Rally turns violent in Jakarta as Muslim hardliners attack police

Mass rally in Jakarta
Mass rally in Jakarta

A massive demonstration by tens of thousands of Indonesian Muslims against Jakarta’s governor turned ugly Friday as hardliners burned police cars and clashed with officers, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

The ugly scenes — just meters from the presidential palace — marred an otherwise peaceful rally against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian accused of insulting Islam.

Istiqlal mosque, Jakarta
Istiqlal mosque, Jakarta

Police had earlier declared the much-hyped demonstration against Purnama, in which 50,000 protestors gathered at Jakarta’s biggest mosque, the Istiqlal, and then marched through the city’s main streets to the city hall and the nearby presidential palace in a huge show of force — a largely peaceful affair.

But as night fell thousands of radicals turned violent, setting police cars ablaze and attacking officers who hit back with tear gas, water cannon and truncheons.
Protests turn violent
Protests turn violent

Authorities took no chances in the lead up to the protest, deploying 18,000 officers and extra soldiers across Jakarta amid fears that radical elements could infiltrate the march.

The crowd, many wearing white shirts and white skull caps signaling Islamic piety, chanted slogans criticizing Purnama and waved banners calling for the governor’s arrest.

Rally turns violent in Jakarta
Rally turns violent in Jakarta

The demonstration appeared to be dying down by dusk as thousands began leaving the protest zone around city hall, the presidential palace and national monument.

But by nightfall riot police were put to the test as mobs of hardliners, draped in the white militant uniforms favored by Indonesian extremist groups, ran amok, hurling bottles, stones and lighting fires as officers used shields for cover.
President Joko Widodo
President Joko Widodo

The crowd sought to meet President Joko Widodo to demand that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama be prosecuted over remarks he made in September that some Muslims consider blasphemous.

In a video that made rounds on the internet last month, Purnama said his opponents in next year’s gubernatorial election had used a verse in the Koran to deceive voters and prevent him from winning another term.

The text in question is Surah Al-Mai’dah verse 51, which many Muslims in Indonesia interpret as prohibiting them from electing non-Muslims as their leaders.

Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama
Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama

The protest was triggered by accusations that Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, insulted Islam by criticizing opponents who used Koranic references to attack him ahead of an election in February.

Purnama apologized for the remarks, but his opponents have built a groundswell of support calling for his arrest and incarceration under Indonesia’s tough blasphemy laws.

“It’s no wonder people arise. Why when it comes to Ahok is the law not upheld?” deputy house speaker Fahri Hamzah, a prominent politician from an Islamic political party, told demonstrators earlier Friday.

Anger at Purnama, Jakarta’s second Christian governor and the first from the country’s ethnic Chinese community, spread beyond the capital, with solidarity marches also held across Java and in cities as far away as Makassar in Indonesia’s east.

The military warned it was ready to back police if things turned ugly, with helicopters flying low over the city and extra soldiers stationed at key government buildings reinforced with razor wire and armored vehicles.

Some foreign embassies warned their citizens to steer clear of the demonstration.

President Joko Widodo met this week with religious and political leaders to issue a unified call against violence while police sought to ease tensions by holding prayer sessions and broadcasting calls for peace on social media.

Indonesia is home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, where a vast majority practice a moderate form of Islam.

But the governor stoked religious tensions in September when he told a crowd they’d been “deceived” by his opponents who had used a Koranic verse to try to put them off voting for a Christian.

The governor — known for his tough-talking style — is hugely popular in other quarters for his determination to clean up Jakarta, an overcrowded, disorganized and polluted metropolis.

Purnama became Jakarta governor in November 2014, but was not elected to the post. He was deputy governor and automatically became governor after incumbent Widodo was elected Indonesian president.

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Failed Suicide Attack at Indonesian Church; A Priest Injured

The teenage suicide bomber
The teenage suicide bomber

A failed suicide-bombing at a church in Indonesia by a teenage jihadi resulted in an injury to the priest in the western island of Sumantra Sunday.

During Sunday mass at the St. Joseph Cathholic church in Medan, a young man who was carrying an Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) flag, pretended to be attending the service when he detonated a home-made explosive device in his backpack. With the pack only smoldering, the man charged the priest with an axe, wounding Father Albert Pandiangan slightly in the hand before he was detained.

