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Indonesia Backgrounder: Why Salafism and Terrorism Mostly Don't Mix
Indonesia Backgrounder: Why Salafism and Terrorism Mostly Don't Mix
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 83 / Asia

Indonesia Backgrounder: Why Salafism and Terrorism Mostly Don't Mix

One result of the "war on terror" in Indonesia has been increased attention to the country's links with religious institutions in the Middle East and the puritanical form of Islam known as salafism.

Executive Summary

One result of the "war on terror" in Indonesia has been increased attention to the country's links with religious institutions in the Middle East and the puritanical form of Islam known as salafism. Particularly outside observers but some Indonesians as well tend to assume that salafism is alien to Indonesian Islam, is growing by leaps and bounds, and is dangerous, because it promotes violence. All three notions are misleading. This report, the first comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon in Indonesia, concludes that most Indonesian salafis find organisations like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group responsible for the Bali bombings of October 2002 and almost certainly the Australian embassy bombing of September 2004, anathema. Salafism may be more of a barrier to the expansion of jihadist activities than a facilitator.

The term salafism describes a movement that seeks to return to what its adherents see as the purest form of Islam, that practiced by the Prophet Mohammed and the two generations that followed him. In practice, this means the rejection of unwarranted innovations (bid'ah) brought to the religion in later years.

The strictest salafis in Indonesia:

  • are religious, not political activists;
  • eschew political or organisational allegiances because they divide the Muslim community and divert attention from study of the faith and propagation of salafi principles;
  • reject oath-taking to a leader -- central to the organisational structure of groups like JI;
  • believe it is not permissible to revolt against a Muslim government, no matter how oppressive or unjust, and are opposed to JI and the Darul Islam movement because in their view they actively promote rebellion against the Indonesian state; and
  • tend to see the concept of jihad in defensive terms -- aiding Muslims under attack, rather than waging war against symbolic targets that may include innocent civilians.

While some involved in terrorism in Indonesia, such as Aly Gufron alias Mukhlas, a Bali bomber, claim to be salafis, the radical fringe that Mukhlas represents (sometimes called "salafi jihadism") is not representative of the movement more broadly.

The report examines the rise of salafism in Indonesia, noting that far from being alien to Indonesian Islam, it is only the most recent in a long history of puritanical movements, and looks at the role of Saudi funding in its expansion in the 1980s and 1990s. As important as funding is the close communication between Indonesian salafis and their Middle Eastern mentors, most but not all of them Saudis.

Indonesian salafi leaders rarely decide issues of doctrine or practice without consulting their teachers. Laskar Jihad, the militia established to wage jihad in Ambon was forced to disband after one important Saudi scholar concluded it had strayed from its original purpose. The fact that the Saudi sheikhs most frequently consulted by Indonesian salafis are themselves close to the Saudi government is another brake on any attraction within the movement to Osama bin Laden.

A major split within Indonesian salafism is between "purists", who reject any association with groups or individuals willing to compromise religious purity for political goals, and more tolerant and inclusive groups willing to acknowledge some good even in deviant teachings. The "purists" categorically reject the Muslim Brotherhood and its Indonesian offshoot, the political party PKS, as well as organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jemaah Tabligh, and Darul Islam. Not only will they not interact with them, but they also reject funding from any source that has deviant organisations among its grantees.

Ironically, this means that the most "radical" of the salafis are the most immune to jihadist teachings, and the more "moderate", those more open to other streams of thought, may provide slightly more fertile recruiting grounds for the jihadis.

That said, ICG's information suggests that most salafi jihadis are not recruited from salafi schools but rather from schools linked to Darul Islam or JI itself; urban mosques; and areas with a history of communal conflict. The report examines the few concrete cases known of salafis who have crossed into or out of JI. Drawing on their own writings, it looks in depth at the difference between salafis and salafi jihadis.

More than ever, there is need for an empirical study of the educational backgrounds of known JI-members, but ICG concludes that salafism in Indonesia is not the security threat sometimes portrayed. It may come across to outsiders as intolerant or reactionary, but for the most part it is not prone to terrorism, in part because it is so inwardly focused on faith.

Southeast Asia/Brussels, 13 September 2004

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013