Radical Islam in Southeast Asia

Cracking Down in Indonesia

Indonesian women protest the arrest of Abu Bakar Bashir
Indonesian women protesting the arrest of Abu Bakar Bashir, the preacher accused of leading the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, cover their faces with his photograph at a demonstration in Jakarta on Nov. 1, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

In the wake of the bomb attack in Bali, media and government sources have begun to point fingers at a shadowy group called Jemaah Islamiyah, said to be Al-Qaeda’s local franchise outlet in Southeast Asia. The emerging picture is of an Indonesian-based Islamist terrorist group and of insurgent militant Islam in the country, if not the whole region.

The arrests of suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah in the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia over the past year have yet to generate evidence of this group’s terrorist activities, or even of its existence. The security forces in these countries are eager to impress America with their commitment to the war on terrorism and have few scruples in their treatment of the suspects. Over the years, groups like Jemaah Islamiyah have also enjoyed clandestine ties with elements of the Philippine and Indonesian military and intelligence services, who have used them for financial and political gain.

But even if Jemaah Islamiyah does not really exist in a formal sense, there certainly are networks of Islamist scholars, students, and activists in Indonesia who are eager to inculcate a stronger sense of Islamic identity throughout the region. For example, Abu Bakar Bashir, the Muslim cleric accused of leading Jemaah Islamiyah, has been a vocal critic of secular nationalism and was elected to head the Indonesian Mujahedin Assembly in 2000.

But Bashir and his students represent a small minority in the context of Indonesian Islam, which is notable for its syncretism, pluralism, and fragmented political representation. Under Dutch colonial rule, indigenous aristocrats were retooled as bureaucrats in Western-style secular schools, just as graduates of Christian missionary schools occupied a privileged position in the civil service, colonial army, and professional classes.

Thus Christians and secularized Muslims came to occupy a dominant position in the Indonesian elite after independence. And in the first years of Suharto’s military regime, organizations that claimed to represent devout Mus-lims in Indonesia were marginalized.

By the 1980s and early 1990s, economic growth, urbanization, and the expansion of the university system brought Indonesians schooled in a self- consciously Islamic tradition into the urban middle classes in record numbers and allowed for their ascendancy within the political elite.

By the late 1990s, such Muslims were well represented in Parliament, the Cabinet, and the military. The resignation of Suharto in 1998, and the presidency of a self-styled champion of Islam, B. J. Habibie, represented the peak of this Islamic ascendancy.

But this trend was soon reversed. Muslim parties did badly in the 1999 elections. Politicians representing Christian, secular, and accommoda-tionist Muslims assumed power, culminating in the rise of Megawati Sukarnoputri to the presidency in 2001 and her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI Perjuangan). More than one-third of the PDI Perjuangan’s MPs are non-Muslim (mostly Protestants), and virtually none have any history of Islamic association. In areas plagued by inter-religious violence, like Maluku and Central Sulawesi, PDI Perjuangan is the party of Protestants. Secular nationalism is entrenched in power in Indonesia today as a partisan political force.

It is against this Indonesian backdrop that the emergence of armed Islamic groups like Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah must be understood. After all, alongside the Muslim professionals who emerged in the 1990s, there were many “professional Muslims” who enjoyed the boom years for political Islam under Suharto and Habibie. Among them were Muslims—like Abu Bakar Bashir—who were schooled in a tradition rooted in Indonesia’s small Hadrami Arab immigrant community and closely connected to centers of Islamic education in the Middle East. Such Indonesian Muslims nurture an understanding of Islam that embraces its most orthodox principles, its appeal as a foundation for supranational spiritual unity, and its potential as a basis for the exercise of power. They have been concerned to “purify” the faith of the accretions of local custom in Indonesia—promoted by the Dutch colonial regime and its successor.

For Indonesian Muslims of this ilk, the past few years have been deeply embittering. Indonesia now is again run by politicians favoring secular nationalism, with Christians regaining influence. Outraged by the pro-Christian bias of the Megawati government in the area of interreligious conflict, some of these Muslims are deeply disillusioned with Indonesian democracy and attracted to the promise of violent action. Small wonder that an armed group called Laskar Jihad emerged, with the connivance of elements of the military, to defend Muslims—and attack Christians—in Maluku and Central Sulawesi.

The past few months have seen the escalation of pressures on the Indonesian government to crack down on the Islamist network in the country. It is in this context that Western tourists on Bali (a Hindu island and a PDI Perjuangan stronghold) have become targets of a terrorist attack, along with a U.S. Consulate on the island and a Philippine Consulate in the predominantly Christian province of North Sulawesi.

The danger of the impending crackdown is not simply that trends toward the reduction of military influence in Indonesia will be reversed in the name of war against terrorism. In 2004, Indonesia may see its first direct presidential elections, with Megawati facing off against a Muslim candidate. If mishandled, the crackdown on Islamists and consequent polarization could inadvertently help rather than hinder the formation of a Jemaah Islamiyah—an Islamic community in Indonesia.