ISIL Influence is Fueling Sectarianism in Indonesia

by Mark Woodward*

[Editor's note: Yesterday there were news reports that an ISIL-inspired plot to bomb a Carlsberg brewery in Malaysia was foiled.]

Photo_2_Iraq and Syria have become magnets for Indonesian jihadists in much the same way that Afghanistan was in the 1990s. Over the past five years support of Salafi jihadi causes has steadily declined.  But lately the exploits of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have injected new energy into the movement. How many Indonesians have joined in the fighting is unclear. Estimates range from as few as fifty to several thousand. Haji Chep Hernawan, the president of ISIL’s Indonesia branch, claims to have sent 56.

Whatever the number of Indonesian combatants, the conflict in the Middle East has   given Indonesian jihadists a new cause célèbre and a powerful symbol to use in recruitment efforts. ISIL is a powerful symbol because it not only seeks but has proclaimed a Salafi Caliphate, which has long been the goal of Indonesian jihadist groups, and because it is virulently anti-Shia.

Anti-Shia sectarianism is a new strain in Islamist discourse that has emerged in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia over the last five years. In 2008 extremist discourse focused largely on Crusaders, Jews and the existential threat posed by the West and the dangers of “Christianization.” Today extremist discourse is fixated on the “dangers” posed by non-Sunni Muslims.

Portions of this trend are rooted in long standing and contentious (though civil) theological debates. More alarming fabrications rise to the level of incendiary hate speech. The Shia are often described as sexually perverted heretics, unbelievers or apostates whose very existence poses grave dangers to the Muslim community.

Some rhetoric combines both theology and hate. For example, Sunni Muslims have long been critical of the Shia practice of temporary marriage. An article that appeared in the Salafi publication as Sunnah  in 2010 combined condemnation of this practice with the outrageous claim that the Shia regard this custom as being more important than prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca, which are three of the five pillars of Islam.

There have been demonstrations in support of ISIL in Jakarta and other cities across the country. Sectarian activists have also engaged in a sophisticated propaganda campaign combining traditional appeals in mosques, the distribution of print material (including vouchers redeemable for fried chicken), books and magazine articles, Youtube video, web sites and social media. Islamist entrepreneurs sell ISIL t-shirts and flags in shops and online.

Core Support and Oaths of Allegiance

 Indonesian extremist movements require their recruits to swear oaths of allegiance (ba’ait). Recruits are often warned that breaking the oath will lead to divine retribution including punishment in Hell. An unknown number of people and have sworn these oaths to ISIL and its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The text of one such oath was posted on an Indonesian ISIL web site (English in the original):

 In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah and peace and blessings be upon the Messenger of Allah. We have joy of God and the joy of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Syria), which will be remain, by the will of God, the nucleus of the Caliphate on a prophecy platform of Prophet Muhammad from the East to West. We call on all Muslims to support and defend this Islamic State and the faithful prince of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Quraishy may God protect him and give him victory. We are the unification of youths and your supporters in the capital town of Indonesia, Jakarta. We support this Islamic State and we hope to be one of its soldiers, and we are ready to pledge allegiance to the Emir of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Quraishy. We are in our country, and we are the initiators of it. We are hoping to God through the hands of Islamic State soldiers to free all Muslim countries from the grips of tyrants and their supporters. Amen. God is the greatest.

These are familiar themes in extremist Salafi discourse. The oath calls for jihad to establish a Caliphate. It refers to the leaders of Muslim countries as tyrants who should be overthrown. Indonesia is not mentioned as one of the countries “in the grips of tyrants” but the implication is clear.

Core support for ISIL comes from the same groups that embraced earlier Salafi jihadist causes, particularly from those associated with the Nguruki network of Salafi pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and the violent extremist Jemaah Indonesia (JI). Both have been linked have been linked to the 2002 Bali bombings and other terrorist attacks. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is one of the principle leaders of both and is among the most prominent of Indonesian Muslim leaders to indorse ISIL.

Ba’asyir is the patriarch of Indonesian Salafi extremism and has been a thorn in the side of Indonesian governments for decades. In 1972 he and Abdullah Sungkar founded Pesantren al-Mukmin, which teaches a combination of Salafi Islam, political extremism and secular subjects in Nguruki, located in central Java. Alumni have established a network of approximately 50 similar schools throughout Indonesia. Both Ba’asyir and Sungkar fled to Malaysia in the early 1980s to avoid arrest. They established JI in the mid 1990s, and returned to Indonesia after the democratic transition of 1998.

Ba’asyir became Emir of JI following Sungkar’s death in 1999. In 2000 he was one of the founders of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) a legal umbrella organization dedicated to the establishment of sharia (Islamic Law). He was convicted on terrorism charges in connection with the 2003 bombing of the Jakarta Marriot hotel in 2005 but served little more than 18 months in prison. He left MMI in 2008 because he considered the election of leaders to be a violation of Islamic principles.

Ba’asyir then established Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) an above-ground legal organization that welcomes known terrorists as members. Members must swear an oath of allegiance to Ba’asyir. He was convicted on terrorism charges in connection with the organization of a jihadist training camp in Aceh in 2011 and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence.

