The Battle for Islam in Indonesia

The Battle for Islam in Indonesia

By Avantika Chilkoti


Because whose Islam is it, anyway? 

By Avantika Chilkoti

Avantika Chilkoti is a Jakarta-based reporter who has also covered India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines in recent years.

Some years ago, a group of Afghan and Pakistani scholars went to visit a public, Islamic university in Jakarta. But, remembers the university’s former rector, Azyumardi Azra, the visitors refused to pray with the locals. The reason: The imam’s beard, which they considered a measure of religious seniority, was too short. 

The anecdote says something about the nature of Islam in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country: It is “flowery” and “colorful,” says Azra, and contrasts sharply with branches elsewhere, especially the drier, more Spartan fundamentalist forms in the Middle East. And so, even in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack in central Jakarta, the first in the region attributed to the Islamic State, many Indonesians insist that religious extremism is not a broader threat. 

It takes only a few radicalized individuals to orchestrate a violent act of terror …

The country certainly has plenty of experience with Islamic extremism. Since independence from the Dutch around 70 years ago, the Darul Islam group has been pushing to establish an Islamic state in the country.  The al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah network has orchestrated some of the bloodiest acts of terror in recent history, including the bombing of two nightclubs in Bali in 2002. And this past weekend, Jakarta police chief Tito Karnavian told CNN that ISIS perceives Indonesia as “not an Islamic country,” putting it at greater risk. 

Yet few would argue that Indonesia is anything but a tolerant, pluralist society. Tourists are welcomed into local mosques, which stand shoulder to shoulder with churches and Hindu temples across most of the country. Pluralism is rooted in its history. Islam arrived on the archipelago through traveling Sufis and merchants and has been infused with Hinduism, animism and local belief systems, all of which have since existed side by side. More recently, when drawing up the constitution in the 1940s, Indonesia’s leaders decided not to introduce Shariah law. And the five principles of the Pancasila founding philosophy includes the belief in one God — but none in particular.

Powerful Islamic organizations like the Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama, which claims 70 million members alone, have also played a role running deradicalization campaigns and in condemning militant groups like ISIS through films and books. The power of these mainstream religious organizations — and the very fact of Muslim majority — makes Indonesian Muslims more secure than their brethren in Europe. Where those in France or the U.K. may feel marginalized, Indonesian Muslims are the powerful majority. Official estimates suggest about one Indonesian per million has joined the Islamic State. In France and Belgium, the figures are 13 and 21, respectively, according to the Brookings Institution.

To be sure, there is no denying that radicalized returnees pose a real threat to security. It was, after all, those coming back to Indonesia from the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s with bomb-making know-how and a radical bent that led the Jemaah Islamiyah. Since the 2002 Bali bombings, the Detachment 88 special forces has taken the teeth out of local jihadis by arresting many powerful leaders and keeping that generation of well-trained jihadis under close surveillance, according to Greg Fealy, an Indonesia expert at the Australian National University. 

One result is that last week’s attackers probably lacked lethal training. As security analyst Yohanes Sulaiman wrote in the BBC last week, “While the new generation may be capable of firing weapons, they do not have strong battlefield tactics that they gained through years of experience.” Indeed, the number of confirmed dead in Jakarta last week — two— could easily have been higher. Attackers shot civilians in broad daylight and detonated five bombs near a busy shopping center, but police say they found six other bombs in the area undetonated, suggesting the attack didn’t go to plan. 

And yet: It takes only a few radicalized individuals to orchestrate a violent act of terror, a fact that countries around the world are grappling with. For Indonesia, retaining its pluralistic approach to religion and its “flowery” Islam will require special vigilance to ensure that pro-ISIS returnees don’t fire up local extremist networks in the coming years.