Center for Strategic Communication

Having recently returned from a brief (four-day!) trip to Indonesia and Singapore, I’ve been reminded of the value of simply being in a location with eyes and ears open in order to gain insight into current events. While in Indonesia, some interesting communication- and terrorism-related news emerged.

Facebook has been gaining ground in Indonesia, and in terms of absolute number of users, Indonesia is now ranked third in the world after the US and the UK. This is remarkable given the low rate of internet penetration in the country, but is explained by the high number of users of hand-held, internet accessible devices.  Facebook has been in the news in Indonesia lately, and there are two interesting examples. The first is a Facebook group with over 55,000 members that was formed to oppose the recently installed statue of US President Barack Obama in a public park in Menteng, Jakarta. The statue portrays Obama as a young boy, reflecting the years he spent living in Indonesia (1967-71). The Facebook users opposed the statue because they felt as though Obama had not done anything for Indonesia (although others point to his example that someone from modest means can achieve greatness). Eventually the government in Jakarta acquiesed to the demands of the Facebook group, and the statue was moved from the park to the elementary school that Obama attended. Obama will be visiting Indonesia in mid-March for the first time since his election.

The other Facebook-related phenomenon has to do with recent cases of rape, abduction and disappearances of young girls by predatory Facebook users. I drove past a large demonstration in Bandung protesting Facebook, organized by Muslim students. Of course this raises several questions. Is Facebook  itself somehow responsible for these criminal cases? Is there something inherently un-Islamic about Facebook, as the groups seem to claim? (Beyond the criminal behavior, some critics argue that Facebook allows un-Islamic behavior in the form of “hooking up” or no-strings sexual liaisons). Do these cases simply reflect the processes by which knowledge about online predation is disseminated and naive users eventually become more aware of the dangers of online behavior? Finally, it points to the presence of alternatives to Facebook, perhaps more Islam-friendly, by which these students must have organized the protest… because surely they couldn’t have used Facebook to organize the protest.

In the legal realm, Indonesia is considering repealing its very restrictive blasphemy law in the name of free speech, consistent with its more open press and newly embraced democratic ideals. Resistance to this 1965 law has come, not surprisingly, from Islamist sources, including political parties and civil society groups. What is somewhat surprising, however, is who the Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali decided to meet with in order to discuss the judicial review: representatives from the Islamic Defenders Front and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. The former is a group of thugs with ties to the Suharto-era quasi-legal, extrajudicial “enforcement” group Pemuda Pancasila, that currently operates territorial “protection” rackets in the name of Islam and frequently runs afoul of the law; the latter is the Indonesian branch of a worldwide Islamist organization whose goal is a global caliphate. Although Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia doesn’t openly advocate violence to achieve its goals, it is banned in some countries, but not in Indonesia — perhaps ironically based on the same freedom of speech doctrine cited by those wishing to overthrow the blasphemy law. In a letter to the Jakarta Post, one writer compared this meeting to a government official in the US meeting on race relations with members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazi groups.

Another legal case is moving through the courts as well. I wrote about it previously in another post a few months ago, and now the case of Mohammad Jibriel is going to trial. He is being tried on charges of providing material support to those responsible for the July 17 bombing in Jakarta of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. Prosecutors claim he visited the Middle East where he asked for and received funding for the operation.

And in other news… the Islamist Indonesian Mujahadeen Council (MMI) elected a new leader, Syawal Yasin, who is the son-in-law of terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah co-founder Abdullah Sungkar. The MMI was founded by JI’s other co-founder, Abu Bakar Bashir, although he has since left the Council. Completing the incestuous circle of jihad, the MMI’s deputy chairman is Abu Jibriel, Mohammad Jibriel’s father. The move by the MMI is viewed as move toward a more hardline approach, with the goal of implementing shariah throughout Indonesia. Syawal’s credentials are cemented by his experience training in Afghanistan to wage jihad on the Soviets, credentials shared with many — living and dead — from the top tier of Jemaah Islamiyah.

In brighter news in Indonesia, pluralism carried the day at Jogjakarta’s Islamic University of Indonesia, where two 1,100-year-old Hindu temples were uncovered by a construction crew building a library. The temples are well preserved, thought to be the result of layers of ash covering them after a volcanic eruption, and contain a statue of Ganesha as well as linga and yoni, objects that represent male and female, and the Hindu deities Shiva and Shakti, respectively. As with pre-Islamic religious symbols most everywhere else in the Islamic world, the temples are to be restored and will remain on the universities campus.

Finally, the Philippine government is preparing for more retributive attacks from al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf after the Armed Forces of the Philippines killed six members of the group in a raid, including a senior rebel leader Albader Parad, in February on the island of Jolo. Parad was suspected of playing a major role in recent kidnappings carried out by AS, and his death is considered a serious blow to the organization. On February 27th, suspected AS members surrounded a village and killed 11 and and wounded around 20 people in Basilan. The attack was viewed as revenge for Parad’s death, as well as retribution for the rescue of two Chinese citizens earlier that day in Basilan.