Bandung and After: Indonesia’s Ongoing Struggle Against Extremism

Indonesia has been in recent times struggling to contain extremist trends.  There have been alarm bells ringing over the past years about pervasive extremism; this is definitely a challenge, but the magnitude of it has till now been manageable.[1] Comparatively, Indonesia has suffered significantly far less terrorism than Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan, while having a comparably far larger Muslim population, the largest in the world.[2] This implies some structural resilience which provides robustness against these phenomena.[3]

Indonesia has long been touted as the most tolerant Islamic country.[4]  One of the reasons may be the sheer diversity of the country. Indonesia as a vast archipelagic nation has a huge number of ethnic groups, numbered at around 656 by some accounts, while the Indonesian Ministry of Education has recorded around 500 living languages. [5] Indonesia simply has so much access from the world and from its regions at large that it is impossible for Indonesians to live away from outside engagement, and the society has ostensibly become multi-cultural as a result, or has it?

There have been many challenges to the established norm of inclusiveness over the years by actors such as Jamah Islamiyah, Hizb ut Tahrir, etc.[6] However, the state for some time remained resilient to these challenges because Indonesia has had a peculiar governance worldview, at least till now.

For instance, right-wing groups have been trying for years and not really succeeding in putting in place a stringent anti-alcohol law.[7] The very fact that this bill faced resistance implied that Indonesian legislators, sensitive to the sentiments of non-Muslim minorities and the perception of Indonesia to the international community as a tourist destination, did not want to promulgate anything that gives leverage to right-wing groups to demand more, as they tend to.

This tolerant worldview may be set to change, from challenges within and without.

On Dec. 7, 2022, a suicide attacker perpetrated a suicide bombing at a police station in the city of Bandung without any loss of life, except himself.[8] However, the real ramifications of this attack go far beyond the act committed.

The attacker left a note at the scene of the crime, decrying the recently passed criminal reform bill as an ‘infidel act’.[9] Presumably, the terrorist carried out this suicide bombing in response to the law, which the attacker presumably found too lax in its promulgation. Simultaneously, the general public has been harshly criticizing this bill which they see as eroding their civil liberties.

The newly introduced criminal code reform bill passed on Dec. 6, 2022 has sparked huge controversy in its wake. [10] Indonesia has been attempting to reform its antiquated criminal code, while right-wing groups have been trying to include Islamist sections within the drafts, which has in turn ignited protests from the society at large.

In 2019 there were nationwide student protests in response to a previous attempt at modifying the criminal code; thousands of students took to the streets and violent clashes took place.[11] Retracted for the moment, after ‘due consultation’ the bill was tabled again three years later,  and has just recently been passed by the parliament.[12]

Besides other provisions, the law criminalizes sex outside marriage and makes insulting the president and state ideology punishable under criminal law. [13] The reform bill also envisages criminalization of abortion, distributing information about contraception to children and providing information about obtaining abortions. The blasphemy laws have also been made more stringent. There are also provisions in this law to recognize any ‘living law’ in the country, which ostensibly pertains to many locally enforced Sharia regulations.

In this new law insulting the president, the vice president, state institutions, Indonesia’s national ideology known as Pancasila, the national flag can all be prosecuted as criminal acts; the offenses could be prosecuted for acts committed both offline and online.

However, the knife cuts both ways; radical Islamist groups would abhor the fact that Pancasila as a national ideology is still given primacy in the new law. Right-wing groups have been for long opposing this ideology and demanding Sharia to replace it. The fact that going against Pancasila is a designated offense must have come across as anathema to right-wing groups, which is presumably why the Bandung terrorist carried out the act of terror.[14]

Logically, the Islamist right-wing groups would want to have annulled the provisos about the sanctity of Pancasila in the new law, while keeping intact the blasphemy sections and criminalization of sex outside marriage, etc. It should be noted that many moderates consider Pancasila as the unifying factor that has kept the country cohesive through its various upheavals.[15]

The new law would by default be skewed against women in particular. There is in resonance with the  Hudood Laws (translated as ‘limitations’) in 1979, brought in by ultra-right-wing Islamist president Zia-ulu-Hague in Pakistan.[16] Brought in ostensibly to ‘reform’ Pakistan, the laws criminalized adultery through harsh punishments. Hudood laws were intended to implement Sharia laws and bring Pakistani law into “conformity with the injunctions of Islam”, by enforcing punishments for zina (extramarital sex), qazf (false accusation of zina), theft, and consumption of alcohol.

