Dr Ian Chalmers was awarded the 2017 Wang Gungwu Prize for the best article in Asian Studies Review. You can read the full article for free, and here he gives us an inside account of his research.
Please tell us a little about your research and this article. What is the problem that it explores and what did you find?
The broad research project that underpins this article aims to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of Indonesia’s small militant Islamist community. The article itself measures the success of government efforts to rehabilitate convicted jihadists, but from the viewpoint of the actors themselves. Drawing on interviews conducted over several years with dozens of former and current prisoners found guilty of infringing Indonesia’s anti-terrorism laws, I found that only a small minority were de-radicalised, ie had completely renounced a militant belief system. But it was also clear that most had begun to moderate their views and disengage from the use of violence, to varying degrees. This process of disengagement takes place gradually, and was deepest where former (and some current) inmates had become involved with various religious and/or social groupings beyond the networks of militants with whom they had been formerly associated. The immediate policy implication is that the most effective means of disengagement and perhaps of de-radicalisation is to encourage these ‘formers’ to become involved with a broad range of social groupings.
Is there anything distinctive about your research approach?
This research project differs from most analyses of Indonesian terrorism, which mostly use a security or counter-terrorism approach. Such studies are chiefly concerned with organisations, networks and institutions: Who are the terrorists and what are their influences? To which activist groups are they linked? Do they have connections to global networks? How effective are police and other state institutions in tracking their activities? These are undoubtedly important considerations, and the government’s CVE [Countering Violent Extremism] efforts could not succeed if they were not addressed. But I also found that this approach is incomplete without an understanding of the jihadist community itself. This broader project thus aims to give these jihadists a human face, to try and understand how they themselves see the world and how their motivations may have changed over time.
How did you first become interested in this topic?
I am often asked this question, for this research has involved an investigation of topics that I had not looked at until recently. In one sense, my interest stems from a degree of curiosity about what has often not been examined in the scholarship on social change in Indonesia. In recent decades a great deal of research has been conducted on Indonesian political organisations and on progressive social movements, so we now have some very good data on various political parties and pro-democracy activists in fields such as human rights, labour movements, environmental activism, the media, and gender and sexuality. During the ‘hard years’ of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in the 1980s and early 1990s I was myself involved with a number of local NGOs that were struggling to address such concerns. And perhaps reflecting such concerns, the focus of my previous work was on the nature of state power and middle class social movements. However, I also observed that Indonesians had become increasingly religious, particularly that section that comprises almost 90 per cent of the community. Yet this increasingly important area of Indonesian social life was not getting the attention it deserved. So I decided to begin to familiarise myself with Islamic political discourse and its rising social profile.
It was not long after this that the more militant manifestations of the Islamist surge became apparent; a series of incidents occurred in the decade following the first Bali bombing of 2002 (Bom Bali 1). Although scholars of Indonesia were now focusing on these developments, it also became apparent that there had been little investigation into the beliefs and aspirations of the militant Muslim community itself – beyond somewhat sensationalist studies of the threat that they wield to national and regional security. Accordingly, with my colleagues Greg Barton and Zifirdaus Adnan, in 2009 I decided to go directly to the source, to conduct face-to-face interviews with some of those involved.
What has been the most challenging aspect of doing this research?
By this stage we had developed a clear idea of the theoretical and empirical terrain that we needed to traverse. The great challenge we faced, however, was how to actually conduct interviews with these people? Clearly, if we tried to go ‘undercover’ and conduct research interviews in secret, we would inevitably risk censure from the authorities. But how would inmates jailed for serious offences talk to us openly if we were introduced to them through official channels? Consequently, we decided to approach potential interviewees through two organisations that were trusted by both inmates and local prison authorities, the Muhammadiyah University of Malang (UMM) and the Institute for International Peace-Building (IIPB or ‘YPP’). As mentioned in the article, it was the intermediary role played by these two organisations that made it possible to meet these ‘formers’. And once mutual trust was established, we found that both the inmates still in jail and detainees who had been provisionally released were happy to talk openly. Over 70 militants jailed for infringing anti-terrorism laws were interviewed between 2010 and 2014, some of them on several occasions.
Do you have a favourite anecdote or insight from your research?
Each of these interviewees had their own story, and the talks revealed a very wide range of life experiences, personalities and private motives. But it is worth mentioning that there was one very tangible element that emerged during the process which made the interviews a success. Indonesia is not a rich country, so it is not surprising that the quality of prison food is very basic. And most of those who gain provisional release for good behaviour find it difficult to obtain work to support themselves and their families. I thus found that both one-to-one interviews and group discussions inside and outside jail flowed much more easily if we sat down together to first share a good dinner of Nasi Padang, followed by coffee and a relaxed chat. It may tell us something about Indonesian society, but I found that, with few exceptions, providing such simple hospitality to create a friendly environment proved much more advantageous to the process of collecting data than any offer of financial reward.
Are there particular scholars whose work you admire or shaped your academic trajectory?
There are a number of scholars whose work has shaped my ideas. As is the case for so many, the late Prof Herbert Feith had a seminal influence on my early thinking on Indonesia. In his many writings and on a number of occasions when we met he emphasised the importance of finding out how Indonesian themselves see their world – while always looking for general trends that indicate more universal truths. A second scholar who has shaped my thinking in important ways is Greg Fealy, whose detailed investigations into Indonesian political Islam always challenges us to ask, what are the boundaries between religious and more immediate political calculation? He has shown that decisions based on ostensibly faith-based objectives very often have more obvious political motives, but that religious precepts do nevertheless have the capacity to mobilise and guide action. On reflection, it is likely this interaction between general patterns and particular circumstance, as emphasised in different ways by both Feith and Fealy, that led me to develop the typology for changes in religious commitment that is presented in this article.
A third scholar who has had a critical more recent influence on my thinking is John Horgan, whose work on the psychology of terrorism has also led me to pay attention to the impact of both personal ideological commitment and the contextual environment on an individual’s behaviour. His earlier work on the various ‘pathways to terror’ made me aware of the range of causal factors that may lie behind militant actions. And his more recent work on disengagement has aided me immensely in my efforts to theorise a ‘pathway out’. (I should also acknowledge that John Horgan played an important role in helping us develop and later implement the research project, and it would not have proceeded without this input at critical times).
What are your hopes for the influence of your work?
My hopes for the influence of my work are quite modest, namely that both scholars and practitioners active in security studies will pay more attention to the experiences and beliefs of the individuals concerned. As has been indicated on virtually every occasion when a jihadist ‘incident’ has occurred, these militants consider themselves to be agents of a social group with identifiable aspirations. Sometimes these aspirations are quite utopian, but very often they are quite modest and can be addressed politically. Unless we recognise the agency of these militants and find a way found to either ameliorate their concerns or delegitimise their claims to represent a particular group of aggrieved people, then I fear that violent jihadist actions will recur.
What are you working on now? What can we expect to see next?
I do not have a fixed research agenda for the next year, but would like to work towards a collective biography of the jihadist community in Indonesia. Its fortunes have waxed and waned since the bombings of 2002, but it has historical roots going back to the 1940s. I would like to trace the evolution of this community, exploring elements of continuity and change as it has confronted changing socio-political circumstances over these decades. In particular, I wish to examine how the increasing confidence of Islamist politicians favouring direct action in the last decade has affected jihadist groupings.
Featured image: Inmates finishing work Source: author