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Indonesia Faces Rising Tide of Militant Islam


Islam spread to Southeast Asia through Arab merchants around the 14th century. Local people converted gradually, mixing their worship of sea deities and Allah. For centuries, Muslims remained a minority on many of the islands that make up today's Indonesia. Scholars say this distinctive history helped shape the nation's moderate, tolerant brand of Islam.

Despite Indonesia's predominantly moderate beliefs, fringe militant groups have been embedded in the archipelago nation for decades, often inciting small-scale religious violence. But a terrorist attack 2.5 years ago on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people brought a new dimension to the country's Islamic movements.

Indonesia blames the militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah or J.I., for the Bali attack and a series of bombings in Jakarta in 2003 and last year.

Leonard Sebastion, a Senior Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, is an expert on Jemaah Islamiyah. “Most of the people who gravitate toward militancy do not come from traditional Islamic families. These people come from poor farming communities in Java.

These are impressionable young minds that are courted by religious leaders with an agenda. Most of them are dropouts from the secondary schools. They are looking for someone to put an arm around their shoulder.”

Leonard Sebastion says men like Abu Bakar Bashir, a Muslim cleric considered to be the spiritual leader of J.I., provide such support to young Indonesians. Bashir was recently found guilty of complicity in the Bali bombings and sentenced to 30 months in jail. Bashir, who calls himself a simple preacher, denies any connection to the bombing.

Leonard Sebastian says Bashir's gentle charisma and Islamic alternative to what many perceive as a corrupt and unjust government appeal to young recruits. “They gravitate to the kind of narrow, depiction of Islam that is adopted by Abu Bakar Bashir that is the answer to their problems and an answer to the way of improving conditions in the country. In a sense they are misled.”

Many of the men convicted in the Bali and Jakarta terrorist attacks studied at Bashir's Islamic boarding school on the island of Java. Jemaah Islamiyah, whose name means "Islamic community," aims to establish an Islamic super state across Southeast Asia, from Malaysia to the southern Philippines. The Indonesian government says the group has links to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

Sidney Jones is Southeast Asia Project Director for the risk analysis think-tank, International Crisis Group. She says the roots of radical Islam in Indonesia can be traced back to a movement called Darul Islam, which began as an armed insurgency in the late 1940s. Its goal -- to create an Islamic state of Indonesia. “Jemaah Islamiyah and virtually all other jihadist organizations are in some ways the children of the Darul Islam movement. For example, we find a number of leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah whose fathers were in Darul Islam.”

Most Jemaah Islamiyah members come from Java, the crowded island considered to be the center of Indonesia's economic and political power. It is also home to more than half of Indonesia's 240 million citizens. Sidney Jones says it also has been a focal point of the Darul Islam movement. ”You have to understand the dynamics of the Darul Islam rebellion, if you are going to have any idea of how Jemaah Islamiyah is likely to change. Even if you arrested every single member of the leadership structure, you would not eradicate this network. It has survived 55 years. One of the biggest mistakes is to see Jemaah Islamiyah as a static organization that will be exactly what it was like in October 2002 when it bombed Bali.

Ms. Jones says despite a government crackdown that has led to numerous arrests, Jemaah Islamiyah survives as a loose network of small, nearly anonymous cells throughout Southeast Asia.

Edward Masters, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, says there is a growing sense among Indonesians of being Muslim. “You can see that by Islamic dress. In the 1960s you would rarely see a headscarf, now it is very common. There is also a much greater identification among Indonesians with international Islamic causes.”

Ambassador Masters adds that Jemaah Islamiyah and other radical groups have been able to reach new recruits by building on the perception that fellow Muslims are being targeted by the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Religious violence has plagued Indonesia's Maluku islands, where fighting between Muslims and Christians has claimed more than 6,000 lives since 1999. That's why Sidney Jones of International Crisis Group says the sense of international Muslim solidarity shouldn't be overblown. “There is a real concern that the war in Iraq is going to intensify bombings and terrorist attacks in Indonesia. In fact, what is much more important is to prevent any of these communal outbreaks from erupting again in Indonesia because that is what stirs the pot in a very dangerous way.”

Some terrorist experts say Jemaah Islamiyah's infrastructure is in tact and still lethal. Singapore warns that the group may strike again soon. Meanwhile, many Indonesian analysts say better governance and more moderate Islamic movements may eventually marginalize groups like Jemaah Islamiyah

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