Hudood laws were badly drafted due to their provisions being vague and ill-defined because Zia was in a hurry to implement them, very similar to the way the contentious Indonesian bill has been presented and opposed. The violent student protests in Indonesia in 2019 should be reminders of this unrest.

Hudood laws had a disproportional effect on women, who found themselves increasingly imprisoned as a result of accusations of adultery, frequently made by their husbands.[17] Again, the Indonesian bill resonates with Hudood laws; accusations of sex outside marriage can be brought about by spouses in a marital bond. Keeping the still somewhat patriarchal nature of Indonesian society in mind, one would imagine that most of these accusations would be from husbands against wives, sometimes just to punish them for not falling in line.

While it was easy to file a case against a woman accusing her of adultery, the Pakistani Zina Ordinance made it very difficult for a woman to obtain bail pending trial. [18] Worse, in actual practice, the vast majority of accused women were found guilty by the trial court only to be acquitted on appeal to the Federal Shariat Court. By then they had spent many years in jail, were ostracized by their families, and had become social outcasts.[19] Again, keeping in mind the less-than-ideal conditions of the Indonesian penal system, could not the same happen in Indonesia as well?[20]

The Bandung attack implies that a deadly game has started between the extremists and the state. Extremists are seeing something on the horizon, as did their Pakistani counterparts when Hudood laws emerged, and now the Indonesian extremist project wants to exploit this by ‘pushing the state or nudging it a bit more.’

Ostensibly even though the Indonesian criminal reform bill is radical and goes against many of the values of freedom of speech and liberty venerated by the majority of Indonesians, it is still not enough for the extremists; they want more and harsher punishments for immorality/deviant behavior as they see it in Indonesia, and critically, they would want to see Pancasila replaced by Sharia laws.

The state is also in flux; this reform is wanted by Islamists but opposed by liberalists who argue that this is against civil liberties while the proponents of the bill proclaim it to espouse ‘Indonesian values.’ There has been content tension within the political realm regarding the Islamization of Indonesia. Watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have repeatedly expressed concerns that discrimination against religious minorities in Indonesia is facilitated by laws that purport to maintain “religious harmony”.[21]This extremist swing has apparently motivated even some mainstream optical actors to support religious intolerance because it beefs up their political constituencies by appealing to the extremist sentiment which seems to be becoming more mainstream.[22]

This wave of Islamism is not new and is neither an isolated phenomenon. After Suharto fell from power in 1998, conservative Islamists have had a prominent role in university campuses, and have used the internet creatively in furtherance of their designs.[23] Roles of the two mainstream moderate Islamic organizations Nahdat-ul-ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah have been gradually eroded by quasi-state Islamic institutions like the Indonesian Ulama Council,[24] while more hardline entities like Hizb ut Tahrir have also progressed in comparison. [25] The moderate Islamic entities have also had to face many of their cadres leaving ranks to join the more hardline entities because the extremist narrative is more pervasive; is it now also mainstream or is it just being propagated by the political elites?[26]

Whatever the case may be, the extremist project will see this moment in time as a hope to increase the clout of Sharia law across the board, and one way they could push for it is to increase the intensity of demands for more stringent measures. Thus, attacks carried out by lone wolves or organizational members of radical outfits could increase, as a tactic to pressurize the state to give more concessions, in the form of increasingly stringent laws, or striking out undesirable clauses like the ones giving importance to Pancasila.

