5/19/11 Indonesia (NewYorkTimes) — Before he strapped on his suicide vest, walked into a crowded police station mosque and blew himself up last month, Muhammad Syarif was typical of the scores of angry young men who pass their days at fundamentalist mosques in this coastal Javanese city.
The authorities in Cirebon, Indonesia, on Thursday escorted a man suspected of having links to the suicide bomber who blew himself up at the local police compound last month.
Mr. Syarif, 31, was a familiar face at often-violent protests, organized by local clerics, against alleged places of immorality, like karaoke bars and unregistered Christian churches. Last year, he joined mobs wielding sticks, staves and machetes who clashed with members of Ahmadiyya, a minority Muslim sect deemed heretical by fundamentalists.
But to the police, Mr. Syarif was of little interest. Like many members of a small and vocal fringe of Islamist vigilante groups in Cirebon, Mr. Syarif operated with near-impunity as the local authorities turned a blind eye to — or even tacitly condoned, liberal Muslim leaders say — an atmosphere of intimidation against minorities and others deemed un-Islamic.
No one, it seems, saw it coming when Mr. Syarif slipped into the police station mosque during Friday Prayer and detonated his bomb, killing himself and wounding 30 people, including the local police chief.
The attack, which shocked Indonesians by occurring in a place of worship, points to what some analysts say is a disturbing trend. Across the country, they say, the authorities have largely stood by as fundamentalist vigilante groups have increasingly used street-level violence and intimidation in an attempt to turn Indonesia — a nonsectarian democracy where moderate Islam predominates — into a conservative Islamic state. Now, emboldened by a lack of official action, it appears some Islamist vigilantes are turning to terrorism.
“I think there is a merging of extremist agendas,” said Sidney Jones, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, “and that’s why it becomes imperative that the government address the issue of intolerance.”
“Because if we have a merging of the moralist agenda with the terrorist agenda, then ignoring the hard-liners that use blunt physical force in the effort to impose their views of morality, you are giving a green light to people who move one step further in using terrorism,” she said.
Conservative Islam has exploded in influence in this Muslim-majority country since the 1998 protests ended the three-decade dictatorship of Suharto, which held political Islam firmly in check. For the most part, this has manifested itself in the growth of private piety and the development of a significant minority of Islamic politicians in local and national government. But there has also been growth at the fringe.
At the most extreme end, terrorist groups have staged a series of deadly attacks, including the 2002 bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people. Successive police crackdowns have seen hundreds of militants arrested and key leaders killed. Terrorism is now at a low ebb, although militants still plan attacks — in April the police also uncovered a group that was alleged to have planned to bomb a church at Easter and to have sent mail bombs to prominent figures deemed “enemies of Islam.”
Much more successful have been above-ground fundamentalist groups that use strong-arm tactics to push for Indonesia’s Islamization. Emerging after 1998, these groups have mounted raids against vices like gambling and prostitution and led mobs that have burned and ransacked churches. In politics, they have seen success by allying themselves with more mainstream conservative Muslim politicians, lending their muscle to campaigns to ban pornography and Ahmadiyya. For the most part, they are rarely arrested.
In a striking example of official reluctance to tackle vigilante violence, video footage taken in February showed the police in West Java standing by as a mob killed three Ahmadiyya members and mutilated their bodies. Rather than lead to a crackdown on vigilantes, the incident prompted provincial and local governments to issue decrees curtailing the rights of Ahmadis to worship.