Over the past 15 years, the context of religious terrorism in Indonesia has been closely linked with Islamic activism across the globe. I’ve long been fascinated with the perpetrators’ ideological defense of repeated terrorist actions against civilians, not the least because the Bali bombing was the first time such attacks felt real to me personally – I sat in Paddy’s Pub just days before the suicide bombers entered and killed over 200 people in the area.
VICE Documentary: The Islamic State
The interviewees involved in the Bali bombing cited dissatisfaction with the Indonesian government, decrease in overall morality, and deteriorating social conditions in Indonesia as central reasons for the attack. They repeatedly refer to Christianization and attacks against their Muslim brothers in Palestine and Afghanistan as reason to combat; they perceive their country to be in a state of war against Muslim ideology, thus justifying Jihad. The activists believed it is forbidden to attack peaceful non-Muslims, but they question the existence of such people. They see their own president as a “representative of evil who supports America and its allies” (Putra & Sukabdri, 2013, p. 87).
The interviewees perceive Islam as under threat and Putra & Sukabdri (2013) argue this has led to fights against injustice and reduced individual compassion. Context is important; Islamic terrorism in Indonesia differs from other regions, such as Palestine or Lebanon, Putra & Sukabdri (2013) argue, partly because such actions are not as substantially supported by Islamic groups and even not always by families of the perpetrators. In addition, there is a weaker link between the described goals of terrorism and the acts put into play. Nasir Abas, a former prominent member of the Islamist group, JI (a group repeatedly linked to terrorism in Indonesia) claimed that a prominent goal of Indonesian terrorism is to establish an Islamic state. But, their actions in targeting civilian and foreign subjects (ex. Australian embassy, western communities in Bali) instead of government officials or institutions make the link between goal and action less clear; this is in stark contrast to the Islamic terrorist actions in Palestine, Egypt and India which Putra & Sukabdri (2013) identify as being more consistently against authority.
The connection, however becomes more clear as those interviewed identified strategic political views: one of the Bali bombers in the study stated the attack was a direct response to “atrocities committed towards Muslims worldwide by the USA and its allies” (Putra & Sukabdi, 2013, p. 88). He believed that America, as a superpower state, currently has the ability to stop the conflict between Palestine and Israel but chooses not to. Activists also believe that America should not interfere with Indonesian national affairs. This begs the question, as posed by Rob in the podcast, as to whether American power creates stability in the west while destabilizing other areas. Clearly, the ideological link for Indonesian extremist activists means that it does, but would an alternative Muslim state be more peaceful, more secure? Arquilla (2013) writes that “50 percent of the experts assert that the American relationship with Israel now hurts US national security more than it helps” (p. 72). Is this the case overseas, as well? The answer is unclear (at least to me)!
Approaching this study of Indonesian Islamist terrorism with the view of identifying a zone of possible agreement – one might ask how we can meet in the ‘ideological’ middle ground. Because such terrorists are willing to sacrifice this life for what they rationalize as justified defense of Islam, the religious, cultural and political counterparts that find such beliefs intolerable (whether it be a Christian community, or democratic nation) have shut down communications and have failed in finding a common ground upon which to move forward. How can we find a way of understanding the root of what others believe in order to find solutions to intractable conflicts?
“We learn how to believe before we learn what to believe. It is what we believe – the second stage – that is at the heart of many our current conflicts. We love and hate because of our beliefs; we make homes for ourselves and drive others out, saying that we have been here forever or were sent because of a vision of goodness or gold, or instructions from our gods; we go wandering, and we go to war. Whether Jew or Arab, Catholic or Protestant, farmer or hunter, black or white, man or woman, we all have stories that hold us in thrall and hold others at bay.” (Chamberlin, 2003, p. 2)
Some say we can’t negotiate with terrorists, but it’s possible we will not find solutions any other way. We negotiate regularly with murderers (something of which I am woefully reminded as Paul Bernardo’s name hits the papers again), despite the fact that we have deemed their actions deplorable by law. We find middle ground in order to move forward and keep society safe. We analyze possible causes and cures and I believe we must continue to delve into the rationalities of terrorist activists in order to find a way out; we must work to find ideological common ground in order to move towards a “zone of possible agreement”, as discussed by Burgess & Burgess (2003).
“The development of Islamist terror activists’ norms, beliefs, and ideology are rooted in a collective understanding of the Qu’ran verses and as-Sunnah” (P & S, 2013, p. 84). In other words, they are a result of a specific interpretation and application of words within a particular cultural, temporal, religious and political context. They are results of belief. Individuals have deemed certain words more valuable than life itself. And have disregarded the words, stories and songs of others. Is this unlike what happened in British Columbia during government land claims with the Gitksan in the 1990s? The government deemed the First Nations group did not have rights to the land because there was no written documentation to prove it. The Gitskan asked “if this is your land, where are your stories”. It’s a battle of words, of ideologies, of identity, of home. And though the pillaging of land from the Gitskan may seem far removed from the taking of life by a suicide bomber, I believe they are closely linked – the conflict arises from interpretations of context. “Stories give meaning and value to the places we call home; they bring us close to the world we live in by taking us into a world of words; they hold us together and at the same time keep us apart” (Chamberlin, 2003, p. 1).
Burgess & Burgess (2003, p.3) articulate three causes of intractable conflicts which can be identified in the case of Islamic terrorism in Indonesia: irreconcilable moral differences (reflected as the defence and expansion of the Islamic state), high stakes distributional issues (the perceived inequality of Muslim vs. Christian livelihood in Indonesia) and domination or pecking order conflicts (the belief that American ideology has taken over national interests in Indonesia, thus disregarding Muslim beliefs and the desire for syariah law to rule).
As Burgess & Burgess (2003) point out, “the enemy [in intractable conflicts] is not the other side, but rather the process of escalation ... [which] pushes them to act in increasingly extreme ways that would not, under other circumstances be considered remotely acceptable” (p. 4). I am inclined to suggest that in order to de-escalate terrorist activities and subsequent responses, we need to have a far greater understanding of the stories and beliefs of both sides so that we may find common ground on which to create new stories.
Arquilla, John. (2013, March 4). State of war. Foreign Policy, 199 (March-April), 72-73.
Burgess, Heidi & Burgess, Guy M. (2003). What are intractable conflicts? Knowledge Base Essay. Beyond Intractability Project, University of Colorado.
Chamberlin, J. (2003). If this is your land, where are your stories?: Finding common ground. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada.
Putra, I., & Sukabdi, Z. (2013). Basic concepts and reasons behind the emergence of religious terror activities in Indonesia: An inside view.Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 16, 83-91. Retrieved from Ebsco.