Indonesia's Tepid Response to ISIS


President Obama with Indonesian President YudhoyonoIndonesia is not an Islamic state,” the nation’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told The Australian in August. “We respect all religions.”

This resounding statement was made just a day after video surfaced of journalist James Foley’s beheading at the hands of an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant. President Yudhoyono denounced this and other ISIS acts as “shocking,” “embarrassing,” “humiliating,” and generally antithetical to Islam.

As the world’s most populous Muslim majority country and its third largest democracy, it is expected that Indonesia would take a strong stance against ISIS. From a practical perspective, remaining neutral would suggest ambivalence, which would elicit the suspicion of “Western” countries (including Australia and New Zealand) with whom Indonesia trades heavily. From an ideological perspective, the values championed by ISIS are in direct opposition to the principles of democracy, so any hint that Indonesia approves of them would undermine the country’s reputation as a regional exemplar.

Indeed, Indonesian officials’ rhetoric against the group has been vehement. Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin told media that ISIS “not only fights the West, but also fights fellow Muslims.” Saifuddin’s Deputy Minister, Nasaruddin Umar said, “ISIS is our common enemy. Indonesia is a peaceful country, and ISIS should not create chaos.” Co-ordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto: “[The teachings of ISIS] are not in line with state ideology… or the philosophy of [diversity]...”

The archipelago represents a strategic resource for ISIS, so it’s plausible the group could be a national security threat. Indonesia’s large Muslim population serves as a potentially extensive recruiting pool and, for the same reason, it is prime real estate upon which to establish an outpost of the desired, so-called “global caliphate.” Given this reality, one would expect Indonesian resistance to take forms other than speech.

Jakarta seems to recognize the potentiality of the threat, but does not seem to have a physical grasp on it. President Yudhoyono told officials, “We shouldn’t be lulled [into thinking] that the danger is only in the Middle East… If we are not vigilant… similar acts of violence could also happen here.” (For anyone who recalls the 2002 Bali bombing that left more than 200 people dead, the possibility is all too real.) His solution, though, was to encourage officials to simply keep a close watch on would-be dangerous elements at home and abroad.

According to Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) chairman Ansyaad Mbai, the country’s “terrorism law is considered [among] the weakest in the world,” as it is “reactive” and focuses on events “after the fact.” Little legislation exists, he argues, to prevent acts of terrorism.

In response to the ISIS situation, Yudhoyono’s administration has made it illegal to endorse or otherwise support the group and is using this new law to “hunt down” suspected militants. Jakarta has also started censoring YouTube videos that promote the organization and its radical ideology. Thus, some action has been taken. Experts say there’s more work to be done.

Minister Djoko Suyanto argues Indonesia needs to “coordinate with other countries to ensure legal immigration processes” and “anticipate any possible recruitment through social media.” Terrorism analyst Noor Huda Ismail recommends the government narrow its efforts to target individuals under the age of 40 by using various social approaches to engage religious leaders and the family.

Yet one essential problem belies Indonesia’s ISIS strategy: determining the exact extent of the threat. On September 11, Ansyaad Mbai of the BNPT told Khabar Southeast Asia his agency estimated about 100 Indonesian citizens were fighting in the Middle East. At the beginning of September, The Daily Beast contended a mere 30 Indonesians had joined ISIS. One day prior to that article, The Wall Street Journal pegged the number of recruits at 60. In mid-August, Michael Bachelard of The Sydney Morning Herald wrote authorities “[had] no idea” and estimates ranged from 50 to 500. While the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry in coordination with the BNPT sent a sort of fact-finding team to the Middle East last month, intelligence gathered from the mission is still forthcoming.

So why the lack of action? Why the uncertainty? Since it’s a democracy, Indonesia’s domestic sphere could yield some answers. True, there’s been societal backlash against ISIS recorded in the media. Religious leaders are calling on their congregations to unite in opposition to the organization. Scholars and community organizations have been enlisted in stopping the spread of extremism. But fringe Islamic groups largely operating in a region thousands of miles away and primarily targeting populations even farther away than that are somehow not on the forefront of the electorate’s collective mind.

How do we know this? For one, the Google search “Joko Widodo ISIS” yields no substantive results. In fact, the former governor of Jakarta, current president-elect is noticeably weak on foreign policy. The Wall Street Journal predicts Jokowi (as he is affectionately known) “loosely plans on continuing the foreign policy developed by his predecessor,” sitting President Yudhoyono. Widodo’s priorities, the Journal states, will be to: "(1) strengthen intra-ASEAN cooperation (2) improve the plight of Indonesian emigrant workers (3) increase military spending." He may also seek to increase Indonesia’s role in mitigating regional tensions regarding China’s maritime... adventures, shall we say. “Defeating ISIS” appears nowhere on his list of objectives.

And why should it? Nearly 50% of Indonesians live on $2 a day. Once robust economic growth has slumped in recent years. Jakarta faces severe traffic problems, compounded by ridiculously generous fuel subsidies Widodo wants desperately to repeal. The education and health care systems are in need of reform. It’s true the ISIS crisis could provide a way for Indonesia to cooperate with the U.S.—in doing so, strengthen ties and balance against China—as well as demonstrate solidarity with Middle Eastern causes. Some analysts believe Southeast Asia is ripe for geopolitical change and that Indonesia, with its large population and relatively vigorous growth, could be the driver. But to ignore domestic concerns of corruption, structural deficiencies, and inequality, in favor of political or ideological pursuits would be heedless. Regardless of whether Widodo possesses the capacity to undertake a concerted campaign against ISIS, he’d be right to avoid one. Sometimes threats to daily life trump threats to principle.


Asia, World, WorldMaren KillackeyComment