Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Indonesia's Resilience Faces Test of Extremism

When Indonesia foiled a plot to attack the United States Embassy in Jakarta and other targets last week, it proved two things. The first is that terrorism remains a threat. The plot is believed to be the work of a new militant group called the Harakah Sunni for Indonesian Society, or Hasmi.

Second, the fact that the attack was thwarted attests to the success of surveillance and other police skills in the fight against terror. This is one reason why mega-terrorism has been on the decline since the Bali bomb blasts of 2002.

A bigger threat, however, hovers: Religious extremism is the challenge which Indonesia will have to fight.

Terrorism is like a giant wave that sweeps up on shore. It will fall back to sea, but not without leaving its imprint on the sand or the soil of the shore. The imprint of extremism on Indonesia's religious shoreline is cause for worry.

The imprint can be seen in challenges to society ranging from the militancy of outfits such as the Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), accused of involvement in the recent killing of two police officers in Poso, to the radicalism of groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (FPI), which uses violence or its threat to try and impose a spartan version of Islam on members of other religions or even on other Muslims.

Whether their goal is the outright setting up of an Islamic state or some politically moderate detour to the same destination, the extremist denizens of the religious undergrowth pose no less a threat to Indonesia's stability than outright terrorists.

Consider the Bali bombings, carried out by the Al-Qaeda-linked group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI). The sheer scale of the attacks, which killed more than 200 people, mostly Western tourists, ensured that the JI would be hunted down relentlessly with a mixture of national and international determination.

Indeed, Bali did nothing less than turn Southeast Asia into the second front of the war on terror, after the Middle East, just a year after the historic 9/11 attacks in the United States. There was no doubt in Indonesian minds about how high the stakes were for their country.

These achievements are in line with international developments as well. The killing of Osama bin Laden last year — which marked the 10th anniversary of Al-Qaeda's attacks in New York and elsewhere in the US — drew the line symbolically under one of the most traumatic events of contemporary American history. Although terrorism remains a terrible problem in countries such as Pakistan, it is not an advancing threat even if it is not a receding one globally.

This is partly because most countries across the ideological spectrum — from liberal America to authoritarian China — recognize that they have a common enemy in those who would establish a global Islamic state through iconic terror and everyday intimidation.

Terrorism has united the world against itself. Indonesia's foundation role in that international trajectory is exemplified by its contributions to the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

But extremism is another matter. According to the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, there were 700 cases of church attacks in the 14 years since the downfall of the Suharto regime in 1998. The lack of vigorous state action against the perpetrators of religious violence in some cases encouraged them to believe they could get away with such attacks.

A Creeping Threat

Ironically, terrorism can be fought because it appears abnormal to most people and because it is a centrifugal assault on the authority and legitimacy of the state.

By contrast, extremism targets not the state but society. It looks less abnormal than terrorism because even when it involves physical attacks, it appears to be a part of the everyday violence that people have learnt to live with.

Citizens may not consistently see it as a threat to the body politic. This very invisibility makes extremism a powerful creeping threat.

It is religious extremism that will provide the next test of Indonesia's resilience and its international role. The writ of the state is undermined when it fails to stop continuing attacks on places of worship, religious sects deemed heretic, or secular celebrations such as pop concerts that run foul of a minimalist interpretation of religious piety.

Although Indonesia's transition to democracy by itself cannot be blamed for extremism — a vice that exists in all political systems — political populism increases the need to pander to the demands of organized, highly vocal and often violent groups. This is what has happened as religion has come to be accepted as a legitimate source of partisan affiliation in the electoral politics of the post-Suharto state.

Again, of course, religious piety, which seeks to find an outlet in politics, is not necessarily the problem, but extremism, the kind of "piety" which uses violence to achieve political ends, is.

Indonesia's success in dealing with extremism and not just terrorism will determine its place in the new Asia. It is Southeast Asia's linchpin country, its largest economy and a member of the Group of 20 economies that will play a crucial role in the new international order that is being born.

But a rising Indonesia beset with problems of extremism will not be able to play its rightful role in regional affairs.

Much is rightly made of the fact that as the country with the world's largest Muslim population, the Pancasila state is a beacon of secular tolerance. Its stature will be undercut if extremists are allowed to make incremental gains which, over time, will alter the nature of Indonesian society fundamentally.

Indonesia's neighbors, which have been targeted by terrorists, take comfort from its fight against terror. They look to it to display similar determination in tackling religious extremism, which is a dagger pointed at the heart of multi-religious and multiracial Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia, the second front of the war on terror, needs to be the first front in the war on extremism. That need is urgent in Indonesia, where this new battle will have to be keenly fought.

Derwin Pereira
former Straits Times journalist, heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consulting firm. Joyo News Jakarta

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