Skip to main content

Radicalization and Islamist violence in Southeast Asia: the logic of defensive jihad


Of all the regions of the Muslim world, Southeast Asia stands out as particularly interesting and instructive in terms of the complex and often misunderstood connection between ‘radicalization’, on the one hand, and violence undertaken under the banner of Islam, on the other. Muslims in the region, after all, have been exposed to diverse ‘radicalizing’ influences, whether transnational jihadi networks dating back to Afghanistan in the 1980s, salafi schools whose curricula include the classic works of Sayyid Qutb and other (in)famous proponents of violent jihad, or various publications, websites, and other forms of propaganda familiar to experts on global Islamist terrorism. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the past two decades have seen the emergence of armed Islamist groups like the Abu Sayyaf (Bearer of the Sword) in the southern Philippines and Laskar Jihad in Indonesia, whose founders claimed to have served among the mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and whose rank and file have distinguished themselves with saber-waving antics as if to confirm their identities as bona-fide Islamic ‘fanatics’. With the Bali bombings of October 2002, moreover, a shadowy group identified as Jemaah Islamiyah was said to have emerged as a Southeast Asian affiliate of Al-Qa’ida, with its alleged founder and head, an Islamic scholar of Hadhrami Arab origin, openly leading an above-ground group called Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia. In Southeast Asia, it is thus apparently easy to trace the links between the ‘radicalizing’ influence of transnational salafi jihadi networks, texts, and ideas, on the one hand, and Islamist groups engaged in violence, on the other. Where there is transnational salafi jihadi smoke, there is Southeast Asian terrorist fire, it would appear.

Yet for all the transnational salafi jihadi traffic and ‘radicalized’ talk in Southeast Asia, Muslims in the region have in practice shown remarkably little interest – and even less success – in waging violence in the name of their faith. In Indonesia, the single most populous Muslim country in the world, inter-religious pogroms between Muslim and Christian communities claimed hundreds of lives and displaced tens of thousands of people in 1999-2001. But Christians appear to have been at least as responsible for starting the conflict – and for some of the worst incidents of mass violence – as Muslims, and more Muslims may well have been killed than Christians before the conflict subsided a full decade ago. Muslim-Christian violence, moreover, was solely confined to areas of Maluku and North Maluku and the Central Sulawesi regency of Poso, even as millions of other Muslims and Christians continued to live peacefully in close proximity elsewhere across the archipelago, as they still do today. A series of terrorist bombings targeting foreign non-Muslim victims unfolded in Indonesia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks of 2001, but in 2002-2005 this kind of Islamist terrorism remained restricted to a single annual explosion, with only a sole subsequent recurrence in 2009. Meanwhile, in the southern Philippines, the shadowy Abu Sayyaf Group has remained limited in its activities, numbers, and presence to a few dozen fighters on the island of Basilan, even as the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front has engaged in a succession of cease-fire agreements and negotiations with the Philippine government. The past decade has witnessed a resurgence of armed conflict in the majority-Muslim southern provinces of Thailand, but without any clear evidence of ‘radicalized’ salafi jihadi organization, authorship, or aspirations as the driver of violence, and most analysts stressing the importance of squabbles over political patronage and criminal rackets instead.[1]

Why then, despite all the transnational salafi jihadi traffic and talk in Southeast Asia, is there so little violent jihad in practice? In the absence of large-scale aggression by non-Muslim and anti-Islamist regional powers – or the United States – in Southeast Asia itself, perhaps it is obvious that there would be much less movement from self-proclaimed solidarity to serious violent jihad in the region as compared to the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, or the Caucasus. But the logical implication of this regional comparison is also clear: what violent jihad we have in fact seen in Southeast Asia might have unfolded in relation – and reaction – to non-Muslim/anti-Islamist aggression, as a defensive response to external threat rather than as an offensive attack, as a sign of weakness rather than strength, and, perhaps most curiously of all, as a sign of anxiety and doubt rather than fanatical faith. Viewed in this light, perhaps the relationship between Islamist violence and radicalization inSoutheast Asia should be understood in line with a contrarian and counterintuitive logic: the violence comes first, and ‘radicalization’ unfolds in response.

