Indonesian Gov't Tries To Defuse Anti-War Anger

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The government of Indonesia, though strongly opposed to the war on Iraq, is trying to defuse the anger of militant groups that want to send volunteers to fight alongside the Iraqis, while allowing conventional anti-war protests as a way of letting off steam.

Government ministers and leaders of mainstream Muslim organizations told militants that there were more appropriate ways of supporting the Iraqis than sending volunteers to fight, and that they should be realistic.

Small radical groups have begun to recruit volunteers, but the leaders said there were many ways of performing jihad (Islamic holy war or struggle).

Said Munawar, the religious affairs minister, pointed to the limitations recruits would find -- a lack of knowledge of the terrain in Iraq, or access to the kind of weapons they would need to help fight against the allied forces.

He pointed out that even powerful countries that were opposed to the war had been unable to prevent it from starting.

"Think about it very carefully before making a decision to go to Iraq and wage a jihad," Said was quoted by state news agency Antara as saying. "If not, Indonesian people will die for nothing."

In separate comments, Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalil said the volunteers should stand down because they lacked the experience or preparedness needed.

"Our religion teaches us that upon witnessing a violation, we are only obliged to prevent it or fight against it if we have the power. But, if we don't have the power, then we are obliged to fight it with words," he said.

The world's most populous Muslim country has two major Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, claiming between them 70 million members.

Both groups have condemned the war, but joined the ministers' calls for cool heads.

Muhammadiyah chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif said joining a jihad in Iraq would not be effective way of stopping the war.

"Let's just pray and hope that the U.S. will quickly stop its invasion."

Nahdlatul Ulama chief Hasyim Muzadi said Indonesian volunteers would be a burden rather than a help to the Iraqis, and so should rather not go.

Police act quickly

On Sunday, the small radical group called the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which has mounted anti-war rallies outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, said it had already signed up 400 volunteers to fight against the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

FPI and another small group, the Islamic Youth Movement (GPI), have also threatened to conduct "sweeping" raids of Westerners in Indonesia who they would warn to leave the country.

Indonesian police have warned they will not tolerate any such behavior, and made good on that promise with swift action on Monday.

Ten GPI members on a hunt for foreigners in Jakarta were arrested as they began to bang on the window of a taxi cab carrying three Western passengers, Jakarta police reported.

Plainclothes policemen, who had followed the men after they left an anti-war rally outside the U.S. Embassy, nabbed them immediately.

Depending on what charges are brought against them, they could face up to eight years in prison.

A spokesman for the Indonesian Police, Zainuri Lubis, warned that police would take tough action against anyone breaking the law.

Earlier, the State Department said it had credible information that extremists may be planning attacks in Indonesia and urged American citizens to consider leaving the country.

It said because of the war, Indonesia's "frequent political demonstrations may escalate, increasing the potential for anti-American violence and for terrorist actions against U.S. citizens and interests."

Similar warnings have come from the British government, while Australia's foreign ministry said the terrorist group blamed for last October's deadly bombing in Bali, was believed to be planning new attacks.

Gov't in difficult position

Indonesia expert David Reeve of the University of New South Wales in Sydney said Tuesday that up to now the protests in Indonesia have been "astonishingly mild."

In recent years, international events which have aroused Muslim sentiment had usually resulted in much larger and angrier protests, he said.

The relative calm may in part be a result of that fact the security forces had been active in arresting militant suspects since the Bali bombing.

The government would try to defuse protests, but if the war dragged on, they would likely grow larger.

Muslim anger may also lead to attacks on Western institutions such as businesses and schools, which could lead to an exodus of foreigners - a severe blow to the government.

Reeve said the war was the last thing President Megawati Sukarnoputri would have wanted. However she approached the situation, she would be bound to upset someone.

"Like all Indonesian governments she's stuck between her formal Arab and Islamic allies and her indebtedness to the West, so she's treading a very delicate line."

Megawati also faces a critical election next year - the first time in the country's history that the electorate gives a verdict on a government based on its performance. As such, analysts have no idea of how voters will behave.

Because of Indonesia's awkward position, the war did not provide Megawati with a cause she could try rally the nation behind, he said.

Opportunist Muslim politicians would try to capitalize on the situation, with the election firmly in mind.

Analyst Kerry Collison, a former Australian diplomat in Jakarta, said Tuesday the government was prepared to let the current demonstrations take place in order to help defuse popular anger.

But various forces, including Muslim parties and the military, were jockeying for position ahead of the elections, and would try to use the present tensions to their own advantage.

According to Collison, the minor groups in Jakarta threatening "sweeping" raids were small fry.

The real militant threat came from grassroots radicals in places like East Java, who could easily mobilize thousands, and included members of groups like Laskar Jihad, heavily involved in destabilizing violence in parts of the country like Maluku and Sulawesi.

Laskar Jihad claimed late last year to have disbanded, but many experts have called that into question.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow