Southeast Asia

The simmering threat of Indonesian radicalism
By Bill Guerin

Watching from the relative security of downtown Jakarta we were acutely aware that the terror unleashed by the September 11 attacks would engender profound change in the world. Soon after, there was concern in Indonesia and across the Muslim world that the ensuing US-led war on terrorism would become a prelude to a worldwide assault on Islam and the Muslim world itself.

The subsequent US attacks on Afghanistan and its war on global terrorism have indeed had a major impact on the relationship between Islam and the West. Islam is now being focused upon more than ever, amid a deep concern within the Islamic community that the West would use this opportunity to subjugate the Muslim world, and force it into some sort of inferior class of Western civilization.

On the anniversary of one of the blackest days in the history of mankind, world focus remains firmly on the main hot spots - the Middle East and the South Asian subcontinent - but Indonesia, the largest nominally Islamic country in the world, is never far away from the limelight.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri went to the United States a few days after the attacks last September and, sitting in the Oval Office with a beaming George W Bush, expressed her unqualified support for his administration (in return for a considerable amount of aid). The US saw her visit as the chance to elicit an endorsement for the coming campaign of attrition against an enemy who is here, there and everywhere at the same time.

Alas, the storm clouds were gathering even before Megawati touched down in Jakarta. Widespread demonstrations were being organized by Islamic radicals, mainly the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), who since Suharto's downfall have risen like an evil specter in white, raiding nightclubs, bars and restaurants, attacking other religious groups and, of course, "sweeping" for Americans.

Now, a year later, the US has once again closed its Jakarta embassy until further notice after receiving what the State Department in Washington described as a "credible" terrorist threat. Anti-US sentiment is on the rise on the streets and Vice President Hamzah Haz has publicly condemned the coming "war" on Iraq.

The Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), a militant Islamic group with alleged links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, has threatened to conduct "sweeps" against foreigners. The last "sweeps" kicked off on September 23, 2001, when radical militant Muslim youth gangs in Solo vowed to round up US and European citizens over the impending US-led strikes on Afghanistan.

MMI is led by Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Basyir, who has been named by Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines as the spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah radical group, which wants to create a pan-Islamic state in parts of Southeast Asia and is allegedly connected to al-Qaeda.

The United States' recent assertive leadership in the Asia-Pacific region encouraged Singapore to be more active in fighting terrorism and in aligning itself closely with the US in fighting global terrorism.

As well as Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia have also taken action to crack down on terrorism, but Indonesia has made no arrests in connection with the alleged network. Malaysia, on the other hand, came down hard on Muslim militants from the start, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sensing the threat to his rule and the stability of his country. He ordered the rounding up and jailing of suspected militants.

Mahathir has played his cards like the veteran he is. Megawati leads some 210 million people, Mahathir a mere 23 million. But Malaysia's leader for 21 years saw his country dubbed a "beacon of stability" in Southeast Asia after its detention of dozens of militants, some suspected of links to a regional network allied to al-Qaeda.

Megawati, unlike Mahathir, walks a thin tightrope, and has been unable to juggle and balance the needs of her country, in terms of a secure and safe environment for investment, and the excruciatingly subtle threats posed to Indonesia's vast majority of peace-loving Muslims by the radicalized few.

Since September 11, 2001, there has been much concern in Indonesia, not only in the media but by governments themselves, that Islamic fundamentalism, still slow to surface in Indonesia, is confused with all Islamic movements, political and social, non-violent and violent.

Deputy US Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz this week drew the short straw and was forced to concede that a "dangerous gap" had now opened between the West and the Islamic world, one that was now putting at risk the war on terrorism. He said the movement of Muslim nations such as Afghanistan, Turkey and Indonesia to incorporate ideals of democracy and freedom would help the United States win "the larger war of ideas".

"What we have before us today is less a clash of civilizations, as some have theorized, than a collision of misunderstanding between the Muslim and Western world," he said.

Muslim grievances vary in level of severity but prime among these are the effects of the US sanctions on Iraq, and their impact on more than a half-million Iraqi children, the blind US sponsorship of Israeli occupation of, and attacks on, Palestine, and the presence of US troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia.

Indonesian Muslim grievances tend more toward a brotherly despair at the pain caused to Muslims wherever they may be. And now here is George W Bush, who says the single most important thing is to put an end to terrorism, about to wage a war on US public enemy No 1, Saddam Hussein and his people, to bring about a "regime change", which if it goes ahead will cause widespread death and injuries to innocent Muslim men, women and children.

Well, there was no regime change in Indonesia. Megawati did not succumb to the potent forces of militant Muslim elements, ultra-nationalists and anti-US forces seeking to topple her. Indonesia has not been taken over by militant fundamentalists.

As Wolfowitz said this week, "In Indonesia and Malaysia you have majority Muslim populations, and you have the challenge of distinguishing between genuine extremists and people who just oppose the administration. I feel some real progress has been made. The fact [the country is] functioning as well as it is is a tribute to the common sense of the Indonesian people."

Since May 1998, when 32 years of benign dictatorship came to an end, Indonesians dreamed of a true leader surfacing, one who would stand on the front line and lead them out of recession, give them back a belief in the sanctity of their country's law and encourage the return of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious state that Megawati's father, Sukarno, gave them in 1945 when the independent Republic of Indonesia was founded.