The pattern of violent Islamist mobilization in Indonesiais instructive in this regard. Through the late 1980s, activists and organizations favouring the Islamicization of Indonesian society were marginalized, and at times demonized and persecuted, by a regime in which secular-educated ‘nominal’ Muslims, Christians, and ethnic-Chinese businessmen enjoyed preeminent influence, power, and wealth. By the early 1990s, however, President Suharto decided to accommodate – and appropriate – the rise of pious Muslims with Islamic educational backgrounds to increasing prominence within the urban middle class, the business community, the bureaucracy, and the military. In 1991, the All-Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) was founded by a close Suharto associate and long-time Minister for Research and Technology, and ICMI rapidly evolved into an important political patronage network within the state as well as a protector and promoter of Islamic groups in society. With ICMI’s support, the 1990s saw a boom in Islamic publishing and associational activity, even as Islam came to enjoy increasing prominence in the corridors of state power and in the public sphere. A diverse range of Islamist groups benefited directly and indirectly from the unprecedented patronage, protection, and promotion ICMI provided, even those groups whose resistance to the Suharto regime had previously led to repression and whose rhetoric was far more militant than that of Habibie and other avowedly Islamic figures associated with the Suharto regime.[2]

When Suharto was forced to resign in 1998, then vice-president Habibie assumed the presidency, and there were rising hopes – and fears – that his ascension to power would greatly enhance the position of Islam in Indonesian politics and society. But with the drastic decline of the pro-government party Golkar and the disappointing performance of Islamist parties in the mid-1999 elections, a stunning reversal of fortunes soon unfolded. By October 1999, the presidency had passed to Abdurrahman Wahid, the chairman of the ‘traditionalist’ Islamic association Nahdlatul Ulama, who had long opposed ICMI and modernist Muslims’ calls for Islamicization of Indonesian society, and who had established himself as an assertive defender of multi-faith tolerance and Muslim-Christian cooperation.[3]

It was against the backdrop of this dramatic defeat and disappointment for Islamist forces and aspirations in Indonesiathat violent mobilization under the banner of the faith first unfolded in the archipelago. The sudden shift from centralized authoritarian rule to decentralized democracy in 1998-1999 created considerable uncertainties and anxieties in areas of the country where Muslims and Christians lived side by side in roughly equal numbers, and where networks of Army officers and policemen, local businessmen, bureaucrats, gangsters, and politicians were identified along religious lines. By early 1999, these pre-election tensions had set the stage for the outbreak of violence in Ambon, the provincial capital of Maluku, in areas of North Maluku, and in the town of Posoin Central Sulawesi. Local disputes between rival Christian and Muslim youth gangs spilled over into neighbourhoods divided by faith, leading to broader forms of retribution and avowedly pre-emptive attacks, with rival political networks drawing Army and Police forces into partisan support for both sides. Inter-religious violence in these provincial cities and towns led to massive displacement as Christians and Muslims sought safe haven among their co-religionists. Refugees, rumours, and revenge attacks radiated out of the towns and into their hinterlands, with rural villages soon drawn into large-scale communal violence as well.[4]

It was in this context that Islamist groups throughout Indonesiabegan to call for violent jihad, in publications, propaganda, and public pronouncements. The administration of President Wahid, these Islamist groups claimed, could hardly be trusted to guarantee the safety of Muslim communities, given his record of antagonism to other Islamic organizations and efforts to unifying the faithful, his embrace of ecumenical causes and alliances with non-Muslims, and his abiding sensitivity to Western concerns about the vulnerability ofIndonesia’s small Christian minority. Armed Christian groups, it was claimed, had started the conflict inAmbon and Poso. Over the course of 1999, moreover, Muslim communities suffered a series of well publicized large-scale massacres and were said to be losing these local communal ‘civil wars’ in the face of Christian aggression.

