A worrisome rise in intolerant Islam in Indonesia

As I -and many others – have mentioned before, Indonesia is by far the largest Muslim nation on Earth.  This often comes to a surprise to many as the southeast Asian country is not located within the ‘normal’ region we associate with Islam (i.e. the Middle East) and is surrounded by nations that are most definitely NOT Muslim in nature (Buddhist Thailand and Myanmar, cosmopolitan Singapore and Australia, ‘Christian’ Philippines, and arreligious China).  Nevertheless, within its population of 260 million people,  nearly 90 % are Muslim (an estimated 225 million citizens): the highest in the ‘traditional’ Muslim homeland is Egypt, far back at 90 million (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India all have large Muslim populations but they are not part of the cradle of Islam either).

Historically the Islam practiced in Indonesia was moderate Sunnism: this began to change, as it did in many other parts of the world, in the 1980s when Saudi Arabia started to aggressively export its own intolerant version of the faith.  True, there were illiberal forms of Islam in the archipelago before that time such as Darul Islam which dates back to before Indonesia became independent from The Netherlands, but the extremist trend has been increasing in recent years.  Preachers of hate and intolerance are on the upswing and there are concerns over the takeover of some universities by ‘radical youth’: some have been called ” nurseries for dogma-based religious radicalism“.   In addition, a study has shown that “dozens of mosques belonging to state-owned enterprises, ministries and government institutions have strong radical inclinations.”

Indonesia, of course, has also been the target of several large-scale terrorist attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings – there was a smaller one in 2005 – and a recent incident involving members of the same family (see my earlier blog on this attack).  The terrorist group Jemaah Islamiya (JI) has long been a threat to Indonesia and the region as has Jemaah Anshorut Daulah (JAD), an Islamic State (IS) affiliate: the leader of JAD was sentenced to death recently for his role in the  2016 suicide attack at Jakarta Starbucks cafe.

What is happening to Indonesia and how can it be fixed?  Despite some claims that its counter terrorism force is a ‘model’ for the region it appears that security forces are running to stay in place (no disrespect to the work of Densus-88 as the crack team is known).  The threat is not going to get lighter any time soon even if efforts to ‘coach’ 40 mosques where radical and extreme views are being spread are successful.   To complicate matters, there is the threat from returning IS foreign fighters, a challenge faced by many, many countries, including us here in Canada.

Indonesia is facing a threat decades in the making, worsened by preachers from abroad in the past and homegrown -purveyors of hate from within.  It is uncertain what can be done although any solution has to take into account ‘kinetic action’ (arrests, trials and, if necessary killing terrorists) to programs to undermine the extremist message in schools and mosques.  As everywhere else, this is not a purely economic, social integration or alienation problem: those phrases are woefully simplistic as they try to box radicalisation and terrorism into nice, neat demographic groupings.  Terrorism is complicated and always will be.

I suppose what really worries me is the sheer potential size of the problem.  With 225 million Muslims, even a tiny percentage of the population constitutes a very large number.  If 1% embrace extreme views that makes 2.25 million radicals: 0.1 % = 225,000 and 0.001% still leaves 25,000 – not a big quantity in a country of 225 million but a Herculean task for the security services.

In conclusion, expect more terrorism and violent extremism to come out of Indonesia in the near to median term.  I wish I could be more optimistic.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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