Weak State Helps Extremism in Indonesia

Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf, Ph.D | CRCS | Article

The most welcomed aspect of Indonesia’s democratization is probably political freedom. This is marked by the flourishing social organizations that illustrate the resurgence of civil society. However, strong society, although idealized, is not always positive for a democracy. This is especially true in a state with a weak 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 with government lacking the ability to govern. A common consequence of weakened states is that the government lacks political will, institutional authority and organised power to provide basic functions of the state. If the state is unable to fulfill these functions, a power void will result and may lead to the rise of strong societies.

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 extreme goals. The declining popularity of the current administration resulted from its weak performance in producing prosperity and delivering justice leads society to turn eyes to non-governmental actors, including those with radical agenda. Weak state therefore has a part in easing the mobilization of extremism.

Weak State, Radicalization and Terrorism

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 deserve appreciation. However, the focus on those directly involved in terrorist activities indicates the inability of the state to govern, and that creates an environment favourable for radicalization. Whenever terrorist strike, authorities were able to arrest the actors and discover the network of the terrorist in a matter of days. But an environment favourable for the regeneration or recruitment of terrorists is left unaddressed despite demand from mainstream religious leaders. Thus, terrorist organization is weakened, but the reproduction of terrorist continues.

The importance of environment as an indirect factor for 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 terrorist and radical organizations. Such an analysis misses the nuance and diversity among radical groups. However, interaction between active terrorists and non-terrorist radical groups provide an avenue for the recruitment or reproduction terrorists.

The profiles of the actors of the last few terrorist attacks illustrate this tendency. The suicide bombers in Cirebon and Solo, M. Syarif and Ahmad Yosepa had experience 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/Movement against Proselytising and Illegal Sects (GAPAS); and Yosepa was once a member of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid.

Sometimes the interaction went beyond personal level. Upon the opening of terrorist military training in Aceh discovered by the police, many of the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) members took part in initial trainings led by figures in the Jamaad Islamiyah (JI). In this case, the purpose of FPI’s participation in the Aceh training was different from the terrorist plan. They claimed that the training was meant to train volunteers to fight against Israel in Palestine. Such a battle is however not possible. What matters then was the transfer of military skill and ideological exchange between the terrorist and the non-terrorist radicals.

Using Moghaddam’s theory of staircase to terrorism (Moghaddam 2005), movements fuelling sectarianism creates a step toward an extreme attitude that supports, glorifies and eventually justifies participation in terrorist activities. The non-lethal but no less dangerous impact of unchecked radicalism is the creation of moral panic in society that erodes multicultural attitude 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 country with a potential for identity conflict inherent in an ethnically and religiously diverse country, people are free to fuel sectarian hatred or animosity. Such an incitement is not secret; they are publicly exposed on websites and through sermons.

Radical groups often got away unpunished after exercising coercive action against minority group, which should be the sole authority of the state. Sometimes authorities bring the perpetrators of anti-minority violence to the court; but often they are then bogged down to pressure by giving minor punishment. The sentence of the perpetrators of an organized and cruel killing of the Ahmadiya members in Cikeusik (West Java) to only 3 to 6 years would do nothing but motivate similar action.

Responses, Law Enforcement

Surely, Indonesia’s strengthened society is not only evident among those promoting undemocratic values, but also those promoting harmony and tolerance. The void left by the weak state has created a competition between mainstream religious groups and minority intolerant movements.

What is encouraging about this is the emergence of grass root resistance to radicalization. A recent example is the rally of a number local Muslim organizations in Ponorogo (East Java) opposing the operation of radio station run by a puritan group, Majelis Taklim Al-Qur’an (MTA). The broadcasting of intolerant speeches by the radio provoked anger among local Muslims that led them to demand the end of the radio operation. The targeting of the radio may indicate the culmination of a long standing awareness among grass root Muslim of the danger posed by often conflict provoking rhetoric of groups like the MTA. This incident in Madiun is not the only case. Similar uproars against MTA also occurred in Madiun (East Java) and Purworejo (Central Java) where a local Muslim communities 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 backlash. Such a response however has to compete with more organized and often more aggressive radicalization and exploitation of political freedom, that the state seems to deliberately neglect. As long as the state continues its weak stance, unable to enforce law against religious militancy, radicalization will continue erodes the country legendary multicultural society.

What can the state can do to strengthen its position? A strong state is dissimilar to authoritarian state. The government does not have to return to the past authoritarianism by banning radical organizations. What matters more for a strong state is consistent law enforcement against extreme 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 strong democratic civil society will give little room for radicalization and sectarianism.

Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf, PhD is a Lecturer at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS)

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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