By Invitation

Time for moderate Muslims to go on the offensive

Don't let ISIS seize the name of Islam. Moderate Muslim organisations have to battle the perceptions of false Islam.

Nations around the world have gone on high alert against terrorism following the bloody attacks in Paris on Nov 13 that left 130 people dead. The attacks, for which the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility, sent a strong warning that no country or city is safe. If it could happen to Paris, then it can happen to any place in the world.

Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, and with its own history of recent terrorist attacks by radical Islamic groups, is no exception. But Indonesia also has a success story of fighting against radical groups like the ISIS, which would not hesitate to use terror and violence and are always exploiting Islamic symbols to achieve their political goals.

Indonesia, or rather its moderate Muslims, can show the way in how to fight the ISIS menace, just as it had successfully fought off earlier threats from other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and its South-east Asia affiliates Jemaah Islamiah.

As governments tighten national security against the possibility of an ISIS strike, another battle, perhaps the more important one, is raging inside the Muslim world. This is the battle for the souls of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. And this is a battle that Muslims alone can settle.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

This is really a fight between Muslims who want to impose their brand of Islam by any means, including violence, and Muslims who believe in peace, tolerance and respect for differences. For the lack of better terms, and even though many Muslims would be loathe to admit it, this is a war pitting extremists against moderates.

Each party claims to have truth and Allah on its side.

Many Muslims around the world, including those in Indonesia, quickly distanced themselves from the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, saying those murderers did not represent Islam. Some used hashtags like "#not in the name of my religion" in their social media status to drive home their point.

But ISIS and other like-minded extremist groups would say exactly the same thing about those Muslims. That they are not real Muslims. And what is worse is that, to the radical groups, these Muslims are infidels and therefore equally dispensable, even more so than non-Muslims.

Lest we forget, Muslims have been the main victims of ISIS attacks and this probably will continue to be so, given the ongoing war within Islam. Last month's Paris attacks and the downing of the Russian airliner were aberrations. More Muslims have died at the hands of ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other places around the world than in high-profile terrorist attacks in Western cities.

It is therefore pointless to argue about who are the real Muslims or who represent the real Islam because both the extremists and the moderates are unlikely to budge from their convictions. Such an argument only serves to help Muslim apologists to free themselves from the culpability they often feel coming from non-Muslims, who tend to paint all Muslims with one brush after each terrorist attack.

It is more pertinent that the moderate Muslims focus on winning the war, both the physical war and the war to win the hearts, minds and souls of Muslims.

ISIS IN INDONESIA

ISIS has inevitably penetrated Indonesia, as it has done in other countries with Muslim populations - not only in the Middle East and Asia, but also in Europe, the United States and Australia. While the world must never underestimate the power and influence of ISIS in Indonesia, we should not exaggerate them either. The numbers indicate ISIS has had little success in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan last week said some 800 Indonesians are believed to have gone to join ISIS and, of these, 52 have died, most probably during fighting. Some have since returned for various reasons, with one estimate putting it at 150 people. More than half of the number who joined ISIS are women and children as many ISIS recruits took their family members along. So the actual number of young men who have gone there to fight for the ideology is even smaller.

For a country with more than 220 million Muslims, this number is small, almost negligible, if it weren't for the fact that even one person can launch an attack with potentially deadly consequences. Most other countries, including those in Europe, with smaller Muslim populations, have seen proportionally much higher numbers of ISIS recruits.

Police interviews with those Indonesians who returned from ISIS found that many had gone there lured not so much by the ISIS violent ideology but by the promise of a better economic life in a more "Islamic" environment than they could find at home. Many were obviously disappointed and returned home.

Few of the returnees tried to organise an ISIS operation in Indonesia or to get people to pledge allegiance to ISIS. Most of these people are now under police surveillance.

Most ISIS recruits in Indonesia, however, came to the militant group by way of the Internet, which is accessible to all. This is a main battlefield on which the moderates and extremists lock horns.

The small number of ISIS recruits indicates that when it comes to the battle for the souls of Indonesian Muslims, the moderates still have the upper hand. With democracy and freedom of speech firmly established and with the Internet, Indonesia has become an open marketplace for all kinds of ideology. And when it comes to Islam, the entire spectrum, from the most liberal to the most fundamentalist and violent strains of the religion, are all widely accessible online.

Yet, ISIS has had limited impact in the country in terms of recruiting and spreading its violent ideology. ISIS learns, just as other extremists to the left and right of the spectrum did earlier, that the majority of Indonesian Muslims would be bunched in the centre of the spectrum, embracing an Islam that advocates peace, tolerance and moderation.

TAKE BACK THE GOOD NAME OF ISLAM

Minister Panjaitan recognised the important role that the country's two largest Islamic social organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, play in countering the rise of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Indonesia, and said that the government would continue to count on their support.

Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah run schools and hospitals and, between them, have up to 100 million followers nationwide. They are the moderate forces in Indonesia that have prevented the country from falling into the hands of the extremist forces all these years. This has always been their battle.

The difference this time is that the stake has been raised so much higher, especially since ISIS has declared war on other Muslims, calling them infidels. When ISIS speaks of war, it is not just rhetoric, for ISIS kills.

ISIS' biggest victory is not so much in getting new recruits worldwide but portraying itself as the true representative of Islam, at least to the non-Muslim world. ISIS may not have yet won the souls of Muslims, but it has succeeded in turning many non-Muslim minds and hearts against Islam by giving the impression that its vile practices are based on true Islam and in strengthening the belief in the West that Islam equates to terrorism.

If such views are to gain traction in the West, and Islamophobia rises among non-Muslims, spewing hatred of Islam, there is a risk that ordinary Muslims may be driven to the ISIS camp. If Muslim migrants and their children are rejected or ostracised in the Western societies they settled in, some may find ISIS' promise of a just society based on Islamic principles seductive. It is even more dangerous if ordinary Muslims start to believe in ISIS propaganda.

The central battle is about projecting the perceptions of Islam. ISIS seems to have the upper hand, at least for now, because it is far better prepared and simply more tech-savvy. Like Al-Qaeda after launching the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, ISIS has literally hijacked Islam.

If moderate forces like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah were to win this war, they must confront ISIS head on in every battleground, including the war over perceptions on the Internet.

They can leave it to the government to deal with the violent and physical threats, but it is very much down to them to fight most of the other battles, particularly the battle to win the souls of young Muslims.

And with the stake so much higher - global peace and security and the existence of Islam as they understand it - the moderate forces must now go on the offensive. First and foremost, they must wrest back the good name and image of Islam from the hands of the terrorists.

In this war, the good forces of Islam, meaning the moderates, must prevail.

• The writer is a senior editor and former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'Time for moderate Muslims to go on the offensive'. Print Edition | Subscribe