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Indonesia and the Globalization of Religious Terrorism

By Wibawanto Nugroho

September 9 2016

Terrorism is a multidimensional phenomenon, and until today the existence and latent threat of Islamist terrorism confronts global society with formidable challenges. As a global phenomenon, it is indeed easy to recognize the manifestation of terrorism, but it is rather difficult to clearly define it.

However, based on at least 109 available definitions of terrorism, the key elements are obvious: violence; targeting of civilians and noncombatants; intention of spreading fear; and political aims that can be mixed with ideological and religious ones. This common denominator reflects the utility of terror as a tool of change used throughout human history.

As an old tactic, terrorism has been used by governments to suppress revolution as well as by revolutionaries seeking to overthrow governments. The terrorist, whether in possession of or in want of governmental power, uses terror to achieve a political, social or religious goal. Modern terrorism is at least 200 years old and has not aged a day.

Religious terrorism is even older, reaching back more than 2,000 years in Hinduism (the Thugs), Judaism (the Zealot Zicariis), Islam (the Assassins during the Turkish Seljuk Empire), and Christianity (the Ku Klux Klan in the US).

In the early 1980s, the world entered the era of a modern religious terrorist movement, which is not limited to any one state, which is bound by a rationality incomprehensible through secular thought, and which has religious symbolic meaning in its commitment to change the structure of society.

Al-Qaeda and its associated movements, including the so-called Islamic State (IS), are part of this wave, and they have the strategic aim of establishing a global Islamic caliphate.

Correspondingly, by definition Islamist terrorism is a form of political violence that is partly manifested in the form of terrorism as a criminalized armed tactic that rejects democracy and pluralism while aiming to produce sudden, deep socio-political economic changes and legitimating the violent action by selective, extreme interpretations of Islamic texts.

The religion itself is actually not the inherent cause of violence or terrorism, since violence might occur with or without religious context. However, religion provides symbols that make horrific bloodshed easier to vindicate.

Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, have much to answer for as fomenters of religious terror. Nevertheless, the Islamist fanatics have a much greater opportunity for mayhem because of the alienated hordes in the Middle East that see no hope at all in the status quo.

The opportunity created by despair and rage, not the intrinsic elements of the religion itself, give Islam an edge over Christianity and Judaism as a force for terror.

Consequently, the cure for religious violence may ultimately lie in a renewed appreciation of religion itself and in the acknowledgement of religion in public life. The solution is not secularization, but a renewed/revived understanding of religion.

As for Indonesia, this great archipelago actually used to be a Buddhist, Hindu and Christian nation before the arrival of Islam. The coming of Islam to Indonesia in the 14th century was filtered by the pre-existing culture, thus making Islam in Indonesia an Indonesian version of Islam. However, over the years the streams of transnational Islamist movements from the Middle East began to transform the Indonesian version of Islam into the “pure”/Middle Eastern version of Islam.

The Middle Eastern influence appears a profound one on Indonesian radical fundamentalists. The dissemination of ideas from the Middle East to Southeast Asia is actually grounded in age-old cross-regional and global processes of the transference of ideas.

New methods of communication (i.e. the internet and physical transportation) further facilitate the general process of the globalization of Islam, including the dissemination of radical fundamentalist ideas to the Indonesian archipelago.

The fundamentalist movements, consisting of Islamist transnational movements, have similar characteristics, which are part of the international Sunni pan-Islamist political movement. They are commonly associated with a goal of unifying all Muslim countries under an Islamic caliphate ruled by Islamic law and led by a caliph as the head of state elected by Muslims.

Having identified such global patterns, Indonesia should address this particular phenomenon as no longer a tactical, temporary phenomenon, but as a strategic, national security threat, which in turn calls for the involvement of all instruments of national power.

Historically, Indonesia’s national security is characterized by the fact that global conflicts would always permeate through Indonesian society, so the Indonesian government must be vigilant about the threat of global violent Islamist movements permeating through Indonesian society and exacerbating potential domestic conflicts.

All that said, to better formulate the right counterterrorism policy, strategy, and operations for our nation, we should engage terrorism from four levels of analysis: individual, group, state and world.

Ending terrorism should become the goal of any counterterrorism policy and strategy, and this is not a simple task.

In dealing with radical Islamist groups, the Indonesian government so far has engaged in decapitation through eliminating group leaders, negotiation and repression.

However, the case of the Santoso terrorist group, which recently lost its leader in a security operation and saw many of its members captured, suggests that violent Islamist groups in Indonesia do not simply self-implode when they fail to reach their ultimate goals, but rather transition to another modus operandi, where their cells engage in illegal criminal activities.

There is no guarantee that they have abandoned their goal of establishing an Islamic state and will refrain from terrorist attacks in the future.

Unity between the national security apparatus, the government and the people is highly relevant in protracted counterterrorism struggles, since in the view of Islamist radicals, they are engaging in an unfinished war to achieve their utopian goals that may be unachievable during their lifetime, so their war becomes their heritage to future generations.

As a nation guided by the state ideology of Pancasila, Indonesia must be highly vigilant to ensure this country will become neither a producer of terrorists nor the battlefield of a global terrorist movement.