The Islamic Evolution of Indonesia: From Moderatism to Salafist Fundamentalism

View of a November, 2016, protest in Indonesia.

The interconnectivity between growing Islamic extremism across the globe cannot be disputed or underestimated. It is undeniable; a growing wave of Salafist fundamentalism is gaining traction, stemming from the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq. The role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Ministry is crucial to understanding the rise in Salafist extremism worldwide. More specifically, the House of Saud lucratively supports fundamentalist Sunni Islam worldwide via the funding of mosques, foundations, Islamic education, and sending clerics to moderate Islamic countries to influence a Salafist agenda. As a result, Salafism – a fundamentalist movement that even the Islamic State ascribes to – is the new religion of empire. Its rejectionist tendencies are a danger as they influence extremism in all Sunni countries, from Mali to Indonesia. It is imperative to analyze the growth of Salafism in Indonesia, because of its role in an increased wave of Islamist political influence and terror, as well as the intricate connection Indonesia has to Salafist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Solo, Indonesia is the ground zero in Indonesia’s fight against Islamic extremism, and is increasingly becoming a breeding ground for Islamic State recruitment in Syria and Iraq. Solo, 360 miles southeast of Jakarta, was once home to a dynamic textile industry, but global competition has led to economic decline. Wage growth has been anemic and many youths are unemployed or scrape out a living trading at the Dutch-era covered market. Anies Baswedan, Indonesia’s Education Minister, claims this growing economic malaise is a factor fueling extremism. Unequivocally, unemployment and limited access to education are symptoms of growth in Islamic extremism, which is prevalent as far from Indonesia as France and Belgium.

As the largest exporter of Islamic State fighters from Southeastern Asia, it’s clear this wave of hardline Sunni ideology, Salafism, has gained traction in the world’s largest Muslim country. For decades Indonesia has demonstrated that moderate Islamic culture dominates the country; more recently, however, a new wave of extremist influence has taken hold. In the name of demanding that the current Jakarta governor be prosecuted for alleged blasphemy, in part due to his Christian faith, a conglomerate of violent Salafist extremists and Islamist political alliances are on the rise in Indonesia. Two hardline groups, both of which receive Saudi funding for their religious institutions and mosques, are the Islamic Defenders Front and Prosperous Justice Party. In early November 2016, a protest aimed at denouncing Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in the Indonesian capital garnered more than 100,000 people. The Islamist protestors held banners at odds with Governor Purnama, also known as Ahok, which read ‘put Ahok in jail’. It is clear that this accusation stems from many Islamists in Jakarta at odds with having a Christian governor. This aligns with the anti-Shiite, anti-Christian rhetoric of Salafist fundamentalism. Many of the protestors called Ahok a kefir, or non-believer. Simply put, Indonesia’s government has been increasingly ineffective and relatively complacent in curbing extremism from pervading the once moderate Islamic country.

Nearly 90% of Indonesia’s 250 million people are Sunni Muslims. The country that once had a moderate Islamic culture, with earlier influences by Hinduism and Buddhism, is becoming increasingly unrecognizable. Headscarves for women, once rare, are now widely worn and Islamic schools, funded by fundamentalist Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, are now more prevalent. Furthermore, a constitutional prohibition to outlaw cohabitation and sex between unmarried people is gaining traction in the Indonesian Supreme Court. In 2015, a push by Islamist political organizations to ban alcohol sales gained momentum – minimarts became prohibited from selling alcoholic beverages. In January of 2016, the largest telecommunications company in Indonesia, Telecom, blocked access to Netflix Inc.’s video-streaming service for alleged ‘violent and adult content.’ Moreover, anti-gay rallies have been staged in recent months, organized by Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front and Prosperous Justice Party.

As security officials in the country fear that the growth of the Islamic State (IS) is inspiring local radicals to become even more violent, thousands of Indonesian nationals have made the move to Iraq and Syria to join the IS and Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS). Unfortunately, these security concerns were validated by a series of terrorist attacks in 2016. There is inevitably a furious growth within the IS and JFS communities in Indonesia. In January, Islamic State-linked Indonesian citizens terrorized the capital, killing two people in a suicide attack. In July, a self-proclaimed IS militant blew himself up at a police station in the town of Solo, injuring one officer. In late August, a suspected supporter of the Islamic State stabbed and wounded Indonesian police in Jakarta. The ‘bravery’ of this young attacker was cited in Al-Naba, an online IS bulletin. Intriguingly, the suspects of all three attacks had roots to Solo, the once textile economic capital of Indonesia, now the hearth of growing Salafist extremism in the country.

The unique relationship to Salafist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al Sham in Indonesia deepens further. On October 29, photographs appeared on social media accounts linked to Jabhat Fatah al Sham holding signs that said “Sentence Ahok or We Will Sentence Him with Bullets” in front of a large wooden box that read, in Arabic, “Ahok’s Coffin.” On November 4, over telegram and other messaging services, Indonesian security forces discovered Indonesian extremism sympathizers linked to the Islamic Defenders Front. These communications unveiled encouragement urging to “fan the flames of Jihad” across the country as anti-Ahok protests intensified in Jakarta.

As aforementioned, Saudi Arabia is the world’s main provider of Islamic education, particularly aligned with fundamentalism, literalist ideology such as Salafism. In addition to promoting Salafism and maligning other religious communities, Saudi educational materials present the kingdom in a favorable light and can also exacerbate religious strife, as they are doing in Indonesia. A rise in anti-Shia and anti-Christian sentiment has been increasingly pronounced in Indonesia since the 1980s. The Saudi educational program aims to create global alliances and legitimize the Saudi claim to be the leader of Islam – at home and abroad. The role of Saudi Arabia cannot be discounted in this dangerous phenomenon. This growth of volatile Islamic literalism increases vulnerability for extremism in Indonesia, as is evident in increased ISIS and JFS recruits, IS and JFS militant collaborations, and the systemic implementation of Salafist education and public policy in Indonesia. Clearly, there are worrisome long-term implications for various mechanisms of Salafist growth in the country, which will continue to influence Salafist corruption in political discourse, the ostracizing of religious minorities, and the intensification of the deeply rooted Indonesian relationship to the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al Sham in Syria and Iraq.

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