To Purge Terror, Indonesia Has to Get Tough

We have heard it numerous times: Indonesia is a model for moderation and religious tolerance in the Islamic world. Indonesians want democracy and they support a modern, outward-looking secular government. The July 17 terrorist attacks on two Jakarta hotels were an outrage, but the business community and average Indonesians will move forward.

Foreign investors will pause in the aftermath of the bombings, but with Indonesia now being trumpeted as a rising power in Asia, seemingly there is little reason to hold them back from putting their capital into the country.

Yet, is everything as it should be? When it comes to combating terrorism and extremist groups, should we be content with government policy? Is this, as the saying goes, as good as it gets?

For example, Islamic preachers in some boarding schools can spread a gospel of hatred with impunity, and yet Indonesians who lodge harmless opinions in public spaces such as Facebook face the prospect of going to jail for defamation. Why does Islamic garb trump the law while innocents' civil rights are trampled upon?

Criminal figures such as Abu Bakar Bashir are sought after by the media and hence given a forum to spread bald-faced lies with little opprobrium, and yet when the president shows emotion in public in the aftermath of terror, he is widely criticized. Isn't there something wrong with that picture?

The Indonesian elite talk incessantly about how they are opposed to extremist ideologies and movements. Yet, dangerous characters inside Jemaah Islamiyah are treated with kid gloves, often with light jail sentences, and therefore given more opportunities to commit inhumane acts.

At the same time, foreign nationals caught in minor violations of drug trafficking are left to rot in prison for the rest of their lives. Is vice a more heinous crime than cold-blooded murder?

Fundamentalist Islamic parties, despite their poor showing in the elections, jockey and position themselves to share power in national office, saying that they are wildly misunderstood, that in fact they are moderates. When Islamic terrorists strike, they remain conspicuously silent. Where is their conscience? Should they not be at the forefront in denouncing the likes of JI if, in fact, they are as moderate as they claim? Or, perhaps, would they prefer to join Bashir in his incessant lying that JI is a figment of our collective imaginations and that the CIA is behind the attacks?

What explains such gross hypocrisy?

Sometimes I tend to believe that, in part, the problem is not just hypocrisy alone, but the hypnotic power of religion in politics. Too many Indonesian politicians have been duped into thinking that they court voters' favor by donning Muslim garb and going light on extremism. As they display such a holier-than-thou attitude and sanctimonious behavior, have they ever wondered if there is the possibility that they have actually misread their constituency? Would Indonesians vote them out of office if they cracked down harder on extremism and dismantled unconstitutional laws that smack of Shariah?

Who would complain if some of the more hate-mongering boarding schools were forced to close their doors? Who, in fact, would protest if the keys to the jail cells of extremist figures were thrown away for good? Would many Indonesians brood and stand up for the civil rights of abominable figures such as Bashir if they were placed back behind bars and never allowed to see the light of day again?

In a word, why shouldn't President Yudhoyono and his government get a lot tougher — not just with the terrorists, but with the entire corps of extremists who blatantly abuse religion for their cause?

Sure, if Yudhoyono does decide to deal more harshly with extremism, there will be complaints, and not just from those who practice its art.

In their attempts to weaken the president, political opportunists — primarily coming from opposition parties — are more than willing to wave the flag of religion and defend the sacred rights of anybody who dons Muslim cloth. That they would prefer to dismiss national security concerns in deference to a dangerous minority is hardly surprising, especially since many of these same politicians lack any moral fiber of their own. In defense of the radicals, they will protest that a crackdown would portend the return of Suharto-esque policies and signal a step backwards for human rights. Their audiences would be wise to keep in mind, however, that many of these advocates for human rights are the same personalities who started their political careers under Suharto and became fabulously wealthy at the same time.

Then there are the moral purists and academics. In their dispassionate policy analyses, these innocents argue that harsher tactics are counterproductive. They look at the abhorrences committed behind the walls of Guantanamo Bay, and easily conclude that softer techniques are a wiser option.

Without a doubt, the types of policies that were carried out by the Bush administration should be condemned, not just on grounds of moral turpitude, but efficacy as well. But does that mean that swinging toward the other end of the spectrum makes for good policy?

Pragmatism, not knee-jerk moral protest, should guide policies in the future. It is true that state torture doesn't work very well. But why should Indonesia place itself at the other extreme and tolerate preachers of hate inside boarding schools, as one example? Just as former US government officials such as Dick Cheney should have their feet put to the fire when it comes to how torture bought the United States very little in terms of valuable intelligence, so should advocates of soft policies be taken to task. How have these policies benefited Indonesia, and where have they failed? Is there perhaps not a middle way that could be more effective?

Part of the problem in any policy discourse on extremism in Indonesia is that the majority — the same people who abhor extremism in private quarters and wish the government would deal a stricter hand — are predominantly silent.

Out of fear of retribution from groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front or other half-baked moral policemen that remain above the law, the majority who could make a real difference remain, sadly, stunningly docile in public.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from last week's attacks, it is that the time has come for Yudhoyono to reassess how he should treat extremists. Finding the perpetrators is a necessary, but not sufficient measure if he is to destroy the seeds of terrorism.

The president should lead a policy debate with a zero-tolerance attitude not just with terrorists, but all types of extremist organizations, personalities and behavior. It is virtually guaranteed that if he does display the sort of toughness that most Indonesians are craving for, the opportunists and apologists will complain loudly.

Never mind. After all, Indonesia truly is a country that is dominated by people of moderation and tolerance. Now is the time for the president to speak out and act on their behalf.

James Van Zorge is a partner in Van Zorge, Heffernan & Associates, a business strategy and government relations consulting firm based in Jakarta. He can be reached at