It is entirely understandable that Indonesia should feature prominently in plans by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) to create a “distant Caliphate”. The nation is home to the largest number of Muslims in the world. It is South-east Asia’s largest country and economy, and its archipelagic character gives it immense strategic importance in the trade and naval lifelines connecting East and West in a globalised Asia-Pacific. That, in spite of its demography, Indonesia is not an Islamic state but essentially a secular one must grate deeply on the expansionist ambitions of the terrorist IS, which fancies itself as the vanguard of the Islamic world. While IS has set its sights on existing Islamic polities such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the conquest of faraway Indonesia, known for its attempt to combine religiosity and moderation, would represent a major territorial advance for IS.
Recent warnings by Australian Attorney-General George Brandis, about IS’ ambitions to turn Indonesia into a provincial Caliphate, have refocused attention on the country’s role in the continuing battle against terror. Jakarta is no stranger to attempts to usurp its sovereignty. Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the Indonesia-based South-east Asian affiliate of the global terror outfit Al-Qaeda, was motivated by its ultimate goal of creating a region-wide Islamic sphere consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, the southern Philippines, Brunei and Singapore. JI’s terrorist map has been incorporated into the global footprint of IS, which has overshadowed Al-Qaeda as well.
What increases the threat to South-east Asia is the vastly expanded control of territory, manpower and finances that distinguishes IS from its fanatical predecessors. Indeed, the ability of radicalised individuals taking their cue if not their directions from IS, to mount attacks around the world, led to a sense of alarm and disruptive lockdowns during the festive period. IS is no longer a malevolent force restricted to the landscape of the Middle East but an actor capable of causing global harm through its franchises or the sporadic acts of groups and individuals whose pathological violence fears not even death. The longer IS succeeds in entrenching itself in the sad lands under its sway, the longer will it remain a magnet of attraction to the religious malcontents as far away as South-east Asia.
The nations of Asean must respond to the idea of a Caliphate in their midst as the founding members of the association did once to the encroachment of global communism. International cooperation with countries in the West and the Middle East is essential to protect South-east Asia from IS’ militant expansionism. This must be complemented domestically by decisive pre-emptive action against radicals and a sustained campaign for the hearts and minds of Muslims.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline ‘Preventing a Caliphate in Indonesia’.