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Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Assessing Vulnerabilities and Sources of Resilience

May 17, 2018

Read the full report here.

The recent suicide bombings in Surabaya, Indonesia on May 13-14, 2018 highlight the country’s continued struggle with radicalism and terrorism. Claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), these attacks typify the latest chapter in Indonesia’s decades-long struggle with violent extremism.

Since the fall of the dictatorial Suharto regime in 1998, terrorism, ethno-religious conflict and intolerance have undermined the country’s democratic progress.  Focus group data by IRI’s Center for Insights in Survey Research reveals some of the key vulnerabilities to violent extremism in Indonesia’s West Java province, as well as sources of resilience to radical ideology. 

In the years immediately following the Suharto era, the infamous Al Qaeda-backed Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) set off a series of bombs blasts in Bali that killed 202 civilians. This initiated the ongoing era of terrorism in Indonesia that has been guided, planned and funded by transnational terror networks.

Intermittent interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians broke out across the archipelago in Maluku and then Central Sulawesi from 1998 to 2001, exposing an additional social cleavage that devolved into violence. These episodes revealed the deep-seated interreligious tensions that had been tamped down during Suharto’s 32-year rule, and which flourished in the opening socio-political atmosphere of the country’s young democracy.

Since the rise of ISIS in 2014, a new brand of transnational terror has infiltrated Indonesia. ISIS has sought to provide moral and material support to indigenous radical groups across Indonesia in order to exploit social cleavages and lay the groundwork for new jihadi recruits. The Jakarta attack in early 2016 and the bus terminal bombing in 2017—which preceded the Surabaya bombings—is an example of this new generation of ISIS-inspired terrorists.

In spite of the relatively tolerant national identity encapsulated in the country’s founding ideology of Pancasila, fears of encroaching Western-style secularism are driving rising religious intolerance that is being exploited by some political actors for electoral wins and risks playing into the hands of extremist groups eager for recruits. The recent blasphemy trial and conviction of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), a Chinese Christian, revealed the extent to which some Indonesians feel the country’s Islamic identity is under assault.   

In response to this troubling dynamic, IRI conducted a qualitative research project to understand the behaviors and attitudes of Indonesians in West Java—an area that has seen an acute rise in intolerance and the increasing influence of radical groups such as Hizb Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). IRI convened focus group discussions with groups identified as key segments of the population:  a demographically-representative group of citizens; members of moderate Islamic mass organizations; members of conservative Islamic mass organizations; conservative university students; members of nationalist political parties; and members of Islamic political parties.

While the drivers of violent extremism are complex and vary across individual contexts, some of the key themes identified through our research include perceptions of injustice at the global, national and local level and the desire for money, opportunity or status. IRI’s research uncovered significant dissatisfaction with the quality of Indonesia’s democracy, accessibility of governance mechanisms, and transparency among the country’s government officials.

There is also a growing fear that politicians may seek to undermine personal religious practices. This has led many to sympathize with radical calls for religious intolerance and, in some cases, violence. If these sentiments continue to grow, there is a risk that the upcoming local elections in West Java could be coopted by radical groups seeking to consolidate their influence through elected office.

The rise in intolerant attitudes and sympathies toward radical ideology uncovered in this report poses a complex challenge to the Indonesian government. Support for radical political leaders and policies must be countered by political actors who champion pluralism, inclusion and respect. With the aid of public opinion research such as this most recent focus group report, IRI will continue to work with national and local-level stakeholders to enhance the accessibility of democratic, nonviolent outlets for local grievances. In this way, we can help to ensure that Indonesia will continue on its democratic journey and build a more citizen-centered government.