It is unlikely that a string of attacks against Muslim figures in Indonesia was orchestrated. The attacks could have been hyped by a populace sensitive to the idea of Muslim figures being subjected to violence.
Indonesia has seen a series of attacks recently against Muslim figures, such as Muslim preachers, teachers or mosque prayer leaders. Between 18 and 21 September, at least three local Muslim figures were subjected to various severe assaults such as stabbings and shootings. The attacks occurred in Batam city near Singapore, and the Bekasi and Tangerang areas in the outskirt cities of Jakarta. The cases followed similar cases that occurred between December 2017 and February 2018. In that period, 21 attacks against ‘religious figures’ occurred in various provinces across Indonesia.
Between July and September 2020, a number of local and even national Muslim figures were also assaulted by people of various backgrounds, including persons with mental illness. Such cases have always attracted public attention because the Muslim figures involved are seen as the symbols of Islam. As a result, the attacks drew strong responses from public figures, including Islamist politicians, and even public figures from a moderate and respected Islamic organisation such as Muhammadiyah. Abdul Mu’ti, the Muhammadiyah leader, warned that the attacks “were not accidental attacks.” In response, President Joko Widodo ordered security apparatuses to investigate ‘whether there were certain patterns’ in the attacks against Muslim figures to prevent ‘political speculation.’ But to date, no official investigations have resulted in the capture of any masterminds behind the attacks. Were these attacks intentionally orchestrated, or were they just random attacks?
Many quarters, including even top-ranking government officials, believe that such attacks were orchestrated. Following the events that occurred between December 2017 and February 2018, General (retired) Moeldoko, the presidential chief of staff, argued that some of the attacks were perpetrated by persons with mental illness and reminiscent of intelligence operations conducted during the New Order regime. He claimed these operations were also behind the murders of alleged sorcerers in Banyuwangi regency, East Java province, during the period of power transition between President Soeharto and President B. J. Habibie in 1998. The 1998 killings claimed the lives of 309 alleged sorcerers.
This view is plausible for some reasons. The attacks occurred in various areas, and hence, they must have been well-coordinated and well-funded. These attacks targeted some figures who were symbols of Islam. Also, the various attacks occurred in quick succession within a certain time frame. The first wave of attacks occurred between December 2017 and February 2018. The second wave occurred between July and September 2020, and the third wave occurred between 18 and 21 September 2021.
… the attacks were too random in nature to be considered as orchestrated attacks. The attacks were seemingly not meant to foment social unrest, because they occurred when there were no relatively big social and political events at the national scale.
In contrast, there are some other reasons to argue that the attacks were too random in nature to be orchestrated. The attacks were seemingly not meant to foment social unrest, because they occurred when there were no relatively big social and political events at the national scale. The killings of the alleged sorcerers in Banyuwangi occurred between February and October 1998, at a time when the country was experiencing a period of massive social change — the transition of power from an authoritarian to democratic regime. But the recent attacks against Muslim figures in September 2021 occurred when the social and political situation was relatively calm.
In addition, the motives of the recent attacks are too random. In the Banyuwangi incident, neighbours killed alleged sorcerers because they were motivated by rumours. In the recent attacks, the motives were wide-ranging, including social revenge, robbery and personal resentment against certain Muslim preachers. The murder in Tangerang on 18 September 2021 occurred after a businessman felt offended when he eventually found out that the victim, who is a Muslim spiritualist and the leader of a local majelis taklim (regular gatherings for religious learning and performance), had sexual intercourse with his wife. On 13 September 2020, a local resident stabbed Ali Jaber, a famous preacher, as he delivered a sermon in a mosque in Bandarlampung city, the capital of Lampung province. The attack by the 24-year old resident stemmed from the hatred he had accumulated after he frequently watched the preacher’s sermons on YouTube. Ali Jaber, who had contracted with coronavirus previously, died on 14 January 2021.
If the attacks are indeed random and not orchestrated, the question arises so to why the attacks made the media headlines. A possible answer to this question is media hype. These kinds of attacks, including stabbing, beating and others, are quite common in this vast archipelago that is home to a vast population of 260 million. But the media keeps reporting the attacks because they are seen to be against the symbols of Islam, such as Muslim preachers and teachers. Also, the issue escalated because politicians often used the issue to perpetuate narratives that the Joko Widodo regime has failed to protect Muslim figures. Anti-government camps also have been using fake news on social media to further undermine the government of Joko Widodo. While there is no incontrovertible evidence that the attacks were not orchestrated, each incident is worthy of further study as to its motivations — and perhaps a calmer and objective approach in reportage.
A'an Suryana was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and is lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.