Thursday, November 26, 2015

After Paris attacks, 10m Indonesians found to 'like' IS

The only thing more chilling than the execution videos made by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is the sizeable support the radical group seems to be receiving. While an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world hate IS, the number of people who like it is far from insignificant.

According to the latest Pew Research Centre poll, released on November 17, about 4 per cent of the Indonesian population has a "favourable" view of IS. The percentage in neighbouring Malaysia is actually higher - at 11 per cent. But Malaysia's population is only 30 million. So, our neighbour has "only" 3.3 million IS supporters. We have around 10 million.

The Indonesian Pew poll inevitably begs a lot of questions. How accurate is it? What does having a "favourable" view of IS mean? Or, what does having a "somewhat favourable" (3 per cent) and "strongly favourable" (1 per cent) view of the world's most vicious terror organisation mean? Do they merely like IS, but would never join it? Do they know enough about IS to have a strong opinion about it? Is the 1 per cent who like IS very much ready to do whatever its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - the self-styled Caliph Ibrahim - dictates?

According to Pew the poll was conducted between April 8 and May 4 this year, when 1,000 of the roughly 250 million Indonesians were interviewed, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The vague definitions used do cast some doubt on the findings.

However, even if the figure for Indonesian supporters of IS is inaccurate, it is better to err on the side of caution. The reason: It does not take 10 million people to create mayhem and spread terror. Even IS could recruit just 0.1 per cent of the 10 million Indonesians apparently sympathetic to its cause, the ramifications would be devastating. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, IS had only 20,000 to 35,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and yet it managed to seize a large swath of land in the two countries and inspired or coordinated terror attacks in other parts of the world.

In the wake of the Paris attacks on November 13 and the downing of a Russian passenger plane on October 31, there has been widespread acknowledgement that IS presents a global threat. The attacks have proven that the group is not only capable of exporting the bloodbath in Syria and Iraq to other countries. The Indonesian Pew poll findings add urgency to the need to step up global efforts to contain IS's clout.

President Joko Widodo's administration should take the report seriously. The increase in the number of IS-inspired attacks outside Iraq and Syria could be due to the fact that it is getting harder for would-be jihadists to join the fight in those countries. The anti-IS forces have escalated their offensive and the terror group has suffered setbacks, losing key cities like Sinjar in Iraq and Tell Abyad in Syria to the US coalition-backed Kurdish forces.

An alleged former IS spy has revealed in an interview with the Daily Beast that the group is experiencing a shortfall of foreign militants. The spy, identified as Abu Khaled, said that the group's leadership had "asked people to stay in their countries and fight there, kill citizens, blow up buildings, whatever they can do. You don't have to come". The returnees from jihad in Syria still pose a great risk, but the immediate danger may now come from people who cannot reach the country.

The importance of countering IS propaganda, therefore, cannot be overstated. The Indonesian government, the media and mainstream Islamic organisations must work together to combat it.

Jakarta must show that it cares about the Syrians, not just the Palestinians, because much of IS propaganda is about the failure of the Muslim world to protect the Syrians (though the group itself is also responsible for oppressing them). This does not mean that we should ignore the suffering of other Muslims in other countries, such as in Yemen, where civilians are living under Saudi bombings.

There is no doubt that the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East - the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the prevailing despotism in the Arab world and so forth - set the socio-political conditions that have enabled extremist ideologies to flourish.

A fair, balanced and comprehensive coverage of the Middle East crisis is therefore crucial in countering extremist propaganda. The Indonesian media have the responsibility to provide enough context of what is going on in the Middle East so as not to support, through lack of reportage, the extremist narratives that suggest nothing but a religious war between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, between Islam and the West. Indonesian social media is already filled with news stories from extremist websites, or from Saudi and Iranian propaganda machines that are equally problematic. Indonesians - most of whom do not regularly read English or Arabic news outlets - have long been easy targets for such propaganda.

Islamic organisations should rethink their strategies for fighting extremism. Have they been successful? Or have they actually made matters worse? The Pew report should provide clues to the answers. The thought that there are 10 million potential supporters of IS in our country is nothing less than alarming. Ary Hermawan The Jakarta Post
Asia News Network Tucson, Arizona

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