Indonesians Reject ISIS's Terror and Embrace a Pluralistic, Welcoming Society

01/15/2016 06:35 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2016
  • Wimar Witoelar Public affairs commentator; former spokesman for President Abdurrahman Wahid (2000-01)
Ed Wray via Getty Images

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Ever since I was a child in the 1950s we have had terrorists around us. We could not drive from the capital of Jakarta to the mountain city of Bandung after dark because there was danger from terrorists using Islamic symbols to wage their campaign for a religious state. They never caught the hearts and minds of the vast majority. Ultimately, they became history, here and gone after their 15 minutes of fame.

Indonesia has certainly experienced its share of terrorism and jihadist movements since independence in 1945. In 1949, the organization Darul Islam proclaimed an "Islamic state" and staged a series of armed rebellions against the government in the 1950s and early 1960s. The militant Islamist movement then split into numerous groups, from Laskar Jihad to Jemaah Islamiyah, which executed the 2002 Bali bombings.

Later on in the 1960s another kind of terrorism kept us awake, this time using communist ideology to seek a proletarian dictatorship. That failed also. The resolution was bloody and tragic: political upheaval, the iron hand of the army crushing dissent. It became unclear who the terrorists were: left-wing extremists or military hard-liners. Hundreds of thousands died in military overreaction and communist ideology was banned until the present day.

indonesia communist

An Indonesian officer offering weapons instruction during a hunt for guerrilla communists in Borneo, Dec. 1968. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)


With the banning of the far left, there were only hard-liners on the right: the military and religious extremists. When terrorism became internationalized at the turn of the century, terrorist cells sprang up like McDonalds franchises. But they never sold billions of hamburgers. Instead they are curiosities kept alive by foreign money and foreign groups. In 2002, the Bali bombings surprised us with an al Qaeda-type attack, killing more than 200 people. Smaller attacks came in the years after that, and on Jan. 14, we experienced our first attack by the so-called Islamic State, which was tragic if a bit farcical. Seven were killed -- five of them the terrorists themselves.


There is a base of support for ISIS in Indonesia. But public declarations by a thousand people do not represent active support for ISIS. Islamic terrorism and professions of support for it in Indonesia remain curiosities. The conflict in Syria and its geopolitical implications has captured the imagination of the public because of empathy for the suffering of Middle Eastern Muslims -- which have a distinctly different cultural base from eclectic Indonesian Muslims.

Not many Indonesians have made the trip to distant Syria -- the Indonesian government estimates around 700 have as of July 2015. In comparison, the Soufan Group estimates that for France, it's 1,700; for Russia, 2,400; and for Tunisia, 6,000.

In the larger Indonesian public, reactions on social media after the attack came instantly, and comedy drowned out tragedy.


To be sure, terrorism is not a laughing matter. But lifelong hardship has trained us to roll with the punches, and it is easier to laugh at our problems than seek serious reform, which has been proceeding at variable pace since 1998. Underneath the turmoil and dysfunctions, which have been a hallmark of Indonesia since independence in 1945, ours is a pluralistic and relaxed society. The hard sell does not work in the long run.

And Muslims are the best guarantee against terror. Indonesia's two biggest Islamic organizations called for a calm and unified response. The Jakarta Globe, a major Indonesia news source, issued this summary:

"All elements of this nation should not be provoked into doing harm," Said Aqil Siradj, the chairman of the 40-million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama, said on Thursday ...

Said called on the public "not to be influenced by any parties claiming to act on behalf of religion or jihad but that instead carry out radicalism and terrorism."

"We should also remain vigilant, unified and increase our solidarity to create a sense of safety in daily life," he added.

Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-biggest Islamic group, with some 30 million members, urged the public "to remain calm and put their trust in the security authorities."

"Countering terrorism should be comprehensively conducted through various approaches," said Haedar Nashir, the Muhammadiyah chairman.


Quite a different approach from the Donald Trump campaign against Islam.

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