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Indonesia: Five Essentials for Countering Violent Extremism without Undermining Freedoms

January 25, 2023

By Mochamad Mustafa

Over the past decade, global efforts to respond to the threat of terrorism have shifted decisively from “traditional” coercive counterterrorism, involving military and law enforcement approaches, to strategies that fall under the new rubric of “countering violent extremism” (CVE).

CVE is unique in that it is based on building resistance to extremist narratives among populations vulnerable to radicalization, thereby preventing them from being recruited or influenced by terrorist groups.

CVE has strong backers among governments, donors, development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, but there is also criticism of its core premise. Considerable empirical evidence suggests that there are no consistently identifiable signs or predictable processes that identify individuals on the way to radicalization and terrorist violence.

These concerns have much relevance in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and home to many different interpretations of Islam, from progressive to ultraconservative.

Indonesia has experienced several horrific terrorist attacks—most notably the Bali Bombing in 2002, which killed more than 200 people. A suicide bomb attack by a previously convicted terrorist in Bandung, West Java, in early December 2022 also dramatically highlighted the continuing threat of terrorism and the challenges the state faces in turning terrorists away from violence.

While more “moderate” understandings of Islam have historically been dominant in Indonesia, radical (though not necessarily violent) groups have grown in influence since the democratic transition in 1998 and the relaxation of controls on the Muslim community. These groups have thrived amid the growing conservatism of many Indonesian Muslims.

The rise of conservative Islam has not only challenged the idea of Indonesia as a “moderate” country; it has also created problems for CVE. Sometimes the difference between nonviolent conservatism and violent extremism is unclear, particularly when terms like “radicalism” and “extremism” are overused and poorly defined.

Tauhid flags in Joyosuran village, Solo, Central Java, indicating support for an Islamic Caliphate. (Photo: Percik Foundation)

Lack of clarity about these expressions can result in simplistic generalizations that associate any conservative expressions of religion or exclusivist beliefs with radicals. This can lead to overreactions and violations of freedom of expression—exemplified by bans on speech, government surveillance, and screening of public officials in the name of preventing “radicalism.” Poorly targeted, repressive actions increase suspicion among conservative communities that CVE is really just “anti-Islam,” causing significant tension between communities and organizations implementing CVE initiatives.

At the same time, initiatives that limit their scope to promoting discourse, research, counternarratives, and sporadic public campaigns are unlikely to be effective. They tend to end up promoting tolerance—an important endeavor, but one that should not be confused with more specific programs like CVE. High-level campaigns of this sort are rarely able to contest the influence of radical networks that penetrate vulnerable groups on the ground through intensive, day-to-day interactions.

If CVE programs are to succeed in Indonesia, they must strike a better balance between preventing violent extremism and upholding democratic norms, and between work at the discursive level and efforts on the ground. This is a balance that The Asia Foundation has striven to achieve, and the experience has suggested several principles for implementing CVE more democratically.

First, clarify which radical and extremist narratives the CVE initiative seeks to counter. Without a clear definition of radicalism or extremism, campaigns to counter violent narratives are simply blunt instruments that increase conflict between Muslim communities with different ideologies or interpretations of Islam. In Indonesia, this has contributed to growing polarization between religious pluralists and conservative communities. Vague definitions of radicalism have demonized groups who hold conservative or exclusivist ideas yet reject violence, damaging social cohesion and potentially contributing to conflict.

In fact, evidence shows that terrorists can emerge from a range of ideologies. CVE programs must clearly define what they consider to be a radical narrative, in order to distinguish between countering narratives and countering groups. In Indonesia, this might include, for example, narratives that justify violence, support the idea of thoghut (labeling democratic governments as illegitimate oppressors that should be revolted against), and advocate replacing the state with an Islamic caliphate. A strategic choice must be made when members of a group promote a violent extremist narrative: should CVE programs delegitimize the whole group, or tailor counter-narratives while working with the community? There is no cookie cutter answer to this very delicate question.

Second, CVE programming should focus on vulnerable groups and individuals at real risk. It is crucial to conduct an assessment of communities to focus CVE interventions on those at risk of exposure to extremist narratives or recruitment into extremism because of their proximity to groups promoting these views. Failure to accurately identify vulnerable groups will result in costly, ineffective, overly broad program implementation, where even individuals who do not have issues with radicalism are targeted.

Third, sustainability requires developing the capacity of local community members. Violent extremist ideology can seriously disrupt community cohesion. Local individuals know their communities best, and are much better placed than outsiders to support communities in daily interactions and peer-to-peer relationships. Community members who are resistant to radical narratives are well positioned to approach vulnerable individuals and groups, and are much more likely to earn their trust.

Fourth, CVE implementers must have nuanced and strategic communication skills to build effective relationships with local communities. A longstanding challenge for CVE programs has been the sensitivity of matters of religion, radicalism, and extremism. Significant care is required in identifying and discussing problems, so that these discussions are not perceived as accusatory. Creative approaches, such as integrating program activities into social practices and events, can help to promote productive dialogue.

Finally, it is important to adapt CVE strategies to the local context. There is no single narrative or media tool appropriate for all situations. Counternarratives need to be adapted to the age, knowledge, viewpoints, and sociocultural profile of target groups, so that they understand, support, and eventually become voluntarily involved in program implementation. Likewise, program design and implementation must remain flexible to respond to shifts in the local situation.

Indonesia faces real problems with violent extremism. And CVE programs can promote community resilience against violent narratives. But more care is needed to avoid simplistic definitions of radicalism and imprecise targeting of communities that often result in unintended negative consequences.

Mochamad Mustafa is The Asia Foundation’s director of democracy and governance programs in Indonesia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Good Governance

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