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Australia needs to reassess its view of extremism in south-east Asia

By David Martin Jones and Michael Smith - posted Friday, 14 March 2003

In the aftermath of the Bali explosion on 12 October 2002, ex-foreign minister Gareth Evans argued that Australia should prosecute the war against terrorism intelligently, by being "sensitive" to Indonesian concerns. This raises the paradox that Australian tertiary and bureaucratic institutions had for 20 years nurtured a generation of Indonesia watchers who often exhibited profound sensitivity to Indonesian interests, yet failed to perceive the evolving threat developing on Australia's doorstep. Why was this the case?

The question is even more curious because it has been relatively straightforward for Western analysts and Australian policy-makers in particular to gain an appreciation of the world view capturing hearts and minds among young, educated and increasingly militant Indonesian males. Nevertheless, Australian security analysts and media commentators tended to ignore or downplay the rising tide of Islamism. Indeed, when US sources revealed new evidence of an al Qa'ida threat to Western interests in Indonesia, and the region more generally, Australian and Indonesian commentators, the regional press and journals like the Far Eastern Economic Review believed the US was "rushing things".

Yet, in downtown Jakarta bookstores it is possible to pick up for approximately $Aus1.80 a slim volume entitled Saya Teroris? Sebuah Pleidoi by Fauzan al-Anshari, an account of the life, times and beliefs of self-styled sheikh Abu Bakar Ba'asyir. Ba'asyir has been identified as the spiritual guru of the Jemaah Islamayah network alleged to be behind the Bali bombing. From Ba'asyir's perspective the United States and Zionism plotted to destroy Islam to secure global domination. Ba'asyir maintains that US agencies engineered the World Trade Centre attacks to justify a global assault on its enemies, notably the Palestinians and the Taliban. More recently, the sheikh has argued that "infidels" perpetrated the outrage at Kuta Beach to discredit the variety of purified Islam that he and his ilk purvey.


The sheikh is, of course, a conspiracy theorist. Accordingly, the world is engaged in a war between forces serving the will of Allah and the US Great Satan and its allies.

On his return to Solo, Central Java, in 1999 from regional exile in Malaysia (where he established religious schools and the lineaments of the Jemaah Islamayah network) Ba'asyir immediately invited his fellow Muslim clerics to prepare "for jihad against America". To this end he constituted the Majlis Mujahideen Indonesia to coordinate those Indonesians committed to the purified creed that has gained popularity among young Muslim males globally.

This doctrine, initially articulated in the 1950s Middle East by those radically opposed to post-colonial secular nationalist regimes, holds that only a pure Islam could address the "hideous schizophrenia" of the modern condition. The Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb maintained that this "ideological ideal" system alone could "rescue humanity" from "the barbarism of technocratic culture", the vice of nationalism imposed by a Nasser or a Suharto and "the stifling trap of communism".

This Islamist ideocracy has proved remarkably resilient, extending its global appeal over the past two decades. Paradoxically, the Islamist ideal of faith and virtue founded on a pre-industrial scripturalism has benefitted from the technological revolution and the transformation of communications. Identification with this scripturalist high culture becomes the hallmark of Islamic urban sophistication. In south-east Asia, the Middle East and Pakistan, urban male graduates find in the formalism of austere salafist teaching the simplicity and certitude that serves as a fitting accompaniment to their education in science and technology. Jihads groups, like those in Indonesia, have their own websites and mobile phones, provided they don't emit a degenerate musical dial tone.

This increasingly attractive Islamism imported into Indonesia since the late 1980s promotes a traditionalist and illiberal arrangement in which society is governed by networks, quasi-tribes, family alliances and services rendered, rather than on formal relations in a defined bureaucratic manner. Mafia activities and terror franchises sustain this arrangement, which is how al Qa'ida operates.

It is in this context that, since the fall of Suharto in 1998, a bewildering array of groups have sprung up which aim to uphold the integrity of Indonesia and establish sharia discipline with a Koran in one hand and a Kalshnikov in the other.


In Jakarta, Front Pembela Islamaya trashes tourist areas frequented by decadent Westerners. Meanwhile, Hizb-ut Tahrir, a movement begun in Jordan in 1953 but proscribed across the Middle East, seeks to unite the Muslim world as a superpower or Daulah Khalifah governed according to the Koran. Consequently, when Colin Powell visited Indonesia in August in an attempt to strengthen the government's anti-terrorist resolve, one of its leading lights, Rahmat Hassan, pronounced that "America is the biggest terrorist in the world, they have stomped on Muslims too many times".

Since the early 1990s Islamic opinion across the region has become increasingly radicalised and an Islamist internationale has permeated south-east Asia, establishing pan-regional networks using the devices of modernity for its anti-secularisation purposes. After the 1991 Gulf War, increasing numbers of younger Muslim students went on extended sabbaticals in Afghan or Pakistani training camps to learn the art of the Mujahideen, bringing back its training in faith, community service and bomb making, often with the tacit approval of disaffected elements in parliament and in the military.

Nor is this increasing radicalism a minority vocation. In December 2001 a poll conducted by a sociologist at the moderate State University of Islamic Studies (IAIN) and published in Tempo (December 2001) found that 61.4 per cent of the population supported the implementation of sharia law in Indonesia.

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An edited version of this article was originally published in The World Today in January.

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About the Authors

Dr David Martin Jones is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Government, University of Tasmania.

Dr Michael Smith is a Lecturer at the Department of War studies, King's College, London.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by David Martin Jones
All articles by Michael Smith
Related Links
David Martin Jones' home page
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Mike Smith's home page
Royal Institute of International Affairs
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