This has not prevented Ba’asyir from meeting with aids and supporters or from preaching to hundreds of other inmates and producing videos that circulate widely both physically and on the Internet. On August 4th the Jakarta Globe reported that he and 23 other inmates swore an oath of allegiance to ISIL. Photos of the ceremony have circulated widely on the Internet. He suggested that those who do not accept his decision leave JAT. He has described the “Shia” Syrian regime as being: “worse than infidels and Jews.”

The Sectarian Turn in Indonesian Extremist Discourse

The emergence of anti-Shia sectarianism has been a boon to Indonesian extremists for two reasons. First, it enables them to link local and global concerns in ways that do not expose them to risk from Indonesian security forces. References to attacks on Sunnis in Syria and Iraq aid in the demonization of all Shia, including those in Indonesia, who have been victims of violent attacks. Defining a small religious minority as the target for jihad does not pose the same risk as targeting the government and its increasingly effective security forces.

Second, and more important, sectarian appeals broaden the potential support base for violent extremism. Many Indonesians, including respected leaders from mainstream organizations, also have anti-Shia sentiments. On April 20th the newly formed Aliansi Anti-Syiah Nasionalheld a convention attended by several thousand people, including at least 100 clerics from a broad range of mainstream Muslim organizations. Attendees also came from Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, the traditionalist Sufi oriented Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), the modernist Muhammadiyah, and Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII), the most influential Salafi organization. Members of these organizations attended in their private capacities, not as official delegations.  The convention issued a four point declaration stating:

The alliance is a forum for preaching based on the principle of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar (commanding the good and prohibiting the evil).

  • The alliance will take all necessary preventative and proactive measures to prevent the spread of deviant Shia teachings.
  • The alliance will establish good relations with other Muslim organizations and movements.
  • The alliance will demand that the government immediately ban Shia teaching and revoke the operating permits of Shia foundations, organizations and institutions.

The use of the sharia maxim “commanding the good and prohibiting the evil” presents sectarianism as a religious virtue. “All necessary preventative and proactive measures” is understood to include violence.” The violent nature of the declaration was echoed in a speech by NU cleric Zein al-Kaff who stated: “It’s time that we declared jihad against them. We should not tolerate them anymore.”

Counter Strokes — Opposing ISIL and Sectarianism

The central boards of Muhammadiyah and NU have condemned ISIL, describing it as a brutal and religiously deviant movement, and instructed local leaders to preach against it in Friday sermons. DDII, which is a nonviolent extremist Salafi organization stated that there is not enough reliable information about ISIL to come to definitive conclusions and noted that many Middle Eastern Salafi jihadi clerics have condemned it. Human rights groups, including the influential Sentara Institute and the NU based Wahid Institute, have also condemned ISIL and sectarianism. While they attract less international attention, these groups have much greater support than Ba’aysir and others beating the drums of sectarian jihad. This is especially important given the fact that Indonesians tend to put a great deal of trust in religious leaders and very little in the media and the Internet.

There is also disagreement among extremists about the benefits of supporting ISIL. Some refuse to support it because of its extreme violence, and especially because it targets Muslims. Others support the Syrian Salafi jihad organization Jabhat al-Nusra (JN that is linked to al Qaeda. Ba’asyir’s sons Abdul Rohim and Rosyid Ridho, and his aide Mochammad Achwan have left JAT and established a new jihad organization Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah (JAS). Achwan mentioned both ISIL atrocities and loyalty to JN as reasons for their decision. He also claimed that nearly half of JAT members have refused to follow Ba’asyir’s lead.

Many academic analysts anticipate that attempts to organize a mass support base for ISIL and other extremist sectarian groups will fail. Very Aziz, a political analyst at Paramadina University, maintains that ISIL supporters have been attracted to false religious teachings promoted by politically motivated provocateurs. In an interview with the Jakarta Globe he stated:

The support for ISIS will remain small in Indonesia. However, the government must continue to keep a close eye on the outfit, so that it won’t escalate into an unruly minority group that manages to disturb the peace.

Most people who express support for extremist ideologies do not resort to violence. It is however, important to keep in mind that it takes only a small number of committed people to “disturb the peace” in serious ways.

The Indonesian government appears to be primarily concerned about the possibility that returning “jihad alumni” may bring the spirit of jihad and the skills necessary to conduct it back with them. ISIL was formally outlawed on August 4th in the national ideology Pancasila (Five Principles) that embraces religious diversity. As Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta notes, little has been done to curtail the activities of its Indonesian supporters.

Many Indonesians are skeptical about the government’s commitment to curbing ISIL’s Indonesian supporters. University of Indonesia law professor Hikmahanto asked: “Will they enforce the law or won’t they? They need to act now.” There is cause for concern because the government has failed to curtail the Front for the Defense of Islam and others who have committed acts of violence against Shia and Ahmadiyah Muslims over the past five years.

*Mark Woodward is an Associate Professor in the Center for Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University