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Countering the radical narrative

Publication Date : 24-10-2012


Radicalism was once a positive thing.

However, over time the usage of the word has changed and it is currently associated with violence. Radicalism, for instance, now denotes ideas that go against norms, while radical can also mean a person or a group with unique ideas.

Speaking psychologically, radicalism, whether in the context of ideas, words or actions, is rooted in insecurity — such as a threat to someone's faith, religion, economic interest or social status — that creates a self-defence mechanism that later manifests itself violently.

In the context of our pluralistic society in Indonesia, competition and conflict among people — particularly along ethnic or religious lines — is predictable and understandable. This has been more the case since Indonesia's transition to democracy.

There are many groups, having been isolated and lacking a forum to express their aspirations, that have found their freedom to speak and fight for their rights. However, this freedom of expression has tended to go beyond reasonable limits and has inclined toward conflict. This happens especially when enforcement of the rule of law and the influence of traditional social leaders has waned.

Among the most important factors behind the rise of violent radicalism has been a weakening loyalty to society by people as citizens. There are only a few who have a chance to learn civic education in school. These people's attachment to ethnic or religious identities is stronger than their notions of citizenship, especially for those with a low level of education.

In other words, this phenomenon is a sign that the light at the end of the tunnel remains fuzzy as Indonesia continues to define itself as a nation. Although Indonesia's national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), is clear, there are doubts as whether a heterogeneous society can serve as a strong foundation for the nation.

A radical narrative sparks anger, hatred and a defensive attitude. This is rooted in a sense of intimidation or by a spirit to fight others that originates from religious beliefs. Thus, radical narratives emerge either as a response to humiliation or a threat, or as an aggressive attitude assumed for the sake of ideological-theological militancy.

As we live in a global society, it is easier to foster popular connections to ideas or emotion. People can communicate with those who share their ideology or religion with increasing ease. One of the characteristics of a digital affiliation is that while it is usually fluid, such associations can suddenly turn solid in the presence of a perceived common enemy. The most recent case is the Muslim protests directed at US embassies worldwide in response to the film "Innocence of Muslims". The Internet trailer is an example of a radical narrative in visual form, but the Muslim response has been even more violent.

The Internet facilitates emotional and intellectual connections between people. Through technology, people can immediately share their responses on any issues using social media. Therefore, an offensive radical narrative that offends members of a religion or ethnic group or the citizens of a nation can rapidly and spontaneously generate responses of anger and hatred from a broad audience. Further, social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook are becoming more popular and effective in developing solidarity among social groups outside the realm of police control.

In Indonesia, reports of vandals targeting places of worship is a very sensitive issue and frequently triggers a radical narrative rooted in religious sentiment and militancy. Such a narrative can quickly spread across borders, connecting radical religious extremists in Indonesia with those overseas. Although the psychological and social context in Indonesia differs from that in other countries, religious radicalism here has often been influenced or aggravated by religious movements overseas. This has been the case because religious attachment often defeats national bonds.

Considering the important role of social media in shaping attitudes in society, the electronic media, especially television, must be more selective in broadcasting any images or statements that might generate a radical narrative. In many cases, journalists have not been careful in selecting appropriate sources for their information, which has been counterproductive. An intention to criticise radical groups, for instance, might actually end up stimulating their growth.

There is another example of such a paradoxical effect. Exposure of radicals such as terrorist suspects, for example, has to be limited in order to prevent them from rising to fame and giving free advertising for their thoughts and ideology. Moreover, some radicals refer to religious texts to strengthen their convictions, leading people to support them, as religious texts are trusted more than bureaucrats or even the Constitution.

Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the country's two largest Muslim social organisations, have been working with the government and civil society groups to counter radical narratives. They have all been consistently promoting moderate Islam and defending Pancasila as a state ideology. In addition, many Muslim intellectuals share modes of thought that promote tolerance and peace. Thus, while in reality the space for radical narrative is limited, it is seemingly larger due to media exposure.

One significant indicator of the decreasing popularity of religious-based radical narratives is the declining reputation of religion-based political parties.

This tendency may be traced to the upsetting fact that there is a missing link between religion and religiousness that has led to the emergence of many social and political woes. As the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia has seen massive corruption cases and social unrest — something which contradicts Islamic ideals.

Therefore, people are desperately seeking smart and peaceful discourses that offer solutions, rather than violence and hostility. This is the spirit needed for Indonesia to enter a more substantial democracy characterised by clean government and strict law enforcement.

The writer is rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.


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