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Indonesia: Radical Muslim Groups Elude Easy Classification

  • Nikola Krastev

Suspicion over the deadly weekend bombing in Bali is focusing on radical Muslims linked to Al-Qaeda. Leaders of Islamist organizations throughout Indonesia deny involvement in the bombing and ties to the terrorist group but a few profess solidarity with some of Al-Qaeda's aims. Terrorism experts worry that radical Islamic groups offer a growing number of desperately poor people in Indonesia -- the world's most populous Muslim nation -- a way to channel their anger. Shortly before the Bali attack, RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev was in the Indonesian capital Jakarta and spoke with a prominent leader of one extremist Muslim group about its goals. He also speaks to a U.S. expert on Indonesian radicals.

Jakarta, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Walking down the streets of Jakarta these days it is not uncommon to pass by teenagers sporting T-shirts with a portrait of Osama bin Laden clenching his fist in victory.

It's one obvious sign of both the new freedom of expression Indonesia has enjoyed since the end of President Suharto's rule in 1998 as well as the rise of Islamic consciousness among youths. Until recently, Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia followed a moderate form of Islam. But the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the struggle by mujahedin in Afghanistan against Soviet occupying forces introduced elements of fundamentalism to the region.

Authorities in the country are now concerned that radical Islam is flourishing at a time of deepening economic problems. Their fears about the presence of Al-Qaeda cells here deepened after the blast at a Bali nightclub last weekend killed more than 180 people, many of them Australian tourists.

Days before the incident in Bali, our correspondent was in the Indonesian capital and spoke with the local leader of the Islamic Youth Movement, a prominent extremist group known by the Indonesian acronym GPI. The leader, 36-year-old Iqbal Siregar, stressed that his group does not support violent methods:

"We are absolutely against the use of force under any circumstances and we explicitly prohibit the use of force by our members in whatever situation they may have found themselves. However, demonstrations are permissible. Demonstrations are legal and peaceful, and they are a way to express our position."

The GPI was involved in protests at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta against the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. Like many other extremist Muslim leaders in Asia, Siregar does not believe that Muslim radicals organized the terrorist acts in New York and Washington on 11 September last year. He believes the U.S. government has used the events to attack people and organizations opposed to American interests.

He says any show of support for Osama bin Laden amongst Muslims in Indonesia is a reflection of this resentment against U.S. actions: "Since [the U.S. government] branded Osama bin Laden a terrorist, he has become a symbol of resistance against America's arrogance. For us, Osama bin Laden is a hero. We must follow in his footsteps to fight against America's arrogance. All of the Islamic movements are against America's arrogance."

Siregar has been quoted in the past as saying GPI also sent 50 volunteers to fight in Afghanistan -- a claim that is disputed by Calvin Simms, a journalism professor at Princeton University in New Jersey and an expert on Indonesian radicalism. In his breakdown of the country's extremist Muslim groups, Simms says GPI can be categorized as radical but not violent. He says it is highly unlikely the GPI would have succeeded in sending fighters to Afghanistan:

"I doubt that that's true, because the Indonesian government prohibited any Indonesians from leaving and going to fight in Afghanistan. They had a strict prohibition. And there were some that wanted to go, but they were stopped. So it seems, at the end, [among] the arrests of Al-Qaeda members and Taliban members caught, I don't remember any of them being Indonesian."

Siregar himself told RFE/RL that GPI sent physicians -- not fighters -- to Afghanistan. He said GPI's aid to Afghanistan is meant as a show of solidarity with various Islamic organizations and is part of his group's long-term goal of guiding younger generations toward Islamic teachings with the hope of eventually creating an Islamic state:

"Another important part of our mission is to support Islamic movements on a global scale. For example, we have sent teams of physicians to Afghanistan. We have done this out of a sense for Islamic solidarity. We have sent humanitarian aid also to Iraq. We feel the need to support Islamic movements throughout the world, [to support] our brothers."

Siregar says that GPI maintains close links with numerous Islamic religious schools -- known as "pondok pesantren" -- providing education and support for impoverished and orphaned children. He says that a number of teachers in these schools are GPI members or sympathizers.

The activities of GPI, Siregar says, are funded through membership fees and with donations of wealthy patrons such as businessmen and politicians. Contributions from non-Muslim donors are welcome, he says, as long as the sanctity of the Islam teachings is not compromised and the donors have not engaged in anti-Islamic activities. He says that during the massive floods in Jakarta earlier this year, the local GPI chapter received financial support from a Christian organization for its charitable work in affected areas.

Princeton's Simms says that as the United States tries to consider how countries like Indonesia fit into the framework of global terrorism, they run the risk of lumping all of the country's radical Muslim groups into a single category. In fact, Simms says, there is a wide variety of groups, ranging from open violent extremist organizations like Laskar Jihad -- which disbanded suddenly early this week -- to more moderate Islamic groups like GPI.

Simms: "Part of the problem is that there is no distinction made on the part of the U.S. government when they sort of attack what they call 'Islamic radicals' or 'extremists' in Indonesia. And so you would think that all of these groups are linked to that group, to that sort of radical Islamic group. You don't hear any distinction made and that's the problem, that without making a distinction you drive all of these groups to be more radicalized, to be more extremist because they thought that you are attacking the practice of their religion by accusing all of them of being terrorists."

Siregar, when asked what kind of governance will be most suitable for Indonesia -- which with some 227 million people is the world's most populous Muslim country -- says the natural choice would be an Islamic republic, or "Shariat Islamiya." He says such a system would nonetheless protect the rights of the country's small Christian minority:

"The ideal situation for Indonesia will be if all the aspirations of different groups in the society are satisfied. That's why we have to return to the Shariat Islam as a main principle of the state. I want to clarify the misperception that if there is Shariat Islam established that then the rights of the minorities will be abused. This is not true. The rights of the minorities [Christians] will be fully respected and honored. Since Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country, an establishment of Shariat Islam will be just and the Muslims will feel more comfortable. The rights of the Christians will be absolutely respected."

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