Migrant Maids and Nannies for Jihad

Domestic workers in Hong Kong last year. Some 500,000 migrants from Indonesia work in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, most of them women employed as maids, nannies or caretakers for the elderly. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Ayu is a 34-year-old Indonesian maid, and the head of a pro-Islamic State network in Hong Kong. She recruits, raises funds and spreads propaganda for the group. She is just one of several dozen Indonesian domestic workers in East Asia known to endorse jihad.

Ayu — I’m using a pseudonym, because she fears trouble from the police — became pregnant young, ran away from abusive in-laws and left her baby behind to go work in Hong Kong in 2003. She consumed alcohol and drugs to numb depression. In late 2011, after losing her job as a maid for the third time, she went to Macau, sleeping on the streets for months, until she overdosed.

A Muslim only nominally until then, she now sought spiritual refuge. Surfing Islamic websites, she became absorbed by news of the war in Syria. She began to befriend international jihadis on social media. She returned to Hong Kong and enrolled in an Islamic course run by a puritan, though non-extremist, Salafist institute — but left it in mid-2014 when her teacher reported her to the police because she had voiced support for the Islamic State.

She started translating propaganda material for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from English into Indonesian and spreading it on Twitter and the messaging app Telegram. After marrying an Indonesian jihadi she’d met on Facebook, she was introduced to the inner circles of Indonesian pro-ISIS groups.

Some 500,000 migrants from Indonesia work in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, most of them, like Ayu, women employed as maids, nannies or caretakers for the elderly. Based on official reports by the Indonesian police and interviews and social media monitoring conducted by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), where I am a researcher, about 45 Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong alone have been identified as active supporters of the Islamic State. There may be twice as many.

These numbers may seem small, but the radicalization of Indonesian maids and nannies working in East Asia is alarming. It takes very few dedicated people to do considerable harm, and these supporters of jihad are more resourceful than others: Their incomes are much higher than those of most Indonesians, they speak better English and they have more contacts internationally.

Two Indonesian women who had been migrant workers were foiled last December as they were preparing suicide bombings at the presidential palace in Jakarta and a tourist site in Bali. Others have traveled to Syria to marry ISIS fighters, provided funds to the group, recruited new members or connected local jihadis with fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Far less activity of the kind has been recorded among the roughly one million Indonesian domestic helpers working in the Persian Gulf. Only about a dozen radical maids in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are active on social media, for example. None is reported to have joined jihadis in Syria.

As migrants from a Muslim-majority country working in non-Muslim territories, Indonesian maids and nannies in Hong Kong or Singapore radicalize for different reasons than either Indonesian helpers in the Middle East or converts to jihad in the West.

Based on IPAC’s monitoring of social media since mid-2015, as well as our interviews with several dozen Indonesian migrant workers and Muslim leaders in Hong Kong, these workers seem to have started out as nominal or non-devout Muslims and then undergone a rapid religious transformation while living abroad.

For some, the difficulties of a migrant’s life — principally dislocation and isolation — inspired a spiritual rebirth. They experienced a double form of alienation, from both home and religion. Some said that they had felt humiliated, for example, cooking pork for non-Muslim employers. “Could you imagine having to touch pork while wearing a niqab?” one of them told me, referring to the full-face veil.

Migrant workers in East Asia have more freedom to congregate during their days off and to own and use mobile phones than their counterparts in the Middle East. On Sundays, public parks and overpasses in Hong Kong are packed with small groups of Indonesian workers, who sing, play cards, practice martial arts or join Islamic study circles known as pengajian.

Of the more than 200 Indonesian associations in Hong Kong listed by the Indonesian consulate in 2016, more than half were pengajian. Yet these groups almost never promote radical ideology; in most radicalization cases that IPAC has studied, the workers’ first exposure to Islamist extremism occurred through social media. Some women joined mainstream pengajian in the early stages of their religious awakening, but later became dissatisfied with them and, like Ayu, turned to the internet or social media for what seemed to them to be a purer form of Islam.

Jihadi sites like voa-islam.com and kiblat.net appear at the top of result lists when one searches for “Islamic news” on Google in Indonesian. Their narratives — prophesizing an Islamic Armageddon in Syria and the like — are then spread by social media. Encrypted chat apps, particularly Telegram, serve as support groups for new recruits.

“I was online 24 hours every day, the Wi-Fi was so good,” Firda, an Indonesian maid who worked in Singapore, told me in April. “At first I used it to watch movies, but after a while I felt empty. I had a decent job and money, my boss was nice to me, but I felt dry spiritually.”

“I started listening to Salafi podcasts while cleaning the house,” Firda (also a pseudonym) said. “On Facebook, I followed people whose profiles seemed very Islamic because I needed friends who could guide me intensely, not just like in a monthly study group.” She met her boyfriend online, who introduced her to pro-ISIS sites like millahibrahim.wordpress.com. The government of Singapore deported Firda to Indonesia a few months ago for planning to join the Islamic State in Syria.

For some domestic workers, joining the Islamic State is a form of emancipation — from pasts they sometimes regret, from the hardships of exile, from subservience to men. Ika Puspitasari, a former domestic helper in Hong Kong, was arrested in central Java in December 2016 for plotting a suicide attack in Bali: She told the police that after helping finance her husband’s terrorist plans for a time, she had wanted to play a more active role.

It is these desires, and the helplessness they often stem from, that deradicalization efforts must address. The Indonesian government currently conducts training for migrant workers before they go abroad, but it focuses on languages and practical skills. The preparation should also incorporate modules about religious extremism, and describe recruitment by radical groups as a form of exploitation because jihadis often extract money from migrant workers.

More important, social networks for Indonesian workers abroad must be strengthened so that migrants have a community to turn to other than radical groups online. Pengajian could play a role — so long as their leaders are trained to counsel individuals vulnerable to radicalization without alienating them, much less driving them out, as happened with Ayu.

Indonesian Muslim business associations in Hong Kong and elsewhere may also have a part to play. They could be encouraged by the Indonesian consulate to set up ventures with migrant workers, allowing workers who are attracted to extremist views to be exposed to other perspectives in a collegial setting.

Such exposure has proved effective in other contexts. For example, a reformed terrorist in Lamongan, in East Java, has set up a livestock cooperative bringing together former radicals and nonradicals, and that proximity reportedly helped change some of the jihadis’ views over time. Programs could be put in place in Hong Kong to get radical domestic workers involved in, for example, businesses selling Muslim garments and Islamic herbal medicine, goods in high demand among migrants.

The causes that lead migrant maids and nannies to join jihad are complex. Deportations and arrests are no solution; if anything, they are a sign of failure, evidence that radicalization has already occurred. The Indonesian government’s recent decision to block Telegram is an ineffectual form of prevention because it targets the means of radicalization rather than its sources. A better approach would seek to build viable communities, including spiritual ones, for migrant workers in order to forestall the sense of alienation that leads some of them to embrace terrorism.

Nava Nuraniyah is an analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, in Jakarta.

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