Usually, the public and/or civil society protest against what they perceive as draconian laws. Paradoxically, this was the first time ever in Indonesia’s history of terrorism that an act of terrorism has been perpetrated in the furtherance of law, even though the attacker meant to decry it. The significance of this in the extremist worldview should not be undermined.

Indonesia is a democratic secular republic, which rankles with the Islamist extremists, as they would purportedly want to see it become an ‘Islamic’ state. Therefore, symbolic or not, Indonesia would always remain a target for extremists in their search of what they perceive as an Islamic utopia. Certainly, Indonesia, with its greatest concentration of Muslims compared to any other country in the word, is a prime target for extremists, but they haven’t been able to quite ‘cash it in’ yet. [27]

Indonesia has in recent years been facing Islamic state-inspired terrorism, mostly by lone wolves who seem to be emulating the tactics of IS.[28] This emboldening of extremism acts as a catalyst to gradually go down the road to violent extremism. Incidents like the Taliban victory in Afghanistan are a shock to the system, the lifeline for dying extremist aspirations, and the ultimate symbolism of the little guy defeating the giant. [29]This is David vs Goliath at its best, and is the stuff of dreams for even the passive extremist, who otherwise might not exhibit any overt signs of engaging in acts in furtherance of his ambitions.

Combining the volatility of the situation created by the new law, Indonesian extremists might test the will of the state through the campaign of frustration of the general public through a ‘war of a thousand cuts.’ This is the policy of repeated small to medium-scale attacks on the state which cause security vacuums; such attacks don’t necessarily need massive planning and logistics but are repetitive, leading to public frustration directed towards the state for the perceived ineffective control of law and order.[30]

Violent extremists hope to exert pressure on the state through the electorate of the state, its people. Citizens get frustrated by increasing attacks and demand action by the state; this sometimes facilitates the terrorists as the state starts to negotiate with extremists in the hope of a negotiated settlement or ceasefire, or maybe in the hope that they ‘will just see sense.’

Another pattern is of increasing escalation to force concessions appearing on the horizon, to ‘nudge’ them along.

In this flux, the state has to figure out where it stands.   Extremists solidify their position and expect more demands to be met, which is a continuous downward spiral of more and more demands, as extremist ideals can almost never be met; they always want more.

So what seems to be happening in Indonesia right now?

For one thing, the new Indonesian code seems to grant many things that the Islamist right-wing has been advocating for years. The potential for this to discriminate especially against women and LGBTQ groups is self-evident.

The entertainment of ‘living law’ in the new hukum (code) presumably pertains to local laws; the obvious reference is to Sharia law in Aceh. This province in Indonesia’s extreme west is the only part of the country where Sharia, introduced in 2001, is the official law. This was ostensibly an attempt by the state to appease Islamist rebels in Aceh who had been waging a long-term insurgency against Indonesia. The enforcement of Sharia has had tremendous effects on the lives of people in Aceh, especially women. Women have had to live with gender-based curfews, prohibition to visit restaurants, sports centers, internet cafes, and tourist attractions after 11 p.m., men and women forbidden from having dinner together unless they are married or related, women banned from ridding motorbikes, prohibition on women’s sports, etc. Public lashings outside mosques for ‘immoral behavior’ have been fairly common sights.[31]

One of the problems with enforcing Sharia anywhere is that once it has been put in place, replacing it with any other system becomes problematic; proponents of Sharia law rise up and decry any replacement as blasphemy or un-Islamic, which places stress on the implementing government by default.[32]  Thus, once you put Sharia in place, it is there to stay, and with time, has immutable effects on the societal fabric. It is, of course, debatable whether those effects are entirely good or bad, as some Sharia-driven societies in the middle east are said to be relatively crime free[33] as opposed to hybrid societies like Indonesia where sharia exists in some parts,  and more secular governance models in others.

