Paper no. 1596

02. 11. 2005

TERRORISM IN INDONESIA : Role of the Religious Organisations

By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“Most Muslim organizations are reluctant to admit that there is indeed a problem that should be addressed.  They are reluctant to admit that there are certain radical elements of Indonesian Muslims who are ready to use terror in order to achieve their aims”.  

Prof. Azyumardi Azra, State Islamic University, Indonesia        

We know that the terrorists that operate in Indonesia are hiding behind the banner of Islam.  They often claim that any government effort to discredit them will discredit Islam.  This circumstance has made it difficult for the government to aggressively arrest, detain the radicals and ban their organizations for fear of being labeled as anti-Islamic”

Ridarson Gallingging, lecturer, YarsiUniversity (The Jakarta Post)


The above quotes give an insight of the impact on the counter terrorism efforts of the government by the religious organizations in the country.  The religious organizations and institutions, if not abetting, are providing a conducive  atmosphere for terrorism to thrive in this country, some by their acts of commission and some by acts of omission.  Religious fundamentalism which was suppressed under the New Order regime of Suharto, has resurfaced through the medium of these various organizations and clerics who are acting like true champions of Islam.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation with 90 % Muslims and the remainder 10 % consisting of Hindus, Christians and Buddhists.  The country is often proud to indicate to the rest of the world that the majority of the Muslims in the country are tolerant moderates.  It is not an Islamic state and the constitution guarantees religious freedom.  However some of the recent incidents, such as the attack in June 2005 on Ahmadiyahs, forced closure of some Christian places of worship, attacks on bars and night clubs, threats to the Liberal Islamic Network, and issuance of fatwas against pluralism, secularism and liberal Islam, indicate that the conservative and radical organizations are in full cry and are pursuing their activities with impunity.  The government is overlooking, if not encouraging, these radical elements by terming these as minor or stray incidents.

Religious Leaders (Imam, Ulama, Ustaz etc.,)       

The role of the religious leaders or scholars is crucial in shaping the public opinion and behaviour of the different Muslim communities, keeping in mind the sensitivities of the other religions or sects as well as the government policy.  Religious intolerance, misinterpretations of the religious injunctions and apprehensions of a threat to Islam from the western nations have become the main theme of their sermons.

Muhamad Ali, a lecturer at the State Islamic University, Jakarta, writes that “In Indonesia, generally speaking, the role of many Imams seems to be more ritualistic, formalistic and often artificial.  Problems such as corruption, violence and terrorism, social diseases caused by communal disintegration are often ignored or only figure marginally in their sermons”.  While classifying them as good and bad he adds that “good imams are those who promote peace and harmony, those who encourage the use of reason while the bad Imams are those who incite intolerance, hatred and violence, those who demand absolutist obedience without reasoning, those who discourage the followers from learning”.

Ansja’ad Mbai who heads the anti terror desk at the office of the Chief Security Minister said recently “50 % of Muslim clerics preaching at Friday prayers had often encouraged hatred and hostility against other religious groups” (Jakarta Post 24 October 2005).

The Imams are no longer apolitical.  During the last elections, in certain cases they had given their preferences for the followers to abide by and also expressing their opinion for voting against women candidates.

Islamic Schools (pesantren or madrasah

Indonesia has more than 14000 plus pesantrens, the majority of which teach a moderate understanding of Islam.  Only five peasantren are closely linked to Jemaah Islamiah and teach a fundamental interpretation of Islam. These are al-Mukmin in Ngruki, Sukohardjo in Solo, Al-Multaquien in Jepara (central Java), Dar-us-Syahadh in Boyolali (Central Java and al-Islam in Lamongan in East Java (Sharif Shuja – Terrorism Monitor April 2005 of The Jamestown Foundation). 

Investigations of the major terrorist incidents in Bali and Jakarta since 2002 have revealed that some of these pesantren are “breeding extremists through radical interpretation of Islam”.  Three of the men convicted for the Bali and Marriott Hotel attacks have been students of the Al-Mukmin boarding school founded by Abu Bakaar Bashir, the alleged head of Jemaah Islamiah.

