The Islamic State is exploiting the disconnect between real and perceived economic growth.
Amidst the drama of the presidential election between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto last month, the news that the Islamic State (IS) has “arrived” in Indonesia has raised alarms throughout the country. IS is a transnational, radical religious group that is adamant about creating an absolute Islamic state in any country it enters, for political and economic gain, as shown by its interest in taking control of some Iraqi oil fields.
As with certain radical Islamic groups, IS’s understanding of the Qur’an’s text is rigid and puritanical by nature, and it considers others who do not follow their beliefs to be unbelievers. For IS, this difference of interpretation is sufficient justification to kill. Videos of IS members brutally executing and decapitating both military and civilian opposition have been documented, and have sent shockwaves worldwide.
Consequently, the mere presence of IS in Indonesia, and the threat a growing presence might represent, has attracted serious reactions from the government and leading religious scholars in the region. Why has radicalism entered Indonesia so easily and attracted a following? Could it be due to a lapse in national security, social media disinformation, and insufficient rural education? These are all reasonable explanations, but they may overlook the basic root of the problem that has allowed these radical concepts to infiltrate Indonesia: poverty and the illusion of a growing national economy.
By some measures, Indonesia today boasts a top ten world economy, in purchasing power parity terms. The question is, does having a high GDP necessarily translate into a balanced economy that benefits most of Indonesia’s citizens and not only the elite? Contrary to popular belief, poverty levels for the past several years have deteriorated and plateaued at around 11.5 percent. The main reason for this discrepancy is the fact that a large portion of Indonesia’s natural resources are controlled by foreign entities, such as Chevron in the oil and gas sector and Freeport in the mining industry.
For example, only 25 percent of the oil and gas produced in Indonesia is handled by state owned Pertamina, while Freeport has enjoyed decades of control over Indonesia’s most attractive mining sites. Their contract has been extended recently, in anticipation of a possibly more strict policy change from the new government.
Naturally, the economic disconnect between statisticians’ reports and the experience of the majority of Indonesians leads to frustration, distrust and apathy. These unwanted consequences are then used by radicals to persuade their followers to change the status quo through reforms, demonstrations, or even sectarian violence. Popular frustration can be very dangerous for a government, as the Arab Spring demonstrates.
Interestingly, a parallel could be drawn between Indonesia’s current situation and the case of the radical group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Like IS, Boko Haram has an inflexible interpretation of the Qur’an and seeks an absolute Islamic state where the nation’s governing philosophy would be Islamic Sharia law. Both radical organizations also view their government as anti-Islamic and hold it responsible for the exploitation of the lower-class in order to benefit the elite. In response, Boko Haram has engaged in armed conflict with the nation’s army, police and civilians who do not support them. The insurgency has caused more than 2,000 deaths this year and destroyed schools and government buildings.
Like Indonesia, Nigeria is a young democracy, which began its political transformation one year after Indonesia, in 1999. In both Indonesia and Nigeria more than 50 percent of the population earns less than $2 per day, and both countries struggle with national underdevelopment. However, what most connects Boko Haram in Nigeria and IS in Indonesia is poverty coexisting with a false impression of a booming economy.
Consider both countries’ “economic standings.” Nigeria is a leading African economy in terms of GDP, which is a great achievement – much like Indonesia’s own. Nonetheless, there is an inadequate economic distribution in both nations, which translates into rampant illiteracy, unemployment and marginalization.
Instead of GDP alone, Indonesia’s true economic status is better gauged by using the Human Development Index (HDI), which takes into account the nation’s GDP, life expectancy, and educational standards. Indonesia’s HDI is an unimpressive 121st in the world, a far cry from its GDP ranking. Nigeria’s is even worse, at 152nd.
Is there a trend?
Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, stated that, “Nothing is more destructive than the gap between people’s perceptions of their own day-to-day economic well-being and what politicians and statisticians are telling them.”
This is exactly what has materialized in Indonesia. And the gap has given radicals the ability to use this delusional economic dynamic to create antagonistic rhetoric against the government, and to recruit desperate followers who lack practical options.
Yet, another obvious similarity between the two nations is the notorious government corruption that not only impedes the distribution of wealth, but also creates division between the governing elite and the public. In Nigeria, the question of $20 billion in missing oil funds is an example, while in Indonesia, the president’s entourage and even his younger son are involved in corruption cases.
Without a doubt, the establishment of a self-serving government has created an opening for radicalism in Indonesia. National morale declines even as the government admires its economy, while the majority of citizens still struggle to make ends meet. In effect, the government undermines the public by understating and belittling the actual situation.
The incoming government in Indonesia can learn a lesson from the current one and uphold transparency when it comes to economic performance. The measures taken by the government and leading religious figures to stifle extremism by raising awareness and banning IS are worthwhile. Moderate Islamic organizations should collaborate to address the problem of radicalism and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can take preventive action to curb the influx of radicals.
Only if all elements of the nation work together can IS be curtailed in Indonesia, but to prevent a mutation of the same ideological disease from resurfacing, the root causes of the problem must first be eradicated.
Rizvi Shihab is a member of Nahdlatul Ulama and a researcher at the Nation Building Foundation, which specializes in religious pluralism and Indonesian politics.