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Keep Indonesia free of radical clerics
Publication Date : 03-10-2012
Some years ago, I attended Friday prayers at a mosque within the compound of Indonesia's Security Ministry in central Jakarta.
The prayer leader was a young preacher who delivered an off-the-cuff, hard-hitting sermon that criticised the government for not implementing syariah law in place of the man-made laws inherited from the Dutch.
A radical preacher at a government mosque? Nothing unusual here, as there were many others delivering similar sermons that amounted to "hate speech".
"Mosques have been taken over by preachers who deliver sermons and religious lectures that radicalise the congregation," said Ansyaad Mbai, head of the National Counter- Terrorism Agency (BNPT).
"They have replaced moderate clerics," he told me after prayers.
These preachers have been under the radar of counterterrorism officers for some time.
With the recent shooting spree against the police in Central Java and the September 24 arrest of 10 militants - some still in their teens - said to have been planning suicide attacks against security forces and the government, the activities of these preachers are back in the spotlight.
Preachers with extremist ideas instigating intolerance openly through their lectures and sermons, and clandestinely to small groups of young Muslims, share part of the blame for the rising radicalism.
They complement the many unblocked extremist websites and local literature that fire up young Indonesians into radicalism.
Just whose responsibility is it to keep radicalism and such preachers at bay? Logically, it should be the Religious Affairs Ministry's. But it does not have specific deradicalisation programmes.
As radicalism grows, it is left to the security forces to deal with the problem until a government blueprint on deradicalisation is implemented next year.
The issue of radicalism cropped up at a recent discussion when a BNPT official said Indonesia should study how other countries initiated measures to filter out radical preachers and curb radicalism.
One proposal is the certification of teachers and preachers to weed out those spreading hatred and provoking violence.
"With a certification programme, the government could monitor the role of the ulama and prevent the fostering of radical movements," said Dr Irfan Idris, director in charge of deradicalisation at BNPT.
But the idea drew flak from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and even Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the Islamic authority.
"The government is overstepping its authority by trying to dictate these things," said NU chairman Said Aqil Siroj. "Kiai (religious elders) or Ustadz (Islamic preachers) are titles that are not given out by the government."
Three years ago, the police floated the idea of vetting sermons because there were preachers who made hate speeches in mosques. But after many Muslim groups expressed outrage at the proposal, the plan was dropped.
Just like with the latest proposal on certification of preachers, Muslim groups were uncomfortable with the implications of monitoring the clerics' sermons.
First, they argued that the move would only bring back the bad old days of the Suharto regime when Muslim groups were repressed and religious scholars were monitored for "anti-Pancasila" activities. During that period, many preachers were jailed for advocating hatred, not so much against other religions, as against the government.
The police then were nothing more than an oppressive tool used to sustain the authoritarian regime. Preachers who could not face the repression fled into exile in Malaysia. They included radical clerics Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar, who jointly founded the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in Malaysia in 1992.
Second, there was an assumption that preachers were linked to terrorism - something that offended Muslims. This was despite radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir topping the list of preachers allegedly involved in terrorism.
Bashir, who is serving a sentence for terrorism-related offences, was the spiritual leader of JI. Blamed for a series of bombings in Indonesia since 2002, he founded the Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid, the organisation that has become notorious because many of the detained militants are linked to it. NU rejected any links between the ulama and terrorism, saying "terrorism is not rooted in Islamic culture".
But those who opposed the proposal have missed the point that Indonesia needs a mechanism to curb extremist preachers from corrupting the youth, or at least limit their influence. There are merits in reviewing how other countries cope with the problem.
Saudi Arabia has had religion-based programmes against radicalisation for years. Turkey and Malaysia have long kept a tight grip on what clerics can and cannot preach.
Indonesia, obviously torn between its commitment to democratic freedom and its revulsion against terrorism, should not feel inhibited to think of controversial measures to keep its mosques, boarding schools and other institutions free of militant ideas.