Islamic State in Indonesia: National identity trumps religious creed

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It is a fact not widely known globally: Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, doesn’t have Islam as the state religion.

Constitutionally, Indonesia deems itself a religiously tolerant state which officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Such religious tolerance has been one key to political stability in a geographically diverse country of 240 million, whose people have customarily chosen nationalism over faith. While the archipelago has suffered bloody ethnic-religious clashes in recent history, radical Islamic political parties have never won the upper hand.

But in recent years, Indonesia has witnessed fanatic attacks by terrorist groups affiliated to the self-styled Islamic State (IS). Islamic State or Daesh, is a Salafi/Wahhabi terrorist organization which gained prominence in 2014 when it captured Mosul and Sinjar in Iraq. Its policy is establishing a global caliphate.

While IS has been decimated by a formidable range of military players in the Middle East, it has also forged links with home-grown extremist groups in distant Indonesia.

Over the last 70 years, Indonesia has cherished the status of a secular Islamic country. But now, it is facing a grave threat from IS. While a January 2016 attack has been acknowledged as the first terrorist attack carried out by IS affiliates, IS in Indonesia dates back to the heyday of the movement, in 2014.

Immediately after the proclamation of Islamic State by al-Baghdadi in June 2014, two prominent militant leaders of Indonesia, Abu Wardah of Mujahideen Indonesia Timor and Abu Bakar Baashir of Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid pledged allegiance to IS.

The main commander of IS in Indonesia is Aman Abdurrahman. He has been in prison with Abu Bakar Bashir since 2010 for involvement in terrorist activities. It is believed that he pledged allegiance to IS online in 2014 and initiated the translation of Islamic State’s propaganda materials into the Indonesian language and circulated them from prison.

By 2015, Abdurrahman got backing from more than a dozen Indonesian terrorist outfits to strengthen the influence of IS in Indonesia. He formed a new organization, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, which has since carried out several terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including the January 2016 Jakarta attack and the recent Surabaya attack.

Church attacks are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia.

In December 2000, on Christmas Eve, a series of explosions shook eight cities of Indonesia. Led by Jemaah Islamiyah, these attacks targeted dozens of churches and killed scores of people. In February 2018, a radical Islamist who had wanted to fight for IS in Syria ran amok with a sword and injured three clergymen in Yogyakarta. In the recent Surabaya church attacks, Indonesian officials have said that the family which carried out the explosions has links with Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, the strongest IS affiliate in Indonesia.

According to rough estimates by the Indonesian government, around 700 native fighters made their way to the Middle East to fight for IS over the last four years. Turkish authorities have arrested around 500 Indonesian fighters and deported more than 150 to Indonesia after putting them through de-radicalization programs.

Nevertheless, Indonesian fighters have appeared in IS  propaganda videos. Rumiyah, the official magazine of IS, in a 2017 editions, made special reference to strengthening IS influence in Indonesia.

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Fortunately, the radicals remain a minority. In the latest study by the Pew Research Centre, about 92% of respondents from Indonesia said that suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam can never be justified. Roughly 79% of Indonesian Muslims have negative views about IS. Only 4% have sympathy towards the group.

But while this may looks small on paper, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. In real numbers that translates into some 10 million people. This is alarming. It calls for stringent action.

Some counter-terrorism experts fear that IS is becoming a dangerous challenger to the political sovereignty of Southeast Asian states. Evidence? Last year’s siege of Marawi in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, and the recent terrorist attacks in various cities of Indonesia. Closer security cooperation among Southeast Asian states is surely essential.

For Indonesia, IS is not only political, but also a cultural threat. While most Indonesians are religiously Muslim, culturally, they remain close to Hindus and bear Sanskritised names. The diversity implicit in Indonesian identity is one reason why IS has restricted influence in Indonesia. But their threat cannot be overlooked.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo needs to  review the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law to authorize police to arrest and interrogate terror suspects without hindrances. Citizens seeking to travel abroad in order to join religious rebellions against secular governments must be halted.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has successfully taken on IS. Now, Widodo needs to step up.

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