Religion and Terrorism: Religiosity Exploitation?



Laila Afifa

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  • By: Linda Yanti Sulistiawati | Senior Research Fellow, APCEL National University of Singapore and
    Assoc.Prof, Faculty of Law, Universitas Gadjah Mada. 

    The two terror attacks that occurred in Indonesia in March 2021 served as a reminder of how this country is fertile ground for terrorism to take root. However, discussions about this important issue are scarce. Ahmad Munjid, an academic from Universitas Gadjah Mada, has observed that most Indonesians think terrorism to be something ‘distant’ that will never happen to them or their loved ones. The general consensus is that discussing religion in tandem with terrorism would sully the image of Islam, the religion practiced by an overwhelming majority in Indonesia. As a result, most prefer to stay silent. However, if silence implies consent, the majority may very well be complicit in the acts of terrorism.

    Munjid highlighted that the narrative spun by terrorists lacks substantive content. Instead, heavy emphasis is placed on symbols such as angels for suicide bombers, and beautiful wives in heaven. Unfortunately, most Indonesians fail to understand this, perhaps because symbols are rather strongly embedded in Indonesia. For example, Muslims are seen to be more ‘legitimate’ if they have a beard (for men), wear a hijab (for women), or if they use Arabic phrases in conversations. This phenomenon is not new. In “Islam Sontoloyo” (Silly Islam) in Pandiji Islam, published in 1940, Sukarno had noted that Indonesian Muslims tended to focus on the symbols and not the core meaning of Islam.

    Additionally, Munjid candidly states that everything with Islamic symbolism is easy to market. This is the reason for the existence of a ‘Islam black market’ in Indonesia, which sells not only products of Islam, but also ideas and symbols of Islam. The most dangerous commodity sold on this black market is terrorism. In this regard, a few important points should be highlighted.

    First, the act of terrorism. Suratno, an academic from Paramadina University and PBNU activist, thinks that there are different motivations behind an act of terrorism, and religion is only one factor. David Rapoport echoes this sentiment in ‘Four Waves of Terrorism’. He explains that terrorism started with assassination, guerilla, piracy, and then suicides. There are also different brands of terrorism. ‘Right-wing’ terrorism uses racism and white supremacy. ‘Left-wing’ terrorism focuses on capitalism and conspiracy theories. Separatism terrorism is based on politics and power. Finally, there is religion-based terrorism, which has brought about a new wave of terrorism, as exemplified by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

    Second, the terrorist. Munjid and Suratno, who are both Muslim academics and activists, concur that those who agree to become a terrorist are motivated by a captivating narrative that speaks to them on many levels. ‘Narrative’ is one of three tools that terrorists use to recruit others to their cause. The other two tools are ‘Need’ and ‘Network’. In Indonesia, Need has a loose definition. For the Makassar Cathedral case, it was clearly an economic need. On the other hand, the Mabes Polri case involved an unsatisfied need for acceptance which resulted in frustration. As for ‘Network’, all known terrorists have been traced to belong to a network that enables them to carry out the act of terrorism. Abu Sayaf’s case in the Philippines involved a family network where everyone was related by blood, while Abu Bakar Ba’azier’s network involved teachers and their students.

    Third, how do we know whether our loved ones have been radicalised by terrorism ideology? Based on his research, Suratno reports that teenagers who have been indoctrinated by the terrorist ideology start to develop certain symptoms. These symptoms include hating other ideologies outside Islam, especially Pancasila (Indonesian ideology) and other nationalism symbols such as the flag and the government of Indonesia. They also decline to pray together with other Muslims who are not in their sect, becoming ultra-exclusive within their own group. Additionally, in thinking that secular education will not lead them to heaven, they drop out of school. They also harbor a desire to leave their home, and may ask for money (sometimes by lying) to pay for the joining fee for the terrorist group.

    Fourth, how do we prevent terrorism from influencing our loved ones when it uses religion as an ideology? Izak Lattu, an academic from Universitas Kristen Satria Wacana, agrees with Suratno that the role of the family is key. Families should introduce their children to a strong fundamental base of identity – this can be religion, nationalism, or even cultural identity, so long as the children understand from a young age that they belong. This is important as many terrorists are recruited at a young age, where they were without a strong sense of identity and thus easily brainwashed with terrorism ideology.

    Terrorism may be likened to a disease that can easily infect individuals with a weak understanding of the society around them. Thus, Izak opines that families need to introduce children to the idea of pluralism in Indonesia, the different cultures, different religions and beliefs. It would also be helpful to cultivate tolerance as part of everyday life, be it through the school curriculum, in the neighborhood, or during religious activities.

    Terrorism’s main weapon is to spread fear. And fear is mostly generated from prejudice and ignorance about the unfamiliar. If we can come together to learn and understand more about other religions, cultures and beliefs, we can form a community built on respect and trust. And there will not be any room for terrorism.

    *) Compiled and analyzed from a discussion of the same title, organized by PusApdem Universitas Kristen Salatiga (UKSW), April 2, 2021
    by Linda Yanti Sulistiawati.


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