Throughout much of their recent history, Indonesia and Malaysia have been celebrated by regional and global audiences alike as thriving examples of peaceful coexistence between different religions and backgrounds, thanks to the consolidation of a moderate, pluralistic, and generally accommodative Islam that proved de facto compatible with democratic principles and practices.
In Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the globe, the challenge of luring Islamist forces into mainstream politics has gone hand in hand with the framing of a post-authoritarian order characterized by free and fair elections, expanding civil liberties, and a blossoming media market, notwithstanding a widespread reliance on clientelism and patronage which still profoundly impairs the overall quality of Indonesia’s ‘patrimonial democracy’. As a result, during the so-called ‘reformasi’ period confessional movements and other formerly marginalized groups were progressively socialized into the political realm through co-optation and the distribution of spoils: their interest in being part of the country’s establishment, in other words, started to outshine the impulse of deposing or supplanting it, while the electoral platforms of many religious parties quickly moved from radicalism to a ‘pious’ conservatorism that essentially advocated social justice and welfare.
On a similar note, Malaysia – as the second Muslim cradle inside Southeast Asia – has traditionally fended off the Islamist threat with a remarkable degree of flexibility and pragmatism, conducive to the establishment under the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) of a constitutionally secular political system, where the formal embrace of spiritual symbols and values for legitimation purposes has been generally associated with the safeguard of religious freedom.
Over the course of the last four years, however, this almost idyllic scenario has rapidly crumbled, in parallel with Indonesia and Malaysia’s usual connotations as safe havens for a tolerant, restrained, and moderate Islam. Both countries have in fact displayed an unprecedented surge of terrorist attacks and communal violence, further complemented by the visible rise of hardline formations like the ‘Islamic Defenders Front’ (IDF) in shaping the course of the public discourse towards the imposition of a legal system based on shari’a and the curtailing of minority rights. To a large extent, these alarming trends are deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of Daesh (also known as ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’, ISIL), the Salafi jihadist group that in 2014 terrified the whole international community by proclaiming the birth of a worldwide caliphate on large portions of the territories of Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Islamic State has utilized its Middle Eastern strongholds to perpetrate more than 70 terrorist attacks in 17 different countries, so as to open multiple military fronts in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In doing so, it has also forged fruitful alliances with analogous formations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) in Indonesia – which gained the international headlines in the spring of 2018 for its links with the Surabaya bombings – while also employing a quite sophisticated propaganda and media strategy that attracted thousands of sympathizers around the globe. Defeated on the conventional battleground by the international coalition that recaptured the city of Mosul in late 2017, Daesh and its foreign trained fighters (FTF) based in Southeast Asia have therefore doubled down on their efforts to establish solid branches in the sub-region, with the aim of regrouping and strengthening their ranks.
According to the Indonesian intelligence, most notably, the country currently hosts thousands of ISIL supporters and several hundred operatives who pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as for the 600 FTF who returned home after having joined Daesh in Syria. In spite of these limited numbers, especially if compared to an overall Muslim population of approximately 220 million individuals, the ISIL affiliates located in Indonesia have reacted with mounting ferocity to the military debacles suffered by the group in Syria, thus demonstrating that regardless of its severe losses in the Middle Eastern theater Daesh is still able to attract, coordinate, and mobilize a significant amount of support. Between 2016 and 2018, in particular, the terrorist networks operating in Indonesia have conducted nine massive attacks against foreigners, religious minorities, and law enforcement officials, as epitomized by the raid perpetrated in January 2016 in a Starbucks cafe in central Jakarta causing dozens of casualties among ordinary citizens. The escalation of violence has then reached new heights in May 2018, due to a wave of coordinated attacks that provoked the highest number of civilian victims (14 casualties and 40 injuries) since the 2002 Bali bombing. In this case, JAD militants orchestrated six different terrorist operations which took place in less than a week in various locations, encompassing a two-day standoff inside the Kelapa Dua detention center, a suicide bombing at a police headquarter in the city of Surabaya, and three simultaneous church assaults carried out by a family of six, including a nine year old girl. Soon after, Daesh claimed full responsibility for the attacks, as a further testament to its impressive ability in building-up a loose yet resilient structure of more than 60 organizations operating within the Indonesian soil under the black banner of the Islamic State.
In Malaysia, ISIL affiliates executed their first large-scale attack in June 2016, when a small commando assaulted a bar in downtown Kuala Lumpur by throwing grenades on the costumers – mostly foreigners – who were watching a football match. In the subsequent months, Islamist terrorist cells have successfully monopolized arms smuggling activities at the border between Malaysia and Thailand, so as to fuel the Muslim-backed, anti-government insurgency in southern Thailand that caused more than 6,000 civilian casualties between 2004 and 2017. Many of them, moreover, have joined the ranks of Abu Sayyaf to confront Filipino forces in the battle of Marawi, during the bloody siege of the largest Muslim city in the island of Mindanao. To counter these threats, the Malaysian government has significantly enhanced its counterterrorist legislation centered on the so-called ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’, which in 2016 alone paved the way for 175 arrests. In a similar vein, a clear broadening in the definition of terrorism and the strengthening of police powers in terms of preemptive arrests are also at the core of Jakarta’s brand-new ‘Anti-Terrorism Law’, passed in the aftermath of the Surabaya bombing by the Indonesian parliament with the clear intent of eradicating the Islamist threat. As a result, in the subsequent crackdown unleashed by local security forces 82 ISIL operatives were reportedly arrested, and 14 killed. On top of that, the vast majority of the Muslim communities located in both countries has voiced a strong condemnation against the attacks and the targeting of civilians, as it happened in the case of the already mentioned 2002 Bali bombing, which led to a massive decline of Al Qaeda’s popularity inside Southeast Asia. With the run-up to Indonesia’s 2019 general elections already underway, the stage is thus set for a major political clash between secularist and religious forces, headed respectively by president Joko Widodo and his main contender Prabowo Subianto, a populist strongman supported by an heterogeneous yet powerful coalition of military and confessional hardliners.
*Andrea Passeri is Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Bologna, where he teaches the course ‘Democrazie and Autoritarismi in Asia. His researches have appeared on prestigious international and Italian journals devoted to East Asian studies, such as Pacific Review, Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, and Rivista Il Mulino.