A nation needs to know and determine what it is as much as it needs to know what it is not and what it does not want to be. Living as we do in a global world, however, where borders have grown fuzzier by the day, it is practically impossible to prevent the unregulated flow of ideas and alternative viewpoints.
Much of this readily available information and data, made accessible by the portable communicative architecture that everyone can afford nowadays, is of a benign and often useful nature. A generation ago, most of us would not know how to repair a car's engine, cook a fancy dish or virtually visit exotic places in the world as we can and do today - via the Internet.
But this free flow of information also means that today one can simply turn to the Internet to learn how to make a home-made bomb, break into a secured building or fly to another part of the world to cause mayhem for whatever reason.
The challenge from ISIS
Anyone who has been following the news of late would be familiar with the phenomenon of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement that has also turned to the Internet to spread its reputation far and wide. Emerging at a time of heightened communitarian tension in Iraq, which seems poised on the verge of collapse, it has grabbed the headlines for its propensity to enact acts of violence in the public domain and to broadcast these actions across the globe for all to see.
For reasons that are as varied as they are complex, this movement has captured the imagination of hundreds of young, angry and disillusioned men from all over the world. Many have flocked to its banner and joined its ranks in the Syrian-Iraqi war zone.
That the movement justifies its actions in the name of religion is a travesty of faith itself, for no religion in the history of humankind has encouraged its adherents to slaughter unarmed prisoners, much less celebrate and popularise such violence in the wider public arena. But the movement has proven to be a headache for many a government that does not know what to do about it, and how to dampen its appeal.
Of late, one country that has been forced to deal with the rising popularity of ISIS is Indonesia. Over the past few weeks and months, it has witnessed several assemblies organised by local supporters of the movement. Indonesia's dilemma, in a nutshell, is simply this: As a Muslim-majority country where Islam is seen as a positive marker of identity, how can the government denounce a movement that likewise justifies its existence in the name of Islam? Would a denouncement of ISIS entail a loss of credibility for the government itself, and would it risk being accused of being anti-Islam by its own voters?
The situation has been compounded by the fact that, until recently, most of the statements issued by recognised leaders and opinion-makers in Indonesia have tended to muddy the waters further. Few of the leaders of the country have come up with a straightforward negation of the movement, and worse still, some of the leaders of the more radical movements in the country have openly come out in support of it.
There have been reports of young Indonesians being invited to rallies to pledge their allegiance to ISIS, on the grounds that it stands for a supra-national entity that cuts across political frontiers and unites the global community of believers as a whole.
Now, finally, a lone yet firm voice has been heard: that of Mr Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, the Minister for Religious Affairs. Minister Saifuddin is the first leader of national standing who has denied the credibility of ISIS outright, branding them a group of violent radicals whose claims to piety are superfluous.
He has called upon all Muslim leaders across Indonesia - from academics to religious scholars, from preachers to missionaries, from mass movements to political parties - to join him in an open campaign to ensure that the influence of ISIS does not spread to Indonesia in whatever form. Coming at a time when Indonesia is forced to confront the reality that some of its people - along with other ASEAN citizens - have gone to Iraq to join in ISIS' struggle there, this was a bold move on the minister's part.
The government has taken yet another bold step, and has now banned ISIS altogether, on the basis that it is an anti-state movement that is a threat to Indonesia's integrity and Pancasila ideology.
Tradition of tolerance
But more importantly, it marks a significant step where Indonesian Muslims are back in the fray and eager to reclaim two things that they are in danger of compromising: their nation and their religion. The import of Minister Saifuddin's appeal lies here: that he is calling upon Muslims across the archipelago to regain control and to define the meaning of Islam in the present age, and to prevent it from being hijacked by a small but vocal minority of violent extremists.
In the process, he is also calling upon Indonesians to reclaim their nation and to ensure that Indonesia's identity remains that of a complex country that is at ease with pluralism and difference, as it celebrates its diversity rather than vilifying it. His move is undoubtedly a political one, but its implications are existential, for what is at stake is the future development of Indonesia, and the future of Islam in Indonesia.
Indonesia's recent election, hotly contested and divisive as it was, has shown that the country - as the world's biggest Muslim democracy - is still able to live with the differences in its midst. The fact that the election results have not led to riots or violence thus far is a testimony to how far Indonesia has come from the sorry days when it was seen as a hotbed of radicalism and religious conflict.
But having come this far, Indonesians realise that their democracy is not something that can be taken for granted, or will remain as a constant in the future. Indonesians have also grown wary and weary of the radical voices in their midst, and do not wish to witness a repeat of the inter-religious conflicts of the early 2000s.
This is why the minister's intervention at this stage is so timely, and crucial to the longevity and viability of the Indonesian state. It sends a clear message to Indonesians and the world that Indonesia and Indonesians still wish to determine their collective identity as a republic and a democracy.
It also sends a clear message about what they do not wish to become. In the dialectics of nation-building and identity formation, knowing what one wants to be and what one wishes not to be are equally important.
The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University
This article was first published on August 7, 2014.
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