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Are Indonesian Women Turning Radical?

The threat may be overblown, but the Indonesian government must take the necessary precautions.

On February 4, The Guardian published an article reporting that Indonesia is headed for an unavoidable crisis. Citing a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), the article claimed that Indonesian women are at risk of becoming suicide bombers. Most of these women are believed to have been radicalized through online chat forums and jihadist material on the internet. They have also been accused of using social media to propagate their ideas and urge others to join them.

This phenomenon is nothing new. With the rise of Islamic State (IS) affiliates, many in Indonesia have voiced their concern over the growing risk of women being recruited by extremist groups. Some have argued that this trend could have devastating implications for Indonesian security, as they believe these women are likely to conduct terrorist attacks in the country. But while the government should be concerned, the security threat should not be over-exaggerated.

DANGER OR FEAR MONGERING?

Even though IS has an increasing presence in Indonesia, the claim that the number of its sympathizers is growing into a worrying figure is farfetched. The terrorist group has allegedly had a foothold in Indonesia since 2011, but its members in the country stand at around 1,000—far less than other Muslim-majority countries affected by IS-affiliated groups.

The same goes for the growing trend among Indonesian women and extremism. While the issue needs addressing by security agencies, the portion of Indonesian women who joined the Islamic State is relatively small in comparison to women from Western countries.

In 2016, Australian scholar Greg Fealy estimated that for “every million people in Indonesia, 1.4 have set out to join ISIS [Islamic State]. In Malaysia, the number is 8.5. But 14 per million Australians, 18 per million French, and 40 per million Belgians have joined ISIS.” In 2015, Sidney Jones, a terrorism expert in Indonesia, identified that around 40 Indonesian women were present in Syria.

Furthermore, while some Indonesian women have been arrested by counterterrorism agents, none of them have succeeded in committing an act of terror. While this does not downplay the threat of terrorism in Indonesia, this shows that women have limited abilities to conduct such attacks. Most of them are arrested for either failed attacks or plotting them.

In fact, while women have played a role in spreading IS ideology in Indonesia and around the world, they have also had a crucial role in counterterrorism and counter-radicalism efforts. Stories have been told of how former male jihadists transformed into peaceful, nonviolent activists due to support from their wives and mothers.

The attack in Jakarta in January 2016 may show how IS-inspired terrorist attacks have begun to spread in the country, but this should not be overblown. As argued by Joseph Chinyong Liow of the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies, the attack was an amateur operation: “The attackers were poorly trained. As many terrorists died in the assault as civilians.” In fact, some analysts are still debating if the attack was really directed by IS leadership in Raqqa, Syria.

More so, there is little proof that Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, holds a prominent status in the Islamic State’s strategy. There are undeniably some groups and individuals in Southeast Asia who have provided support for IS operations in the Middle East, but they are hardly important to the group at present. In addition, these IS sympathizers have no intention to organize under an official affiliate. It is difficult to measure the extent of the Islamic State’s support in Indonesia—that support has not transformed into the call of jihad or perpetrating terrorist attacks in the country. Therefore, to say that Indonesia has become fertile ground for IS to spread its terrorist network is a serious accusation.

HOW SHOULD INDONESIA RESPOND?

While it is true that the trend among women turning radical is often overstated, it does not mean the government in Jakarta should neglect this growing phenomenon. The necessary precautions to prevent the seeds from growing are needed now more than ever.

donate to nonprofit media organizationsFirst, the Indonesian government should acknowledge the scale of danger brought by female extremists joining groups such as IS. A failure to understand the issue correctly could lead to inaccurate solutions. Rather than finding answers to more urgent problems, intelligence agencies would instead concentrate on less risky issues.

Second, there should be an increased effort by the government to spread awareness about how misguided the Islamic State is. Undeniably, IS-inspired groups and individuals are increasingly infiltrating the hearts and minds of young Indonesians through social media and online forums. Therefore, at the same time, the Indonesian government counter this and exert its own propaganda denouncing IS ideology and discouraging its citizens from joining the terrorist group.

It is also important for the government to ask Muslim clerics to participate in this endeavor. Scholars around the world, including those in Syria, have issued religious rulings that the Islamic State is a deviant group. As most Indonesians are Muslim, urging the people not to join such groups from an Islamic perspective would be much more effective.

Finally, as stated in an article by one of these authors in 2015, the government in Jakarta should reconsider its approach toward its citizens returning from Syria and Iraq. Instead of pursuing a “hard approach” by arresting and prosecuting these individuals upon arrival, the government would do well to provide a comprehensive reintegration program.

The best approach to deal with returning fighters and their families is not simply to treat them as criminals. It is inappropriate to shun or prosecute them for coming back to their home country. Rather, they should be supported in a de-radicalization program. Simply shipping them off to prison will only encourage resentment toward the government if they feel unjustly treated. And that would be an even greater security risk for Indonesia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Jodi Jacobsen