The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, January 23, 2014


The jumbled world of Jihad 


If the topic wasn’t so serious this would be a darkly funny book.

Sociopaths with warped religious views aren’t the stuff of humor, but many characters in The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia are bumbling fools rather than sinister deviants.

They’re more likely to blow themselves to pieces (or heaven, according to their beliefs) than their targets, prone to fight each other than their perceived enemies and forever making clumsy errors that makes detection likely.

About 200 Indonesians went to Afghanistan to train between 1985 and 1991 but found the courses were taught in English and based on Indian military training.  When young men were employed as instructors, older recruits took offence.  The laid-back Javanese didn’t like the discipline and several dropped out.

None of this forgives evil intent. A bomb in the hands of an incompetent amateur or professional chemist is still a weapon that doesn’t discriminate, as the terrorists realized once body parts were scraped off the sidewalk. After the bangs, the debate.

Is it OK to kill innocent Muslim bystanders in a mission to murder unbelievers? Suppose the innocent are women and children. 

Should war be waged afar (in Western countries) or near, in the Republic run by pluralists who won’t impose sharia law, but are still brother Muslims?

What’s jihad – a violent struggle against oppressors, or an internal wrestling with deviance? What do the holy books say?

As always it’s the interpretation that determines.  Does the end justify the means? These are questions of deep philosophy but the intellectuals are too smart to strap on suicide vests.

That’s a job best left to the misfits who have lost their moral maps and rely on others to set the compass.

Solahudin’s book was first released in Indonesian as NII Sampai JI; Salafy Jihadisme di Indonesia and reportedly well received.

It has now been published as an English translation by Dr Dave McRae of Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy.

How did warped interpretations of Islam originate, and why did they take hold in Indonesia? 

Solahudin found getting answers hasn’t been easy.  People who plot to kill seldom leave lucid explanations for their actions, or chart their progress in assembling weapons. Then there’s the disinformation.

One of the few who articulated his conversion said:  ‘From the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) my fanatical feelings towards (mainstream Islamic organizations) Muhammadiyah, NU and so forth faded and disappeared – praise be to God – and changed into fanaticism for Islam’.

Apart from court testimonies the credible local literature wouldn’t make a doorstop, leaving the author to seek primary sources.

Even more difficult.  Those who haven’t killed themselves by confusing the green wire with the red one, or been gunned down, have died of old age, for the trail goes back to Darul Islam, the movement that predates Independence.

Those who have talked have given some dates, names and acronyms for the proliferation of forums and slogans. However apart from the more recent suspects, like the jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, these lists mean little to those not in the security business.

What we do get is an insight into the fragmentation, disorganization and poor focus that makes up Indonesian terrorism.  The Western media talks about ‘membership’ of Jemaah Islamiyah and other groups as though members pay dues and carry laminated cards when the truth is otherwise.

The typical terrorist is young, disillusioned or dysfunctional, and often both, with a distorted view of the world.   Where others seek wisdom, they want revenge, hoping to change society by letting blood.  Paranoia is a prerequisite.

To the rational their actions seem doomed.  What difference have their bombs made?  Little, apart from a boom in security jobs and distrust of strangers.

The 2002 Bali bombing is usually marked as the start of modern terrorism in the archipelago.   It was the biggest but not the first.

Assassination attempts were made on president Soekarno, and others planned for his successor Soeharto.  These failed when a shopper sent to Malaysia with Rp 4 million to buy a rocket-propelled grenade returned empty handed.

Darul Islam considered the New Order government to be worse than the Dutch, arguing that though the colonialists interfered with the economy they left religion alone.

Churches were targeted, usually as revenge for perceived Western abuses of Muslims overseas.  Borobudur was bombed. 

The inspiration for these outrages came from overseas, particularly the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, with the Indonesians conveniently overlooking that their counterparts in Teheran were the hated Shiites.

The problem with fanatics of all faiths is that they’re closed to compromise, seeing the world as an old cowboy film, white hats versus black. 

Despite the record of Detachment 88 and the police, who have arrested over 700 suspects and killed more than 60, Solahudin offers little solace: ‘The resilience of the Indonesian jihadi movement is impressive … (reflecting) the idea of upholding Islamic law’.

While the success of democracy and a buoyant economy may dilute public support for extremists, ideological conflict in the Middle East continues to fuel the zealots’ ambitions – and provide the next generation of terrorists with the skills to maintain their hate.

The decades-old stories in this book of splits, plots, betrayals, pursuit and shootouts read like today’s news. Terrorism remains, an irritant rather than a movement, yet dangerous still.

The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia
By Solahudin, translated by Dave McRae
Published by UNSW Press 2013
236 pages



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