These developments inspired the formation of a group known as Laskar Jihad in early 2000, which recruited activists in Java and elsewhere across Indonesia for paramilitary training and deployment in Maluku, North Maluku and Poso.[5] News coverage of Laskar Jihad rallies highlighted their spectacular displays of saber-waving and sloganeering in self-conscious imitation of mujahidin in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and by some accounts heavily-armed Laskar Jihad troops played a prominent role in a wave of violent assaults on Christian communities in Maluku and Poso in 2000 and into 2001. But other observers claimed that Laskar Jihad’s actual fighting strength and contribution to the violence was greatly exaggerated. The most detailed study of the group, moreover, concluded that Laskar Jihad activists were largely drawn from among Muslims with very limited Islamic schooling, young men from remote rural towns and villages who had found themselves in predominantly urban middle-class university campuses, and who had immersed themselves in salafi organizations in an effort to escape the stigma of cultural – and religious – backwardness.[6] It was thus in a context of declining fortunes for Islamist forces, perceived threats to Muslim communities, and strongly felt self-doubts that the cry of jihad began to achieve limited appeal in Indonesia in 2000-2001.

A similar pattern can likewise be discerned in the series of events and developments against which the Balibombings of October 2002 and subsequent terrorist attacks attributed to Jemaah Islamiyah unfolded. In July 2001 Abdurrahman Wahid was forced out of office and replaced as president by Megawati Soekarnoputri, since 1999 the serving vice-president and the head of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which had won a plurality of votes in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Megawati, whose father had ledIndonesia’s struggle for independence and served as the country’s first president, was popular among Javanese voters who had little appetite for Islamic politics, and among non-Muslims elsewhere in the archipelago. Her party, the PDI-P, tended not to attract Muslims actively involved in Islamic politics, its parliamentary slate was more than one-third non-Muslim, and its support base in 1999 in conflict areas like Maluku,North Maluku, and Poso consisted overwhelmingly of Protestants.

The consequences of Megawati’s ascent to the presidency entailed further defeats and disappointments for Islamist forces in Indonesia. Over the course of 2001, Jakartaimposed – through large-scale military initiatives and then formal agreements – a cessation of inter-religious violence in Maluku, North Maluku, and Poso, with Laskar Jihad troops losing many casualties in the face of attacks by Special Forces troops, and the cause of jihad in these areas of religious conflict now effectively eliminated. Meanwhile in Jakarta, Megawati’s rise to the presidency spelled further defeat for Islamist aspirations. The Islamist parties abandoned their demands for Islamic law to be acknowledged in an amendment to the Constitution, agreed to back Megawati as the replacement for Wahid, and assiduously courted the new president for seats in her Cabinet, with the head of the strongest Islamic party accepting the ceremonial post of vice-president. By the end of 2001, open conflict between Muslims and Christians had subsided, the religious cleavages in national politics had likewise faded, and causes dearest to Islamist hearts had largely been abandoned in Indonesia. To add insult to injury, the new government in Jakarta began to pursue an active campaign to persecute and prosecute some of the Islamist activists who had mobilized behind the rallying cry of jihad over the course of the preceding years. Egged on by high-ranking U.S. officials in the early months after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks to “go after Al-Qa’ida in Indonesia,” the Indonesian government initiated a crackdown that included long-time fixtures in salafi jihadi circuits like K.H. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who had only returned to Indonesia from exile in Malaysia in 1999, and whose Islamic boarding school had been under government surveillance since at least the 1980s for its feared role in ‘radicalization’ and recruitment.[7]

It was thus against the backdrop of deepening defeat, decline, and disappointment for Islamist forces and Islamist aspirations in Indonesiathat the first of a series of terrorist bombings unfolded in Indonesiain October 2002. The individual activists involved in these terrorist bombings had clearly been exposed to potentially ‘radicalizing’ authors, ideas, and images thanks to their immersion within Islamic schools and Islamist organizations where salafi understandings of Islam and jihadi ends and means were openly discussed and often avowedly embraced. But salafi – and, albeit to a lesser extent, jihadi – talk had circulated in these schools and organizations for decades, without ‘radicalizing’ consequences in terms of violent action. It was only under conditions of dramatic decline, disappointment, and disentanglement from state power that small groups of Muslims – and a small minority of Islamist activists – turned to violence. Unwilling to accept these humiliating defeats for the Islamist cause, they engaged in a desperate last attempt to rouse their fellow Muslims from their complacency and complicity in the face of deepening dangers, encroaching threats, and rising doubts from both without and within.

