Defusing Terror in Indonesia

This country, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, has been relatively untouched by Islamist terror attacks since the bombing of two Western hotels here in the capital in 2009. But its future is by no means assured.

While some extremist groups have been contained, Indonesia is not immune to threats from the Islamic State, now menacing the Middle East and North Africa. If and when the self-proclaimed caliphate decides to spread its wings to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, where Muslims make up 90 percent of the country’s 250 million people, is particularly vulnerable.

Government officials here believe that as many as 200 Indonesians have gone to Syria to fight with ISIS. At least 10 of them are believed to have returned. Public rallies in support of ISIS were held last July in several major towns, as well as one in an Islamic university just outside Jakarta (they were not well attended).

The government’s response to ISIS has been confined to declaring it a “banned ideology.” Support for the group is prohibited, and the police have prevented any more pro-ISIS rallies from being staged. Recruiting for ISIS is now illegal, although literature about the group and its activities remains freely available on the Internet.

Security in Indonesia has been tight since the 2009 Bali bombings.Credit Achmad Ibrahim/Associated Press
Security in Indonesia has been tight since the 2009 Bali bombings.Credit Achmad Ibrahim/Associated Press

Terrorism in Indonesia has been largely defused thanks to a combination of stronger democratic governance, a more stable political environment and steady economic development that has lifted millions out of poverty. While many Indonesian Muslims may share the ISIS goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate, they are most likely to wage their battles by democratic means, not by violence.

Democracy is the best defense against Islamic extremism. By democracy I mean the whole package, not just freedom of speech, civil rights and open elections, but also credible law enforcement.

There is no reason why Indonesia should change its overall approach in facing the ISIS menace, but the government should tread carefully. To breach democratic norms under the guise of fighting terrorism is counterproductive.

Governments must strictly enforce the law, a crucial element for any democracy to function. This means putting the police on the front line against terrorism, with the military as a backup when needed. It also means improving the overall capacity of the police force, including its intelligence-gathering ability.

Indonesia has done exactly this since suicide bombers killed more than 200 people in terror attacks on Bali nightclubs in 2002. The terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda that was implicated in those attacks, has been crippled. Indonesia’s Special Forces anti-terrorist squad, Densus 88, has also claimed to have foiled several bombing plots in recent years.

Credible law enforcement includes upholding due process, even for suspected terrorists. Indonesia has resisted the temptation to re-enact the draconian anti-subversive law, the equivalent of the Internal Security Act that neighboring Malaysia and Singapore have used to arrest anyone the authorities wish to without a warrant and to imprison people indefinitely without trial in the name of national security.

The prosecution of those suspected of having connections to terrorist networks — and there have been several hundred of them — has followed proper legal procedures. This includes the cases of the three chief perpetrators of the Bali bombings, who were sentenced to death and executed in 2008.

Many others convicted of terrorism have been released after serving time in prison, but not before undergoing a government-run “deradicalization” program. Here, the record is mixed: While some have renounced extremism, others have rejoined terrorist groups.

The main battle against Islamic extremism has always hinged on winning hearts and minds. Many Muslims are radicalized during indoctrination sessions held in small Quranic reading groups. A handful of Muslim boarding schools, known as pesantren, are suspected hotbeds of radicalism, and police intelligence is vital to penetrating them. But the battlefield that counts the most is the public square. We must fight terror with the full force of the law, but fight ideology with ideology.

Presidents Sukarno and Suharto, who between them ruled Indonesia from 1945 to 1998, made the mistake of outlawing radical Islamists at times, pushing them underground. Disparate Islamist groups then joined hands to fight their battles together. They became invincible and deadlier.

That changed in 1998, when Suharto was forced to step down, paving the way for Indonesia’s first truly democratic elections in four decades, in 1999. Since then, various Islamist groups have formed political parties and have won enough votes in the last four general elections to become junior partners in successive coalition governments. Nevertheless, political Islam doesn’t enjoy widespread support — the majority of Muslims in Indonesia have consistently voted for secular political parties.

The concept of an Islamic caliphate may resonate among some Indonesians, but many Muslim groups here have denounced the Islamic State for its barbaric violence. Even Abu Bakar Bashir, the Jemaah Islamiyah leader who is serving a 15-year prison term, lost many supporters after he reportedly led a handful of inmates last July in declaring support for the Islamic State. A month later, one of his sons clarified that they had pledged support for a caliphate, but did not recognize ISIS as its representative.

Different interpretations of Islam are as old as the religion itself, but Indonesia’s free and democratic environment has allowed these differences to flourish. Muslims of different schools and Indonesians of other faiths now live peacefully, side by side.

In dealing with the ISIS threat, Indonesia should never trade its freedom and rights for a little security. After all we have been through, we should have faith in democracy.

Endy Bayuni is a senior editor of The Jakarta Post.

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