Clamp down on extremism, or pay the consequences

It was over 10 years ago that I first came to Indonesia to work in a small university in the industrial town of Surabaya in East Java as a lecturer. Although dirty and very hot, I liked the city a lot because it still had a very Indonesian feel to it, unlike Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta which is very westernized. Surabaya’s proximity to Bali was another thing in its favour.

I wasn’t long in Surabaya before I was asked if I would like to stay with an Indonesian family there. In exchange for me giving informal English lessons, I would get a roof over my head. Sounded like a pretty good deal to me.

Like many Indonesians, the family I stayed with were Muslims yet extremely moderate.

Why else would they invite someone who they probably thought to be Christian to stay in their house? Despite the religious rituals, such as praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan, I honestly would not have even known they were Muslim. Their teenage kids were big pop music fans and had a much greater awareness of Western fashion than I did!

But one day, while I was relaxing in the sitting room I picked up a cheap looking comic book. It happened to be an Islamic comic book. I flicked through it and there were pictures of kafir (unbelievers) in a fiery hell. Some of them were roasting on splints; others enduring all manners of torture. Body parts all over the place; a right bloody mess. Why would their kids be reading stuff like this? I put the comic book down, and thought about it no more.

On Saturday night, many years later, I switch on the TV to witness the carnage wrought by a serious of bomb explosions on the Island of the Gods, Bali. At least 26 people have been killed, and many more injured. I think back to that old comic book: how strikingly similar it is to the images now being broadcast into my home.

Is there a connection?

I think there is.

Of course I’m not saying that all kids who read gory comics will become terrorists. But what I am saying is that there is a ‘dark side’, a side that has come to the fore in recent years even though most Muslims do not share the extremists’ views.

Such extremism and intolerance appears to be growing in Indonesia, as evinced by:

- the forcible closure of churches in Bandung, West Java
- the increasing use of violence against moderate Muslims
- The rise of extremism in Aceh. With the implementation of Sharia law, physical punishments (such as flogging) are now the norm for “crimes” such as gambling. There is even talk to punish thieves under Islamic Law, which will mean the amputation of limbs.

But how can you blame Muslims in general for the bombings of Bali, you shout. I am not. But when extremism rises, there are bound to be a few sad and misguided individuals who end up on the road to madness. People who are willing to tie bombs to their bodies and walk into a restaurant in Bali and blow themselves up.

After all, countries in this part of the world with authoritarian regimes that clamp down on religious extremism (Malaysia, Singapore) haven’t seen any terrorist attacks, have they? And neither had Indonesia when the country was ruled by former autocrat Suharto. Coincidence? I don’t think so.


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