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John Hughes

How Indonesia keeps Islamic extremists at bay

Indonesia's version of counterterrorism could be a helpful example to follow in the campaign against extremism.

By John Hughes / November 19, 2010



Barack Obama’s return to Indonesia, the land of his childhood, was more than a sentimental journey.

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It was to affirm a quiet yet crucial US relationship with a significant Islamic nation where democracy burgeons, but that carefully hews to international nonalignment.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim (but non-Arab) country in the world. It has survived colonization by the Dutch, World War II occupation by the Japanese, a fateful dalliance with communism under President Sukarno, a horrific bloodbath that followed, and a disappointing, corruption-ridden regime under President Suharto. Today, it is holding Islamist extremists at bay.

As US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said: “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”

Related: Muslim women find an ally for more rights: the Koran

Indonesians revel in their relatively new-found democracy. Their current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a well-respected former general popularly known as “SBY,” was first elected in 2004 in free, fair voting. He was reelected in 2009. Mr. Yudhoyono had multiple educational experiences in the United States, several of them military and one civilian. But he has kept his relationship with the US discreet, anxious to avoid any hint of being depicted as an American puppet, which he is not. It is a posture that successive US administrations have wisely respected.

Indonesia's counterterrorism

In some respects, Indonesia might have seemed an easy target for the expansion of Al Qaeda-backed terrorism. With its huge Muslim population, it has porous borders and large regions of poverty. Militant Islamist groups, active in several Southeast Asian countries, have launched several attacks in Indonesia, including a 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali that killed more than 200 people, and on hotels in the capital of Jakarta in 2009.

But Indonesia’s brand of Islam is more moderate than that practiced in other Muslim states where Islamic extremists have been able to recruit. Though some militant groups have attempted to impose sharia law, they have gained little traction in Indonesia. Yudhoyono’s government presides over a mix of secular and Islamic minority groups that are largely peaceful.

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