One President’s Remarkable Response to Terrorism

“The people do not need to be afraid,” Indonesia’s Joko Widodo said.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

On Thursday, militants affiliated with ISIS set off a series of explosions in the Indonesian city of Jakarta, killing at least two civilians. The country’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, responded in a remarkable way. The New York Times has more:

“We condemn actions that disrupt public security and disturb the peace of the people and sow terror,” Mr. Joko said. ... “I have instructed the police chief and the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs to pursue and arrest the perpetrators and their networks.”

“The people do not need to be afraid and should not be defeated by these terrorist acts,” he added. “I hope that people remain calm because it is all controllable.”

On Friday, as the authorities heightened security and anti-terror forces conducted raids, Jokowi visited the site of the attack and approvingly noted that things had returned to “normal.”

What makes these statements notable is subtle, and in part a function of omission. First, notice the subdued yet serious way Jokowi describes the impact of the attacks: They disrupted public security. They disturbed the peace. The government’s response is characterized as a policing matter. He stresses that Indonesians shouldn’t be spooked and that the situation is under control. He focuses on counteracting the primary goal of terrorism—to terrorize the broader population, to mess with people’s heads. “The people,” he says, “should not be defeated.” (A “We Are Not Afraid” hashtag cropped up on Indonesian Twitter in the hours after the attack.)

Then there’s what Jokowi omits: He does not declare that Indonesia is at war with the Islamic State, radical Islam, or terrorism. He does not suggest the future of Indonesia is at stake. He does not sound alarms.

Compare Jokowi’s response to Francois Hollande’s reaction to ISIS’s attacks in Paris last year. Three days after the rampage, the French president stood before Parliament and proclaimed that “France is at war.” He made several of the same points Jokowi did, urging calm and expressing confidence in the capacity of the French government and people to prevail against the perpetrators. But in calling for escalated air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, an extended state of emergency in France, and an expanded national-security apparatus, he framed the fight in far more epic and dire terms than his Indonesian counterpart did on Thursday:

It cannot be said that we are engaged in a war of civilizations, for these assassins do not represent one. We are in a war against jihadist terrorism that threatens the entire world, not just France. …

Terrorism will not destroy France because France will destroy it.

Linger on Hollande’s words, and they become less reassuring than they first appear: France must destroy terrorism and its otherworldly practitioners, he seems to be saying, because otherwise terrorism could destroy the Republic and endanger the world.

It’s worth emphasizing that these two sets of statements occurred under distinct circumstances: The violence in Paris killed 130 civilians; the violence in Jakarta two. France was only months removed from the jihadist attack against Charlie Hebdo; Indonesia hadn’t experienced a major terrorist attack since 2009. France is a member of the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS; Indonesia isn’t. In France, 18 people per million Muslim citizens are thought to be fighting in Syria and Iraq. In Indonesia, that number is estimated to be just over one. And so on.

But Indonesia arguably has as much to fear from such a terrorist attack as France does, if not more. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, and ISIS is aggressively trying to recruit supporters there. As my colleague Edward Delman has noted, Indonesia also has a long and painful history of jihadist activity, stretching from Darul Islam’s declaration of an “Islamic state” in 1949 to Jemaah Islamiyah’s devastating bombings in Bali in 2002, and beyond. One of the country’s most prominent Islamic militants has pledged loyalty to ISIS.

And yet Jokowi, a Muslim himself, advocates combining military might with a “soft approach” to Islamic extremism that leverages religious and cultural forces. This involves working with moderate Islamic organizations in Indonesia on educational and public-awareness campaigns about Islam and the ways it can be perverted, and addressing socioeconomic sources of terrorism. “To deal with radicalism and extremism, we need to deal with economic inequality,” Jokowi told Foreign Affairs shortly after becoming president in 2014. “I will look to balance the prevention side with the law-enforcement side of counterterrorism. We have more than 20 years’ experience with this problem.”

Asked about ISIS and how he’d assess the current terrorist threat in Indonesia, he responded, “I think [the threat is] more or less declining.” (Jokowi is more alarmist and hardline about other criminal activities in the country, such as drug trafficking.)

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks detail Jokowi’s efforts to put this theory into practice when he served as mayor of Surakarta (also known as Solo). One 2006 cable noted that the Javanese city had become a haven for radical Islamic groups and a potential destination for Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the suspected leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, who was due to be released from jail. But the new mayor, who had come to politics from the furniture business, was planning to do something about it:

He was upbeat about the Solo economy, touting good employment prospects in local furniture and textile factories and a high per capita income in the region. He sees his greatest challenge as encouraging investment in Solo. “I do not want Solo to be defined by Ba’asyir,” he stated firmly. “Only two or three percent of the population can be defined as hardliners, the rest are moderates.” He noted that several foreign companies have recently invested in Solo, including the Makro and Carrefour supermarket chains. Widodo also formed an inter-faith discussion group shortly after his election, and meets regularly with local Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss community issues and improve communication between these groups.

A 2009 cable suggested that Jokowi’s campaign had proven successful (though it was not successful enough to root out Islamic extremism from the area; according to Indonesian authorities, those behind Thursday’s attack in Jakarta belonged to a group based in Solo):

Mayor Joko Widodo told us that he continues to work on efforts to deradicalize militants and others in Solo. Widodo said he holds constant meetings with the Solo public to educate them on the threat posed by terrorists and extremists. (Note … Mayor Widodo has had great success in returning law and order to Solo. Just several years ago, violent Islamic extremists patrolled the streets, meting out beatings and threats. Working with the police and placing a focus on economic opportunities, Widodo was able to stop the violence and dramatically improve day-to-day life in the city.)

Jokowi’s approach isn’t necessarily the “right” one, or the one he’d adopt if Indonesia were to experience an attack on the scale of Paris’s. But it serves as a reminder that there’s more than one way to respond to terrorism—that societal resilience can be emphasized just as much as military resolve, that the threat of terrorism can be scoped and contextualized alongside the various other threats a country faces.

Barack Obama invoked this notion in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. ISIS, the U.S. president argued, does not pose an existential, civilizational threat to the United States, as some of his Republican critics suggest:

[A]s we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions. We just need to call them what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.

The lines could be read as a defense of Obama’s counterterrorism policies. But they could also be read as a meditation on terrorism itself—a challenge to weigh the threat of terrorism against the threat of fear of terrorism, and decide which one is truly greater.