Indonesia -country with largest Muslim population- struggling to fight with radical Islam

Islamic boarding school students pray at the al-Mukmin Pesantren in Ngruki, Sukoharjo, Central Java, founded by Abu Bakar Bashir, Sept. 2, 2003. (AFP)
Islamic boarding school students pray at the al-Mukmin Pesantren in Ngruki, Sukoharjo, Central Java, founded by Abu Bakar Bashir, Sept. 2, 2003. (AFP)

Hundreds of Indonesians responded to the call by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group for Muslims to emigrate to its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Indonesia takes pride in its diverse and largely moderate society, but the world’s most populous Islamic country is trying to curb resurgent radicalism.

According to the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), IS has used an economic approach – not just an ideological one – to recruit followers from Indonesia.

“They are lured with promises of a big salary, up to 50 million rupiah [U.S. $3,635 monthly],” said Brig. Gen. Hamidin, BNPT’s prevention director, during a seminar on radicalization in late October at Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java province.

The spread of radicalism among the younger generation is due to a narrow interpretation of the word “jihad,” BNPT Director Saud Usman Nasution told BenarNews.

“They think that jihad is all about fighting against infidels. But that was only during the era of the Rasulullah [Prophet Muhammad],” he said.

Prison pledge

Radicalism has infiltrated schools, universities, cyberspace, and prisons, Saud said.

“Not all convicts who serve time in prison come out as better individuals. Some of them even preached [their beliefs] and recruited new followers in prison,” he said.

Last year, photos of convicted terrorist Abu Bakar Bashir and other inmates posing with an IS flag at the Nusakambangan penal island circulated widely online. The inmates reportedly posed for the picture after pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi.

Bashir once considered the spiritual head of al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, is serving a 15-year sentence for raising funds to finance a paramilitary training in Aceh province.

The director general of correctional facilities at the Justice and Human Rights Ministry admitted at the time that the pledge of allegiance was off its radar because of weak prison surveillance.

Underlying forces

The number of Indonesians who have joined jihadist groups is insignificant compared with the size of Indonesia’s population (250 million), according to Noor Huda Ismail, research director at the Jakarta-based Institute for International Peace Building.

But their presence is linked to a more widespread problem plaguing Indonesia.

The National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) and Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java, sign an MoU to counter radicalism, Oct. 27, 2015.

“Radicalism has many layers. The terrorism layer represents a small part of society. But there are underlying forces that keep terrorism and radical views alive. The first and foremost is intolerance, and it is the most acute problem in Indonesia,” Noor Huda told BenarNews.

He cited as an example elements in the Muslim community who are hostile to other Muslim sects such as the Ahmadiyah and Shia.

“They consider those fellow Muslims as enemies, let alone non-Muslims such as Ahok,” said Noor Huda, referring to Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama by his nickname.

Hardline Muslim organizations protested when Ahok  – a Christian, and the first ethnic Chinese governor in Indonesia – assumed the post.

A survey conducted in Greater Jakarta by the Federation for Indonesian Teachers Associations (FSGI) last month found intolerant attitudes present in close to 90 percent of public schools, especially those in regions on the outskirts of Jakarta, such as Depok and Bekasi.

These early signs of radicalism are mainly evident in students who take religious extracurricular activities. They refuse to shake hands with teachers who are of the opposite sex. They also denounce the state philosophy of Pancasila, which embraces pluralism, and they refuse to line up for the flag-raising ceremony.

The survey, which was viewed by BenarNews, also found that schools play a role in seeding radicalism by setting rules that cater to the religious majority: requiring all students to recite the Quran every morning and female students to wear headscarves, rather than promoting Indonesia’s state motto of “unity in diversity.”

BNPT’s Saud acknowledged that radical views have penetrated public schools and said the agency had undertaken routine visits to campuses across the country to thwart it.

Multiple approaches

IS targets young people through public sermons, as well as chat groups on mobile messaging apps such as Whatsapp and BBM dan Telegram, according to Muhammad Taufiqurrohman, a senior researcher at the Research Center on Radicalism (PAKAR) and Abdurrahman Wahid Center-University of Indonesia.

“These new members are very enthusiastic to go to the Middle East and this was largely through propaganda spread by IS media activists who propagate through web sites such as,,, and,” Taufiqurrohman said.

But according to him, the most successful promotion of radical views has been done out in the open through mass public sermons (tabligh akbar ) and trainings (dauroh) that introduce IS and its so-called caliphate in mosques.

Such activities are also conducted behind closed doors, he said, adding that this model had been detected in Medan in Sumatra, Makassar and Poso in Sulawesi, and Bandung and Bekasi in Java.

Disengagement vs. de-radicalization

Taufik Andrie, executive director of the Institute for International Peace Building, is a proponent of disengagement, which emphasizes changes in behavior rather than changes in belief.

“Disengagement is more realistic. They no longer do violent terrorist acts, even though their ideology and belief remains the same,” Taufik said.

He added that his foundation has counseled and rehabilitated terrorism convicts so they no longer have the intention to carry out violent acts, although the foundation does not interfere with their ideology.

Taufik said the most important element in this process was the convict’s willingness to participate.

“We want the initiative to come from them so they don’t feel like they are forced. This makes it easier to work with them,” Taufik said.

The foundation asks inmates about their plans after they finish their prison terms. If they want to start a business, it supports them until they are self-reliant.

This does not always succeed.

One former prisoner, Machmudi Hariono (also known as Yusuf Adirima), opened a restaurant called “Dapoer Bistik” in Semarang, Central Java. In 2010, he was approached by someone who tried to persuade him to join a paramilitary training camp in Aceh.

Yusuf, a veteran of Moro Islamist Liberal Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines, refused the offer and chose to stay in Semarang.

Another former inmate tried to run a fisheries and shrimp ponds business in Central Java, but got involved in terrorism activities again and is now back behind bars.

“Based on our evaluation, we realize that the program suitable for former inmates is something that keeps them busy so that they no longer have the time to think about radical ideology,” Taufik said.

“Running shrimp and fish ponds didn’t keep them occupied enough, so they had a lot of free time to think about those radical views.”

Heny Rahayu contributed to this report. Published with permission from BenarNews