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The dome of a mosque with sunset at the background
The religious attacks hurt Indonesia's image as a tolerant nationImage: AP

Is radical Islamism in Indonesia on the rise?

February 10, 2011

Indonesia has been witnessing a series of incidents where hard-line Islamists have targeted members of religious minorities. But the majority of the population see themselves as moderate.


Indonesians have been shocked by the recent incidents, with video footage showing the brutal lynching of members of the Ahmadiyah minority community last weekend and another attack from Muslim hardliners against three churches a few days later. Indonesia’s image as a country of inter-faith harmony has been shattered.

But prominent Indonesian intellectual Azyumardi Azra says radical Muslims are in the minority. He thinks that Indonesia is still a tolerant country, stressing people cannot make generalizations based on the two incidents that he regards as isolated cases. "The majority of Indonesian people are peaceful people but there are some groups or people who love violence."

A police officer stands guard at the damaged house of a member of the Ahmadiyah after it was attacked by a Muslim mob
Last Sunday over 1,000 radical Islamists attacked a group of Ahmadis who were meeting in their leader's homeImage: AP

Positive developments despite radical groups

The hard-line Islamic Defenders Front or FPI is suspected to be behind some attacks against other religious communities. With its aim being the implementation of Islamic shariah law in Indonesia, its members have conducted yearly raids during the month of Ramadan, attacking nightclubs, bars and other venues, which they say are not in line with Islam. Azyumardi Azra adds that there is some suspicion among some people that these radical groups have some connections with certain retired military or retired police officers. But so far there is no hard proof.

Azra, the director of the State Islamic University in Indonesia, sees some positive developments in Indonesia. For example, that some people responsible for terrorist attacks have been arrested and that the media is promoting a stronger commitment to the pluralistic state ideology known as the five pillars or Pancasila.

Loud minority

Indonesian Muslim youth from the hard-line Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir wave black and white flags with the religious writing that reads
The radical Islamists make up a small number but are quite vocalImage: AP

But for journalist Noor Huda Ismail, the situation in Indonesia is cause for concern, even though he also agrees that the extremists are in the minority. "The problem is these people have the ability to grab the microphone and dictate the discourse," the 39-year old told Deutsche Welle. "And most Indonesian Muslims, the moderate ones, tend to be a bit hesitant," he added further, calling them a silent majority. For him now is the time for the majority to finally say 'Enough is enough, this violence must be stopped!'

Ismail used to be a hard-liner himself. He went to a notorious Islamic boarding school in Ngruki, a number of whose students were behind the Bali bombings in 2002, killing over 200 people. His views changed when he was exposed to different perspectives while living abroad. Now with his Institute of International Peace Building, he tries to de-radicalize former militants.

Open-minded education

An Indonesian girl waits for her parents outside a mosque in Jakarta
Memorization is the main method used in most schoolsImage: AP

Ismail said many Indonesians still have a problem accepting differences. "We do have a problem with the way we understand religions, we think that we own the legitimacy to say this is right and this is wrong." Ismail believes religion should be a form of spiritual guidance, rather than an organized authoritarian institution. An open-minded education, rather than the traditional Indonesian method of education, is seen by Ismail as one of the keys to solving the complicated problem. "Our type of education is memorizing, rather than encouraging students to have critical thinking," he said further.

Poverty is also said to be a further factor in religious hate crimes. In the latest attack on Ahmadis, for example, it has been reported that many of the attackers were unemployed and were offered two dollars to take part in the clash.

Author: Anggatira Gollmer
Editor: Sarah Berning

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