Last month in Paris two heavily armed men stormed the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killing 12 of its staff for its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Soon after the attack, Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. At least one of the perpetrators is known to have traveled to Yemen in 2011 for training from AQAP. In the last decade, Indonesia has suffered from a series of terrorist attacks carried out by extremists who had gone to Afghanistan to receive training from Al Qaeda linked groups. Despite the images of ISIS’ violence and cruelty dominating the news, it is important to remember that Indonesia, home to the world’s largest population of Muslims, has been relatively immune to this variety of extremism.
Connections between Al Qaeda and Indonesian extremists led to the creation of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. This Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group was created by Indonesian extremists who had traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, linking up with individuals who would make up the core of Al Qaeda. Jemaah Islamiyah is responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in Indonesia over the past fifteen years, most notably the Bali bombings in 2002 which killed 202 people.
Transnational terrorist links in Indonesia could grow again with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is estimated that 514 Indonesians have gone to fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Sidney Jones, of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, says that there is a risk to Indonesia when these individuals travel to Iraq, Syria, and other countries where ISIS operates, and return home in years to come, bringing back combat and weapons training.
Up until now Indonesian newspapers and the media have handled Islam with kid gloves. However, there is a risk that if a magazine were to run similar cartoons as the ones that Charlie Hebdo ran that extremists would vent their anger at the magazine. Conversely, it is important to stress that Indonesian social norms emphasize respect for Islam. In July 2014 the Jakarta Post, an English daily newspaper, published a cartoon with the ISIS flag and the words in Arabic, “There is no God but Allah.” Though the newspaper said the cartoon was meant to critique ISIS for using religious imagery, the picture was deemed offensive by many readers. Apologizing a few days later, the editor retracted the cartoon.
The actions of the Jakarta Post editor are in stark contrast to Charlie Hebdo. In addition to a formal apology, once the Jakarta Post editor realized some were offended, the cartoon was promptly removed from its online website. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons depicting Muhammad go back years. In 2006 the first provocative use of Muhammad on its front cover prompted two French Muslim groups to sue the newspaper. Any subject matter that could hurt other people’s convictions should be avoided,” said the French President at that time, Jacques Chirac. Charlie Hebdo continued to depict the Prophet even after its offices were firebombed in 2011. The leadership of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organization in Indonesia with 29 million members, criticized the French government for failing to stop Charlie Hebdo from publishing another depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, following the 2015 shooting.
However, despite some relative calm, not all is sunny in Indonesia. The country faces religious intolerance of its own, particularly against Christians, Ahmadiyah and Shi’a Muslims and some suggest that intolerance is on the rise. In November 2014 Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), a Christian who is ethnic Chinese, was sworn in as governor of Jakarta, taking over from recently elected President Joko Widodo (Jokowi). In the weeks leading up to Ahok’s inauguration, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline Islamic religious group, staged numerous protests, one of which led to FPI hurling rocks at police, leaving over a dozen injured. In retaliation, Ahok said he would draft a letter to the Law and Human Rights Ministry calling for its disbandment.
Indonesia remains unlikely to experience an attack similar to Charlie Hebdo. The sprawling archipelago is often touted as a model for tolerance in the Muslim world. However, this might not always be the case. Yet, cracks exist in a country where Islam is the majority religion with 87 percent of the population as its followers, symbolized by the inauguration of Ahok as Governor of Jakarta, the capital’s first Chinese-Indonesian and first Christian in 50 years. That being said, we could be on the verge of a generational shift towards greater tolerance for marginalized groups that see Christians and Chinese-Indonesians, among others, becoming active participants in Indonesian civil society. We will see in which direction Indonesian society gravitates.