Indonesia Drops the Ball on Radical Islam

Despite the recent terrorist attacks in Jakarta, the country’s counterterrorism efforts under President Yudhoyono are praiseworthy. As the saying goes, in the business of terrorism, the good guys have to be lucky 100 percent of the time, but the bad guys only once.

The general consensus is that the nation’s war on terror has been commendable. Hundreds of militants have been arrested and Jemaah Islamiyah is fractured and severely weakened. The country has executed more terrorists than any other nation, and has done so while upholding the rule of law. The Detachment 88 antiterrorism unit is one of the best trained in the world and up until the recent bombings, Indonesia had not been a target for four years. This may not seem long, but not many Asian countries can claim this — not India, Thailand or the Philippines.

Perhaps. But how do we reconcile this picture of success with the country’s passivity in taking action against other terrorism-related activities? Islamic schools where bomb-making materials have been found remain operational. Do you recall using sulfur, potassium, wires and detonators in your chemistry class?

Extremist publications that celebrate terrorism such as Sabili and Arrahmah. com continue to circulate. The pesantren founded by convicted terrorist Abu Bakar Bashir, now headed by his son, has been linked with numerous terrorist incidents and the International Crisis Group reports that a lucrative publishing consortium has been established around these schools. This is part of a larger trend of a growing industry of hate-filled books, which has become pivotal to the funding of extremist activity and the dissemination of jihadi thought into the rural community.

How do we explain the success in some areas of terrorism, but sheer incompetence — or perhaps deliberate reluctance to take action — in others?

This paradox sheds some light on the country’s misconception with regard to its counterterrorism strategy. Indonesia focused on eliminating acts of terrorism, while ignoring the deeper culture that fuels such activity. We are fighting the symptom, not the root.

Terrorism is problematic on two levels. On its surface, acts of terrorism violate the law. On a deeper level, acts of terrorism are caused by a misguided belief. It is important to underline that the problem is not Islam itself. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and abhor violence. Even within the supposedly extremist JI group, there is a sizable majority that strongly opposes the use of violence. Hence, the misguided belief that concerns us today is the minority of the minority, but miniscule as it may be, it needs to be addressed.

These two levels — the act and the belief — are deeply related but not the same. Consequently, fighting it requires two different strategies. The first is a law and order approach. This involves efforts such as thwarting terrorist plots, prosecuting actors of terrorism and dismantling terrorist networks. The country has been quite successful at this. The second approach is to uproot the culture and belief of radical Islam that breeds such extremism. Here, the nation is sliding back.

That Indonesia has struggled in this second aspect is understandable. Fighting a culture or belief is more difficult — it is less clear who or what the target is and victories are more difficult to measure.

Moreover, it is much easier to frame this war in religion-neutral and purely legal terms. Taking this war beyond legal enforcement and into the realm of eradicating radical Islam runs the risk of offending Muslims. Unfortunately, the law only goes so deep and fails to pierce the heart of the problem. Will someone who is willing to go so far as to blow himself up be deterred by being arrested and put in jail? For these terrorists, death has lost its sting. Law enforcement is necessary but insufficient.

Indonesia must fight the battle on both fronts. As strong a stance must be taken when it comes to uprooting the culture of radical Islam, as when dealing with acts of terrorism. This would mean closing down schools with clear track records of educating terrorists, tightly monitoring publications that promote terrorism and arresting radical clerics who poison the minds of our youth. Our laws with respect to publishing, labor, corporate registration and taxation must be enforced against these organizations. This will reveal valuable information about the size and operations of their networks.

In fighting radicalism, the law and guns will not be enough. The real turf will be in classrooms and places of worship. It is ironic that Nur Hasdi, one of the suspected bombers in the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotel bombings, was a student at KMI, a school dedicated to producing Islamic school teachers. A re-evaluation of what is being taught in schools is overdue. In the long run, this is where victory or defeat will be determined.

In addition to this two-pronged approach, a third component, economic development, is also crucial. Efforts must be taken to uplift the standard of living in rural areas. Not that extremism and wealth are incompatible, but the hearts of those who have something to lose will be less fertile ground for the seeds of extremism. The key is government empowerment by stimulating rural economic development and ensuring that schools are teaching students the skills required to be productive and employable.

For doing this, the president will be politicized. If he was getting smirks for marrying a woman who doesn’t wear a headscarf, he will get a stoning for advocating the closure of Muslim schools and publications — regardless of the fact that these outfits are mere covers for bomb-making, terrorist recruitment and fund-raising.

This is why moderate Muslims must speak up and challenge those who claim that this is a fight against Islam. A war against extremists is not a war against Islam as a religion. Without the support of moderate Muslims, the country cannot overcome terrorism.

That we are once again a victim of terrorism should not come as a surprise. As long as we take a passive approach toward the culture and belief of radical Islam, we may win some battles and prevent a few attacks, but the war will never be ours.

In Jakarta’s latest terrorist attacks, two bombs exploded. Investigations revealed that there was supposed to be a third. The third bomb, located at a higher floor, was supposed to go off first, sending people running into the lobby, where the second bomb would then explode, hence killing more people. Thankfully and luckily the third bomb malfunctioned. Next time, we may not be so lucky.

It would be foolish to stake the goodwill that the country has built over the past years on nothing more than the roll of a dice. As much attention must be invested in all three fronts of counterterrorism: enforcing the law, empowering rural economic development and uprooting the culture and belief of extremism.

John Riady is editor at large of GlobeAsia magazine and can be reached at