The Us vs. Them Narrative in Indonesian Islamic Radicalism

Using the ‘us vs. them’ narrative from the social identity theory and relative deprivation theory to explain the long chain of events in history that fuel Islamic radicalism in Indonesia.

Illustration from The Centre for Independent Studies

How individuals view themselves and others play a pivotal role in a conflict. Whether in international politics and warfare or at a neighborhood-level conflict. This traditional ideological framework has been around for millennia, from ancient Greeks, ancient Chinese- with the whole concept of Huaxia identity to create a distinction between them and those deemed ‘barbarians’, to a very typical American conflict’s concept, the US against Native Americans, Mexicans, Asian immigrants, Nazis, the Soviets, and now, the Green Threat of Radical Islam seems to replacing the Red Threat to prolong their us vs. them fights.

In Indonesia, this whole us vs. them that was created by the radical Muslim in Indonesia as a result from a long chain of events since the early days of Indonesia.

The fundamental point of major political powers in the 19th to early 20th century is to compromised their civic programme with direct populist links between politics and people, like how Buya Hamka as a respectable Islamic figure in Sumatra was used by the Japanese to link their propaganda to the people in the early days of Japanese occupation.

Aside of that, the Muslim in Indonesia also becomes a vehicle for the political struggle against the Dutch colonialism, with Padri movement in Minangkabau, Sarekat Islam as the first mass nationalist organisation against colonialism formed in 1911, and Union of Indonesian Muslims (PERMI), who promoted Islamic Modernism and nationalism in the colonial era. But these contributions are often overlooked as another massive movement being called out for act of separatism, namely Darul Islam or Darul Islam/Islamic Armed Forces of Indonesia (DI/TII), a group that aimed to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia and enacting Sharia’a law. The 1948 rebellion by Communist Party of Indonesia or PKI, the Madiun Affair was an armed conflict that the local Muslim forever remember, as the upheaval costed lives of important Muslim figures in East Java, this is often noted as one of the rootcause of the resentment between Muslim group with the communist. The resurgence of PKI and the growing cohesion of Islam as a political force made the rivalry even stronger.

As soon as the anti-communist purge following a controversial coup d’etat began, with the common goal of ‘eliminating’ communist held by both New Order alliances, the military, and Muslim group — who thought the rehabilitation and reform program launched by the military would be beneficial to them. This alliance soon split, this common goal and interest that bind them eventually diverged as the Muslims were overrun by foreign capital called in by the government and weakened by the emerging middle class; one of the main pillars of the New Order.

Then radicalism was formed as a snowball effect from Soeharto’s regime in the New Order era. Especially during 1970s and 1980s where the regime repressed political Islam and actively preventing the existence of formal opposition to secure the regime’s power and legitimacy, which mostly came from Muslim groups (as the communist rival is already dismissed from formal to civil political fields). The New Order government’s repression of political Islam had paved a way of mushrooming global jihadist movements.

The second ‘us vs. them’ narrative for the Muslim political group after PKI is when the power during New Order era is dominated by Abangan (a more syncretic form of Javanese Muslim) and Christian, despite the majority of population being Muslim, which led to a rise of religious tension in the political arena, and the Chinese business tycoons who shown a close relationship with the government during the pembangunan (development) period for the state infrastructure projects, despite keeping the line and discriminatory policies against the Chinese-Indonesian, which once again, a very bad move to the political scheme in Indonesia, even until today.

The marginalization of Islam continued to escalate with the banning Masyumi former senior figures in political activities, co-optation or merging of Islamic parties through the formation of United Development Party (PPP) as the Pancasila-ist Islamist party, to the Tanjung Priok massacre in 1984 where a shooting occurred to thousands of people who were attending a mass prayer.

All these events eventually led to the formation of the ‘us vs. them’ narrative some still hold until today, and further enforcing the exclusivist in-group out-group view. Through processes of social comparison (with the out-group(s) who they perceived less-deprived than them), a certain group on the fringes find each other in a shared sense of frustration, and positioned themselves in direct opposition to general society. This self-identity that done collectively with intensified identification with the in-group is in line with increasing dis-identification with the out-group.

Being the majority group in Indonesia and being the largest Muslim population in the world, but constantly feel deprived from their right made the certain Muslim group in Indonesia perceive the imbalance of ought and is, as explained in the relative deprivation theory. The perceived amount of desired resource that they have is less than the comparison standard; the amount possessed by the out-group(s). Social comparison is a central way for humans to obtain information about themselves and social standing, thus relative deprivation is a negative evaluation resulting from this.

The resurrection of ‘us vs. them’ narrative and in-group out-group unfavorable comparisons in the recent political scheme also come in line with the growing number of radicalism ideas in the republic, the ‘them’ in recent years are; Americans, Chinese workers, kafir, and a certain faction in the government that often perceived as the main perpetrator of the deprivation of Muslims and the prevailing power asymmetry. When the ‘our’ value in the us vs. them worldview cast as opposed and superior to ‘their’ values, it leads people to identify firmly with their ingroup, to dehumanize the outgroup, and to view the outgroup antagonistically.

Terrorism is most likely to occur in groups or societies that have bold distinctions between the in-group and the out-groups, where the out-group members are dehumanized, e.g labelled as infidels and lumped into a single enemy group, and this group will push their ingroup members to vent their anger onto the outgroup, thus recognizable in some form of violent acts, including terrorist attack, hate speech, etc.

The perceptions of relative deprivation are the catalyst for contemporary violent extremism across cultures and contexts, including Indonesian Muslim radicalism. This relative deprivation can trigger collective action even for people who are not personally and directly affected by asymmetrical practice of power and injustice, but still perceive themselves as part of the victim, linking both aforementioned relative deprivation and social identity theory as the root cause of the violent ideas and act.


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A 19-year-old sleepyhead and an avid noodle lover. I rant, therefore I am.

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