Johannes Nugroho: Dear Mr. President, You Are Wrong

People gather in a vigil at Tugu Pahlawan in Surabaya, East Java, for victims of suicide attacks that shook the city on Sunday (13/05). (Antara Photo/Ari Bowo Sucipto)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 3:26 PM May 16, 2018
Category : Opinion, Commentary

Dear Mr. President,

As someone who was born and lives in Surabaya, I would like to thank you for your prompt visit to the city in the aftermath of the first string of attacks on churches across the city by suicide bombers recently.

I am convinced your gesture was much appreciated by those affected by the senseless acts of terrorism and the people of Surabaya who had been shocked, myself included, to learn that their beloved city had unexpectedly come to brush with such barbaric acts hitherto unheard of in the city.

After witnessing the carnage left by the attacks yourself, Mr. President, you told the press: "Terrorism is unconnected with religion. These were acts of cowardliness and barbarism as children were used as bombers."

It is safe to say that no sane individual would dispute your second sentence but your first is problematic.

In fact, with all due respect, I would like to say to you, in the frankness often attributed to Surabayans, that you are wrong. The acts of terrorism carried out in Surabaya had everything to do with religion.

The perpetrators believed themselves to be pious people who attacked people of a different faith considered the enemy of their religion. The irony of their understanding of what piety constitutes is glaring. We can definitely say that these terrorists were misguided in their understanding of the Koran and hadiths. Further, they certainly do not represent the majority of Indonesian Muslims who would be horrified at what they did.

But to deny the religious motive in the crime, however misguided it is, is tantamount to adding insult to injury for the victims and their families. The families of the victims, I am sure, know that there was a strong religious element in the attacks which took place on that fateful Sunday (13/05). The perpetrators clearly targeted their houses of worship, not any random public place.

To deny that the attacks were religion-motivated also exemplifies the misguided approach to the problem of radicalism and terrorism in our society. By denying that these acts were inspired by fundamentalist and anachronistic interpretation of Islam, we as a nation are sweeping the problem under the carpet, unwilling to deal with it face-on. In so doing, we can only delay its resolution.

Above all, by doggedly refusing to deal with the root of the problem ─ that is the existence of a fundamentalist minority within Islamic communities in our country who interpret their religion in a radical fashion totally incompatible with the concepts of our nationhood ─ we are also showing our immaturity as a nation-state.

As the nation's leader, you are well-placed to initiate a different approach to tackle the root of radicalization in the country by encouraging Islamic leaders against disowning perpetrators of terrorist acts as being outside the grace of Islam. Their crimes are definitely un-Islamic, but it does not change the fact that these people were mostly known to lead, at least outwardly, very religious lives.

Muhammadiyah's secretary general, Abdul Muti, may have claimed that to murder someone made anyone, irrespective of their religion, a non-believer but it does not change the fact that the teenage bomber of one of the churches in Surabaya, Yusuf Fahdil, was a student at SMP Muhammadiyah 18, where he also became chairperson of the Muhammadiyah Youth Association (IPM). Fadhil was known to be very religious. A 2015 Facebook post by his school even lauded him for having memorized the Koran.

Mr. President, I am sure you wholeheartedly agree that preventive measures against radicalism, which sometimes leads to acts of terrorism, are in our nation’s best interest. I am also sure that you realize that the only people who can best prevent radicalism are the tolerant Islamic communities that form the majority of Indonesian Muslims.

The solution to the problem must come internally from within Muslim communities by encouraging tolerance from an early age and by isolating and if possible moderating intolerant voices within their own communities. No other solution can better replace this. However, this process can only be initiated once acknowledgement is made that there is indeed a problem.

You are right in embracing moderate Islamic organizations such as NU and Muhammadiyah in your efforts to fight radicalism but as you can see in Yusuf Fadhil's case, these institutions are not immune to the forces of radicalization, partly, I suspect, because they are also unwilling to acknowledge that there is a problem.

Without self-acknowledgement of the extent of the problem of radicalization taking place throughout the country, the transition from a moderate Muslim to a radicalized one can take place unnoticed under our unvigilant noses all too easily.

Mr. President, in the current trying times of turmoil and uncertainty, the Indonesian people need someone to look up to and listen to. I can only hope that this person will be you.

Many see you as a trailblazer in having initiated what is undoubtedly the largest infrastructure drive in our country's history. Your vision in this respect is truly ambitious. It is my sincere hope that you are equally ambitious in wanting to create the right atmosphere for the nation to combat radicalism and eventually eradicate terrorism that has plagued us for the past two decades.

I am fully cognizant that you are indeed in an unenviable position of having to be aware and sensitive to your people's wishes and sensibilities but it is also my belief that the truth, however bitter, is always better than sugar-coated half-truth. This bitter truth can only better propel us to seek realistic solutions to what is undeniably a complex problem: radicalism.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter @Johannes_nos.

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