However, the Aceh experience has demonstrated that the implementation of Sharia as appeasement to the rebels certainly did not quieten down the related terrorist movements. A full-fledged terrorist training camp emerged in Aceh after Sharia implementation, and the terrorist movements gained momentum. Not only did the extremist networks mutate into more virulent ones, they also cemented their international terrorist affiliations since they presumably had a “qoidah aminah” or secure base in Aceh. [34] With the freedom to preach extremist ideals, recruitment becomes easier as well.[35] If Aceh was an experiment by the Indonesian state to appease rebels and observe results, then this province should only serve as a warning of things to come if some well-meaning policy maker were thinking of implementing Sharia in another area.

The criminal code reform also puts out signals to the world that for instance, Pakistan put out a few decades ago; the world at large beware, we are going right wing. Foreigners can also be prosecuted under the new code now for sexual conduct outside marriage. Foreign investment is always tricky, and investors take note of all nuances of society and culture before committing themselves fully to it. So far, Indonesia has been a hub of such activity.[36] Can Indonesia afford to put out such signals to the world in a time of modernizing reform and attempts to revitalize tourism?

Public displeasure has been expressed against this reform earlier, in the form of violent student unrest in 2019. Why is there this haste to put out a bill, ostensibly for political purposes to appease certain interest groups, especially since elections seem to be looming? Can the will of the people as expressed in 2019 be ignored? Even if there are no more student protests, what will be the long-term consequences of this ‘reform’ on the society? The Pakistani model is available for review, as a consequence of things starting out and then going very wrong in the context of extremism. So-called ‘legal reform’ was a part of this Pakistani legacy of extremism.

Extremists would see Indonesia’s new law as a lifeline if they could all but get the Pancasila provisos deleted. Previously any such law might have seemed almost impossible within the Indonesian political landscape, but they would now see a glimmer of hope and escalate their ‘support’ for what they perceive as more limitations to so-called ‘liberal’ freedoms; they could rally in the form of protests or attacks or propaganda, as per the dictates of the situation.

Terrorist attacks are not carried out randomly, but are motivated by political purposes to change the status quo and install a new system in place of the old; terrorists may simply also be responding to measures by the state, but this is always with a view to some ultimate political purpose.

This is the ‘demand and supply’ of terrorism as terrorists respond to what they see as steps by the government. The criminal code reform is ostensibly such a measure that will elicit a strong response, which perhaps has already started. The Bandung attack might be a link in the chain; once the extremist appetite is whetted, it will never be satiated. They would want more.

In deciding its response, the state might vacillate between the right and the left, in which case there would always be one or the other aggrieved interest groups, opening a vacuum for political expediency to step in. One thing is for sure; Indonesian policymakers should see this moment in time as crossroads, to go either way.


[1] Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Assessing Vulnerabilities and Sources of Resilience, International Republican Institute, May 17, 2018, Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Assessing Vulnerabilities and Sources of Resilience | International Republican Institute (iri.org)

[2] In the global Terrorism index 2021 for example, Afghanistan ranked highest with a score of 9.109, Iraq second with a score of 8.511 , Syria fifth with a score of 8.25, Pakistan tenth at 7.825 and Indonesia stood at 24th position with a score of 5.5.Vision of Humanity, 2021 Global Terrorism Index,   https://www.visionofhumanity.org/maps/global-terrorism-index/#/

[3] Many reports have hailed historic religious tolerance in Indonesia, at the same time noticing with alarm that there has been a tendency over the years to drift towards extremism, For instance, see Religious intolerance in Indonesia Congressional research service report, 10th October 2018,

[4] https://thediplomat.com/2014/12/is-indonesia-really-the-worlds-most-tolerant-muslim-country/

[5] “Mengulik Data Suku di Indonesia”, 18 November 2015.

