KUALA LUMPUR: An estimated 45 out of 150,000 Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong are involved in pro-Islamic State (IS) activities, from funding air tickets to Syria to marrying militant fighters online, according to a report released by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) on Wednesday (Jul 26).
Loneliness and a sense of dislocation in a new environment made these women vulnerable to radicalisation through radical teachings and being financially exploited by their online boyfriends to fund extremist activities, the report said.
“Some of these women were drawn in by jihadi boyfriends they met online. But some joined IS as a path to empowerment,” said IPAC analyst Nava Nuraniyah.
It was the arrest of two Indonesian women, both former overseas workers, for attempted suicide bombings in Bali and Jakarta in Dec 2016, that first exposed the vulnerability of Indonesian migrants to extremist recruitment.
“Several ended up being exploited by their online boyfriends, including those detained in Indonesian prisons, who saw the maids as an endless supply of cash,” said Nava.
“(The workers) saw fighters as heroes and were eager to offer logistical and financial support. Some developed personal relationships online with would-be fighters and then helped them get to Syria or sought to join them there,” she added.
“In some cases, personal problems led to a search for rebirth and renewal through ‘pure’ Islam, but it was the Syrian conflict that drew several women towards support for the Islamic State,” said Nava.
Some of the women were motivated to go to Syria largely by the end-of-time prophecy propagated by IS – that anyone who wanted to be saved on the day of judgment should go to Sham (the Quranic term for greater Syria), the report noted.
Among them were two maids, Devi and Ifa (not their real names) who experienced a rapid transformation from secular, non-practicing individuals to radical Muslims.
In the case of Devi, the change “from normal worker and fashion enthusiast took less than a year”, IPAC said in its report, adding that she had been particularly moved by photos of Syrian Muslim victims on Facebook.
Both Devi and Ifa went to Syria as single women, and married foreign fighters there.
“As with many other Indonesian women who went to Syria, they wanted to raise their family there so their sons and husbands could join the army of the Imam Mahdi (the Islamic messiah) at the end of time,” said IPAC.
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY IN AN UNFAMILIAR PLACE
The number of Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong, most of them women, has tripled since 2000, fuelled by a demand for domestic helpers.
While the women were systematically underpaid and exploited, the abuse was not a direct factor in radicalisation, IPAC said. “The search for a sense of community in an unfamiliar environment may have been more important.”
It said that the growth of the Muslim community was accompanied by a rise in dakwah, or religious outreach activities by Indonesian clerics, starting with moderates but gradually coming to include the full ideological spectrum, including Salafi and jihadi.
“Indonesian women found friends in these dakwah groups that often acted as surrogate families. When one was drawn into a radical circle, others followed,” IPAC said.
CONTAINING THE RADICAL FRINGE
While the number of radicalised workers in Hong Kong is a tiny proportion of the total number, IPAC said it was important to contain the radical fringe through the more targeted pre-departure training of migrants.
“The government … needs to ensure that migrants receive sufficient information about their rights and risks of exploitation, including from online boyfriends and so-called ustaz (religious teachers) who take advantage of migrants’ religious zeal and emotional needs,” said IPAC.
“These ustaz sell everything from charms and Ponzi schemes to the hope of salvation at the end of time, especially since the Syrian conflict erupted. All of this could be minimised through better training and information,” the report said.
In concluding its report, IPAC called for the Hong Kong government, the Indonesian consulate and mainstream ulama (clerics) to work together “to ensure that extremist clerics who promote hatred and violence are not given an opportunity to preach”.
“The (Indonesian) consulate maintains that because preachers are invited by private groups, often without informing its staff, it is nearly impossible to monitor them. The mainstream dakwah groups, however, might hear of planned visits far enough in advance to alert authorities,” said IPAC.
“In the end, the best partner for the Indonesian and Hong Kong governments in preventing radicalisation of migrant workers is the broader Muslim community itself,” said Nava.