Radicalism, US Security Focus on Asia

Political Islam is on the rise in Indonesia, and rising alongside it is the country’s importance to US national security. As the pendulum of American attention swings toward Asia in a calculated “pivot” aimed at countering shifting realities in the regional power balance, a familiar foe deploying equally familiar and sinister tactics threatens to destabilise this key partner in the vitally important Southeast Asia region: Islamic extremism, out of which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda and associated movements or Aqam anchor their resource mobilisation and strategic importance.

While the shift in American resources and attention to Asia may be driven by broader geopolitical and economic interests, as outlined in US President Barack Obama’s latest national security strategy, the threat of domestic radicalism and terrorism remains real in Indonesia.

Without an effective, well-respected leadership at the national and local levels, this internal threat will have a profound impact on Indonesia’s ability to be the strategic regional partner the US needs it to be.

A wide-ranging partnership between the US and Indonesia will be crucial to ensuring an equitable balance of power in the region, but Indonesia must first be stable to fulfil its partnership role regionally and globally.

Consolidating democratic principles and institutions, eradicating corruption and electing effective national and local leaders are the building blocks Indonesia must establish to defeat extremism, ensure stability and effectively participate in a partnership critical to both Indonesian and US national security interests.

Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have taken advantage of our vast archipelagic nation of 17,000 islands and porous borders as a base of operations since the fall of president Soeharto in 1998. Experts believe much of the terrorists’ ideology is home-grown rather than imported.

However, despite several potent terrorist acts following September 11, 2001, Indonesia has remained committed to being a secular society. The moderate, pluralistic and inclusive beliefs of the world’s largest Muslim population have held the growth of Islamic radicalism in check — until recently.

Radical Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia is likely to continue to be vociferous. Although expected to remain a small minority, the radicals may cause much trouble to the dominant majority, as they are motivated by fanatical perceptions, believing absolutely in the truth of their actions, demonizing their enemies and enjoying some degree of operational capacity.

A 2013 Pew Research poll noted that over 70% of the population support a transition to sharia law as the country’s legal code and a growing number of municipalities have passed and implemented some form of sharia.

Despite Indonesia’s history of secularism, the trend of rising religious extremism is troubling.

Scholars predict it is unlikely radical Islamic fundamentalism, with its influence from the Middle East, would evolve into a real political option in Indonesia, either within or outside democratic politics. Nor does it appear poised to become a significant cultural and ideological force in Indonesia’s “Islamic space”.

However, the scenario could be different if the government fails to maintain and uphold the national ideology of Pancasila and to adequately promote the “Indonesian version” of plural and inclusive Islam. The government needs to address the root causes and symptoms of this escalation in religious radicalism.

The 2015-2016 regional elections at the provincial and local levels offer an opportunity to choose new leadership at all levels. They must be strong in standing up to terrorists and demonstrate a commitment to ensure all citizens, regardless of religious or ethnic background, are both welcomed and protected.

Circumventing and defeating religious extremism (i.e. Isis and Aqam) is in the interests of both Indonesia and the US. The latest extremist strategy is to attack the sources of Indonesian social cohesion, including shared pluralistic norms and values, economic management and institutional structures.

Indonesian leaders must ensure a political environment that reduces support for the extremists and undermines the attraction of their radical ideology. Winning people’s hearts and minds, through fair and free elections, good governance and compassionate but firm leadership remains the metric by which victory will be measured for Indonesian democracy over the rise of any religious extremism.

Addressing the root causes of radicalism and other domestic threats to Indonesia’s stability must be an integral part of any national strategy.

Indonesia must also effectively deal with the cancerous government corruption that is eating away the people’s trust.

Transparency International ranks Indonesia 118th out of 174 countries. Public policy decisions must combat the growing income inequality that may make communities potentially vulnerable to the propaganda of religious fanatics.

For Indonesia to face its challenges and maintain internal peace and stability, a well-respected overall national to local leadership must emerge from a free and fair electoral process.

In 2010 the US and Indonesia signed a historic Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (CPA) outlining a robust plan to enhance US-Indonesian cooperation on a range of mutual interests, including security. Significant progress has been made on military cooperation but more can be done to realize political and economic collaboration that would support Indonesia’s efforts to meet the challenges we face to our democratic values and internal stability.

As the US continues its policy shift to the region, Indonesia will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the political, economic and military partnership. We welcome this partnership. But we need a well respected and cohesive national leadership to meet domestic challenges and to ensure we will be a worthy partner to meet our national security goals in Asia.  – The Jakarta Post, April 8, 2014.

*Wibawanto Nugroho is completing his MPhil at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter, UK.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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