Pew's research that 10 million Indonesians ‘like’ ISIS worrying: The Jakarta Post

Given the support that ISIS commands, Islamic organisations should rethink their strategies for fighting extremism.

An ISIS flag and banner seen in Daquq, south of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, on Sept 11.
An ISIS flag and banner seen in Daquq, south of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, on Sept 11. PHOTO: AFP

The only thing I find more chilling than the execution videos made by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the sizable support that the radical group seems to be getting.

Yes, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world hate ISIS but the number of people who like it is not insignificant. 

According to the latest Pew Research Center poll, released on Nov 17, about four per cent of the Indonesian population has a “favourable” view of ISIS. 

The percentage in neighbouring Malaysia is actually higher — at 11 per cent. 

But Malaysia’s population is only 30 million. 

So, our neighbour has “only” 3.3 million ISIS supporters.

We have around 10 million. 

We certainly cannot ignore the report.

But how should we respond? 

The Pew report, as usual, begs a lot of questions.

How accurate is it? What does having a “favourable” view of ISIS mean? 

Or, what does having a “somewhat favourable” (three per cent) and “strongly favourable” (one per cent) view of the world’s most vicious terror organisation mean? 

Do they just like ISIS, but would never join them? 

Do they know enough about ISIS to have a strong opinion about them? 

Is the one per cent who seem to like ISIS very much, ready to do whatever the so-called Caliph Ibrahim in Mosul, or Raqqa, dictates?

According to Pew, the survey was conducted between April 8 and May 4 this year.

Only 1,000 of around 250 million Indonesians were interviewed, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The interviews were carried out face to face and in the Indonesian language. 

One can surely challenge Pew’s conclusion. 

However, even if the figure is inaccurate, or the term “somewhat favourable” is too vague to mean anything, it is better to err on the side of caution.

The reason: It does not take 10 million people to create mayhem and spread terror. 

Even if they could recruit only one per cent or 0.1 per cent of the 10 million Indonesians who may or may not support ISIS, it is still alarming. 

According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, IS had only 20,000 to 35,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and yet it managed to seize large swaths of lands in the two countries and inspired or even coordinated terror attacks in other parts of the world.

In the wake of the Paris attacks on Nov 13 and the downing of a Russian passenger plane on Oct 31, more people have come to acknowledge ISIS’ global threat. 

The attacks have proven that the group is not only capable of sowing hatred on social media but also bringing the bloodbath in Syria and Iraq to other countries. 

The poll findings by Pew only add to the salience of stepping up global efforts to contain ISIS’ clout. 

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration should take the report seriously.

The increase in the number of ISIS-inspired attacks outside Iraq and Syria could be due to the fact that it is getting harder for would-be jihadists to get into their territories.

The anti-ISIS coalitions have escalated their offensive and IS has suffered setbacks, losing key cities like Sinjar in Iraq and Tell Abyad in Syria to the US coalition-backed Kurdish forces. 

An alleged former ISIS spy, interviewed by The Daily Beast, revealed that ISIS is experiencing a shortfall of foreign militants.

The spy, identified as Abu Khaled, said that the group’s leadership had “asked people to stay in their countries and fight there, kill citizens, blow up buildings, whatever they can do. You don’t have to come”. 

The returnees from jihad in Syria still pose a great risk, but the immediate danger may now come from people who cannot reach there. 

The importance of countering ISIS propaganda, therefore, cannot be overstated.

The government, the media and mainstream Islamic organisations must work together to fight it. 

The government can no longer ignore the Syrian crisis and should be more assertive in expressing what it considers to be the best political solution to it. 

It must show that it cares about the Syrians, not just the Palestinians, because much of ISIS propaganda is about the failure of the Muslim world to protect the Syrians, though the group itself is also responsible for oppressing them. 

This does not mean that we should ignore the suffering of other Muslims in other countries, such as in Yemen, where civilians are living under Saudi bombings. 

Indeed, some ideologies are inherently violent and some terror attacks were motivated more by religious conviction (such as the killing of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the rapes and killings of the Yezidis) than due to political oppression. 

For ISIS members, everyone who does not submit to their caliphate is said to be a legitimate target. 

There is no doubt that the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East — the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the prevailing despotism in the Arab world and so forth — set up the socio-political conditions that have enabled extremist ideologies to flourish.

A fair, balanced and comprehensive coverage of the Middle East crisis is therefore crucial to countering extremist propaganda. 

The Indonesian media have the responsibility to provide enough context of what is going on in the Middle East so as not to support, through lack of reportage, the extremist narratives that suggest nothing but a religious war between the Sunnis and the Shiites, between Islam and the West.

Indonesian social media is already filled with news stories coming from extremist websites or Saudi and Iranian propaganda machines that are equally problematic. Indonesians — most of whom do not regularly read English or Arabic news outlets — have long been easy targets of such propaganda. 

Islamic organisations should rethink their strategies for fighting extremism. 

Have they been successful? Or have they actually made matters worse? The Pew report should provide a clue, however little, to those questions. 

Regardless of whether or not it is accurate, the thought of having 10 million possible ISIS supporters in our own country is certainly disturbing.