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WEA RLC Analysis Report: US Must not Ignore Islamist Extremism in Indonesia

August 23, 2012

Since the 2002 Bali bombings, the United States has focused on, and considerably succeeded in, enabling Indonesia to weaken the South-East Asia's largest terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). However, the threat still prevails, as extremism, which is fueling terrorism, is growing unabated.

Indonesia is a key player in the U.S. war on terror in South-East Asia, which is also soon likely is likely to be the focus of U.S. foreign policy due to the massive economic growth in the region, China's increasing military presence and the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea. More importantly, the archipelago is located astride the Strait of Malacca, the world’s most important strategic sea lanes linking Asia with the Middle East and Europe and carrying roughly 40 percent of the global trade. And the JI had training camps and bases in Aceh, which is close to the Strait.

Indonesia also has the world's largest Muslim population, and is seen as a model of Islam’s compatibility with democracy. While the majority of the country's 210 million Muslims are Sunni from the moderate Shafi’i school of the Islamic jurisdiction, conservative Salafi approaches to Islam took root in the country through the Darul Islam (DI), which was formed in 1942 during the War of Independence from the Dutch Empire, and was later regrouped as the Dewan Dakwah Islam Indonesia or DDII in 1967.

Former dictatorial President Suharto kept Islamist groups under tight control while in office from 1967 to 1998. But after his fall, several offshoots of the DDII emerged, including the JI.

It is believed that the JI, which would focus mostly on Christian-Muslim conflicts in Indonesia, forged links with al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. Terror strikes followed in the country, including the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 JW Marriott hotel explosions, the 2004 Australian embassy attack, the 2005 Bali bombings, the 2009 JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotel bombings, and a failed plot to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2010.

Washington takes the terror threat seriously, but not the growth of extremism.

The United States, along with Australia, funds the Indonesian counter-terrorism squad Detachment 88, which has captured or killed most leaders of the JI. While no major terror attack has been reported in recent months, the lull might just be temporal, experts have warned.

"In the face of strong police pressure, they [jihadists] are finding ways to regroup on the run, in prison and through internet forums, military training camps and arranged marriages," said a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), entitled, "How Indonesian Extremists Regroup," and released on July 16.

The report didn't come as a surprise. "The problem of terrorism is motivated by radical ideology, so the movement doesn't automatically end with the capture and death of key figures," Indonesian National Anti-Terror Agency chief Ansyaad Mbai had told AFP in September 2011. The JI, he said, had "metamorphosized" into multiple new threats.

Many of the jihadist groups that exist today are linked to the Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), a group formed by JI's spiritual leader Abu  Bakar Ba’asyir in 2008, the ICG report noted. It also indicated that unchecked extremism is helping terrorists. "Some pro-Sharia (Islamic law) advocacy groups that do not use violence themselves but whose teachings are in line with jihadi views play a similar role," it stated.

Kiky Hutami, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy, agrees that the growth of extremism can be linked to terrorism. "Radicalism is the starting point of terrorism, and terrorism is the peak of radicalism," she said.

The Setara Institute recorded 129 religious attacks, mostly against the Christian and Ahmadiyya minorities and by the "non-terrorist" radical group Islamic Defenders Front (locally known as the FPI), from January to June this year. In 2011, it counted 244 attacks. Some of these attacks were exceptionally brutal and launched in the presence of police. For example, a video went viral on YouTube last February showing hundreds of extremists in West Java shouting Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest) and smashing the heads of three Ahmadiyya "infidels" even as policemen looked on.

Hutami was part of a field study that showed that "non-terrorist" radical groups in Central Java were being used by terrorists for recruitment. The Setara study followed a suicide bomb attack on the Sepenuh Injil Bethel Church in Solo City in Central Java on Sept. 25, 2011.

Though small in numbers, the radical groups are highly influential. In May, authorities canceled a sold-out Lady Gaga show after hardliners threatened to attack the venue.

Hardliners are opposed to the spirit of the Indonesian Constitution, which is based on the doctrine of Pancasila or five principles: the nation’s belief in the one and only God, just and civilized humanity, the nation's unity, democracy, and social justice. They are fighting for Sharia law and "Islamization" of the country's society.

And they have managed to influence a large section of the Indonesian society. More than half of the respondents in a June 2011 survey by the Setara Institute justified the use of violence against "heretical" sects and "immoral" people. Over 35 percent said they wanted the Sharia law in the country. Further, over 37 percent wanted a law allowing stoning as a punishment for certain crimes, and close to 35 percent were in favor of the system of Caliphate.

President Yudhoyono, in office since 2004, has been over-cautious in dealing with extremists, fearing he might be seen as "un-Islamic" in a Muslim-majority country. It is estimated that around 10 percent of the voters in Indonesia support conservative parties.

Islamist parties, which seek extremist groups' support during elections, are often wooed by secular parties. Yudhoyono’s allies include Islamist parties, such as the National Mandate Party, the National Awakening Party and the Prosperous Justice Party.

Yudhoyono's presidential term will end in 2014, and he does not qualify to seek another term. However, none of the three likely presidential candidates can be expected to curb extremism either.

Entrepreneur Aburizal Bakrie is the head of the Golkar party, which is fighting for regional Islamic regulations, and is infamous as one of the country’s most corrupt politicians.

Prabowo Subianto is leader of the main opposition party Gerindra. Former son-in-law of the dictator Suharto, he is an alleged mastermind of the violence targeting ethnic Chinese Indonesians in the run up to the East Timor’s break from Indonesia in 1999.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati, an independent, is a Managing Director of the World Bank Group and former finance minister, and known for exposing corrupt practices of Bakrie’s family businesses. But she may lack the political acumen required to contest elections or deal with politically savvy extremists.

Therefore, on its own, Jakarta may not check extremism, at least in the near future. And President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, perhaps sees the archipelago as an international public relations opportunity to portray himself to the Muslim world as a good guy who respects Islam. After all, he visited Indonesia in November 2010, less than one and a half years after his June 2009 Cairo speech.

Washington's policy towards Jakarta has largely been carrot-driven partly because the United States is competing with China, the biggest investor in Indonesia, and cannot afford to upset Jakarta too much. Extremism, after all, is closely tied to domestic politics, and Yudhoyono fears that a crackdown on radical groups will hurt him politically. This is possibly one of the reasons why Washington has chosen to overlook the growth of extremism in that nation.

However, if both Jakarta and Washington continue to close their eyes to the gathering storm, it might soon be too late to prevent Indonesia from becoming another Pakistan, and yet another headache for the United States and the world.


World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.

This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.