Word warriors

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am

Over the past six months, Indonesian terrorists have succeeded in making headlines, mostly by getting themselves arrested. They have failed spectacularly in one of their key objectives, getting public support. The problem has not gone away, but Indonesia's bigger challenge is handling its non-violent radicals.

Since February, Indonesian police have arrested over 60 men on terrorist charges and killed another 14 in connection with a militant training camp. Together with the bombings of two hotels in Jakarta in July last year, one could be forgiven for thinking that Indonesia was an extremist hotbed.

But the reality is different. There is no question that there is still a danger of terrorist attacks or that the ideology that justifies the killing of civilians in the name of fighting global persecution of Muslims is still finding takers in the world's fourth largest country. But there is no evidence that violent jihadism is gaining ground.

On the contrary, more communities are saying 'no' to extremism, including by banning lectures of the country's best-known radical cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir. Ideological rifts within the jihadist movement are all over the internet, between those advocating jihad now and a larger group saying, 'wait - attacks are weakening our support base'. The inability to carry out al-Qaeda-style bombings without causing Muslim deaths in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, has caused particular angst.

Even with a notoriously lax prison system that allows plots to be hatched by inmates and communication among prisoners detained in different jails, terrorism is not making much headway because the local drivers are weak.

Muslims are not dying in communal conflicts as they were in the early post-Suharto years, and Indonesia's democracy allows political space for the advocacy of Islamic law. There are no hostile neighbours stirring up trouble from outside.

Solidarity with fellow Muslims worldwide remains important, but non-violent organisations have shown themselves to be far more effective than their terrorist counterparts in raising concerns about Iraq and Afghanistan or coming to the aid of Palestinians.

A vigilant, well-trained police force and more attention to recruitment and ideology remain critical, as does cleaning up the corruption that helps terrorists acquire weapons, identity documents and access to friends in prison.

Ultimately, however, Indonesia's bigger challenge is how to curb radical groups that promote intolerance but do not resort to terrorist tactics - and are often at ideological odds with those who do. These groups come in several shades:

The moralist thugs armed with clubs who break up anything they see as inimical to their puritanical views, from nightclubs to churches to meetings of gay rights activists.

The anti-democracy campaigners for an Islamic state who say to their cadres, 'Authoritarianism failed to improve your lives; democracy is also failing; Islam is the solution'. They are well organised, well educated and well represented on Indonesian college campuses.

The non-violent jihadis who believe they are currently too weak to confront Islam's enemies, but use schools and religious outreach to try to build up support for future battles.

The anti-apostasy groups angered by aggressive, evangelical Christian proselytising in Muslim-majority communities that then promote an anti-Christian agenda, sometimes making common cause with the moralist thugs.

The ultrapuritans who look to Saudi religious scholars for guidance and brand many traditional cultural practices as unacceptable innovations, inconsistent with the Prophet's teachings.

There is no unity among these groups: the ultrapuritans are among the most vocal opponents of the anti-democracy campaigners, not because they support democracy - they don't - but because they shun political organisations of all kinds. They are also the most vociferous critics of the violent jihadis.

There is also no single approach that the government can take towards countering their influence. The thugs should be the easiest to handle, because individual members could easily be arrested for assault. Instead, the police tend to turn a blind eye, perhaps in part because in the past they have had strong police backing.

The others all benefit from the political space Indonesia's democracy affords, and the freedoms of expression, association and assembly that the country has enjoyed since the fall of Suharto.

The appropriate response is not to curb those freedoms.

Rather, senior officials, beginning with the president, should speak out publicly and repeatedly in support of a multicultural Indonesia and vigorously condemn acts of intimidation and harassment against minorities of any kind.

They should enforce the local government law that keeps religious affairs as one of five areas that are the preserve of the central government, and overturn local regulations that seek to enforce religious values (of any religion, including Christianity in eastern Indonesia). They should use political appointments to ensure that non-Muslims are represented in the cabinet in more than just token posts.

They should end government support for any agencies that advocate intolerance of minorities in any form. They should ensure that tolerance is taught in all schools receiving any kind of government assistance.

Indonesia has come a long way, both in fighting terrorism and in strengthening democracy. Its non-violent radical fringe remains a problem, however, not only for non-Muslims but for the vast majority of Muslims who espouse more broad-minded views.

Sidney Jones is senior adviser at the International Crisis Group