Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, The Brookings Institution

Between the Global and the Local: Islamism, the Middle East, and Indonesia

This paper was developed in conjunction with the Lowy Institute for International Policy

Executive Summary

Against the background of the 'war on terror', many people have come to view Islamism as a monolithic ideological movement spreading from the center of the Muslim world, the Middle East, to Muslim countries around the globe. To borrow a phrase from Abdullah Azzam, the legendary jihadist who fought to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s, many today see all Islamists as fellow travellers in a global fundamentalist caravan. This paper evaluates the truth of that perception. It does so by examining the spread of two broad categories of Islamic thinking and activism—the more politically focused Islamism and more religiously focused 'neo-fundamentalism'—from the Middle East to Indonesia, a country often cited as an example of a formerly peaceful Muslim community radicalized by external influences.

Islamism is a term familiar to many. Most commonly it is used to categorize ideas and forms of activism that conceive of Islam as a political ideology. Today, a wide range of groups are classified as Islamist, from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to al-qa'ida.While such a categorization remains appropriate in many cases, Islamism seems less useful as a label for those groups that do not see Islam as a political ideology and largely eschew political activism—even if their activism sometimes has political implications. Included in this category are groups concerned primarily with Islamic missionary activity, but it would also include a group such as al-qa'ida whose acts of terrorism are arguably driven less by concrete political objectives than religious inspiration, albeit of a misguided form. This paper therefore uses the term 'neo-fundamentalist', developed by the French scholar Olivier Roy, to describe these groups and will study the transmission of both Islamist and neofundamentalist ideas to Indonesia.

Islamist ideas from the Middle East have indeed been imported into Indonesia by Muslims looking for new ways of thinking about the relationship between Islam, politics and society. Some Indonesian students who travelled to the Middle East came back influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood.More malign influences would also be imported by Indonesians who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s to fight in the jihad against the Soviets and forged links with the future leaders and activists of al-qa'ida. But Islamist and, in particular, neo-fundamentalist ideas have also been imported from the Middle East. Most notably, missionary activities by official and non-official organizations from Saudi Arabia played a critical role in the emergence of a salafist current within the Indonesian Muslim community.

The impact of these ideas has varied. Elements of Muslim Brotherhood thinking helped the Islamist Prosperous and Welfare Party (PKS) play a positive role in Indonesian politics, though some of the darker sides of the PKS, notably the anti-Semitic views and anti-western conspiracy theories of some of its members, have also been influenced by thinking from the Middle East. Many of the Indonesian groups supported by Saudi Arabia limit their activism to the promotion of Islamic piety—albeit of a fairly puritanical form—though some have participated in violent sectarian conflict. More insidious has been the influence of al-qa'ida and other Middle Eastern sources on doctrine and operational techniques of the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Nonetheless, Indonesian Muslims have also been selective in their appropriation and application of Islamist and neo-fundamentalist ideas from the Middle East in Indonesia. A process of selection and indigenization is almost always at work. In terms of Muslim Brotherhood thinking, the gradualist approach of Hassan al-Banna has been utilized more than the revolutionary ideas of Sayyid Qutb and his radical heirs. The influence of Middle Eastern salafist sheikhs is sometimes manipulated by their local Indonesian representatives. Even the relationship between al-qa'ida and JI is not one of command and control. There are, arguably, tensions within JI between those of its members keen to pursue the imperatives of al-qa'ida's global project and those within the organization focused on more local, if still violent, priorities.

Overall, any reckoning of Middle Eastern influence on Indonesian Islamism needs to look not just at the radical elements inclined toward violence or divisive sectarianism but also at ideas that enhance democratic life and provide a legitimate form of expression for religious sentiment. The diverse flows of information that accompany globalization ensure that the impact of the Middle East will continue to be felt in a wide variety of ways. But this will never be a straightforward process. Indeed, in a globalized world, the flow of Islamist ideas into Indonesia is less and less a function of specifically Middle Eastern influences than a broader, global process of intellectual exchange and adaptation.

