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Indonesia's churches are 'soft targets' for radicals

The fact that families carried out suicide bombings has shocked most Indonesians

Marianne Dardard, Eglises d'Asie

Marianne Dardard, Eglises d'Asie

Updated: June 10, 2018 03:49 AM GMT
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Indonesia's churches are 'soft targets' for radicals

Indonesians from different religious groups take part in a joint prayer for the victims of a bomb attack on a church in Surabaya on May 18. (Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP) 

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Indonesia was hit by a series of suicide attacks against three churches and the central police station in Surabaya, the country's second-largest city on May 13-14.

In this interview conducted by Marianne Dardard from Eglises d'Asie, Indonesia specialist Delphine Alles, a researcher in Jakarta for the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC) and a lecturer in political science at the Universite Paris-est Creteil, explains the situation facing the nation's Christian minority.


Dardard: The Surabaya attacks are the deadliest (27 deaths, including 13 terrorists) since the 2002 attacks in Bali (202 dead), which were the bloodiest in the country's history. What's new about the Surabaya attacks?

Delphine Alles : The mode of family action is what has caused the greatest astonishment. It's the first time that parents have perpetrated suicide attacks with their children in Indonesia. The other dimension that needs to be pointed out is the level of coordination and [technical prowess] of these attacks, which far exceeds that of the Bali and Jakarta attacks in the early 2000s.

According to the police, at least two of the three "kamikaze" families belonged to the same Koranic study group, and the authorities found 54 operational explosive ordinances in the home of the perpetrators of the attack against the headquarters of the Surabaya police.

Dardard: In February an individual armed with a sword wounded many people inside a church in Yogyakarta in the center of the archipelago. Before that he had reportedly tried to team up with jihadists. Should we be worried by the increasing number of attacks against churches and Christians, who represent 9 percent of the Indonesian population?

Delphine Alles: To this day it has not been possible to establish a link between the events in Surabaya and the Yogyakarta attack, which has been considered an isolated attack in the absence of any claim of responsibility. On the other hand, the attacks against churches — which hark back to a mode of action that was frequent in the early 2000s — come at a time of intensified internal divisions in Indonesia.

This could be observed in late 2017, with the accusations of blasphemy levelled against the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is of Chinese and Christian origin, by groups like the Islamic Defenders Front. This stigmatization is not representative of the entire Indonesian society but comes at a time when the Christian minority is becoming once again a prime target for groups ready to go into action.

This is one of the objectives of the pro-Islamic State group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), to which many of the Surabaya terrorists belonged. JAD has called on Indonesians to attack what it calls 'internal miscreants': religious minorities, but also state representatives, especially the police forces involved in the fight against terrorism.

There is perhaps also an operational reason. Churches are softer targets than places frequented by foreigners, such as embassies, hotels and shopping malls, since they have no security systems. During peak periods such as Christmas or Easter, some are guarded by the militias of Muslim organizations, which lend their services to show their attachment to pluralism, but this was not the case on May 13.

Dardard: Do these attacks against churches weaken the myth of a moderate Islam in Indonesia?

Delphine Alles: The issue is raised at every attack since Indonesia's international image was battered by the Bali attacks, but we have to go beyond this image and observe the resilience of Indonesian society.

Political groups and civil society organizations, most of them Muslim, immediately condemned the attacks. The involvement of children has accentuated the rejection of these acts of violence by Indonesian society. To try to ease the tensions spawned by the rise of radicalism, the Indonesian government decided in the early 2000s to highlight the Islamic side of the national identity and promote the representation of Indonesia as the first Muslim-majority democracy that practices tolerant Islam.

The authorities highlight, in particular, their institutional synthesis, which is based on the "Pancasila," a national ideology based on five principles, the first of which is belief in a single God — without favoring any one religion.

However, behind this discourse and its institutional foundations, the divisions are significant. One of the current challenges is not only promoting pluralism or tolerance, which can be satisfied with simple coexistence without interaction, but maintaining the possibility of discussing religious issues, not only between communities, but also within them.

Within Muslim civil society, for example, each attack sparks discussions on recognizing or not the self-proclaimed Islamic nature of their authors. Many voices are raised to take this up and advocate a process of contextualizing the texts they use to legitimize the violence, but the issue remains sensitive.

Dardard: What challenges do these attacks raise in the country with the most Muslims in the world?

Delphine Alles: Indonesia faces an image challenge abroad and a cohesion challenge at home, something the government is aware of. The difficulty is finding the means to confront this without definitively alienating the fringe of public opinion attracted by religious radicalism.

If it actively promotes pluralistic Islam that is in keeping with the institutions, the government is tempted to reduce the violence to exogenous factors to maintain the idea of national cohesion.

That has helped to minimize the localized violence that creates a climate of violence that goes beyond the issue of terrorism, particularly between religious or ethnic minorities and groups seeking to impose their own vision of purity, by targeting, for example, what they consider to be places of debauchery.

While terrorists are broadly condemned, organizations like the Islamic Defenders Front are now part of the political and social landscape. They are still very much in the minority, but the visibility of their mobilization, combined with the relative ideological vacuum on the other side, occasionally enables them to act as kingmakers in the political arena, as was the case with the election of the governor of Jakarta last year.

These groups offer a discourse that attract populations unconvinced by the government's developmental approach, and they help to divide Indonesian society around religious criteria.

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