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Jakarta Post

Anticipating ripples from the Syrian conflict in Indonesia

  • Noor Huda Ismail

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, March 28, 2014   /  10:24 am

Today'€™s conflict in Syria '€“ itself a result of the Arab Spring in 2011 '€” has created ripples reaching Indonesia, adding to the country'€™s complex dynamic of Islamic activism. How does this phenomenon take place? Why should we care about it?

Islamic activism in Indonesia has been very vibrant, especially in response to any international affairs that deal with Islam '€” in the form of mass demonstrations, hectic media campaigns, public discussions and the deployment of '€œhumanitarian missions'€ by non-state actors under the banner of Muslim solidarity.

For outsiders, the Syrian conflict is difficult to understand as the bitter reality suggests Muslims killing other Muslims. The only difference is both the regime and the rebels have different Islamic schools of thought, Shiite and Sunni. The two sides have resources, ideological justifications and traditional alliances within the state, or with non-state actors.

For instance, the Shiite side would be supported by most Muslims in Iran and Lebanon. Most Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, Europe, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and others would be more sympathetic toward the Sunni plight.

In response to the above problem, a fringe fraction of Islamic activists in Indonesia have come up with more concrete and systemic initiatives locally and internationally.

Locally, their activities run like an industry: A publishing company owned by one activist translated books from Middle Eastern writers portraying the conflict as a cosmic war. An event organizer called '€œSyam Organizer'€ held book discussions entitled '€œLove for Syam'€ in more than 40 locations mainly in Java. One hundred to 150 people including post-conflict actors in Afghanistan, Mindanao in the southern Philippines, Ambon in Maluku province and Poso in Central Sulawesi attended each event. They engaged in networking and donated to the cause.

Internationally, they send recruits using the humanitarian helmet and some fall off the radar and join the rebels. Thanks to their existing network, especially from Indonesian students in the Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen and Egypt who speak the local languages, they know how to link up with the rebel networks, primarily two groups: Jabhah An Nusroh, linked to al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, has openly rejected ISIS as an affiliate.

It is very difficult to estimate the exact number of Indonesians who have gone to Syria and joined which group within the highly diverse rebel movement, which sometimes fight one another.

Such divisiveness also takes place here, suggesting there is no single player in the game. This was evident in a public event supporting the ISIS held in Jakarta on March 16. The event received little media attention, probably because it was the first day of the legislative political campaign period. The glossy brochures distributed during the event contained endorsements from three convicted terrorists: the ideologue, Aman Abdurrahman, Rois Abu Syaukat and Abdullah Sunata, all of whom are now incarcerated in Central Java'€™s Alcatraz, Nusakambangan.

All of them have called for recruits to support the ISIS. Abu Syaukat, who is on death row for his involvement in the Australian Embassy bombing, said: '€œA caliphate is something that we are longing for. Today, its foundation and construction is in front of our eyes.

"Do we want to be just dreamers who want to see a caliphate or be part of the movement as mujahid, fighters who struggle for the creation of a caliphate?'€

Aman echoed him by saying: '€œI encourage all Muslims wherever they are to support and defend the ISIS and may God lift all burdens from our shoulders [in helping] ISIS so that Islam will be victorious and feared by its enemies. Those who are against ISIS'€™ existence are infidels and hypocrites or they lust for power or are swayed by the media that have tainted the ISIS'€™ image.'€

This declaration will be a game changer in Islamic activism because it will attract more young activists to find possible ways to support and possibly join the ISIS so they can travel to Syria and fight with the rebels. At least 200 people attended the event and proudly displayed black banners similar to the al-Qaeda flag.

As Indonesia and the region suffered from the impact of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, especially from veterans who transformed perceived grievances into violent actions such as in the first 2002 Bali bombing, the Indonesian government, with the help of regional governments,
must invest more resources in anticipating ripples from the Syrian conflict.

One possible solution is establishing a hub for information and expertise sharing through employing both first and second track diplomatic initiatives, especially with the Turkish government.

Most of these people entered Syria via Turkey. A strong international commitment to end this protracted conflict that has claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians must be the top priority of the international community.

The writer sits on the board of the Institute for International Peace Building in Jakarta.

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