[6] Many observers have documented the rise of these tendencies in the wake of Indonesia’s Islamization agenda. For instance see Hizbut Tahrir in Indonesia: Riding the Wave of the Islamization Agenda, Ali Abdullah Wibisono, [email protected] website, February 27, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/publications/hizbut-tahrir-indonesia-riding-wave-islamization-agend

[7] UPDATE 2-Indonesian Islamic parties seek ban on alcohol consumption,  Eveline Danubrata, Michael Taylor, Reuters, April 13, 2015,  https://www.reuters.com/article/indonesia-alcohol-idUKL4N0XB1H720150414

[8] Indonesian suicide bomber leaves note criticising new criminal code, Reuters, December 7, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/indonesia-investigating-explosion-bandung-police-station-media-2022-12-07/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Indonesia: New Criminal Code Disastrous for Rights, Human Rights Watch, 8th December 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/12/08/indonesia-new-criminal-code-disastrous-rights

[11] Thousands protest against new criminal code in Indonesia, The  Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/24/thousands-protest-against-new-criminal-code-across-indonesia

[12] Indonesia passes criminal code banning sex outside marriage, Frances Mao, BBC News, 6th December 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-63869078

[13] Supra Note 10.

[14] Supra Note 8.

[15]Pancasila is unifying force of nation: Minister Thohir, Antara Indonesian News Agency,  1st June 2021,  https://en.antaranews.com/news/175638/pancasila-is-unifying-force-of-nation-minister-thohir

[16] Hadood law in Pakistan, Parliamentary question – E-3737/2006, European Parliament,  22nd August 2006, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-6-2006-3737_EN.html?redirect

[17] Twenty five years of Hudood ordinances; A review, Martin Lau, Volume 64 , Issue 4, Washington and Lee Law Review, 2007, https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/wlulr/vol64/iss4/2/

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Why are Indonesian prisons so dangerous? Aisyah Llewellyn, Al Jazeera News, 30th October 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/30/why-are-indonesian-prisons-so-dangerous

[21] Indonesia’s ‘Religious Harmony’ Regulation Brings Anything But, Andreas Harsono, republished in Human Rights Watch, April 11, 2020,  https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/11/indonesias-religious-harmony-regulation-brings-anything

[22] Religious intolerance in Indonesia, Will Mackey & Ben Dolven, Congressional Research Service, 10th October 2018, www.crs.gov

[23] The State of Political Islam in Indonesia; The Historical Antecedent and Future Prospects, Alexander R. Arifianto, Volume 15 Number 4, 28th October 2020,  https://www.nbr.org/publication/the-state-of-political-islam-in-indonesia-the-historical-antecedent-and-future-prospects/

[24] Ibid.

[25] Supra Note 6.

[26] Supra Note 23.

[27] Lessons from the world’s largest Muslim nation, Paul Smith, British Council Indonesia,  https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/insight-articles/lessons-from-the-world

[28] Most attacks have been by individuals who have been said to be inspired by IS or loosely affiliated.

[29] Taliban and Indonesia, the case for lone wolves, Manzar Zaidi, Opinion pages, Jakarta Post, 27th August 2021, https://www.thejakartapost.com/paper/2021/08/26/taliban-and-indonesia-the-case-for-lone-wolves.html

[30] The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Robert A. Pape, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, August 2003.

[31] Aceh, Indonesia: When Dating Meets Sharia Law; In Aceh, young people have to reconcile their daily life with a strict version of Islamic law,  Ana Salvá, the Diplomat, July 24, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/aceh-indonesia-when-dating-meets-sharia-law/

[32] Ibid.

[33] The Role of Shariah Law in Deterring Criminality in Saudi-Arabia, Sam s. Souryal, International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice , Volume 12, 1988 – Issue 1-2, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01924036.1988.9688875?journalCode=rcac20

[34] Terrorism: What we have learned from Aceh, Sidney Jones, International Crisis Group, 11th March 2010, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/indonesia/terrorism-what-we-have-learned-aceh

[35] Ibid.

[36] What Does Jokowi’s Win Mean for Indonesia’s Economy? Edward Parker, The Diplomat, April 19, 2019,  https://thediplomat.com/tag/jokowi-economic-policy/

[Photo by Mufid Majnun, via Pixabay]

Dr. Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi is a counter terrorism academic and practitioner. He has authored three books on terrorism and has written extensively about the subject in international journals. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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