Plainclothes police detain a suspect after an attempted suicide
Plainclothes police detain a suspect after an attempted suicide

questioning, the man reported that he was not working alone.

Since the deadly bombing in Bali that killed 202 people, Indonesia has been racked by attacks by Islamist militants. Most recently, religious minorities have been targeted.

Last month, a suicide bomber from an ISIS-linked terror group detonated himself outside a police station in central Java.

In January, another suicide attack killed four civilians and injured 19. All four perpetrators of that attack were also killed.

Southeast Asia Could Be a Haven For Displaced Islamic State Fighters

A Muslim woman releases a dove as a symbol of peace during a rally against the Islamic State in Jakarta, IndonesiaThe Islamic State hasn’t had much success in recruiting militants among the vast Muslim populations in Southeast Asia. But what happens when the caliphate’s capitals in Syria and Iraq are destroyed, and hundreds of foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines try to go home?

Experts here in Australia see the counterterrorism challenge as a regional problem, rather than simply an affliction of the Middle East and North Africa. They fear that a potentially dangerous new phase may lie ahead, as the jihadists look for new sanctuaries.

Governments in Southeast Asia have been working quietly with the United States, some for more than a decade, to monitor and try to disrupt radical Islamist groups, and they’ve had considerable success. The United States helped train an Indonesian police unit known as Detachment 88, which has largely destroyed Jemaah Islamiah, the al-Qaeda affiliate responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people.

But the prisons, slums and youth gangs of Southeast Asia provide an ecosystem where terrorism could fester anew, experts say. Islamic State operatives in Syria have tried to reach out to these potential jihadists, as in the bombing in January in Jakarta that killed eight people, for which the Islamic State claimed credit.

Most Southeast Asian Muslims reject such violence, but to plot mass-casualty attacks, it takes only a tiny fringe. “We have more activity among jihadi groups than at any time in the last 10 years,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, in a speech in April in Australia.

The would-be catalysts for violence are the jihadists who traveled from Southeast Asia to Syria and Iraq. Experts estimate that this foreign-fighter network includes as many as 500 to 600 Indonesians, 110 Australians, about 100 Malaysians and a small number of Filipinos. This Southeast Asian contingent is far larger than the number who traveled to Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001. And in Iraq and Syria, the volunteers have fought and killed.

“We haven’t yet seen the worst” in Southeast Asia, said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, a foreign policy think tank in Sydney that arranged my visit to Australia.

Islamic State fighters from Southeast Asia proposed a Philippines caliphate in a video that was released in June. This region could be a haven for jihadists; a Muslim revolt against the Catholic-dominated government has been simmering there for a century.

“Kill the disbelievers where you find them and do not have mercy on them,” Abu Abdul Rahman al-Filipini urged in the video, which was recorded in Raqqa and translated by SITE Intelligence Group .

In Malaysia, the army has been a worrying source of recruits. The country’s defense minister told parliament last year that at least 70 former members of the military volunteered for the Islamic State. Malaysian authorities long wary of Western help have been working closely with the United States and Australia since last year to contain such jihadist activities.

In Indonesia, police have campaigned aggressively against jihadists, killing or imprisoning many leaders. But as in Iraq and Syria, the prisons have been a breeding ground for extremism. Based on her research in Jakarta, Jones argued in a recent study: “The prison system — where plots are hatched, travel arranged and [Islamic State] supporters recruited — needs urgent attention.” Experts worry that as many as 200 former jihadists are due to be released from Indonesian prisons soon.

For nearly 15 years, the United States has been quietly funding counterterrorism efforts in Southeast Asia. A study published last year by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point noted that the United States had provided $441 million in security assistance to the Philippines, mostly for its military, and $262 million to Indonesia, mostly for its police. Police efforts appear to be a better bet: Terrorist attacks increased in the Philippines by 13-fold between 2002 and 2013; attacks declined 26 percent over that period in Indonesia.

The Islamic State may lose its caliphate in Syria and Iraq. But there could be a boomerang effect — a bigger jihadist threat in countries to which the fleeing fighters return.