Interview with Vidya Hutagalung

Interviewer : Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Vidya, I’m a researcher at the Habibie Center for the program “Counter Terrorism and Capacity Building”. My main focus is research on preventing violent extremism, terrorism, tolerance, gender issues and the impact of social media in relation to violent extremism. I’ve been working with the Habibie Center since 2014, so about 6 years.

Interviewer : How did you get interested in this topic/how did you start working for the Habibie Center?

Vidya : I was majoring in International Relations and started to become interested in the topic of preventing violent extremism. So I chose to continue my study by taking Conflict Resolution. In 2014, I started working at the Habibie Center with the program “ National Violence Monitoring System (SNPK)” where one of the issues we were monitoring was violent extremism. Since then, I’ve been more and more interested in the issue and have followed several seminars and courses related to this issue. After that, I worked with a coalition of organizations called C-Save, I worked on the program, “Reintegration of the Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters”. This program focused on the return of people who had gone to Syria and other countries related to ISIS. After that program, I moved back to the Habibie Center with my current program, Countering Terrorism and Capacity Building. We are currently doing research about counter-terrorism in Indonesia done by the Indonesian government.

Interviewer : As a researcher on this project, how are you finding this kind of information?

Vidya : We are using our database to track the trends related to violent extremism and countering violent extremism in Indonesia. We are also doing field research in some different provinces (with government, CSO, community leaders). We also meet with ex-terrorists, especially those who have joined the government to help with their prevention programs. After that, we are collecting data from interviews and group discussions. So we analyze all of this data, and turn it into something that can be read and understood.

Interviewer : How has your position changed with COVID-19?

Vidya : To be honest, right now we are not as impacted as many others. We are lucky that we already have our research compiled, and have moved into the planning and writing stage. But I think it’s become a struggle for many other programs who are facing challenges like being unable to go onto the field or having their program postponed or even cancelled.

Women’s Role in Preventing Violent Extremism

Interviewer : From the research you have done, how do you think women are impacted by violent extremism in Southeast Asia?

Vidya : We see some women who only enter violent extremist groups because of their husbands, however there are also many women who are radicalized themselves. It could be single women or married women, through something as simple as joining a Facebook group or a religious gathering. From our findings, women also fall victim to self-radicalization. By that, I mean that they are radicalized by their Ustad or by a friend who makes contact with them.

Interviewer : When women enter violent extremism, what are the struggles to leave a group?

Vidya : First, women are going to struggle while they are in the radicalized group. Violent extremist groups are typically a culture where men hold all the power, and women are expected to follow. Sometimes women experience systematic violence or are not allowed to socialize with anyone outside of the violent extremist group. They simply don’t have the same rights as other women outside of extremism. Some women are forced into marriages or experience brain-washing from the men. One young girl who was in a situation like this shared that she had been pushed to marry one of the older men in the violent extremist group. In this case, it didn’t happen because the girl’s father collected her before she could be married off. However, we see that this is actually a common case that can happen to women in violent extremist groups.

Interviewer : How are women preventing violent extremism?

Vidya : In the Habibie Center, from 2018-2019 there was a program specifically for women as agents of peace. Now, this doesn’t start from the time when people want to join a radicalized group, but starts from the very beginning. In the area this program took place, Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, many young women stigmatized one another because of appearance or religion, causing intolerance between different groups. They would never interact with each other. So, the Habibie Center created a program to encourage dialogue between all the women in this area. We asked them to be more open with each other, and to try having open conversations about their lives. Many women found they had already been influenced by their religious leader to think negatively about people who wear hijabs or don’t wear hijabs, or to judge people based on their religion.

After the women discussed with each other about things they had in common, they were able to identify that intolerance had entered their community, and through that intolerance, it was easier for violent extremist groups and beliefs to enter their community. Once this recognition was made, the women were encouraged to strengthen their forum, and to continue having better dialogue to grow together. They created a WA group together, and began trying to spread the message of tolerance, of respecting one another, and of the value of religious diversity to their community.

Interviewer : Why do you think dialogue is an effective method to bring tolerance?

Vidya : I think intolerance and radicalism usually happen because we don’t understand one another, we stigmatize one another, we believe inaccurate information, we don’t try to be open to others, we don’t try to listen to people. I think by listening, by understanding, by knowing each other well through dialogue we can bond with one another. From radicalized groups, we see men often join because they feel they are being listened to- they find something there that they haven’t found in the community. If we give communities the ability to build a dialogue with one another, there will be less chances for violent extremist organizations to enter. And if there is radicalization or intolerance happening in a community, the community can come together, recognize it, and find a way out.

Interviewer : Considering the social stigma that women face, do you think there will be any negative impact for women regarding COVID-19?

Vidya : Specifically regarding women, I think that it could happen, especially for women who still have to work outside the house. If they are single-parents, or if it is impossible for them to work remotely. The community could build up more walls between themselves and these women, expecting that women would bring the virus. Several women activists are concerned about domestic violence during this situation. If women have very abusive husbands, and now due to the condition they have to be at home 24/7 with their significant other, it could be a very frustrating and difficult situation. They will experience violence more often.

Interviewer : Do you think that there is anything important for women to be aware of in regard to violent extremism?

Vidya : I think what women should be careful of is with whom they are interacting. They should be more curious about the people they are interacting with, and should be able to find out who the people are. Especially the people they meet through social media or through religious groups. They have to find out who the person really is. People in terrorist groups are often more manipulative, and will try to find a way to make a connection with women. When it comes to housewives, or women who have limited socialization, they should be reading the news and staying updated on current affairs. It’s not an easy thing to do- nowadays, people aren’t even familiar with newspapers. But women need to make sure they are not believing all the information seen on unreliable media (WA groups, Facebook, or other platforms like that).