Asia Pacific

Understanding the Surabaya Attacks in Indonesia

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© AsiaTravel

May 15, 2018 18:22 EDT

The Jokowi government must reexamine the political map in Indonesia to better understand its supporters and opponents.

On May 14, a suicide bombing took place at a police headquarters in Surabaya, Indonesia. The perpetrators were a family of five riding on two motorbikes. The incident took place a day after another family carried out a suicide bombing on three churches in the same city, which killed at least 13 people.

While Western media such as the BBC have focused on the Islamic State, which has claimed both attacks, Indonesian observers have taken a different approach. Some analysts have said the attacks were a response to the political climate in the country. Since the blasphemy case against former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — known as Ahok — religion has been front and center of the Indonesian political scene. In 2017, Ahok was sentenced to two years in prison for a “criminal act of blasphemy.”

As a result, religion has been used as a tool by politicians and their supporters to gain the people’s sympathy. Among other issues, this has divided Indonesian Muslims into those who support the government and those who do not, and at the same time creating divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims. While there has often been political confrontation with regard to the government, the issue is not as straightforward as it seems. The attacks in Surabaya cannot be explained using this argument — i.e. that the perpetrators were simply opponents of the government.

Two Camps in Indonesia

Since the 2017 Jakarta election, Muslims in Indonesia generally fall into two categories: one that supports the government and another that is opposed.

Those who support the government include individuals such as Abu Janda or political parties like the National Awakening Party and the United Political Party. Those opposed to the Jokowi administration include the former chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly, Amien Rais, and oppositional political parties.

The latter category also includes Muslim organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group that often criticizes the government’s policies. For FPI, the government is seen as discrediting Muslims, and the group’s actions have included raids on prostitution hubs and closing down shops that sell alcohol. Another Islamic movement is Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia, which aims to establish a caliphate in the country through non-violent socialization and propagation. The group was banned in 2017 by the government.

The Third Category: Violent Extremists

The perpetrators of the Surabaya attacks, however, do not easily fit either of these categories. Although they probably disliked the government, both sets of suicide bombers were likely not from those who simply criticize the current administration. Instead, they fit into a third category: violent extremists.

Terrorist cells came into the public spotlight after the Bali bombing in 2002, which left 202 people dead. In Indonesia, violent extremists are less public in voicing their opposition to the government. They do not air their discontent through platforms such as media or via street protests, which is what opposition groups often do when they are unhappy with the state. Instead, terrorists carry out violent attacks in public places. In fact, as with both attacks in Surabaya, members of this category often travel abroad to conflict-ridden countries and then return.

Violent extremists complicate the matter further when it comes to government supporters and opponents. Due to their low level of public appearances, extremists are often ignored by the government. As a result, when they turn violent, as was the case with the Surabaya attacks, both opponents and supporters of the government use the situation for political opportunism.

Opponents of the government use terrorists as a chance to criticize the state for its negligent policies. For example, when responding to the latest attacks, Fadli Zon, the deputy leader of Gerindra Party who is also the deputy speaker of the People’s Representative Council, tweeted in the Indonesian language, “Terrorism usually emerges in a country with a weak government.”

Supporters of the government often lump both opponents and violent extremists into the same box. The two are seen as the same because they have different points of view vis-à-vis the government. In reality, both sets of groups hold very distinct approaches. Violent extremists tend to deploy aggressive measures in demonstrating their beliefs, while those opposed to the government use democratic means in voicing their disagreements.

In the midst of this, the government tends to focus on fighting those who non-violently criticize the state, neglecting the fact that there is another group — violent extremists — that is a greater threat to national security. This is certainly the case with the government’s delay in finalizing a counterterrorism bill. Instead, it has focused on banning groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is believed by some analysts to be ineffective.

Government Must Provide Solutions

It is clear that the government must reexamine the political map in Indonesia to better understand its supporters and opponents. A failure to do so could lead to Jakarta’s inability to provide sufficient solutions to its national security problems.

The government must also build better relations with all parties — both supporters and opponents. As a democracy, the government should provide platforms for both sides to voice their opinions, instead of taking a hard approach against those who dislike it, especially if they are non-violent. President Joko Widodo — popularly known as Jokowi — must remember that both supporters and opponents of the government have the same view when it comes to terrorism: It has no place in Indonesia.

*[Updated: May 16, 2018, at 13:30 GMT.]

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

Photo Credit:  AsiaTravel /

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