A complex mosaic of cultural factors, combined with a real fear of the potency of Islamic fundamentalism, help explain why the president, her government and the police steadily lose ground against the Islamist radicals and have never taken seriously the charges that part of any al-Qaeda network operated on their sovereign territory.

Balancing the need for security on the one hand and the high expectations of democracy on the other means, as Defense Minister Abjul Matori has said, makes combating terrorism only one priority, at a time when maintaining territorial integrity, recovering the economy and resolving communal-ethnic and religious conflicts have to be given a higher priority on the national agenda.

The minister cited many examples of what Indonesia has done to combat terrorism and said the country signed an agreement with Australia on fighting terrorism and developed concrete ways to work with Malaysia and the Philippines in the anti-terrorism effort beyond traditional intelligence-sharing. He believes regional and international cooperation should include law enforcement and efforts to freeze terrorists' financial sources and to track down their weapons, arms supplies and networks.

Megawati leads a coalition government that has a number of conservative Muslim politicians and parties who would see any crackdown on hardline Muslim groups as proof that she was siding with the West against Islam. This is no small point given the quasi-religious-political resistance to her presidential bid in 1999, when despite winning a majority she was maneuvered aside for Abdurrahman Wahid to step in.

Extremist groups that are no strangers to violence, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Laskar Jihad, the group that kicked off a bloody jihad against Christians in the Eastern Spice Islands (Maluku) three years ago, are at the forefront of aggressive protests and demonstrations against any issue they see as offending Islam or Muslims in any way.

This may well be all theory and rhetoric and certainly none of those so ready to take to the streets have had the torment and grief of knowing their loved ones had been smashed to smithereens by aircraft impacting on buildings, jumping from skyscrapers to instant death, or taken from them in so many other awful ways that were revealed after September 11, 2001.

The threats may be often be hollow but there can be little doubting the fear and intimidation felt by those close to the protests. Jafar Umar Thalib, leader of the Laskar Jihad, and Al Habib Muhammad Riziq Syihab, boss of the FPI, appear to command great loyalty from their storm troopers.

Abshar-Abdalla from Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's 40-million-strong moderate Muslim organization, points out: "I don't think Jafar or Riziq are a threat to Americans but they are threat to the Indonesian people by raising the doctrine of jihad, of armed struggle against people."

Although patently still in a minority, without steadfast and resolute handling of the anti-US manifestations, these radicals have great potential to cause chaos, even more so if backed by wealthy political opportunists and ambitious generals intent on destabilizing Megawati's presidency.

The wisdom of letting noisy protests run their course has a lot to commend it, but paranoia and false accusations trumpeted in public create a dangerous climate of fear and anger, ripe for those intent on creating chaos.

Although the hardline Islamic groups have the podium for the time being, they do not enjoy widespread public support. The average Indonesian Muslim, judging by mass-media coverage of the issue, does not see the issue as demanding his or her attention. For the time being those calling for violence and aggression in Indonesia are preaching in a wilderness.

Jihads have rarely been spoken of in Indonesia until the past few years, and the danger now is that the extremist interpretations from radicals will strike a chord with the dispossessed, the disfranchised and the disenchanted masses. The obvious manipulation of views based on culture and political expedience, using a religious viewpoint as an afterthought to lend greater credence to their actions, may not be too obvious to many adherents of the Indonesian version of Islam.

The Osama bin Laden strategy of justifying aggression through a religious angle is mirrored in Indonesia. Why else would FPI leader Muhammad Riziq threaten, "If the US carries out its threat in the form of military aggression against any Muslim states, then the FPI will perceive it as an act of terrorism."

This is the crux of the extremists' message and its Taliban-style spin drives home a message that somehow Islam is a religion that sees everything in terms of a struggle, not against one's self, but against a perceived threat.

A year after Osama bin Laden took on civilization as we know it, Indonesians are even further out of the loop on issues that are more and more critical to their future as a nation.

Indonesian Muslims need their government to address the fears and worries of those who need convincing that the clash of cultures is between the civilized world and global terrorism and not, as the Muslim radicals everywhere say, between Islam and the West.

Vice President Hamzah Haz was to open an international seminar in Jakarta this Wednesday, September 11. Titled "Islam and the West One Year after 11 September 2001: Obstacles and Solutions in Search of a New World Civilization", the event is aimed at identifying problems and finding solutions to build a better understanding between the Western and Muslim worlds.

This is timely indeed in the world's most populous Islamic country where minority militants regularly claim the moral high ground as the president, her ministers and leading politicians have so far failed dismally to engage their fellow citizens over the issues of Indonesian relationships with a changing West.

But with Bush, who for a long time did his best to convince a billion Muslims that "we don't view this as a war of religion in any way, shape or form" apparently set on engaging with Iraq, there is precious little cause for optimism in Indonesia this September.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Sep 12, 2002

Southeast Asia still Islam's moderate face (Jul 31, '02)

The Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda of Southeast Asia (Feb 6, '02)

Indonesian militants a law unto themselves (Jan 19, '02)


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