Rights, not might, will hold back terrorism
Rights, not might, will hold back terrorism
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia

Rights, not might, will hold back terrorism

Indonesians decisively rejected this month a constitutional amendment that would have required Muslims to obey Islamic law. A rally in Jakarta called recently by proponents of an Islamic state fizzled. The world's fourth most populous nation is not about to be taken over by the religious right.

But some Indonesian nationals have had communication with groups such as Al Qaeda, and a handful may have been involved in criminal activities, including plots to attack American targets in Southeast Asia. Most of the latter are linked to a small network of Indonesian radicals who were forced into exile in the mid-1980s. These radicals have several characteristics in common.

One is shared experience of political persecution. A second is a commitment to carrying on the struggle of the regional rebellions that erupted in the 1950s in West Java and South Sulawesi and that aimed to establish an Islamic state. A third is loyalty to Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the founder of a religious boarding school outside Solo in Central Java.

The Singapore and Malaysian governments have accused Ba'asyir of being the mastermind behind a secretive set of cells known as Jemaah Islamiyah, but in fact, Jemaah Islamiyah is a generic term that can refer to any Islamic community. Ba'asyir has been associated with the creation of such communities for more than two decades; while he is certainly well-known to those arrested in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines on suspicion of involvement in terrorism, it is far from clear what his own role has been.

But hundreds of Indonesians share those same characteristics, and only a tiny minority has even had communication with individuals in Al Qaeda. The question is how to ensure that the network doesn't grow larger. Here are three ways:

  • Protect civil liberties. Many of Indonesia's most militant Muslims were radicalized by Suharto-era repression. Some served time in prison, others fled to Malaysia. This is not to say that all would have been law-abiding citizens in the absence of state repression, but there is no question that persecution made them even more determined to disobey secular authority. Indonesia has come a long way since 1998 in restoring basic freedoms. It should not be encouraged by its friends and neighbors to take any measures that could set back those reforms.
     
  • Avoid the terrorist label. The surest way to turn suspected criminals into heroes is to brand them "terrorists." The popularity of Ba'asyir has soared since Lee Kuan Yew named him as the head of a terror network with cells in Singapore and Malaysia. Because many Indonesians are skeptical of U.S. motives in the war on terror, the word "terrorist" in some circles carries more prestige than stigma.
     
  • Treat criminals as criminals. Indonesia is drafting an anti-terrorism law in accordance with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1373. The current draft of the law is less sweeping than the draconian Internal Security Acts of Singapore and Malaysia, but allows longer pre-trial detention and looser rules of evidence than the ordinary criminal code. It also provides for far heavier penalties.

A new law might be acceptable if Indonesian courts and law enforcement agencies were less corrupt and less politicized, but in the meantime, the existing criminal code provides ample scope for detaining individuals suspected of aiding, abetting or planning criminal activities.

President George W. Bush has praised the Indonesian government for its cooperation in the war on terrorism, and the U.S. Congress now looks set to partially lift restrictions on aid to the Indonesian military in recognition of the imperatives of that war.

All of those worried about terrorism in Indonesia should recognize that by far the best safeguard against it is not an enhanced role for the military or a new anti-terrorism law or a beefed-up internal security service but the strengthening of democratic institutions.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.