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Why has militant extremism become such a strong force for radical Islam?

by Jeff Kingston

JEMAAH ISLAMIYAH: Radical Islam in Indonesia, by Greg Barton. Ridge Books: Singapore, 2005, 118 pp., $15 (paper).

Eerily the news of the recent Bali bombings broke as I was reading this concise analysis of why radical Islam remains a potent threat in Indonesia and the region. It is believed that there are links between al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the organization suspected in both Bali bombings.

Greg Barton details the forensic investigation of the previous Bali bombings in 2002 that broke the case and led to the rapid arrest and trial of those responsible. Based on information obtained from the suspects, and a collaborative international effort, authorities swooped down on many JI operatives in Southeast Asia, dealing it a severe blow.

Indeed, as Barton writes, “Revulsion at the bombings and revelations about the violent intentions of previously respected radical Islamist leaders greatly reduced sympathy for radical Islamism among Indonesians.” Barton praises the Indonesian authorities for the manner in which they handled the case, commenting that “In virtually every respect the prosecution of the Bali bombers was a model of how justice in Indonesia can serve the interests of ordinary Indonesians in a liberal democracy.”

However, JI remains a significant threat because it exerts a strong appeal; there is no shortage of potential recruits. Why does indiscriminate violence against soft targets appeal to some young Muslims? What are the prospects for terrorism in Asia? Whither Indonesia? Anyone interested in these questions should consult this timely book.

The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have convinced many Muslims that the United States has declared war on Islam. In Barton’s view, Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilizations — Christian vs. Muslim — has become a self-fulfilling prophecy precisely because it is so appealing to radical Muslims.

Barton examines how radical Islamic doctrines have evolved in recent decades and why conflicts in Afghanistan served as a watershed in the emergence of Islamic extremism. The U.S. sponsored mujahedin (those engaged in jihad, Muslim fighters) operating from bases inside Pakistan to fight against the Soviet occupation. The Taliban who took over after the Soviet’s ouster emerged from the ranks of these mujahedin. The “Afghan alumni” drawn from around the world shared a radicalizing experience as brothers in arms, “studying in terrorism universities” between 1985-95 before returning home to continue the struggle. This is where the leaders of JI learned their doctrine and honed their skills. Ironically, Barton notes, “that expediency which sought to speed the denouement of one century’s bad dream helped to beget the next century’s nightmare.”

But, given Indonesia’s long-standing reputation as a bastion of moderate Islam, why has militant extremism become such a potent and threatening force? Barton traces the terrorists back to Islamic schools where young acolytes are exposed to a more radical vision of Pan Islam and indoctrinated into a network of jihadi (those engaged in Holy War) that seek to translate Islam into a political reality at odds with a secular state separate from religion. It is worth noting that out of the 25,000 pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) operating in Indonesia only five are thought to have links with JI. However, “the alumni network of graduates is an important element in the JI structure.”

Barton says it’s time to take off the blinkers and engage the problem. He points out that “Many Western agencies now find themselves in a conceptual mire when it comes to understanding Islamic groups and movements, and they substitute simplistic prejudice for benign ignorance. . . . The legitimate and reasonable fear of being seen to endorse the Islam-phobia of the tabloid press has sometimes resulted in a disinclination to critically examine the aspirations of radical Islamist groups.”

Barton asserts there is a synergy between Islamic terrorists and the public figures of political Islam, one taking direct action while the latter openly approve or defend such actions and, in so doing, create a favorable climate for extremism. JI benefits from widespread doubts about the very existence of JI, doubts that are fanned by prominent Muslim leaders who dismiss allegations as scaremongering and scapegoating. After three decades of widespread abuses under the Suharto regime, public skepticism about the security forces understandably runs high and conspiracy theories have considerable currency.

Barton warns how the propaganda offensive of Islamic leaders vilifying the U.S. resonates powerfully, perhaps leading to a possible “transformation of previously quiescent Islamic fundamentalists into active Islamist radicals no longer merely content to cast their vote for the Islamist parties but rather feeling compelled to enter into the struggle to change society directly.”

So far JI is a minority militant group, capably exploiting communal tensions and instigating violence in remote regions of this sprawling archipelago; they are not just bombers of tourist enclaves. In sowing unrest they are also helping their own cause, recruiting the foot soldiers they need to continue their struggle. To emphasize just how high the stakes are, Barton invokes a Pakistan scenario where there is “the tyranny of an extremist minority over a moderate majority,” aided and abetted by shadowy and opportunistic elements in the security forces.

Calling for more resolute action by the U.S. and its allies to avert such a meltdown, Barton counsels an unprecedented and unspecified engagement with Islam, starting with an acknowledgment that radical Islam demands a response. He cautions against complacency, warning that “to deny the contest is to lose it.”