each other, as they are tailor-made and localized to fit the context, culture and condition of each community. However, there are a certain set of shared principles that contribute to a program’s success.

A good R/R program should include an understanding of basic legal and policy frameworks that respect human rights and are anchored in multi-stakeholder approaches that articulate clear roles and responsibilities such as the following: Local communities need to be included to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and socialize them to the need to reintegrate successfully those associated with and affected by violent extremism. Women and youth representatives also need to be involved in program design and engagement to ensure that the voices of all affected demographics are reflected. It is also vital to address the needs of all victims for broader community cohesion and support for the program, and to ensure support for the families of those who are detained or incarcerated, in order to facilitate the eventual R/R of their family member.

Most importantly, in order to successfully rehabilitate and reintegrate these members into our society, we need to regain or rebuild trust and confidence. Not only among society members, but also between governments, civil societies and communities to ensure strong collaboration and cohesion across all levels. As mentioned above, R/R as well as preventing violent extremism require collaboration from all members of the society. It is not only the responsibility of government or authorities, but each of us do play a crucial role in maintaining and promoting social cohesion and inclusivity – the remedy for any form of extremism.

Ini adalah pendapat pengarang dan tidak semestinya mewakili pandangan IMAN Research.