Empowering Youth Associations in Indonesia

Muslim activists attend a youth rally to swear to die in retaliation for the death of Osama bin Laden in Solo, Central Java, on May 6.

I recently met some friends through social media who were elementary or junior-high students when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened in the United States. Most of these young people agree that such terrorism could never be warranted. For example, Qurrota Ayuni, 24, says, "Whatever the reasons behind the 9/11 attack, it cannot be justified in the name of humanity. It killed thousands of innocent people for the sake of narrow, sectarian interests."

However, the main concern of these youth was the effect of 9/11 on their own country.

Unfortunately, in Indonesia the effects of 9/11 are linked to the perception that the West is at war with Islam—a perception that has indirectly contributed to an increase in the number of extremist Indonesian Muslim youth. For the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11, a fitting legacy is to encourage peaceful outlets for youth to engage in society.

Sadly, a small but significant number of Indonesian youth have taken part in terrorist attacks in the country in recent years. For instance, in January police arrested six terrorist suspects between the ages of 19 and 21 in Klaten, Central Java.

Muslim youth involvement in extremist movements was also confirmed by a survey conducted in Jakarta from 2010 to 2011 by the Institute for Studies on Islam and Peace. The survey revealed that some junior and senior high-school students are willing to engage in various acts of violence, shut down or attack night clubs, forcibly close houses of worship of other faiths, or aid Muslims in conflict zones by providing them with weapons. 

Important to the process of de-radicalizing youth is their involvement in meaningful organizations. Sadly, associations targeting youth have been on the decline in recent years. After Indonesian President Suharto's departure in 1998, which resulted in a new era of reform in Indonesia, many youth associations were incorporated into local or national political parties in order to provide additional support for electoral candidates. Of those groups not focused on politics, many seek to raise collective piety, and offer youth involvement in radical organizations such as the Islamic Defender Front. 

The radicalization of Muslim youth is taking place concurrently with the declining popularity of youth organizations focused on developing character and creativity. Karang Taruna—a network of youth organizations in villages that empower youth through activities like playing sports, learning financial skills and creating artwork—are rarely found these days. The General Chairman of Karang Taruna, Taufan E. N. Rotorasiko, says that one of the reasons Karang Taruna is both less attractive to youth and less active in conducting activities than in past years is that the Ministry of Social Affairs, once the main patron of Karang Taruna, was disbanded during the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid in 1999. 

Involving young people in creative activities like art and sports can reduce the risk of them joining extremist groups because they have the opportunities to develop friendships with youth from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds, thereby increasing their tolerance of diversity.

For example, the students of Pesantren Pabelan in Magelang, Central Java, are involved in the International Award for Young People (IAYP), an international award program that is aimed at individuals between the ages of 14 and 25 who are interested in engaging in a voluntary self-development program.

Nurul Faizah, IAYP's program coordinator, works at an Islamic boarding school called Pesantren Pabelan. Faizah says that the program helps students be more open to differences in others' backgrounds. For instance, student participants engage in discussions with peers from non-Muslim schools and play friendly sports matches with students from Catholic seminaries nearby.

There are also examples of successful youth associations at the university level, such as the Ciputat Student Forum, which is the oldest Indonesian student study club. Based in the Banten province, its activists develop open, democratic and critical thinking, and are committed to defending human rights. The club's members also actively oppose discrimination against minorities.

These examples show that de-radicalization programs that encourage the growth of youth associations independent of politics should be part of the solution to stop radical movements. 

Countering radical movements requires a soft approach. Sadly, one of the legacies of 9/11 was the so-called "war on terror," which helped regenerate radical movements by attracting youth to radical, mainly anti-U.S. causes. 

There is a better way to combat radicalism and terrorism, which has been proven to work in Indonesia—and in many other countries. It is to empower youth, helping them achieve positive aspirations and, in the process, abandon negative and violent ones. Following this path would provide youth with a better outlook for the future and a more fitting closure to the 9/11 tragedy.

Testriono is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society at the State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta. This article is part of a series marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 written for the Common Ground News Service: www.commongroundnews.org.