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WEA RLC Research & Analysis Report: Indonesia’s Flawed Approach to Check Islamist Extremism

August 31, 2015

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo took office one year ago this month, there were high hopes that his government would check Islamist extremist violence. However, President Jokowi, as he is affectionately known, is yet to prove that he has the ability to meet that expectation.

Jokowi does seem to have the will, as he recognizes that religious extremism is a serious issue, unlike his predecessor Susilo Bangbang Yudhoyono, who neither acknowledged nor did anything to control the growth of extremist groups.

Jokowi’s administration has been promoting the idea of a modern and moderate Islam to fight the rise of Islamist extremism. However, there appears to be a flaw in the president’s methodology to deal with the threat. He seems to be working towards making the Indonesian society more tolerant, which, of course, is remarkable, but his efforts are not accompanied by strengthening of the rule of law.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Jokowi has been implementing a cautious bottom-up strategy, which is needed to promote tolerance and moderation, while avoiding a direct confrontation with extremist groups. This perhaps explains why he has not been taking enough top-down measures required to improve law and order. And extremist groups seem to have little fear of action by the government yet.

A month after Jokowi took office, extremist groups Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Forum of Indonesian Islamic community (Formasi) blocked services in four Protestant churches, and then moved on to threaten a Catholic church, St. Odilia in Cinunuk, in West Java province. There was an opportunity in these incidents for Jokowi to set the tone of his governance by taking strong action against these groups, but he didn’t avail it.

The GKI Yasmin church in Bogor on the suburbs of Jakarta also continues to hold worship services outside the presidential palace as their building remains sealed despite a directive of the Supreme Court for the local authority to allow the church use the premises. The city mayor says he will still not de-seal the church.

Jokowi has the power to enforce the highest court’s order, but he has taken no action against the Bogor mayor, who is under pressure from extremist groups. The GKI Yasmin congregation will hold its 100th service outside the palace, which is Jokowi’s office, next month to carry on with their peaceful and prayerful protest.

Recently, Jokowi presided over the congresses of Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, both of which promote tolerant versions of Islam. Instead of pledging strong action against those who propagate extremist ideologies and indulge in violence, he called on the NU to increase its role as a representative of moderate and peaceful Islam and to address the issue of extremism.

As Human Rights Watch noted, Jokowi sought to “outsource a solution to Indonesia’s religious intolerance problem to NU and Muhammadiyah.”

Despite being influential and popular, the two organizations cannot be expected to handle the growth of extremism, which has many facets – some of which can be dealt with only with the power of the state.

A recent editorial in The Jakarta Post stated this: “Indonesians need both organizations, widely considered the global face of Indonesia’s ‘moderate Islam,’ to contribute much more and help protect them from today’s strong appeal to violent jihad in the name of God. These ‘moderates’ tend to downplay the growth of homegrown terrorism, insisting they are minority. However, a few hundred recruits of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), found to be from Indonesia, are too many from a ‘moderate’ Muslim nation.”

Jokowi also attended attend a national congress of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Muslim clerical body which issued a fatwa saying the Ahmadiyya sect wasn’t part of the Islamic faith and that its followers were infidels. The fatwa has led to numerous attacks and brutal, public murders of people from the Ahmadiyya community.

In a recent meeting of Indonesian Muslims in Yogyakarta, the MUI did not invite representatives of Ahmadiyya and Shia organizations, but sent invitations to extremist groups like the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), which is known for its jihadist ideology, and the FPI, which is known for targeting Christians, as reported by local newspapers.

Jokowi’s political compulsions are understandable. The parliament is dominated by opposition parties, some of which are Islamist and can make it difficult for the president to function. However, just as Jokowi has managed to win their support for passing important bills, it is not impossible for him to make his way to adopt a strict policy in the area of law and order. After all, every incident of blocking of worship services, violent attacks and closure of churches is a blatant violation of law.

Bringing change in religious attitudes is a long-term goal, as it takes time for attitudes to change. In the meantime, as a short-term goal, Jokowi also needs to restore the confidence of minorities, including Christians, Ahmadiyyas, Shias and others. It would need both bottom-up and top down approach to deal with the menace.

 

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.