Viewed from this perspective, violence under the banner of Islam can be understood not as adventurist aggression on the part of ‘radicalized’ fanatics, but rather as a defensive ‘weapon of the weak’ by Muslims impelled by defeats for Islamist causes, divisions among Muslims, doubts about Islamic authority and identity, and a desperate sense that ‘we must do something…before it is too late’. More than an account of violence produced by ideological indoctrination and ‘radicalization’, this contextualized understanding of violence under the banner of Islam helps us to make sense of the various forms of violent mobilization observed in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand over the past decade in the face of efforts by Manila and Bangkok to extend central government power over minority-Muslim areas in their hinterlands at the expense of established local Muslim powerbrokers and intermediaries.[8] This kind of analysis also helps to explain the rise of Al-Qa’ida in its ‘global jihad’ at the turn of the twenty-first century in the wake of the defeats and disappointments for various national Islamist movements – and the widening differences and divisions among Muslims – experienced over the preceding decade.[9] Salafi jihadi ‘radicalization’, from this perspective, does not produce salafi jihadi violence, at least not on its own: it takes aggression and encroachment by non-Muslims and anti-Islamists, as well as defeats, disappointments, divisions, doubts, and desperation among the avowed defenders of Islam, to provoke violent forms of mobilization under the banner of the faith.


Further Reading:

  • Gerges, F. (2005). The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press.
  • Hasan, N. (2006). Laskar Jihad: Islam, Militancy, and the Quest for Identity in Post-New Order Indonesia.Ithaca,NY:CornellUniversitySoutheast Asia Program.
  • McCargo, D. (2008). Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand.Ithaca,NY:CornellUniversity Press.
  • McKenna, T. M. (1998). Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines.Berkeley:University ofCalifornia Press.
  • Sidel, J.T. (2006). Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia.Ithaca,NY:CornellUniversity Press.
  • Sidel, J.T. (2007). The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment Washington,D.C.:East-WestCenter.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, John Sidel, and not of  Sidel is Sir Patrick Gillam Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. His research interest and expertise lie largely within three realms: local politics in the Philippines and Indonesia; religious violence in Indonesia; and transnational movements in Southeast Asia.

[1] John T. Sidel, The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment (Washington,D.C.:East-WestCenter, 2007).


[2] Robert W. Hefner, “Islam, State, and Civil Society: ICMI and the Struggle for the Indonesian Middle Class,” Indonesia 56 (October 1993), pp. 1-35; R. William Liddle, “The Islamic Turn in Indonesia: A Political Explanation,” Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 55, Number 3 (August 1996), pp. 613-634.


[3] Greg Barton, Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President: A View From the Inside (Honolulu:University ofHawai’i Press, 2002).


[4] Gerry van Klinken, “The Maluku Wars: Bringing Society Back In,” Indonesia71 (April 2001), pp. 1-26; Lorraine V. Aragon, “Communal Violence in Poso, Central Sulawesi: Where People East Fish and Fish East People,” Indonesia 72 (October 2001), pp. 45-79.


[5] Michael Davis, “Laskar Jihad and the Political Position of Conservative Islam in Indonesia,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Volume 24, Number 1 (April 2002), pp. 1-24.


[6] Noorhaidi Hasan, Laskar Jihad: Islam, Militancy, and the Quest for Identity in Post-New Order Indonesia (Ithaca,NY:CornellUniversitySoutheast Asia Program, 2006).


[7] John T. Sidel, Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia (Ithaca,NY:CornellUniversity Press, 2006), pp. 196-224.


[8] See, for example, Duncan McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand (Ithaca,NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).


[9] Fawaz Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 2005).

You might also like: