Recent terrorist attacks in Indonesia continue to stir debate over the growing encroachment of Islamist fanaticism in the Southeast Asian archipelago.
Even Saudi Arabia is expressing its concern.
Deep fears about Muslim extremism reached new heights when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla on May 18. Along with other issues, Pence was seeking ways “to improve the plight of Christians in that most populous of Islamic countries.”
The recent uptick in Indonesian violence, which motivated Pence’s intervention, were described in the Jakarta Globe: “The suicide bombings on May 13 and 14 in East Java, which were carried out by three families of suicide bombers and involved children as young as 7-years old, have been perceived as an indication of increasing terrorist activity in the country.”
Three churches were bombed May 13: Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, Indonesia Christian Church, and Surabaya Central Pentecost Church. All three churches are in Surabaya, East Java. The death toll: 27 killed, over 50 injured.
Those unprecedented assaults, carried out by parents and their children, stunned many international observers. The adults who initiated the church bombings not only died as suicide bombers themselves, but also led their own children into the explosions, sacrificing their young lives in the flames.
Indonesia, comprised of some 17,000 islands, is indeed the most populous Muslim nation in the world. And it was long applauded for its exemplary, peaceable Islamic practices.
A popular saying claims that “Islam came to Indonesia not on a bullet but on a breeze.”
In fact, Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid was a notable international spokesman for religious freedom, endorsing a peaceable interpretation of Islamic law.
He famously served as the leader and spokesman for the world’s largest moderate Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).
In recent years, however, Wahid’s peaceable, inclusive message has been eclipsed by hardline sermons in fundamentalist mosques, punctuated by stunning terrorist attacks.
After al-Qaida attacked the United States on 9/11, military analysts and counter-terrorism experts naturally focused their attention on Saudi Arabia, from where 15 of the 19 suicide murderers originated.
Close scrutiny of Saudi-sponsored international mosques exposed fiery anti-Christian, anti-American, and anti-Semitic sermons. These were accompanied by publications and school curriculum inciting violence against non-Muslim “infidels” along with hatred for the West, and specifically America.
Today, radical groups continue to take root in the archipelago, and Islamic State has inspired allegiance to the deadliest of Islamist agendas.
More than a few observers blame the upsurge in fanaticism and violence on Saudi Arabia’s massive investments in promotion of Islamic fundamentalism.
Huffington Post reported in 2017, “Saudi Arabia has supported more than 100 boarding schools and 150 mosques across Indonesia. But the center of attention remains the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA), an Arabic-speaking, gender-segregated, and tuition-free university in Jakarta – where, as the Boston Globe put it, ‘students learn an ultra-conservative form of Islam that favors hand amputation for thieves, stoning for adulterers, and death for gays and blasphemers.’ The most promising students receive funding to continue their studies in Riyadh, and have gone on to become influential teachers, ministers, and right-wing political leaders.”
Vast funds have flowed into Indonesian mosques and madrassas for decades, poured out generously from Saudi’s seemingly inexhaustible oil money — a generous portion of the estimated $200 billion the Kingdom has invested worldwide in its promotion of Wahhabism, the trademark Saudi Islamist doctrine.
Over the years, as a result, horrific stories of violent attacks in the once-peaceable island nation began to make news.
Perhaps most memorable were the gruesome 2005 beheadings of three Christian schoolgirls in Sulawesi.
More recently, in 2017, the popular Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — also known by his Chinese nickname Ahok — was jailed for “blasphemy.” His trial and sentencing were accompanied by massive street demonstrations against him, and he remains incarcerated.
Western researchers, experts in Islam, coalitions of concerned scholars, and clergy have sought common ground with Indonesia’s large Muslim organizations, many of which remain moderate.
Even Saudi Arabia has signaled its distress at the recent terrorism.
In a rather unexpected statement, the Saudi Gazette reported on May 28, “The attacks on churches in Indonesia were strongly condemned by a Saudi Foreign Ministry official source, the Saudi Council of Senior Ulema (scholars) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Sunday.
“In a statement… the Council of Senior Ulema said that it considers the attacks on the churches to be a grave crime, an injustice, and an aggression forbidden by the Islamic Sharia. The Secretariat General of the Council stressed that Islam forbids terrorism and considers people who commit such acts as criminals. These acts are rejected and forbidden by the Islamic Sharia.”
Since the church bombings, the world has turned its worried eyes toward Indonesia. Yet, although the current trends there are certainly troublesome, some observers envision Indonesia’s return to its peaceable Islamic tradition.
Visitors who were in the country when the church attacks occurred described heartfelt — and heartening — Muslim support for Christians. Despite public warnings against attending large gatherings, thousands of people of both faiths participated in massive candlelight vigils.
One correspondent wrote that Muslim clerics had reached out to Christian pastors offering both condolences and protection. In Jakarta, 8,000 police officers were assigned to guard Christian churches during services following the bombings.
Despite the present turmoil, thanks to Indonesia’s historically peaceable Muslim tradition there remains genuine hope that today’s blood-stained tide will eventually turn.