Riots in Jakarta show tide is turning towards religious extremism

IndonesiaBy: Casey Mallon, CIB Asia/Eurasia Desk
Analytical Question: Does Jemaah Islamiyah continue to pose a security threat today?

Protests against the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as ‘Ahok’, broke out Friday, November 4, after the governor allegedly insulted the Qur’an. While the protest began as a peaceful demonstration, after dark, a radical minority clashed with the police. The protest itself shows that religious tensions are a continuing concern in Indonesia, enabling opportunities for jihadist groups to recruit and commit terrorist attacks. However, the details of this incident support my current analytical conclusion that, with high confidence, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) does not continue to pose a security threat today.

Governor Ahok is a Chinese and a member of the Christian minority in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. He issued a statement claiming that Islamic groups using a verse of the Qur’an to “urge people not to support him were deceiving voters”1 The verse in question was interpreted by the groups to mean that Muslims are prohibited “from living under the leadership of a non-Muslim,” meaning that Ahok was ‘unfit’ to rule over a Muslim population1. Jakarta is 90% Muslim and while most are moderate, the city is a fertile ground for radical organizations to take advantage of religious tensions between the Christian minority and the Muslim majority5.

After nightfall on November 4, most of the protesters in Jakarta dispersed, but the hard-liners, who refused to leave, clashed with the police. The police fired tear gas and the protestors set three police vehicles and trash on fire2. Syamsudin Uba, a hardline Muslim cleric and former leader of a JI splinter cell, Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), was at the event along with more than 20 other known supporters of ISIS and 10 members of JI5. The protest was organized by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a radical Islamist group that rose to prominence as JI declined in 2010.

This riot shows the rising ethnic-religious tensions in Indonesia which offers an opportunity for radical jihadist groups to take hold. The protest was organized by the FPI which had traditionally been held in low regard, so the popularity of the protest shows how the climate in Indonesia is changing to become more accepting of radical views. Despite the more favorable political and religious climate for jihadists, however, JI did not have a significant role in the protest. Other Islamist groups in Indonesia, like FPI and ISIS, were visibly active in the organization and execution of the riot, but JI did not. In fact, media reports of the event often left out JI entirely and when it was mentioned, it was only briefly, taking a backseat to FPI and ISIS.

This act of political dissonance in Jakarta shows that Islamist extremism is on the rise in Indonesia, but does not indicate a correlating rise in the popularity of JI. JI has taken a backseat to more ‘fashionable’ groups like ISIS, FPI, or even Islamist student-led movements. Indonesia continues to be concerning in regards to Islamist radicalism, but JI has not prospered in the same way other jihadist groups have in the past year. This incident supports my current analytical conclusion that, with high confidence, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) does not continue to pose a security threat today; instead, ISIS has risen in popularity and will continue to be a concern in Indonesia even as it weakens in Iraq and Syria.


[1] Anonymous (2016) “Indonesia protest: Jakarta anti-governor rally turns violentBBC, 4 November.
[2] Anonymous (2016) “Political meddling instigated deadly Jakarta riots, Indonesian president saysThe Japan Times, 5 November.
[3] Ismail, S. (2016) “Indonesian police release 10 earlier arrested over Jakarta violenceChannel News Asia, 6 November.
[4] Sapiie, M.A. (2016) “Rising religious tensions in Jakarta fuel radicalism: AnalystsThe Jakarta Post, 3 November.
[5] Soeriaatmadja, W. and Arshad, A. (2016) “Jakarta rally descends into chaos; Jokowi urges protesters to go homeThe Straits Times, 4 November.