From Guns to Butter
    Category: Issues & Ideas By : Renjani Puspo Sari Read : 1690 Date : Thursday, September 05, 2013 - 07:08:17

    Ahmad Zamroni / Forbes Indonesia

    Noor Huda Ismail was once a hardline Islamist, studying at an Islamic boarding school with a dream of fighting in Afghanistan. Today he runs a successful deradicalization project for militants, that helps them to reintegrate back into society, as well as being an active commentator and consultant on anti-terrorism issues. Due to do his current work, he lives with death threats and hostility.

    He has joked that he was not allowed to go to Afghanistan because he had a crush on the daughter of one of his teachers. Instead he continued his education, getting a degree in communications from Gadjah Mada University and studying Arabic literature at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University. His hardline views changed after he got a job in 2002 as a special correspondent for the U.S. newspaper Washington Post's Southeast Asia bureau. He was shocked to discover a former classmate from his boarding school had been involved in the Bali bombings.

    His view on extremism were further refined after he went in 2005 to Scotland's St. Andrews University on a scholarship to study international security. While there, he learned about special programs to help former combatants from the Irish Republic Army and Basque separatists reintegrate into society. He was inspired to do a similar program back in Indonesia. “I saw how effective they were and I thought I could do the same in Indonesia,” he says.

    After working for a while in Singapore at Nanyang Technological University after graduating, he founded his Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian or Institute for the International Peace Building in 2008. The foundation's approach is simple. It gives former extremists some real-life skills by working in restaurants or bakeries as cooks, waiters and accountants. The foundation has two Dapoer Bistik restaurants, one in Solo and the other in Semarang, and two bakeries, also in Solo and Semarang. The restaurants are actually a big success, usually crowded with diners enjoying its signature steak cooked with a sweet and spicy sauce. About a dozen former combatants are working in the four places. 

    By offering them a job, Huda hopes to help his staff return to regular society. Why restaurants? It's an easy transition, he jokes: “If their weapons before were an AK-47 or bombs, now they are a pan and spoon.” More seriously, Huda explains that working in a restaurant means the staff has to learn to provide a service, by interacting with dozens of people on a daily basis, and being willing to serve anyone who comes into the restaurant—whatever their race or religion. “The act of serving customers changes their attitude,” says Huda. To operate the restaurants and bakeries, and help fund the foundation, he set up a regular company, called PT Mawadah, also in 2008.

    Huda decided to base himself in Solo as this city is often seen as a hotbed of extremism. Huda's former school, Pondok Pesantren Ngruki, was actually started by Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the radical group Jemaah Islamiyah that has been linked to the Bali bombings and other terrorist acts.