If you asked typical American citizens to name the world's largest Muslim nation, in terms of population, most would probably pick a land somewhere in the Middle East -- not Indonesia.
However, if there is one fact that many Americans do know about Islam in Indonesia, it is that most Muslims in this sprawling and complex nation practice a "moderate" form of the faith (whatever that "moderate" label means). This has allowed believers in various faith groups to live in peace, for the most part.
Thus, terrorist attacks in Indonesia linked ISIS are big news -- at least in the American news outlets that continue to offer adequate coverage of international news. Sadly, an ominous cluster of attacks this past weekend in Indonesia probably received little if any attention in most American newspapers.
The New York Times, of course, was a notable exception. Here is the lede in its report:
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A wave of deadly bombings on Sunday and Monday and evidence of more planned have shaken Indonesia just ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, with entire families -- including children -- carrying out suicide attacks against Christian worshipers and the police.
The troubling discovery Monday of completed bombs in a housing complex outside Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, came a day after members of a single family carried out three attacks against separate churches in the city around Mass time, killing seven people.
The use of the word "Mass" implies that the attacks focused on Catholic congregations, when the reality was more complex than that -- since Pentecostal and traditional Protestant churches were targeted, along with Catholic sanctuaries. In other words, the attacks were aimed at all Christians (and police), not just Catholics.
But that was not the main issue here. The Times report quickly reminded readers:
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, practices one of the most moderate forms of Islam in the world, but still has a homegrown terrorism problem. The country has experienced numerous attacks in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. ...
But the use of children in terrorist plots, analysts say, represents a new and shocking development in Indonesia. ... During Sunday morning’s attacks, one suicide bomber appeared to have been disguised as a churchgoer. In another, an attacker drove a Toyota minivan with a bomb the site. Still another attacker was seen in footage speeding on a scooter toward a church before an explosion.
Readers are, of course, expected to grasp that "moderate" Islam is somehow more tolerate of other faiths than, well, regular Islam or radicalized forms of Islam. As a Muslim journalist once told me, during a seminar on religion and the news in Prague, most Muslims assume that the world "moderate" means, in his words, "Muslims that America likes."
This vague, Western, term has little or no meaning to Muslims around the world, in terms of describing the content of their faith.
I realize that space is limited in stories of this kind. Nevertheless, it would be good if editors at the Times -- America's gold standard in international news coverage -- could back up the "moderate" label with at least one sentence, maybe even a paragraph, offering a few facts to help readers understand what that term is supposed to mean.
In other words, what does "moderate" Islam look like in practice? How does it affect the lives of Muslims (women, perhaps) and members of other religions in this very important nation?
Let me note one detail in this story that, for me, is linked to this issue. What does it mean to say that one of the terrorists "appeared to have been disguised as a churchgoer"? I assume this means they were wearing "Western" clothing? The woman was not veiled?
To provide more background, let me point readers to a Providence website essay written by religious-liberty scholar Paul Marshall, a colleague of mine at The Media Project. In recent years, he has been doing quite a bit of research in Indonesia, while teaching at the graduate school of Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University, in Jakarta.
The headline: Cause for Alarm? Indonesia’s Weekend of Violence Prompts Vigilance and Concern." Marshall stressed that this wave of coordinated attacks was rather complex:
This is probably only the first wave of awaited attacks by ISIS returnees from the Middle East. Nevertheless, the terrorism threat in the country remains small.
On Sunday, May 13, three churches were bombed in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. The first explosion took place at Saint Mary Immaculate Catholic Church. Five minutes later, there were explosions at Surabaya Pentecostal Church and the Diponegoro Indonesian Christian Church. These have been widely reported, but there were also two other attempted church bombings -- Saint Jacob’s Church at the Citraland housing complex in West Surabaya and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral. Thankfully, the bombs failed to explode.
This current low level of operational skill is one reason not to exaggerate the current terrorist threat in Indonesia, although the level of competence will very probably increase. The aggressive major anti-terrorism unit, Densus 88, has also had a significant impact. But a major reason is the dominant local forms of Islam. There is increasing radicalization and religious polarization in Indonesia, but the major Muslim organizations have rejected radicalism and terrorism, thus limiting ISIS’ recruiting pool. Muslims from Indonesia have been about 70 times less likely to join ISIS than Muslims from many European countries. Hence, the number of returnees from the Middle East is comparatively much smaller.
As more ISIS recruits return, terrorism in Indonesia is likely to increase in both number and potency of attacks. And the focus of assaults on Christians adds additional worries of polarization in this multi-religious society. But, so far, the threat should not be exaggerated. In the last decade, deaths from terrorism in Indonesia are still less than in Belgium, France or the United States.
FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from social media reports about the violence in Indonesia.