Consequent to the second Bali incident on October 1, 2005, Vice President Jusuf Kalla announced that the government is planning to monitor the activities of the pesantrens in the country.  This has raised a hue and cry from the religious leaders.  They consider this as a direct interference in their activities and an affront to the Islamic movements.  Former President Abdurrahman Wahid has also criticized this move of the government and opined that it is up to the people to evaluate such pesantren and take suitable action  against such erring schools.

Sidney Jones, a terrorism expert and Director of the International Crisis Group, has said that there are18 Islamic schools affiliated to the terror cell of Jemaah Islamiah in the country which were used to train Jihadis.  She has also linked these schools with an university in Surakarta, Central Java.

Religious Organizations

Indonesian Ulema council (MUI).  This is Indonesia’s top clerical body.  This council comprises a broad range of Muslim groups including the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.  The MUI wants to counter balance the largely secular government.

In July 2005, the council issued a few fatwas that banned liberal interpretations of Islam, declared liberalism and pluralism as haram (forbidden) and also condemned inter-faith prayers and marriages between religions.  “These fatwas reflect the growing influence of two groups in particular – the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, an organization closely linked to the radical right and Committee for International Solidarity, a hard line group founded in the late 1980s during the Suharto regime”(Newsweek August 15, 2005).

In June 2005, President Yudhoyono himself inaugurated the annual conference of the MUI which shows the importance attached by the government to these hard line groups and the council’s influence over the politicians.

Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).    NU is a traditional Muslim organization with a membership of approximately 40 million. The NU runs mosques, schools and medical clinics throughout the country.  The NU version of Islam is more relaxed one building on traditional values as much as on the Islamic scriptures. Hasyim Muzadi is the leader of this organization.  Former President Andurrahman Wahid was earlier the head of this organization and still exerts considerable influence over its members.

Muhammadiyah, established in 1912, is the second largest Muslim organization with a membership of around 30 million.  Muhammadiyah is more modernistic with aim of purifying Islam from local tradition (adat) and return to the original source of Islam, the Quran and the Hadith or the Sunnah.  Din Syamsuddin is the Chairman and he is also the Deputy Chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council. Amien Rais, a seasoned politician of Indonesia, was a former head of this organization.

Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal – JIL).  JIL, a recently formed (four-year old) organization headed by Ulil Abshar Abdalla, is located within the Centre for Studies on Information Flows.  This network (a small group of Intellectuals) is challenging the radicals’ narrow interpretation of Islam and wants to protect the spirit of tolerance through its activism, radio broadcasts and news paper articles.  JIL believes in ijtihad, or the application of reason to interpreting Islamic texts.  Even a government committee had appreciated the efforts of this network by proposing some revision to Muslim Family Law such as polygamy.

While the efforts of this network have been welcomed by the moderates, the hardliners have opposed these views and activities of the network.  The Indonesian Ulema Council had issued fatwas against pluralism, secularism and liberalism and had also issued threats to evict the Liberal Islam Network from its offices by the beginning of the Islamic fasting month Ramadan.

Radical and Terrorist Organizations

Laskar Jihad (LJ).  The LJ was established in 2000 in response to religious violence in Maluku.  It is in fact the military wing of Forum Kommunikasi Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah (Communications Forum of the followers of Sunnah).  A few thousand volunteers were given military training in Bogor and sent to Maluku in April 2000 and were involved in creating communal violence.  It is more or less an established fact that LJ had the backing of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI).  This outfit is reportedly disbanded though there is no proof to this effect.

Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders Front).  The FPI was formed in 1998 and it is reportedly having branches in over 20 provinces of the country.  Habib Muhammad Riziek Syihab, a religious teacher of Arab descent is its leader.  The FPI has been in the news for organizing raids on bars, massage parlours and night clubs on the grounds that the police is ineffective in upholding the laws on gambling and prostitution and that these places of entertainment are denigrating the values of Islam.  The police, perhaps with some vested interests, have often overlooked or taken no action against such offenders of the FPI.

Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI).   The MMI is the country’s umbrella organization for militant groups, headed by Abu Bakar Bashir.  The MMI is lobbying to convert Indonesia into an Islamic state.  The Islamic movement in Indonesia plays its part both in the political and militant activities.  Bashir is known to have established ties with most of the paramilitary groups through the MMI.  A former vice president Hamza Haz, while in office, had admitted openly that Bashir is his close friend and had even planned to visit Bashir (while he was in jail).

