Kate Grealy – The targeting of 'Islamic extremism' for national security purposes has long been an area of safe bipartisan consensus in Indonesia – as it is in most countries. Labelling a group or individual as 'radical' is touted as a simple and objective act, undertaken in the unimpeachable name of terrorism prevention.
However, in Indonesia's current political climate, 'extremism' and 'radicalism' no longer quite mean what they seem to. These labels are increasingly politicised and misappropriated by the State to repress criticism, strong-arm opponents, and silence those considered a threat to the government. When misused for such partisan political purposes, these labels both compound the factors leading to Indonesia's democratic decline and complicate the task of its counterterrorism forces.
As reported by Reuters, the Indonesian government has just launched a website that would allow the public to report "radical" content posted by civil servants, as part of a "push to combat hard-line Islamist ideology permeating government."
Indonesia's Communications Minister, Johnny G. Plate, told reporters that the intention of the website was "to bring together and improve the performance of our civil servants, as well as to foster higher levels of nationalism."
While illiberal and anti-democratic populist Islamist movements are an undeniable reality in Indonesia and can indeed be considered a threat to its democracy, the terms 'radical' and 'Islamist' have also been used to silence and discredit dissenters and the government's political opponents. Importantly, this politicisation of key terminology is creating a tension within the dynamics of terrorism prevention in Indonesia, where differentiating between 'extremism' and 'violent extremism' is an increasingly challenging task.
Backdrop: Democratic decline
Evidence of the Jokowi government's authoritarian turn has been mounting since 2017, contributing to the deterioration of the Indonesian State's democratic integrity. Upon taking office, Jokowi faced insubordination from security in the police and the military. To mitigate this, he appointed political loyalists to lead both institutions.
While these changes brought some stability in the country's security sector, they have also provided Jokowi with an avenue to consolidate power and persecute his dissenters. The police and attorney general's office have since investigated and charged Jokowi's political opponents under draconian laws and are known to openly drop cases when opponents buckle and fall silent or switch sides.
These actions are part of a wider pattern under the Jokowi administration in which state institutions have been politicised to advantage the President and his allies. As Tom Power explains, although the "politicisation of legal and law enforcement institutions is not a new phenomenon in Indonesia... the government's efforts to use legal instruments in this manner has become far more open and systematic under Jokowi."
This pattern of politicising Indonesia's security agencies is plainly concerning, particularly given that the definitions of radicalism are vague and include the expression of anti-nationalist views. The flexibility and subjectivity of the terms 'Islamist' and 'extremist' – as they are used in the Indonesian context – provide Jokowi with a dangerous amount of scope to purge the security forces and civil service at will.
According to a FAQ section on the government's radicalism reporting website, 'radical' can refer to content that promotes hate, misleading information, intolerance, anti-Indonesian or anti-nationalist sentiment. Furthermore, the current political narrative portrays nationalism and the commitment to nationalist ideology as central to the countering of Islamist radicalism.
Who is radical?
Some of the groups that have been deemed 'extremist' include Wahhabi and Salafi communities and the now-banned Hizbut Tahrir (HTI). Representatives of these communities have launched their own counterclaims, arguing that the attribution of certain expressions of faith as being 'risky' forms of 'extremism' is more an attempt to politically marginalise them than to prevent terrorism. Some of these communities have argued that they are in fact prepared and eager to work alongside counterterrorism forces to prevent violence.
These developments are occurring alongside another trend: a national security narrative that sees Pancasila as sacrosanct and requiring protection at all costs, up to and including the use of anti-democratic measures.
In this climate, when a certain group is labelled a security threat, extraordinary measures are used against it to maintain the security status quo, as exemplified by the banning of HTI.
However, Hizbut Tahrir was indeed a pro-Caliphate, anti-democratic, and anti-Pancasila organisation. The label of 'radical' is now increasingly being used to delegitimise, not bona fide 'Islamists', but some critics of the government.
In recent months, the Indonesian government has used the 'radical' label to silence activists, individuals, movements, and institutions. This trend is degrading the freedoms of speech and association, producing an environment of toxic and highly securitised discourse, all of which can also contribute to greater political polarisation.
