The challenge of extremism in South-east Asia: Sidney Jones suggests that investing in research to understand extremist movements remains a top priority in meeting their on-going threat.

AuthorJones, Sidney

Extremism, whether from white supremacists or violent Islamists, presents challenges to governments and societies in terms of how to understand its causes, reduce its impact and prevent its spread. Lessons learned from one form of extremism are sometimes but not always applicable to another form, so while I will focus on violent Islamism in South-east Asia it is worth thinking about whether and how some of these issues might be relevant to understanding the threat from white power movements in a very different setting.

Out of a very multi-dimensional problem, I have chosen three aspects to examine in depth, because these are very much front and centre of the debate on extremism in Southeast Asia today:

* The link, if any, between political majoritarianism and terrorism.

* The importance of revenge as a motive for terrorist acts.

* The changing role of women in extremist movements. The concern in Indonesia is that growing religious intolerance and the rise of majoritarian Islamist political movements will inexorably lead to more violent extremism. In fact, there is not a strong correlation between non-violent and violent Islamism, but it is worth examining what we do know about the relatively few crossovers that have taken place.

Indonesian democracy over the last fifteen years has produced organisations committed to Islamist majoritarianism just as India has produced a Hindu majoritarian movement in the BJP and the United States has produced Trumpism. In both India and the United States, the rise of political majoritarianism was associated with a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes. (1)

'Majoritarianism' did not always have a pejorative meaning, but in multi-ethnic democratic societies it has come to mean a political philosophy that maintains that the dominant culture is entitled to a privileged position and that all others are inferior. It plays on fear and paranoia that the majority is under threat from outsiders--minorities, foreigners including migrants and refugees or international conspiracies and sometimes all of the above. It generally uses democratic institutions, especially legislatures and courts, to ensure that the values of the dominant group are enshrined in law. (2)

In Indonesia, the dangers of majoritarianism became clear when a coalition of Islamists brought some 700,000 demonstrators onto the streets of Jakarta in 2016 to demand that the then governor of Jakarta, a Christian of Chinese descent familiarly known as Ahok, be jailed for blasphemy. (3) Police and the president bowed to pressure, and Ahok was duly jailed and convicted.

Harmful legacy

The movement has since fractured, but it has left a legacy that is harmful for Indonesian democracy by suggesting that non-Muslims have no right to govern Muslims--contrary to the constitutional principle that all citizens are equal under the law--and that the state should play a greater role in enforcing orthodoxy and safeguarding morality according to conservative norms. The drivers of this movement have been largely outside the formal political system, so not in political parties but in a network of schools and study groups and what might be called hard-line civil society. While sometimes dubious about the legitimacy of democracy as a political system, they believe that they can use it to achieve their broader goals.

And for those who still believe that poverty is a main driver of radicalisation--one of the hardest myths to shake --or that increasing income leads to increasing tolerance, it is worth noting that research indicates that Islamist movements are increasingly finding followers among the well-off, well-educated urban elite, which accounts in part for their growing political influence. (4)

Up until very recently, there has been very little crossover between the intolerant, anti-pluralist Islamists and terrorists, especially those in the pro-ISIS camp, and they insult each other regularly. (5) Why?

* They are poles apart ideologically. Ultra-puritan Sunnis, sometimes called Salafists or more pejoratively Wahabis, believe that it is forbidden to rebel against Muslim governments, however oppressive, and they see ISIS as engaged in a systematic effort to do just that.

* 'Pure' salafists stay away from political or organisational allegiances because they divide the Muslim community and divert attention from study of the faith.

* The more activist Salafists are regarded as kafir or infidels by the violent extremists because they are willing to work within...

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