The most welcome aspect of Indonesia’s democratization is probably political freedom. This is illustrated by the flourishing of social organizations as part of the resurgence of civil society.
However, a strong civil society, although idealized, is not always positive for democracy. This is especially true in a state with a weak central government.
A distinguished political scientist, Joel Migdal in his book, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (1988) warned of the risk of having a strong civil society in a state where the government lacked the ability to govern.
A common consequence of weakened states is that the government lacks political will, institutional authority and organized power to provide the basic functions of the state.
If the state is unable to fulfill these functions, a power vacuum results that may lead to the rise of strong civic groupings.
The critical point of this situation is the fact that the void left by the state is exploited not only by pro-democratic actors, but also by those with undemocratic and extremist goals.
The declining popularity of the current administration, resulting from its weak performance in producing prosperity and delivering justice, leads society toward non-governmental actors, including those with radical agendas. A weak state therefore has a part in facilitating the rise of extremism.
The increase of intolerance and sectarian violence in recent years is a good example. The success of the police in arresting and dismembering the terrorist networks deserves applause.
However, the focus on those directly involved in terrorist activities illuminates the state’s weakness that has created an environment favorable for radicalization.
Whenever terrorists have struck, the authorities have been able to arrest the actors and uncover the terrorist networks in a matter of days.
But the underlying environment favorable for the regeneration or recruitment of terrorists remains unaddressed despite the demand of mainstream religious leaders. Thus, terrorist organizations are weakened, but the rise of radical extremism continues.
The importance of environment as an indirect facilitator of extremism is evident in the background of terrorists arrested or killed in recent years.
Most of them had experience or interaction with radical organizations. It may be misleading to suggest a connection between terrorism and radical organizations. Such an analysis misses the nuances and diversity among radical groups.
However, the interaction between active terrorists and non-terrorist radical groups provides an avenue for the recruitment of terrorists.
The profiles of the actors in the last few terrorist attacks illustrate this tendency. The suicide bombers in Cirebon and Solo, M. Syarif and Ahmad Yosepa had experiences with different radical organizations, as either a member or a participant.
Syarif took part in the activities of a local radical group named Gerakan Anti Pemurtadan dan Aliran Sesat (GAPAS), the Movement against Apostasy and Heretical Sects; and Yosepa was once a member of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid.
Sometimes the interaction went beyond individual levels. The terrorist training camp discovered by the police in Aceh also found that many of its participants were members of the Islam Defenders’ Front (FPI).
The FPI’s participation in the Aceh training was supposedly to train volunteers to fight Israel in Palestine, this seems unlikely. What matters is the transfer of military skills and ideological exchanges between terrorist and the non-terrorist radicals.
Using Moghaddam’s analogy of the staircase of terrorism (Moghaddam 2005), movements fuelling sectarianism create steps toward extreme attitudes that support, glorify and eventually justify participation in terrorist activities.
The non-lethal but no less dangerous impact of unchecked radicalism is the creation of a moral panic in society that erodes multicultural attitudes crucial for the success of democracy.
Radicalization is made possible by the weak response of the government. Sectarian rhetoric now spreads unchecked. It is ironic that in a society with a potential for communal conflict inherent in an ethnically and religiously diverse country, people are free to fuel sectarian hatred or animosity.
Such incitement is no secret; it is publicly expressed on websites and through sermons.
Radical groups are often unpunished after exercising coercive action against what they deem unacceptable minority groups, which should be the sole preserve of the state.
Sometimes authorities bring the perpetrators of anti-minority violence to court; but often they cave in to pressure by doling out minor punishments. The sentencing of the perpetrators of an organized and lethal attack on Ahmadiyah members in Cikeusik, West Java, to only three to six years will do little to prevent similar events recurring.
For sure, the strengthening of civic groups in Indonesia is not only evident among those promoting undemocratic values, but also those promoting harmony and tolerance. The void left by the weak central government has created competition between mainstream religious groups and intolerant minority movements.
What is encouraging about this is the emergence of grass-roots resistance to radicalization. A recent example is the rally of a number of local Muslim organizations in Madiun (East Java) opposing the operation of a radio station run by a fundamentalist group, Majelis Taklim Al-Qur’an (MTA).
The broadcast of intolerant speeches by the radio provoked anger among local Muslims that led them to demand the closing down of the radio.
The reaction against the radio may indicate the culmination of a long-standing awareness among grass roots Muslims of the danger posed by conflict-provoking rhetoric of groups like the MTA. The incident in Madiun was not the only case. Similar hostility to radical extremism also occurred in Purworejo, Central Java, where a local Muslim association demanded the expulsion of an allegedly “foreign priest” who promoted intolerant teachings.
Those grass-root responses against radicalization are refreshing when many organized counter-radicalism efforts often breed a backlash. Such a response, however, has to compete with more organized and often more aggressive radicalization exploiting political freedoms and the state’s, seemingly deliberate, neglect.
As long as the state maintains its weak posture, unable to enforce the law against religious militancy, radicalization will continue to erode the country’s legendary multicultural society.
What can the state do to strengthen its position? A strong state is not the same as an authoritarian state. The government does not have to return to the former authoritarianism by banning radical organizations.
What matters more for a strong state is consistent law enforcement against extremist activities. These include both physical activities such as violence against minorities and non-physical activities such as speeches or publications that fuel sectarian hatred.
This combined with a strong democratic civil society will restrict the room for radicalization and sectarianism.
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