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Indonesia: Violence and Radical Muslims

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The destruction of the World Trade Centre and part of the Pentagon by terrorists has again focused international attention on radical Muslims and their potential to engage in acts of terrorism. Osama bin Laden�s al-Qaida organisation is said to have cells in 34 countries including the United States, most European countries, and various countries in the Arab world. Informed observers have also speculated that al-Qaida has a presence in several Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. At the very least it has been claimed that Osama bin Laden has �links� with radical Islamic groups in these countries although the exact nature of these links has not been specified.

The U.S.-led air strikes against military targets in Afghanistan � accompanied by inevitable civilian casualties � have outraged public opinion in largely Muslim Indonesia and presented President Megawati Soekarnoputri�s government with a huge dilemma. Megawati recently completed a successful visit to the U.S. and obtained President George W. Bush�s support for increased economic assistance as well as a relaxation of restrictions on military co-operation. Although the Indonesian government condemned the 11 September attacks and �pledged to cooperate with the international community in combating terrorism�, it has refrained from endorsing the current U.S.-led military campaign. On the one hand, the government does not want to prejudice its economic relationship with the U.S. but, on the other, it cannot afford, in the new democratic era, to ignore the sentiments of a large part of its population.

In a statement issued on 8 October, the government �urged that the operations that have started should truly be very limited in the use of force, in its targets and in its timing, and thus reduce or minimise casualties among those who are innocent�. Earlier, the government had warned that the U.S. response should �be proportional, have precise targets, not exceed proper limits, and avoid creating a new human tragedy�. The government also called on the UN to adopt a collective response to the crisis.

During the weeks before the attacks on Afghanistan, radical Muslim organisations had been rallying their supporters in the streets of Jakarta and other major cities. After the air campaign began, demonstrations became larger and more widespread. The main targets are the American embassy and its consulates where demonstrators, carrying banners with slogans such as �America is the Great Terrorist� and �Osama My Hero�, have burnt the U.S. flag and chanted anti-American slogans. More ominously, some organisations are threatening to carry out what they term �sweeping� of U.S. citizens together with citizens of allied nations. The aim of the �sweeping� would be to drive such foreigners out of Indonesia. The U.S. ambassador, Robert Gelbard, publicly declared his lack of confidence in the police and permitted embassy staff to leave Indonesia. So far demonstrations have been restrained and relatively small. On the first two days after the raids on Afghanistan, a thousand or more demonstrated at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta while smaller numbers protested in other cities.

Although the radical Muslim organisations have taken the lead in opposing the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, their sentiments are widely shared within the Muslim community. Leaders of the moderate Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and the Mohamadiyah have issued statements condemning the American action and the semi-official Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI � Indonesian Ulamas� Council) has called for the suspension of diplomatic relations with the U.S.. The foreign affairs commission of the parliament has described the attack as �brutal� and in conflict with international law and humanitarianism. The negative reaction, however, is not limited to Muslim opinion and has also been expressed by secular groups.

The government is naturally concerned that conflict in Afghanistan could boost domestic support for Islamic radicalism. In recent years Indonesia has experienced an increasing number of terrorist attacks � particularly bombings. While by no means all terrorism can be linked to radical Muslims, some attacks � such as those on churches � were quickly blamed on Muslim groups. Two of the biggest bomb blasts � one aimed at the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia and another at the Jakarta Stock Exchange building � were also linked to Muslim groups. Much lower on the scale of violence, radical Muslim vigilante groups have often taken the law into their own hands by attacking night-clubs, gambling centres and brothels in various part of Jakarta and in other cities, and in Central Java last year one group attempted to drive American tourists from the city of Solo (also known as Surakarta).

Muslims have also been involved in violent conflicts in various regions of Indonesia. It is estimated that around 5000 people have been killed in Muslim-Christian conflict in Maluku and North Maluku since January 1999; hundreds have been killed in continuing Muslim-Christian violence in Poso in Central Sulawesi; the separatist guerrillas of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM - Aceh Freedom Movement) are Muslims fighting government forces in Aceh; and Muslims have participated in dozens of smaller outbreaks of violence in other parts of Indonesia.

International concern has been focussed on the possibility that Muslim violence in Indonesia might be associated with terrorist organisations based in the Middle East but so far, at least, there is little firm public evidence to demonstrate such links. Several hundred Indonesians joined the Islamic resistance to the Soviet Union�s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and others have apparently received �training� in that country since then but neither the numbers nor the nature of the �training� are clear. It has also been claimed that Osama bin Laden�s network has provided financial support to a minority Muslim militia in Maluku. In any case, much of the violence in Indonesia involving Muslims can be adequately explained in domestic terms � although there is some evidence of limited involvement of foreigners.

As this paper will show, radical Islam in Indonesia is still quite weak and the goal of its proponent of turning Indonesia into a state based on Islam is far from achievement. Nevertheless, Indonesia�s democratic transition is being accompanied by a crisis of lawlessness that has allowed many groups � including radical Muslim groups � to flaunt the law by engaging in violent behaviour with impunity. Needless to say, however, it is not only explicitly Muslim groups that have been responsible for growing violence.

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