TO ASSERT JIHADIST TERRORISM HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ISLAM IS A HEAD-IN-THE-SAND ATTEMPT TO AVOID REALITY
Islam in Indonesia has two faces. On one side there is a long and strong tradition of moderate Islam that embraces “unity in diversity”. On the other side is a growing intolerance that erupts from time to time in violence and goes hand-in-hand with demands for stricter adherence to sharia law. This is itself a manifestation of the decades-long global Islamic awakening whose impact can be observed in nation after nation.
The worst Indonesian expression of surging religious intolerance was not the Bali bombings but a jihad waged in the Moluccas that peaked around the year 2000, when the Laskar Jihad, a 2000-strong militia founded by a veteran of the Afghan jihad, declared war on Christians following reports of sectarian conflict. The result was thousands dead and a half-million internally displaced Christians.
Today Indonesia has many battle-hardened jihadi veterans, not only from domestic conflicts but also from Afghanistan and The Philippines jihad. There are also about 500 returnees from the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
President Joko Widodo spoke out strongly against last Sunday’s bombings of three churches in Surabaya, calling the perpetrators barbaric and inhumane. Malcolm Turnbull joined in the chorus yesterday, telling Melbourne radio station 3AW’s Neil Mitchell the suicide bombers were “brutal, inhumane, blasphemous” and “sickeningly cruel”, declaring: “It’s a reminder that these terrorists have got nothing to do with God … They are not defending Islam, they are … defaming it.”
These denunciations serve two purposes: to reassure the many Muslims who are appalled by the violence that they will not be tarred with the same brush, and to stigmatise any who may sympathise with the perpetrators.
It seems significant that the attacks on the Surabaya churches targeted representatives of the three main branches of Indonesian Christianity: a Reformed church, a Catholic church and a Pentecostal church. This comprehensive selection signals an intention to send a warning to all the major Christian denominations in the country.
Another feature of the bombings was that they were undertaken by six members of a single family.
The denunciations of this devout middle-class family as brutal and barbaric are inconsistent with the testimony of their neighbours, who described them as friendly, decent human beings. Dita Upriarto, the father, was described by one neighbour as a friendly “nice guy”. Another neighbour, a Christian woman, said: “They were like other devout Muslim families … the couple visited me when I gave birth and when my children were sick.” Upriarto’s sister, devastated by the events, wondered what had happened to “my good brother”.
Were they monsters or devout Muslims? The two faces of Indonesian Islam, one moderate and the other violent, seem to converge in this one family.
These are horrific events but verbal denunciations of this family do not relieve us of the responsibility of understanding them. In fact, we have an overwhelming body of evidence available to us concerning the beliefs of those who are ready and willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of Islam.
There are two key elements to their ideology.
One is the devaluing of non-Muslim lives. This contempt, which Upriarto’s family appears to have concealed from their neighbours, is endorsed by the Koran when it describes those who reject Islam as the “worst creatures”, inferior, losers, arrogant, insolent and impure. The Koran also repeatedly urges believers not to befriend non-Muslims.
The other key idea is a firmly held belief in a promise that beyond the act of pushing the button on a bomb lies not death but a superlative life in paradise. This, too, is derived from the Koran.
The Koran repeatedly condemns those who love this life more than the next, and jihadi movements ridicule non-Muslims as “those who love life”. Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza, commented on Monday’s violent demonstrations along the border with Israel: “Today you are fighting divine soldiers who love death for Allah like you love life and who compete among themselves for martyrdom like you flee from death.”
Julie Bishop called on the Gaza protesters to “refrain from violence” but instead she should be challenging their driving belief, the idea that martyrdom and paradise awaits the one who dies fighting for Allah’s cause.
Dita Upriarto’s wife, his two sons and two young daughters embraced the “love for death” and sought it in attempting to kill Christians. This was not an attempt to defame Islam, despite what the Prime Minister has claimed, but an attempt to observe it. The sobering fact is that the religiously inspired love for death is what turned an otherwise friendly, functional middle-class family into a lethal weapon.
As much as the authorities do need support from Muslims to answer the challenge of radical jihadism, we also need to acknowledge the truth that the Surabaya bombings had a religious motivation. To assert that they had nothing to do with Islam is a head-in-the-sand attempt to avoid reality. Such denials ring hollow and they cannot bring peace.