What about terror at home? Doubts over global strategy

Members of Banser, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, staging a rally in Blitar city on Sept 30.
Members of Banser, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, staging a rally in Blitar city on Sept 30.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA • There are reservations here about the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) going global, rather than first tackling violent extremism at home.

Indonesia has suffered several deadly terrorist attacks by militants in recent years that have killed hundreds, including bombings on the resort island of Bali in 2002 and 2005, and at five-star international hotels in Jakarta in 2003 and 2009.

The best known of the Indonesian radical groups, Jemaah Islamiah, a one-time South-east Asian branch of Al-Qaeda, has been crushed, but splinter groups still exist, as well as other militant Muslim groups like the Islamic Defenders Front, which occasionally smash up bars and attack religious minorities and their houses of worship.

Mr Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice-chairman for the executive board of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace in Jakarta, said NU's campaign applied equally to local radicals. "They want to show to Indonesian society, 'Look, we are Islamic and we have universal values, but we also respect local cultures'," he said. "We are not like Islam in the Middle East."

Others say the international public discourse has to start somewhere, even if it is thousands of miles from Syria and Iraq, where fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have entrenched themselves.

NU has established a non-profit organisation, Bayt ar-Rahmah, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which will be the hub for international activities including conferences and seminars to promote Indonesia's tradition of non-violent, pluralistic Islam, said Mr Yahya Cholil Staquf, NU supreme council's general secretary.

NU is also working with the University of Vienna in Austria, which collects and analyses ISIS propaganda, to prepare responses to those messages, which NU will disseminate online and at conferences.

A prevention centre based in Indonesia, expected to be operational by the end of the year, will train Arabic-speaking students to engage with extreme ideology and messaging under the guidance of NU theologians who are consulting Western academia.

Non-Arab countries like Indonesia tend to have less influence on the practice of Islam, especially in the Middle East.

"The problem with Middle East Islam is they have what I call religious racism," said Dr Azyumardi Azra, an Islamic scholar and former rector of the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"They feel that only the Arabs are real Muslims and the others are not."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'What about terror at home? Doubts over global strategy'. Subscribe