Fighting terror among Muslims

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 15 Jun 2003


JAKARTA: The flames of Islamic fundamentalism are not confined to the Middle East and Central Asia. Indonesia is increasingly in the news because of its large Muslim population, the rise of fundamentalist rhetoric, and purported connections to international terrorism. 

The emergence of violent Muslim vigilante groups employing rhetoric and mobilising followers for jihad is one of the most conspicuous new phenomena in Indonesian Islam. 

The bomb blasts that rocked Kuta in Bali near midnight last Oct 12 profoundly affected almost every aspect of Indonesian life. After years of official denial, that horrifying incident triggered awareness that terrorism does exist in Indonesia and that Indonesia's home-grown fanatics are connected to a global terrorist network. 

Soon after the Bali bomb conspiracy was uncovered, earlier explosions that rocked various parts of the country were re-examined. Not all of them were definitively connected, but the renewed investigations revealed ties between several disparate groups. The perpetrators of these bomb blasts are now understood to belong to linked, hard-line Islamist organisations. 

Recently, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based NGO, revealed the links between Islamist radicalism in Indonesia and international terrorism. The document, Al-Qaeda In Southeast Asia: The Case Of The “Ngruki Network,” is an exhaustive review of reliable public data, and identifies a handful of individuals with possible direct or indirect links with al-Qaeda. 

The good news, however, is that the ICG finds no evidence of an extensive al-Qaeda network in Indonesia. The evidence of international penetration of Indonesian radical groups is quite limited. 

Nevertheless, Indonesians would be mistaken in thinking that they have nothing to fear. The ICG report was narrowly conceived and intended to focus on a single issue, namely the evidence for an al-Qaeda presence in Indonesia. 

Some important questions remain. Is radical Islamism ratcheting up its influence in post-Suharto Indonesia? Are elements within the military continuing to support radical Islamist militias opportunistically, as they began to do in recent years? Are elements of the political elite appealing to radical sentiment as a way of leveraging their power? Are moderate Islamic intellectuals facing increasing criticism and challenge? 

Unfortunately, the answer to all these questions is yes. 

The stakes for Indonesia are high. When the United States declared war against terrorism, Bush administration officials characterised Indonesia as a strategic partner in the struggle against terrorism. Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence and former US Ambassador to Indonesia, said the US must bring new seriousness to helping Indonesia in its quest to secure a stable democracy and prosperous economy. 

But Indonesia can do so only if it demonstrates an unrelenting commitment to anti-terrorist policies. Foreign investment is already at its nadir, due to the lingering political crisis following the fall of the Suharto regime. Backtracking on official resolve to fight terrorism would hardly convince international business to start investing in Indonesia again. 

The authorities have natural allies in the large, moderate Muslim organisations, especially the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, that lead Indonesian civil society. These groups are fed up with how radicals have smeared Islam in Indonesia, and they are beginning to work together to challenge the extremists head-on. 

This is not to say that they agree with the American critique of Indonesian policy. But these two prominent, national membership organisations may succeed in dampening Islamic militancy where the government, afraid of waging the battle it must fight, has failed dismally. 

The real conflict ignited by the terrorist attacks is not between Islam and an American-led, Judeo-Christian “crusade.”  

The greater challenge is the ongoing struggle within the worldwide Islamic community, the ummah, between moderate, progressive Muslims on the one hand and fundamentalist extremists on the other. 

This battle for the hearts and minds of believers will be fought on two fronts: The first is theological and educational, while the second concerns socio-economic issues and the civil society agenda. In both cases, the experiences of Indonesia will be critical. 

In essence, extremism and fundamentalism can be countered only from within the faith. No amount of American intervention will turn the tide against bigotry and ignorance. In fact, too much meddling by Westerners could radicalise the community even more. 

Moderate believers must look to examples such as Indonesia, where Islam has encountered and interacted with new and alien forces. Science and technology, commerce and modern management as well as the all-important challenges of democracy, human rights, and gender equality are being tackled head-on in authentic terms of Muslim discourse. 

Finally, moderate Muslims must explore Indonesia's vibrant and indigenous Islamic traditions. The country's rich vein of Islamic scholarship has embraced new ideas and sought to interpret the Quran in a manner that reveals its compatibility with democracy, human rights, gender equality and social justice. 

Indonesians have the tools to thwart radicals' efforts to usurp Islam. The fight will not be easy, but it can be won. 


o The writer is Senior Researcher at Paramadina Foundation in Jakarta 

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