Securitisation, polarisation, and the construction of security threats
The securitisation of Muslims involves the portrayal of certain forms of Islam as a threat. Its effects have been widely studied in the West, however, the securitisation of Muslims occurs across both non-Muslim and Muslim-majority societies. In Indonesia, its form and function differ to its manifestation in the West.
In the current political climate, the securitising of certain expressions of faith in Indonesia has become politically expedient. Additionally, over the past five years, organisations with no ties to terrorism have been labelled 'radical' and thus a security threat.
As Aslan et al explain, the basic political function of securitising certain groups is to keep them outside the political community by turning them into a threat. This is achieved by drawing boundaries between 'modern', 'moderate' Muslims and 'backward', 'dangerous' Muslims. This form of framing justifies and normalises the State's 'exceptionalism' in 'security-driven' actions targeting specific Muslims.
The construction of Islamist goals as a national security threat has allowed anti-democratic measures to become politically justifiable. This has meant that the government's attempt to 'protect' the democratic status quo from 'Islamism' has, in turn, become a threat to democracy itself. As Meitzner argued in 2017, these trends are setting Indonesian democracy into a process of deconsolidation.
Tarnishing students, the anti-corruption commission with the label radical
Mass protests rocked cities around Indonesia throughout September 2019, driven in large part by discontented young people and students. Tens of thousands of Indonesian students and activists took to the streets protesting, amongst others: the weakening of the corruption commission, worsening forest fires ignored by government, militarisation in Papua, exploitation of farmers and workers, predatory privatisation laws, and democratic regression.
In response, there were efforts by pro-government 'influencers' to frame the movements as anarchist; radicals influenced or infiltrated by Islamists, and even as harbouring potential terrorists.
Indonesia's security minister insinuated that there were terrorists and pro-Caliphate organisers amongst the student movement. These claims were backed up by nationalist social media influencers who alleged that the protests were an Islamist conspiracy aimed at discrediting Jokowi, the 'Muslim moderate'.
A particularly important focus for the activists was the government's decision to rush through a revised law on the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission), which severely weakened the corruption watchdog by undermining the Commission's independence and limiting its powers of investigation. This is not the first time the political process of weakening the KPK through efforts to revise Law No. 30/2002 on the Corruption Eradication Commission has occurred. It occurred at least twice during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), namely in 2010 and 2012. But it has always failed due to rejection from civil society.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement of these legislative changes, the Commission itself was also labelled a hotbed of radicalism, a tactic that mirror attempts to discredit the student movement. This has resulted in members of the KPK being targeted for their personal religious beliefs in efforts to discredit them.
A senior investigator of the KPK has been singled out by opponents of the institution, with pundits accusing him of being a member of a secret radical sleeper cell.
These accusations were underpinned by commentary that focused on his style of dress – pants above the ankles and a long beard – which is a Sunnah style associated with religiously pious movements.
Analysts have noted that the timing of these allegations are important as they slander the Commission at a time when the government is attempting to weaken its powers. There have been allegations that this smear campaign was orchestrated so that Indonesian society would come to support the legislative weakening of the Commission.
Are 'radicals' a new PKI?
The KPK has had to continuously defend itself in the Indonesian public arena and has even worked with the national terrorism coordination body to prove there were no 'radicals' in the organisations. But perhaps one of the most revealing elements of this episode is the KPK's Novel Baswedan's own observation in September this year that
"labels such as Radical [are now being] used in the same way the label communism was used during the New Order era, which was used to silence those opposing the government."
Indonesian human rights activists, violence and security experts, and civil society organisations are increasingly concerned about these developments. The Indonesian government has grown increasingly confident in using the label 'radical' to delegitimise its critics. There is no indication that pro-government nationalists and political leaders will stop manipulating the public's fear of radicalism for political ends. But this raises an uncomfortable question: What will the implications be for actual counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation work? And more importantly, what does this mean for democratisation?
Paying lip service to a mythical moderate Islam while eroding minority freedoms, human rights, and civil society will not counter 'radical Islam.' What it will do, however, is unravel the very fabric of the young democracy which holds together the Indonesian state. Indonesians and Indonesia-watchers alike will have to wait to see how its long-term consequences will play out.