Taliban victory raises fears over campus radicalisation

Following the Taliban’s seizure of control in Afghanistan last month, Indonesia’s national counter-terrorism agency, BNPT, is cautiously monitoring a potential rise of terrorism activities in Indonesia, including on university campuses.

Academic experts on radicalisation in universities say Indonesia has its own radicalisation problem that does not take its cue from overseas events, but radicals could nonetheless become emboldened.

Indonesia has been concerned for some time about radical Islamic ideologies in schools and universities as well as in wider society, with young people increasingly targeted through online channels propagating extremist views. The government has attempted to counter this with moderate religious content on social media, and an ongoing review of the religious education curriculum.

The government has also set up a ‘Religious Moderation House’ on every university campus, with all universities covered by last year.

Through academic discourse, inter-religious dialogue and seminars, the Religious Moderation House develops stronger commitment to nationalism and the Indonesian constitution; tolerance and willingness to work together with other religious groups; anti-violence; and incorporates local traditions and wisdom.

“The reality is that the Taliban’s rise to power is Afghanistan’s internal affair, but terrorist groups here may see it as a victory over Western hegemony,” BNPT’s spokesperson General Eddy Hartono said in Jakarta on 22 August.

“This is dangerous. They think if the Taliban is able to take power, why can’t they? Then they would campaign for a caliphate in Indonesia.”

Ridwan Habib, a terrorism analyst at the University of Indonesia, said the Taliban victory may not directly intensify the terrorist movement in Indonesia, but indirectly it may have an impact.

“The Taliban victory can inspire terrorist groups here to fight for an Islamic state,” he said. “In other words, the Taliban victory ignites their spirit and motivation to build a Shari’a-based power.”

However, universities’ concerns about a re-emergence of radical thoughts and ideology were misplaced, according to some analysts. Yeni Huriani, a senior lecturer at the State Islamic University of Bandung or UIN Bandung, told University World News: “Even when so-called radical thoughts are [expressed] in universities, there is nothing to worry about, because they are merely thoughts, ideas. By nature, universities are hubs of ideas and thoughts.”

She added: “Radicalism among common people and that in universities are clearly different. Radicalism in universities, among academics, is a form of reasoning.”

Commenting on recent research revealing that 10 state universities in Indonesia have been exposed to radical ideology, Huriani maintained that the research findings, directly and indirectly, are often pre-determined by who funds the research. “If it’s the secular groups that fund it, then we can predict the findings: Religious adherence is bad.”

However, the Taliban victory could influence discourse in other ways in Indonesia. “If there is anything to worry about from the Taliban rise to power, it is the likely setback in the discourse on women’s issues in Indonesia and among Muslim communities,” Huriani said.

Soon after taking over in the Afghan capital Kabul, the Taliban announced they would respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists.

“I’m one of those who are not convinced. Let’s see what they really do,” she said, referring to the Taliban’s previous rule, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions.

Huriani believes this could resurrect the debate on women’s issues in Indonesia. “We will go back to discussing whether in Islam women are allowed to work in public services, [and] pursue careers, issues which so far in Indonesia have been put to rest and for which we have reached general agreement.”

“It’s a tiring discourse,” she asserted.

Muhamad Murtadlo, a researcher at the Religious Affairs’ Ministry, said radicalism in universities has no clear definition. “Very often the definition is too simplistic: People or a group of people are radical if they support the idea of an Islamic caliphate,” he said, noting the caliphate concept is “an interesting topic of political discussion. And in any discussion, some would agree and some others would not.”

Abu Tholut, former leader of the terrorist group Jamaah Islamiyah, the group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people and which is dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Southeast Asia, refuted the view that the Taliban’s triumph would give rise to terrorism in Indonesia.

“There has never been any evidence that Muslim groups’ victories overseas caused terrorism at home.” He pointed to Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise in Iran after 1979, and the Mujahideen triumph over Russia in Afghanistan, causing Russian forces to withdraw in 1989, [which] “triggered euphoria in Muslim communities but not terrorism”, he said, when addressing a discussion forum at the University of Indonesia on 21 August, less than a week after the Taliban took over Kabul.

“What has often caused terrorism and radicalism is the act of oppression on Muslims or invasion against Muslim countries by foreign powers,” Tholut said, referring to the birth of ISIS or Islamic State that was caused by the United States invasion of Iraq.

Tholut, who has served time in jail for terrorist offences in Indonesia and also fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s, said: “Terrorism was rising just when the US and NATO invaded Afghanistan in 2001. So victory does not cause resurgence. Invasion, oppression, injustice, killing does it.”