The issues canvassed in the paper are of obvious relevance to policy makers. At a time in which al-qa'ida is increasingly seen as an ideology rather than an organization, assessing the extent to which that ideology has spread, and how it has done so, provides clues as to the future trajectory of the terrorist threat. But it is also important for policy makers to understand the differences within, and evolution of, Islamism, particularly with respect to the role of Islamist parties in nascent democracies. A number of policy implications flow from the conclusions of this paper:

  1. In focusing on the global,don't lose sight of the local
    In focusing on the transnational dimensions of contemporary terrorism, governments should not lose sight of local causes. Today, there is a tendency to see contemporary terrorism as largely a function of the spread of a global ideology. But while the transmission of extremist ideas is part of the problem, it is by no means the sole defining characteristic. Local factors will still be critical in determining the future trajectory of the terrorist threat in Indonesia, from the dynamics of Muslim–Christian relations and the continuation of sectarian violence, to the relationship between Islamist and neo-fundamentalist groups and the state.
  2. Adopt a more nuanced categorization of Islamists and neo-fundamentalists
    Western governments and commentators should avoid labelling Muslims or Islamists simply as radicals or moderates. Not only are these terms often misleadingly reductionist, they also carry connotations of 'good' versus 'bad' Muslims, 'friendly' versus 'hostile' Muslims. This has an alienating effect on Muslims, who see it as evidence of a self interested western stereotyping of the Islamic community. While shorthand categorizations are sometimes inescapable, at the very least it is important to be conscious of the complexities that lie behind such labels and to avoid using them too rigidly.
  3. Take a less timorous approach to engagement with Islamists
    Initiatives such as inter-faith dialogues and conferences on Islam play an important symbolic role in ensuring that the 'war on terror' does not poison relations between the Muslim world and the West. But western governments tend to be far too timorous in whom they invite. More would be achieved by pursuing a dialogue with individuals and organisations representing a broader range of Islamist and neo-fundamentalist views. In particular, greater first hand exposure to a range of Islamist and neofundamentalist groups would provide western governments and specialists with a more nuanced understanding of the various manifestations of these forms of Islamic activism and the implications of their activism.
  4. Think about education and the 'war of ideas' in broad terms
    Some outside observers have identified the radical teachings of a number of pesantren in Indonesia as part of the terrorism problem and have advocated the reform of Islamic education. But other mechanisms for the dissemination of extremist ideas exist outside these pesantren, including channels of electronic communication and student experiences in the Middle East, and these are often much more effective conveyers of ideas. In the best case, promoting the reform of Islamic education won't stop the spread of these ideas. But in the worst case, such policies will be seen as yet another example of western attempts to pollute and weaken Islam. As tempting as such involvement may seem, it is better for the West to stay out of Islamic education and to focus instead on supporting the ability of the mainstream education systems in countries like Indonesia to provide students with the skills to compete in the globalized economy.
  5. Encourage transparency
    The complex question of Saudi Arabian religious propagation in Indonesia (and elsewhere) needs to be addressed. But the answer does not lie simply in encouraging greater regulation by the Saudi government of its official and non-government organizations involved in international Islamic propagation (da'wa). In Indonesia, legitimate and non-jihadist educational and welfare institutions supported by Saudi organizations have suffered as a result of international pressure on Saudi Arabia to limit its charitiable and da'wa activities, leading to considerable resentment against the 'war on terror'. The danger is that this may push hitherto peaceful groups toward more militant financiers. The solution is to encourage Saudi Arabia to accompany greater regulation of its charitable and propagation activities with greater transparency. Encouraging other organizations, Muslim and non-Muslim, to be similarly transparent about their missionary activities will also be an important step in this regard.
  6. Be conscious of double standards and the democracy dilemma
    One of the most damaging things for western governments in the context of the 'war of ideas' is the perception of double standards. In the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, the West needs to accept that democracy will sometimes deliver Islamist victories. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In Indonesia, Islamists have played a constructive role in Indonesia's process of democratization, reflecting the growing understanding among Islamist parties around the world that to be successful they need to adapt their political programs to incorporate the everyday concerns of voters. The democratic credentials of every individual Islamist group should not be assumed. But neither should we assume Islamism's purported incompatibility with democracy, nor should we ignore the potentially transformative impact of even a tactical acceptance of the democratic process on the part of some Islamist groups.

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