Radical Books Raise Fears in Indonesia of Spread of Militants’ Ideas

9 02 2009

SOLO, Indonesia — At a small, back-street bookstore here, the young employees, wearing matching green skullcaps and sporting wispy chin beards, stock books with titles like “Waiting for the Destruction of Israel” and “Principles of Jihad.”

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Peter Gelling for The International Herald Tribune
In Solo, a cluster of publishers have issued Islamist texts, which do not sell well but popularize radical ideology. One book was by a man involved in the Bali bombings that killed 202 people.

The New York Times

Solo is known as a bastion of a conservative brand of Islam.
They work quietly, listening to the voice of a firebrand Islamic preacher playing on the store’s sound system, his sermon peppered with outbursts of machine-gun fire.
Another young man, a customer, sifts through a pile of DVDs that chronicle the conflicts in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Sudan. T-shirts, stickers and pins on sale at the back of the store are emblazoned with slogans like “Support Your Local Mujahedeen” and “Taliban All-Stars.”
The jihadi books at the store, which is called Arofah, have been made available by a small but growing group of publishers in and around Solo, a commercial city known as a bastion of conservative Islam.
Many of the publishers openly support the ideological goals of Jemaah Islamiyah, a banned Southeast Asia terrorist network that has been implicated in most of the major terrorist bombings in Indonesia.
The publishers, about 12 so far, still have limited prospects for sales and influence. Radical books generally do not sell well in Indonesia, where a vast majority of the population of 240 million practice a moderate brand of Islam.
A book by one of the Bali bombers, whose attacks on nightclubs in 2002 killed 202 people, is considered a success for its genre but sold only about 10,000 copies.
Nevertheless, the publishers have caught the attention of some counterterrorism experts, who fear they are proof of how interconnected, and resilient, the Jemaah Islamiyah movement is in Indonesia.
By most accounts, the Indonesian authorities have had great success in weakening Jemaah Islamiyah’s militant arm since the Bali bombings, jailing or killing most of its top leaders. But they have been less successful in fighting the organization’s ideology, which counterterrorism experts say spreads within an informal association of groups operating in mosques, prisons and schools around the country, providing a continuing source of recruitment.

“The most interesting aspect is what the publishing operations reveal about the overlapping networks binding Jemaah Islamiyah together,” said Sidney R. Jones, an analyst with the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

“This organization is not some Arab import,” Ms. Jones said of Jemaah Islamiyah. “It’s an extraordinary social organization linked by family, schools, culture, training and now businesses.”
She notes that Solo is not only the base for the publishers, but also the site of Pesantren al-Mukmin, an Islamic boarding school that has educated some of the country’s most notorious extremists. Some of the publishers have taught at the school, and Abu Bakar Bashir, a militant Islamic cleric who helped found the school, originally conceived of the idea of opening publishing houses in Solo that could specialize in books on Islam, Ms. Jones said. Mr. Bashir served time in prison on conspiracy charges in several bombings, including those in Bali.
The International Crisis Group, an organization established to prevent or resolve deadly conflicts, says there is a chance that the growth in publishers of radical books could have an upside, possibly indicating that Jemaah Islamiyah is beginning to wage jihad through the printed page rather than violent acts.
“Some publishers may be playing a more positive than negative role, directing members into above-ground activities and enabling them to promote a jihadi message without engaging in violence,” said a report issued last year by the International Crisis Group.
But Indonesian authorities say that the message of jihad, once put into book form, often enters classrooms and Islamic study circles, ultimately helping to draw young people into Jemaah Islamiyah’s ranks. And that could allow the militants to regroup as a potent fighting force.
Most of the books celebrating radical Islamic thought are Indonesian translations of Middle Eastern works. But the publishers are also picking up the works of some local authors.
One was Imam Samudra, who was executed for his role in the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002.
The publishers are also hoping to publish the work of another Bali bomber, Ali Ghufron, better known as Mukhlas, the former operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah.
Before his execution last year, he wrote 10 books, including an autobiography that his lawyer says portrays the Bali bombings as justifiable acts of vengeance for the ill treatment of Muslims around the world.
Solo’s publishers can afford to print such jihadi books by piggybacking on a broader trend: the ballooning demand in Indonesia for mainstream Islamic texts.
Books that explore the Islamic faith — addressing issues like how to be a good Muslim woman, or Islamic beliefs about life after death — are the biggest sellers here now. One popular love story with an Islamic theme sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was recently made into a movie.
“The mainstream Islamic publishing industry is booming right now,” said Setia Darma Madjid, chairman of the Indonesian Book Publishers Association. “Writers and publishers recognize that these themes appeal to readers right now, and so they are rolling out hundreds of books on the subject.”

At least some publishers of radical texts say they, too, are just meeting market demand, not trying to spread an ideology.

One such publisher is Bambang Sukirno, who owns the Aqwam Group and its imprint Jazera, which got its start with Imam Samudra’s first book. He said he was only addressing a topical subject, just as “journalists and others around the world are doing.”

“We see that this ‘terrorism’ phenomenon, whether you like it or not, has seized space in this world,” he said.

So far, the government has taken no action against the publishers despite its crackdown on Islamists. Officials are worried about terrorist attacks but are also trying to nurture their young democracy and the freedoms that democracy guarantees.

“The publication of such material is an issue; we are not very happy about it,” said one senior counterterrorism official in the government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “However, because we are in the process of democratization, it is problematic how we would be able to control the publication of such material.”

Mr. Sukirno said he was not worried that the government would shut down his company.
“Democracy in Indonesia is thriving, and if the government ever tried to interfere in the publishing industry, well, that would be dangerous,” he said. “Interference would just give birth to waves of resistance and undermine democracy.

“Books,” he said, “are a reflection of a civilized nation.”

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