Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward*

Since March 15 Indonesia has experienced another wave of bombings, including a suicide attack on the Az Zikro mosque located in a police compound in Cirebon, Central Java. The bomber struck during Friday prayers. Other targets have included a book bomb mailed to Ulil Abshar Abdallah, the leader of Jaringan Islam Liberal (The Liberal Islamic Network), the offices of Densus 88, an elite anti-terrorism unit, a natural gas pipeline and Christian churches on Good Friday services. Indonesian authorities have again demonstrated their ability to locate and arrest suspects, more than twenty at last count. It is clear to most Indonesian Muslim leaders that effective police power alone will not bring the threat of terrorism to an end. Escalating reactions to these events by civilian groups are taking a possibly worrying turn, however.

In this report I focus on responses to the bombings, especially to that of the Cirebon mosque, and in regard to counter-radicalism measures taken by the progressive Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) prior to and in response to these attacks. NU is Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, with membership of at least fifty million and many more supporters. The Cirebon attack was particularly significant for NU because Az Zikro is an NU mosque.

In Indonesia radical groups have rarely attacked mosques. They seem to have assumed, correctly as it turns out, that attacking one of the most important symbols of Islam would yield little sympathy. Churches and structures symbolic of western dominance or cultural decadence, including Western “branded” hotels such as the Jakarta J.W. Marriott and bars catering to foreign tourists in Bali have been the most common targets. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the identity of the Cirebon bomber soon became clear.

Muhammad Syarif was a bright young man, 31 years old, who had been fascinated with electronics since he was in elementary school. He became involved with a radical Muslim movement in 2000 and vanished from sight for nine years. When he resurfaced in 2009, his character and behavior had changed dramatically. He was formerly respectful and polite but had become violent and angry. He called both his parents kafir (unbelievers) and married without their permission. He often wore a jubbah (Arabian-style robe). His father also described him as being a follower of the radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir who is who is generally believed to the spiritual mentor of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Many Indonesians believe that Syarif must have been the victim of cuci otak (brain washing), as the indoctrination techniques used by radical groups are commonly known. The Negara Islam Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic State) movement calls this tactic “Basic Training” (English in the original). It involves blindfolding potential recruits, taking them to remote locations and subjecting them to several days of intense religious instruction. Many reject the message, but those who accept it undergo a process of cognitive restructuring in which core values, personal and collective identity are redefined in terms of the group’s radical teachings.

As is almost always the case, mainstream Muslim organizations denounced the attacks and even radicals have condemned the Cirebon mosque bombing. Ba’asyir stated that there was no Islamic justification for bombing a mosque and that the attacker was with a kafir who had a childish understanding of religion or who was mentally ill.

Leaders of many mainstream Muslim organizations, including Din Syamsudinn of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization,  spoke of the need to address the underlying social, political and economic causes of terrorism but offered little in the way of specifics. Vice-President Boediono called on the ministries of education and religion to upgrade religious and citizenship instruction in schools, colleges and universities. Numerous commentators called attention to the “brainwashing” techniques used by radical organizations to recruit young people and the need to respond to them.

By far the strongest response has been from the religiously and socially conservative NU leaders who reiterated their commitment to comprehensive counter radicalism efforts and announced new efforts to make sure that radicals do not use any of the tens of thousands of NU mosques to recruit new followers.

NU’s counter-radicalism program includes four basic components:

  • Active cooperation with security forces in efforts to apprehend suspected terrorists.
  • Refutation of extremist ideologies, especially those concerning jihad. This is a common theme in Friday sermons, religious talks (pengajian) and in many pesantren (traditional boarding schools) affiliated with NU. NU’s position is that radicals have fundamentally misunderstood the concept of jihad, that suicide bombings are not jihad and that those who carry them out are not martyrs. It also repudiates the anti-Semitic views held by many Islamist organizations.
  • Outreach programs for young people in print, online and at Indonesia’s government sponsored Islamic colleges and universities. They have recently published a book entitled Peaceful Jihad for Teens (only the title is in English), available at bookstores through out the country.
  • Assisting victims of terrorist attacks. The NU youth organization Ansor and the paramilitary security force Banser NU routinely assist with the repair and renovation of churches damaged by bombings.

In response to the most recent bombings NU announced a self-policing program. On April 25, leader Nusron Wahid  announced that Ansor and the Baser cadre would begin nationwide  “sweeping” operations to cleanse NU mosques of radical teachers and preachers. At a speech in Magelan in Central Java he stated that men with “long beards and short pants” had occupied many of the largest mosques in the country, spreading radical messages and teaching that all who oppose them are unbelievers or polytheists. He linked them to Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and accused them of planning and encouraging terrorist attacks. He also pointed to the need for similar actions at mosques on university campuses that have become centers for the dissemination of radical ideas.

Nurson’s observations about the exclusivist character of radicals and the fact they often use mosques for recruitment purposes are accurate. New recruits are often taught that they do not have to seek their parents’ permission to join in jihad. They are encouraged to recruit family and friends, but told that those who do not join them are kafir.  In a society such as Indonesia, where respect for parents is a core value, these views are on the outer limits of extremism. Mosques are public spaces and are often unoccupied. Private teachers unaffiliated with organizations that officially control them often use unoccupied mosques for religious lessons.

Nurson is, however, known for off the cuff statements, exaggeration and hyperbolic rhetoric. The term “sweeping” (English in the original) is used by the radical Front for the Defense of Islam for the violent attacks it conducts against those it views as “sinners” or religious “deviants.” Nuron’s use of the term suggests that NU is prepared to use similar tactics. The expression “long beard, short pants” has become short hand for a wide variety of salafi groups, who sport beards and distinctive Pakistani style clothing to distinguish themselves from traditional Indonesian Muslims.

Calf-length pants and robes are considered to be equivalents in this symbolic discourse. Most who wear such clothing are religious fundamentalists but very few are terrorists. Some are explicitly and vocally opposed to the use of violence for political purposes. Nurson’s comments  are examples of a growing tendency to associate salafism and terrorism. I and my colleagues Inayah Rohmaniyah and Ali Amin have argued that this component of Indonesian counter-radical discourse is disturbing and potentially dangerous because it tends to demonize innocent people who share the religious orientation, but not the violent inclinations, of terrorist organizations. From an organization that is generally viewed as being tolerant toward not only other faiths but also other streams of Islam, this is a development that is cause for concern.


* Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta Indonesia. Unless otherwise indicated this report is based on ethnographic research conducted in Yogyakarta and elsewhere in Indonesia.