Jemaah Islamiah (JI).  Jemaah  Islamiah means Islamic community.  The JI was founded in 1993-94 by Abdullah Sungkar who was in exile in Malaysia.  The aim of JI is to have an Islamic state encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern parts of Thailand and Philippines. JI has its roots in Darul Islam which had strived for the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia in the 1950s and 60s. Abu Bakar Bashir is alleged to be the head of JI and he is currently under detention for a not so serious offence though connected to the Bali blast in October 2002.   Though some leaders of this organization have had contacts with Al Qaeda there is little evidence to substantiate that it is the SE Asian wing of Al Qaeda.

For more details on the organization and other aspects of the JI, Paper No.746 dated 28 July, 2003 tiled “Jemaah Islamiah –The Indonesia based Terrorist Organization” of this author posted on this site may be seen.

The JI is believed to have been involved in all the four major bomb attacks – Bali in October 2002 and 2005, at the Marriott Hotel, Jakarta in 2003 and outside the Australian Embassy, Jakarta in 2004.

While the US and UN have listed JI as a terrorist  organization, making it illegal for people to provide financial and other support to this group, the Indonesian government is yet to ban this organization.  According to an AFP news report, Yusuf Kalla, the Vice-President, told “if we have never recognized the existence of the organization, how can we disband it?”

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute in its report “Local Jihad : Radical Islam and Terrorism in Indonesia” indicates that though the JI has been weakened by the Indonesian crackdown on terrorists and also by some divisions within the network, the threat of terrorism  in this country has not reduced to any appreciable degree.


If radical Islam has grown stronger in Indonesia, Suharto is the first one to be blamed, as he turned to the Islamic factions to support them financially and politically, when he realized that he no longer had the support of the military which had put him on top.

Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group has said that it is a mistake to see Indonesian militancy as monolithic (Far Eastern economic Review- June 17, 2004).  She has identified several other terrorist organizations/groups other than Jemaah Islamiah such as

·     Radical members of the Ngruki network

·     Followers of Darul Islam (which fought for an Islamic state in the 1950s)

·    Groups of veterans from Afghanistan and Mindanao training camps operating independently from JI.

Though it may be fair to say that the radical  and extremist groups are supported only by a small minority of this predominantly Muslim nation, it is pathetic to see the political and religious leaders supporting these fringe groups, for their own vested interests (primarily as a vote bank), thereby giving these extremist groups respectability and acceptance by the majority.

The positive factor is that there is little evidence to show that the radical or terrorist organizations in Indonesia have been co-opted by outside extremists as is evidenced in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria and Egypt.

The Indonesian police should be given due credit for their limited success in their counter terror operations till date.  Since the Bali incident in October 2002, more than 200 suspects have been jailed for terrorist activities including Abu Bakar Bashir under detention for a less serious offence linked with terrorism.  Of these 33 JI operatives have been convicted including three sentenced to death.

The Indonesian Government is planning to amend its Anti Terror Law to improve the capability of the police and the intelligence agencies though it has dispelled the fears that it will be on the lines of the Internal Security Act of Malaysia which gives powers to detain suspects indefinitely without trial. This move has also been criticized by some Muslim organizations with the apprehension that Muslim activists on missions for peaceful purposes will be arrested.

President Yudhoyono  has often reiterated that he would keep up the pressure on JI and deal with terrorism firmly but it is very much debatable as to how many of the Islamic politicians of his coalition will give him the required support and gain the wrath of  the radical groups and lose their backing for political survival. 

Islamic organizations are not giving their full support to the government in its efforts to counter terrorism. Though most of them condemn terrorist attacks, they are very defensive and keep harping that such activities should not be linked to Islam as it is being done by the western nations. The mass organizations such as NU and Muhammadiyah should take it upon them to initiate a concerted drive and educate their members and the majority moderate community as well as conduct a campaign against the “violent ideologies and perceived legitimacy” of the radical groups

To sum up in the words of Gary Lamoshi “There is no doubt that violent religious extremism is on the rise in Indonesia, and it presents a greater challenge to democracy and freedom than spectacular acts of terrorism’.

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