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Islam in Indonesia: Bucking the Narrative

The narrative about Islam fed to the American public by the media and politicians revolves around the volatility and violence in the Middle East. Middle Eastern countries are considered to implicitly support Islamic terror networks or are too weak to fight them. Yet, aside from this narrative being a gross oversimplification, it also ignores Islam outside of the Middle East. When studying global Islam, it is impossible to ignore Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-dominated country. In a Pew Research Study conducted in 2010, it was found that only 33 percent of Indonesians identified with fundamentalists in the struggle between modernization and fundamentalism, compared with 58 percent and 59 percent in Nigeria and Egypt, respectively. Examining the success in Indonesia of fighting terrorism not only allows us a chance to challenge our popular narrative about Islam, but also may offer insight into how to fight terror globally.

In order to understand why terror is not as prevalent in Indonesia as other Muslim countries, it is key to understand the nature of Islam that exists in Indonesia. Branches and variations of Islam extend beyond the simple Shi’ite versus Sunni breakdown that is often the center of attention. In the case of Indonesia, the primary breakdown is between orthodox Muslims and syncretic Muslims. For Indonesia, Islam is a relatively modern phenomenon, only spreading at the end of the 13th century. As a result, Islam was woven into the preexisting culture, which has evolved into syncretic Islam. Syncretic Islam encompasses traces of animism and Hinduism, as well as Islam. While orthodox Muslims are certainly present in Indonesia, the syncretics are more dominate sect. According to Imitiyaz Yusuf, now an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, the development of syncretic Islam “lays stress on Islam’s humanistic orientation, with emphasis on love and compassion.” Perhaps this interpretation of Islam contributes to the diminished popularity of fundamentalist inclinations in Indonesia.

Another critical factor shaping Islam in Indonesia is, of course, its particular historical and political context.  In 1998, upon the resignation of then-autocrat Suharto, Indonesia marked the beginning of its transition to democracy. The resignation of Suharto was largely precipitated by Muslim leaders, including Nucholish Madjid, who the New York Times labeled as “instrumental in persuading President Suharto to step down.” However, leaders like Madjid stand in sharp contrast to many Muslim leaders who sought to usher in democracy in other Muslim countries like Iran in 1979, Egypt in 2011 and modern-day Syria. While Madjid used Muslim rhetoric to work towards democracy, upon Suharto’s resignation, Madjid began with moderation and the creation of a secular state. Madjid is just one example of a larger set of Muslim leaders in Indonesia, many of whom, like Madjid, were Western-educated. As a result, upon the creation of a democracy in Indonesia, leading scholars believed in a secular state where Islam would play a role primarily in the culture, and less in politics. This fact becomes readily evident when looking at recent elections, where Islamist parties failed to ever get more than 44 percent of the vote collectively. Ultimately, Indonesia has a public that does not have a particular affinity for Islamic law, and even then, supporters tend only to support the more moderate components of Islamism, with only 14 percent of Muslims able to “reasonably be labeled either strong or moderate Islamists.” It is key to note that while Islamic law does not automatically lend itself to terror, and the two are by no means to be conflated, Islamic terror requires support for Islamic law. Without widespread support for Islamic law, Indonesian terrorism networks are left to wither with fairly little support.

Finally, it is important to note that the government is also actively involved in counterterrorism. In 2002, Indonesia was rocked by a bombing in Bali, perpetrated by the group Jemaah Ilamiyah. This attack, the worst in Indonesian history, caused the death of 202 people. Since this tragic event, the Indonesian government formed Detachment 88, a police counterterrorism squad. From 2010 to 2013, Den88 (as it is locally known) arrested more than 300 people and killed nearly 70. Den88 has been highly effective in deterring terrorists and stopping many attacks before they can occur. One of the primary successes of Den88 has been their ability to kill the leadership of JI, leaving it without much direction and limited to small-scale attacks. An additional important factor in Den88’s success is the approach to counterterrorism through law enforcement, rather than the military. In practice, this means that Den88 is using conventional police tactics of intelligence, investigation and interrogation (although significantly ramped up) in order to hunt and stop terrorists, meaning that what conventional means are used go further. Additionally, the Indonesian government encourages reformed radicals to help spread lessons of de-radicalization to preemptively stop at-risk individuals from turning towards terror. According to Anysaad Mbai, the head of counterterrorism in the Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, “The credibility [of moderates] is nothing with the militants.” So instead, the government is showing people that radicals have reformed their positions on radicalism, and have realized that the government is not anti-Islam, and that violent methods need not be employed. Through its programs, the government has been largely successful in turning would-be terrorists away from violence and has instead encouraged them to pursue peaceful means to express their desires for an Islamic state. Through its joint police and de-radicalization programs, the Indonesian government successfully built upon and expanded the moderation and tendency for peace that exists in the Indonesian population.

Despite its successes in stemming the tide of terrorism, Indonesia faces a renewed threat in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Already, 100 Indonesians have fled to Iraq and Syria to join up with ISIS. However, if Indonesia can further encourage Islamic moderation while the government simultaneously combats terrorism, perhaps Indonesia can continue to buck the common narrative of a Muslim country and prove that a moderate Muslim democracy is not a paradox, but a reality.

This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here

About the Author

Matthew Dudak '18 is the Data Editor for Brown Political Review.