Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo issued a ban against the hard-line Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia after the group led protests in Jakarta to tip a gubernatorial election away from the incumbent Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama.
The president banned the group for upholding values contradictory to the country's Pancasila principle of religious pluralism and threatening national unity. Jokowi’s decision reflects an increasing concern that the archipelago’s Islamic militant problem is once again gaining steam.
But since the deadly bombings in the early 2000s, terrorism has been poorly planned and executed in Indonesia. The militants clearly have the will, they just suspiciously lack the terrorist tradecraft to do so effectively. While Jakarta’s concern is legitimate, it’s worth unpacking how the Islam of Southeast Asia is different to the Islam of the Middle East, and why that matters.
Salafism, the virulent version animating the al qaeda movements, is primarily an Ossianesque reconstruction with obvious debts to Wilsonian nationalism. Communist intellectuals are responsible for Islamic terrorism but it hasn’t really caught on in the world’s most populous Muslim country. The question is why.
The Islam practised in the Middle East could be called “desert Islam,” while in Southeast Asia trade routes created a “merchant Islam.” For desert Islam, the Arab conquests stimulated a specific kind of process of Islamisation and militarisation. But it was commerce that spread Islam into Asia, transforming it into a highly prosperous trading zone.
Islam isn’t known for its agility and openness to interpretation, but that hasn’t stopped it from splintering. Merchant Islam has different politics and culture to its desert cousin. It recognises a tradition of mysticism, or Sufism, blending Hindu concepts of divinity. The Chinese, for example, often confuse Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Chinese and Japanese assumes Christianity was an exotic form of Buddhism.
But the Western colonial system had an impressionable impact on the evolution of both versions of Islam. Terrorism works for leftists – and so do many other forms of democratic activism. Islamic terrorism (which is in every case left-wing – as you can see every time Osama quotes Chomsky) hasn’t attached well to merchant Islam, but it nested with desert Islam sufficiently.
Islamic terrorism could work perfectly fine in Indonesia – if there was a need for it. Islamic terrorism is productive because it results in increasing communal deference to the Islamic community and expansion of the political power and privilege of Muslims and their progressive sponsors. In other words, the terrorist succeeds when, and only when, he is allied to an interested third party – either a military or political force.
So the question Jokowi really faces is: given that the politics of desert and merchant Islam are different, what conditions would compel an interested third party to provoke terrorism? If there is no terrorism, then we can assume the ruling class in the country already follows the revolutionary’s ideas. The playbook is simple: Don't slaughter the opposing camp if you don’t need to – recruit the opposing camp.
And by that playbook, well known wherever the West’s ideas of communism and democracy land around the world, it appears the Islamic revolutionaries and their progressive allies have been mighty successful in Indonesia already. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Your mileage may vary.