Indonesia’s ban on radical Muslims won’t stop them – here’s why

Photo Credit: Iran Daily


Indonesian President Joko Widodo has implemented a ban on radical Islamist groups. But that won’t be enough to stop the growing tide of radical Islam in the country.

Radical Islamists won a major victory in May when the popular Jakarta governor, known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison for the “crime” of committing blasphemy against Islam. Namely, he interpreted a verse of the Koran to mean that Islamic law allows non-Muslims to rule over Muslims.

The governor’s imprisonment – on grounds that critics called ridiculous – happened after months of protests by mobs organized by radical Muslim groups. Protests – organized by the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)– numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and demonstrations twice brought Jakarta to a standstill.

The protests also happened while Ahok ran for re-election against former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, who allied with Islamist groups, whipping up Islamist populist sentiment against Ahok and winning the election.

As a result, the radical Islmist group Hizbut Tahrir has been banned. The group wants to set up a global caliphate based on Islamist laws.  But that might do much to curb the influence of radical Islam, since radical groups already won a major victory by jailing a Christian governor on trumped-up charges of blasphemy. Already there’s been protests against the ban.

Now, the incoming governor of Indonesia’s biggest city knows he’s been put in power by a mob of zealots. These radicals learned they can get what they want just by kicking and screaming enough, and learned that judges will cave to angry crowds. They also learned that many Indonesians are afraid to stand up to them. While there have been protests in support of Ahok, the biggest ones were those calling for him to be jailed.

Radicals now feel confident in their ability not only to influence the political system, but also to influence mainstream moderate groups. Indeed, the leader of the nation’s largest moderate Muslim group, the Nahdlatul Ulama, signed the fatwa that resulted in the arrest of Ahok, likely under pressure from the hundreds of thousands of angry protesters clamoring for Ahok to be thrown in jail.

Most critically, psychology plays a role here. Adherents to radical ideology are often hard to convince to tone it down – they think God is on their side, and that no human has the right to interfere with God’s work. That makes them a powerful force, ban or no ban.

Just banning them seems like checking a box and moving on. A ban might be not be a bad idea, but it needs to be followed up by surveillance and the recruitment of informants. While rights groups blast the ban for infringing on free speech, many democratic nations would not allow the existence a group that openly call for a global caliphate. That would mean an overthrow of the current system.

Already, Islamists are putting up a fight. Last week saw around 2,000 people protest against the ban, and there’s no sign they are going away, ban or no ban.

This is happening as radical Islam is rising not only in Indonesia but in Asia overall.

One major reason for the rise is Saudi Arabia. While Indonesia has been officially secular since it rejected an Islamic constitution in 1945, Saudi Arabia is increasingly getting its ideological hooks into the country.

The Saudis’ radical version of Islam has always been an influence on Indonesia. In 1800 the concept of Wahhabi Islam – the ideology invented by the Saudis and adhered to by ISIS – was brought back to Indonesia by those who had gone on pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Now that influence is ramping up. One reason is that the Saudis are funneling their massive oil wealth to radical imams in neighboring Malaysia, as well as institutions of higher learning in Indonesia that preach a strict version of Islam.

In 1980, the Saudi government established the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic, or LIPA, in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. At LIPA,  in Jakarta, students are strictly separated by gender; cannot wear jeans or Western attire; and are not allowed to listen to music, in a country where many young people wear jeans and listen to rock and pop music. The Saudis plan to expand the school to churn out 10,000 graduates a year – a three-fold increase from current levels.

Saudi Arabia has been described as both the arsonist and the fire fighter. While Saudi aims to defeat radical groups like ISIS – mostly because ISIS wants to set up a pan-Arabic government with itself in charge, and not the Saudis – it also created the ideology that fuels ISIS’s radicalism.

Rizieq Shihab, the leader of FPI, the most prominent radical group in Indonesia, attended the Saudi-funded Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia in Jakarta. Later he received a scholarship from Saudi Arabia to continue to study in Saudi capital Riyadh. Zaitun Rasmin, a graduate of Medina Islamic University in Saudi Arabia, was one of the chief organizers of the hard line demonstrations against the governor of Jakarta.

Some say groups like FPI are among the most influential groups in the country’s civil society. But their popularity represents a growing divide. On one side, those – many of them urban poor – who want Indonesia to be ruled more according to Islamist rules. On the other, the president and his supporters, who are pro-investment, pro-Western and want Indonesia to be a modern, secular democracy.

FPI imitates Saudi religious police, getting large groups together and going to businesses to intimidate employees if FPI believes they are acting against Sharia law. That includes drinking alcohol or female employees wearing revealing clothing. Islamist thugs in Surabaya last Christmas walked in large groups — with police protection –in shopping malls to intimidate businesses whose employees wore Santa clause hats.

ISIS’ violence is spurred by Saudi ideology, and critics have said the only difference between Saudi rulers and ISIS is that the Saudis have golden palaces. Like ISIS, the Saudis publicly behead apostates, fornicators, adulterers and gays. Those with an interpretation of the Koran different than that of the ruling royal family can be – and have been – beheaded.

Another reason for radical Islam’s rise in Indonesia is that the perceived success of ISIS is emboldening radicals worldwide. ISIS’ dozens of successful attacks worldwide against civilians are being touted as confirmation that fate is on their side. ISIS has also proven to be tech-savvy, and is able to reach a growing number of young people worldwide, including Indonesia, a place that is crazy about social media, and is Facebook’s no. 4 customer worldwide.

Many Indonesians forget that the country has a history of extremist mob violence. Just 20 years ago, an anti-Chinese pogrom saw hundreds of ethnic Chinese women publicly raped in the street, mass violence and looting, and anti-Chinese riots.

That’s why a ban on radical groups, in and of itself, will not work. It needs to be followed up with surveillance and the recruitment of informants within radical organizations.

Most crucially, ordinary Indonesians also need to speak up, and not allow the nation to be hijacked by radicals.

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