A Different Take on the ICG Indonesia Report

by Mark Woodward

This ICG report recently reviewed by Chris Lundry is another example of that organization doing what it does best, providing detailed information about the activities of extremist groups linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in some way. But in my view the degree to which JI poses a threat to Indonesia has always been overestimated and there are more important developments in the country related to extremism and terrorism.

The Indonesian security forces have been quite effective in efforts to contain JI and related groups that have engaged in high profile attacks on targets associated with the state and Western interests.  This has led both the state and the scholarly community to neglect other sources of conflict that are potentially more dangerous.

There are two especially significant examples. One is the campaigns against “sin and vice” conducted by the Front for the Defense of Islam (FPI)  and similar groups. Another is emerging horizontal tension about religious issues that pit non-violent Salafi organizations (including Majlis Tafsir al-Quran, MTA) against Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and other traditionalist groups.

Poster on display at FPI headquarters

FPI is a terrorist organization that uses violence, fear and intimidation in attempts to establish its vision of Shari’ah as social reality. It now focuses on the “dangers” of “liberalism” and gender issues. It engages in systematic demonization of “enemies of Islam.” Those include prominent progressive leaders and the Islamic University system, as well as sectarian groups, especially Ahmadiyah, which it regards as “deviant” (as illustrated in the included photo).

Rank and file affiliates are preman (thugs) with little knowledge of Islam. They are not in any sense Salafi Jihadis. Indeed FPI has a traditionalist, Sufi religious orientation. I visited FPI Headquarters in Jakarta last week. I can assure you they are preman, not people on a religious mission. Some I spoke with freely admitted that they are preman. They follow orders without question.

FPI is led by Riziek Shihab who has close ties with elements in the police and military, especially in Jakarta. He refers to himself as “Habib” an honorific used for pious Hadrami Arabs who are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.  At the suggestion of another Habib I have stopped using that term to refer to him.

The emergence of an alliance between FPI and the Salafi oriented Forum Umat Islam (FUI) is an alarming development. It is based on a common commitment to establishing Shari’ah and to the elimination of theologically “deviant” groups. The alliance is shaky and FPI has published condemnations of Salafis engaging in takfir (denouncing other Muslims as non-believers).  So it remains to be seen if the relationship will endure, but nonetheless it is reason for concern.

There is increased tension between aggressive, though non-violent, Salafi groups including MTA and NU traditionalists. This conflict is about religious issues. MTA campaigns against devotional practices including prayers for the dead (tahlilan) that they see as syirik (polytheism), but that NU views as being important elements of Muslim piety. Unidentified groups associated with MTA’s position have staged attacks on cultural performance events. There is now a greatly enhanced presence of NU security forces, including the para-military BANSER, at these events.

Many regard BANSER as the first line of defense against radicalism.  There is increasingly confrontational rhetoric from NU leaders at the local level. At one event I attended a couple of months ago, regional NU leaders and officials in the provincial government called on the community to use “all available physical and spiritual means” to struggle against the anti-tahlilan movement.

This conflict reflects the re-emergence of theological tensions that have been present since the early part of the twentieth century as potential sources of violence. It is a much more significant threat to internal peace than JI. The ICG report does not mention the importance of cultural and religious performance as counter-radicalism. It continues to call for government sponsored anti-radical programs and does not pay sufficient attention to the fact that the government is not the locus of religious legitimacy or authority.

Perhaps the reason for this omission is that ICG does not have either the resources or ability to track this mode of counter-radical discourse and practice. They have done an outstanding job tracking “conventional” terrorism for many years. But current realities suggest that there is a need to focus attention on more complex emerging threats that can potentially have a greater effect on more people than JI has ever had.