How democracy encouraged terrorism in Indonesia

According to the 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism, Indonesia and its surrounds face threat of terrorist attacks, flows of foreign terrorist fighters to and from Iraq and Syria, and groups and individuals espousing support for ISIL/ISIS. The area remains a major target for terrorist group recruitment. As of December 2015, Indonesian officials estimate that there are approximately 800 Indonesian foreign terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria, though official estimates fluctuate between agencies and services, and they estimate another 60-100 have returned to Indonesia. Islamic militant terror attacks occur throughout Indonesia year after year. Yet that country is home to the largest Muslim population of any country in the world.

Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, the state has functioned as a model Muslim democracy- something many scholars never thought possible within the confines of Sharia law. Indonesia is cited as the vanguard of democratic resurgence, and a facilitator of dialogue between Muslim and Western world views. The glue between East and West. It is often cited as a model for the greater Muslim world, given its recent history of transforming authoritarianism into democracy, rather than into theocracy. However, these ‘waves of democracy’ have brought ashore the sticky debris of radicalisation. While President Suharto was credited for maintaining the state’s moderate identity, a social reaction to long histories of traditional Islamist oppression now rears its head, brandishing a distinct marque of terrorism.

Indonesian women vote in the Jakarta election earlier this year. (EPA)

Long periods of religious repression under the Suharto regime up until 1998 have drawn the radical fringe of Islam to the forefront of society and politics in contemporary Indonesia in following years. In the gaps left by a centralised, secular authoritarian government, avenues for power and participation have appeared. These democratic avenues have been effectively utilized by radical Islamic groups, which, up until Suharto’s downfall, were unable to harness any form of influence over Indonesian society.

Political Islam is the only legitimate opposition Suharto ever faced. Suharto required that Islamic groups conform to the state philosophy. He restricted the use of Islamic symbols and language, and the number of Islamic parties eligible for political participation. Vibhansu Shekhar is an international affairs analyst who has examined radical Islam’s response to this kind of repression. Shekhar claims that radicalization in contemporary Indonesia over the last 15 years has been characterized primarily by a “large-scale outbreak of ethno-communal violence in the outer islands, the rise of Islamic paramilitaries and the emergence of local and regional Al-Qaeda-linked terror networks.” Shekhar also comments on approximately 10, 000 casualties and over a 100, 000 displacements during the late 1990s resulting from the rise of militias. The groups share the common objective of eclipsing the existing Indonesian legal system with basic sharia law.

2016 Jakarta attacks. (ABC)

There are numerous reasons for the rampant development of militias and paramilitaries over this period- most notably that, in the power vacuum left by Suharto’s central state authority, scrambles for dispersed regional power across all of Indonesia took place. In summary, authoritarian structures acted as a bulwark against radicalisation until 1998, and since then, militancy has expanded under the cover of a vulnerable new democracy where small groups scrambled for power.

While this power vacuum opened up, a highly ambiguous relationship developed between the state itself and radical Islam. Although the power gained by militias can never be legally recognised, there is an underlying tendency amongst the political elite in Indonesia to reach out to ‘uncivil forces’ in society, presumably to pack more punch. As such, an ambiguous relationship between state and the radical fringe combined with conflicting law enforcement has meant little to no repercussion for terrorist activity.

Indonesian police in riot gear in Jakarta, 2015. (Associated Press)

Several leads have demonstrated that members within broader Indonesia security forces have close ties with the radical-religious militia Front Pembela Islam. Seemingly, militias can be employed at will by state authorities the function as “attack dogs”, and are therefore unofficially acceptable. On the other hand, jihadists are willing to coexist within the local predetermined legal system, if only that system adjusts to a far more Islamized way of life. It is little wonder all major political parties have now accommodated Islamic aspirations. As such, state police action against radical Islamic militias is either ineffective or nonexistent. There is widespread perception of state corruption. This perception is a major motivation to engage in violence in promoting the ultimate goal of implementing an Islamic state in Indonesia.

The actions of those jihadists have been, at best, contradictory. Terror cells have traditionally targeted Western symbols and unorthodox Muslim sects rather than the representative Indonesia government. This disharmony could be attributed to the complexity of Islamic conflicts in both domestic and international spheres.

Domestically, the fluctuating political environments discussed previously are a root cause for extremist action. Layered above this, the international conflicts in Syria, Palestine, Ambon, and Poso for example that transnational terror networks are involved in have encouraged the dissemination of ideas and long term goals throughout domestic Indonesia.

There appears to be no monolithic or homogenous aim across radical Islamic militias or broader terror networks. The groups are rather held together by a fabric of interwoven domestic and international narratives: narratives of past repression under sectarianism, of the lack of response from the most populous Muslim country to international Muslim conflicts, of the lack of explicit Islamic (sharia) law in an explicitly Islamic nation, of rampant corruption, and of the role played by the greater West in all of the above.

Islamic fundamentalists at a political protest. (Reuters)

The 2013 Human Rights Watch report identified 156 statutes, regulations, decrees and by-laws by 2010 restricting religious freedom in Indonesia. At the same time, there is growing debate within Indonesian Islam about what is sacred and what is profane, prompting people to shed those aspects of life-style that may not appear to be Orthodox Muslim.

Shekhar says that, in the years since Suharto, “Indonesia has witnessed greater application of Sharia in social, legal and cultural affairs. There have been more than 60 cases of implementation of Sharia laws throughout the country, with roughly half of 32 provinces reporting to have implemented different sets of sharia laws.” 

For the past historical oppression of Islamic radicals under the secular Suharto regime, there is no solution. Of course, reversion to authoritarianism is not a plausible solution either. Centralising and strengthening the current democratic model, and continued dissemination of the non-violent counter-narrative alongside Islamic civil society organisations is. Although the Jokowi administration has “repeatedly and forcefully denounced ISIL”, it has yet to pass laws explicitly criminalizing material support, travel to join foreign terrorist organisations, or commission of extraterritorial offences related to counterterrorism. Correcting these loopholes would of course be the first step in shifting from theoretical to practical counterterrorism.

Although Indonesia is party to a high volume of multilateral and bilateral counterterrorism organisations (such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the APEC Counter-Terrorism Working Group, and the GCTF Working Group on Detention and Reintegration) its practical condemnation of transnational terrorist action is just as limited as it’s control over local radical militias. As long as terrorism is condemned in public theory but enabled, behind closed doors, in practice, there will be no de-escalation. A notable effort has stemmed from the International Cooperation Review Group, which worked with Indonesia to freeze assets in accordance with UNSCR 1373 and several UN ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida sanctions regimes.

With the help of several Western allies, Indonesia has begun to strengthen its police force and set up intelligence exchanges. However, this is problematic in terms of a root cause of militancy- the perception that the new Indonesia is too secular, too corrupt, too close with the West, and on the whole, too un-Islamic. The only solution here comes from within the Jokowi administration- a constant reaffirmation of Indonesia’s strength, solidity, and promise as a vanguard model for Muslim democracy everywhere is needed.

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