Friday, July 24, 2015

Can Indonesian Islamists resist the allure of IS?

The Islamic world is in turmoil, and the Islamic State (IS) group couldn't be happier. The ultra-violent terrorist group, notorious for its medieval savagery and its aptitude for effectively using this violence as slick, Hollywood-style propaganda, has sown conflicts in Muslim-majority countries to spread its genocidal ideology.


Despite its repetitious anti-Western rhetoric, the fact is IS has no plan to take on the West or the Jews (the traditional enemies of radical Islam) anytime soon. For the time being, it has chosen to wage a bloody civil war against fellow Islamists. In recent days, IS has issued threats against the old guard of al-Qaeda, the Taleban and Hamas. IS considers those groups as apostates for challenging its legitimacy and blocking its ambition to conquer the Islamic world. Some al-Qaeda and Taleban members have defected to IS and are now fighting against their former organisations.

Outside Iraq and Syria, IS has so far claimed a presence and carried out deadly terror attacks in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia and Afghanistan. It has not yet carried out attacks in Indonesia, but it has attracted a significant number of sympathisers from the country through its massive online propaganda.

It is safe to say that for now IS is gaining the upper hand in this inter-jihadi/Islamist propaganda warfare. It has set up several Indonesian-language websites, and the number of its propagandists and fanboys on Twitter seems to be growing., an Indonesian jihadi website loyal to al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra, IS' rival in Syria, is struggling in its own jihad against Indonesian pro-IS websites such as, VOA-Islam, and

An Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) report "The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia", says that IS has already recruited local militants linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), including the prominent jihadi ideologue Abu Bakar Ba'asyir. It is feared that the group will attract sympathisers of mainstream, non-violent Islamists like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which promotes the creation of a transnational Islamic caliphate, and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). The HTI and the PKS have strongly rejected the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but can they fend off IS propaganda assaults?

The PKS, once the nation's biggest Islamic party, is an easy target for attacks by IS propagandists. The party's reputation is in tatters after it was hit by a damaging corruption scandal and suffered humiliating defeats in recent elections. It does not help that the Muslim Brotherhood, which inspired the creation of the PKS, has been brutally crushed by the Egyptian government.

The HTI is against democracy, but IS supporters criticise them for ruling out armed jihad in their fight to establish the caliphate, which is why they say the group has yet to achieve its goal since it was established in 1953. The HTI has succeeded in mainstreaming the idea of caliphate as a government system, but many Indonesian Muslims still believe its caliphate dream is nothing but a ridiculous and distant utopia.

IS, on the other hand, claims to have already established a real, functioning caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In their propaganda offensive, the old Islamists have accused IS members of being khawarij, a fringe group that emerged during the political crisis in the early years of Islam that led to the assassination of the last "rightly guided" caliph, Ali Ibn Abi Thalib.

Prophet Muhammad had warned against the khawarij, who he said would be straying from Islam due to their extremism. Calling IS khawarij or un-Islamic is a clever move, but in the war of propaganda, it's all about gimmicks. IS may not offer a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of Islam, but it is visually more attractive to young, angry Muslims. It has created fanboyism on Twitter with a kind of dedication comparable to that of Liverpool or One Direction fans.

The conflict between orthodoxy and heterodoxy within Islam in the Indonesian archipelago has been going on for centuries. To put it simply, there is a perennial tension between those wanting to Islamise Java and those wishing to Javanise Islam, or between supporters of political Islam and defenders of cultural Islam.

This tension, however, has never spiralled into an open armed conflict. The rise of Islamism or political Islam in post-Soeharto Indonesia is widely seen as a logical consequence of burgeoning democracy. It is crucial to note that as the moderate and liberal Muslims are battling Islamism or extremism in general, the future of Indonesian Islam may depend on the endgame of the ongoing power struggle within the Islamist movement itself, on whether the old guard Islamists can resist the allure of IS and not become more radical and turn violent.

The PKS and HTI leadership will not easily fall for IS propaganda, but there is no guarantee their members will not jump on board the IS bandwagon soon.

Ary Hermawan, The Jakarta Post


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