From militancy in the southern Philippines to hardline preachers taking shelter in Malaysia, politicized forms of conservative Islam are on the rise in Southeast Asia. Encouraged by governments and local elites who seek to draw legitimacy from local traditions, extremist thought is spreading among young people across the region. Nowhere is this more evident and more worrying than in Indonesia, the region’s largest and most populous Muslim state, home to 260 million people, 87 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims.
A young democracy with a history of religious tolerance toward its Christian and Hindu minorities, Indonesia has nevertheless had to wage a long battle against Sunni Islamist militants. After Indonesia’s Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit dismantled Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and other homegrown al-Qaeda-affiliated networks following the 2002 Bali bombing, a period of relative calm followed. However the struggle has reignited in recent years thanks to the influence of Islamic State (ISIS), which inspired many Southeast Asian militants to return to violence.
Indonesian militants have fought in Syria and alongside Filipino fighters on the southern Filipino island of Mindanao, after they were invited to the area by Isnilon Hapilon, then the Islamic State’s emir in Southeast Asia (he was killed recently in fighting for control of the Filipino city of Marawi). But the active militants form only a small part of a much larger tide of rising religious conservativism in Indonesia that is worrying the authorities there, who see it as a threat to the country’s founding secular ideology, “Pancasila.” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his government have repeatedly warned about the creeping influence of radical Islamic thought among student organizations and in campus activities.
Their concerns seemed to be vindicated this month after the results of a survey of over 4,200 Muslim students by Jakarta-based pollster Alvara were released. The firm’s poll questioned students from top universities and high schools on the island of Java, where over half of Indonesia’s population is clustered. Alarmingly, the results showed that while the vast majority of the students questioned disagreed with the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and the use violence, the minority opinion was not insignificant. Twenty percent of the students supported the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Furthermore nearly one in four proclaimed themselves ready to wage jihad to achieve a caliphate.
Since 1998 there has been a growth in hardline fundamentalist Islamist groups, which were brutally repressed under Suharto, the former military dictator who ran Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years. While the implementation of some articles from Islam’s Sharia criminal code have so far been limited to the conservative northwestern province of Aceh, other areas of Indonesia have seen similar calls for Sharia law to be imposed on the multi-confessional country. Sectarian outfits like the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) openly say that they believe only Muslims should be allowed to serve as Indonesian leaders. Nor are their views uncommon among religious Indonesians; according to Reuters, a survey published last December by the Institute for the Study of Islam and Society, showed that “78 percent of 505 religious teachers in public schools supported implementing sharia law in Indonesia. The survey also found that 77 percent backed Islamist groups advocating this goal.”
Meanwhile Indonesian journalists who cover religious topics reported that they were targeted for ostracism, boycotts, and intimidation by Muslim radicals; riots, largely organized by these same radicals, have also led to killings during recent years as “illiberal Islamists” take advantage of democratic freedoms in order to magnify their own power. This has led to social cleansing operations targeting alleged drug dealers, and a conservative backlash against sexual minorities and women. During mass street protests in the capital Jakarta last year, the FPI and its allies even succeeded in derailing the re-election of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian politician popularly known as Ahok. Thanks to their influence the former governor, an ethnic Chinese and an ally of Jokowi, was subsequently jailed earlier this year for blasphemy in a much criticized court ruling widely seen as ushering in a new era of religious intolerance.
The national government has responded by announcing legal action will be taken against some of the Islamist groups responsible for orchestrating the protests. A particular official target has been the Indonesian chapter of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an ultraconservative pan-Islamic political movement that rejects democratic governance in favor of a pan-Islamic state among predominantly Muslim countries. The group argues that this state should be created by force if necessary. Hizb ut-Tahrir, was tolerated until now, despite openly rejecting Indonesia’s mainstream pluralist, multi-religious ideology of Pancasila. That changed following the approval by Indonesia’s parliament of a presidential decree banning any civil organizations deemed to go against Pancasila. Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) was the first group to be targeted under the new decree. HTI is currently appealing against its ban in court and there are concerns even among the group’s enemies that empowering the Indonesian government to simply disband dissident organizations, even without a prior court order, is a step too far for a democratic country.
The government is also attempting to reach Indonesia’s millennials and the younger “Generation Z,” whose older members are currently in high school. Jokowi has conducted a speaking tour at several Islamic boarding schools around the country, emphasizing the importance of Indonesia’s diversity and the need for national unity. The president has also told a national conference of university rectors that it was necessary to promote the country’s secular ideology more often in educational institutions. A presidential working unit for the implementation of the state ideology of Pancasila is currently looking at ways to “quell radicalism by way of unity,” according to one of its ministerial members. But the spread in recent years of intolerant doctrines within Indonesian Islam have shone a spotlight on the forces at work shaping the worldviews of the younger generations of Indonesians now in their teens and twenties.
As elsewhere, social media and the spread of “fake news” is being blamed for an increase in “identity politics” Indonesian style. This can mean something different to Indonesians than Westerners, however, who associate the term with campaigns by underprivileged groups for social reforms. In the context of Indonesian affairs, it has come to stand for discrimination along the lines of religion and ethnicity by and against members of the indigenous Muslim majority. Appeals to identity in Indonesia are still seen through the prism of Dutch colonialism, which split the archipelago’s diverse population into a three-tiered racial classification. At the top where Europeans, in the middle “foreign orientals,” and at the bottom was everyone else; the “pribumi” or indigenous people. In a Muslim majority country, part of identifying oneself with the “pribumi” means adhering strongly to Islamic norms, which themselves have been affected by the puritanical forms of Islam being exported from the Middle East since the 1980s.
Demands by politicians purporting to represent “true” Indonesians, therefore, often mix pro-Islamic sentiments with allusions to the economic gap between different ethnicities and religions in Indonesia (such as the perceived greater prosperity of the Indonesian Chinese minority, many of whom are also Christians). Thus the political appeals to religious and racial prejudice, which can actually serve as a platform for demands to introduce positive discrimination in favor of “indigenous” Indonesians (who tend to have a Sunni Muslim background) similar to neighboring Malaysia’s dubiously effective “Bumiputera” policies.
Religious radicalism often seems to go hand in hand with a fear of economic loss to foreign, non-Muslim workers. According to another recent survey by the Jakarta-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), young people in Indonesia display a strong xenophobic tendency. The survey found that 77.7 percent of Indonesians aged between 17 and 29 years of age thought that foreign workers negatively harmed Indonesia’s economy and took away local people’s jobs. This was despite the fact that Indonesia has fewer foreign workers than its neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and that it is currently enjoying a period of good economic growth.
Showing how racial and religious differences can be mixed, at the recent swearing-in speech of new Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, one Malaysian reporter mentioned seeing banners celebrating the victory of the so-called “pribumi” Muslims. The new governor used the word in his speech as a dig against the ethnically Chinese Ahok, but the non-pribumi Anies (who is himself of Arab descent, despite parroting nativist slogans) largely owed his victory to groups like the FPI and the HTI who mobilized ordinary Indonesians around Islamic concepts, not racial ones. Tackling the links between religious extremism, xenophobia and poverty will be harder than repressing violent jihadism, always a minority of a minority. The religious radicalism worrying Indonesia’s leaders can hopefully be contained by the country’s educational establishment before extremist infiltrators can reach positions of influence elsewhere (the standard operating procedure for groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir). Addressing the economic and cultural anxieties caused by rapid social changes will not be so easy.
Neil Thompson is a Contributing Analyst at geostrategic analysis and business consultancy Wikistrat and a blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.