An interview with the leader of a new, radical and militant sect
Laskar Jihad headquarters belies expectations. I went to the site in late August anticipating a large, well-equipped facility, bustling with various paramilitary training activities and white-gowned staff coordinating the operations of thousands of Muslim fighters in Maluku. Instead, the 'nerve centre' of Laskar Jihad was based in a small, dusty, rather run-down Islamic boarding school (pesantren). The school, Ihya'us Sunnah Tadribud Du'at, is in the village of Degolan, about ninety minutes drive north of Yogyakarta. It comprises about half a dozen buildings, including a small mosque, several houses and two cramped dormitories. Most of the buildings are rented and of simple construction. The main dormitory has dirt floors covered with mats and plastic, no ceiling or lining on the walls. There are about sixty students, many of whom are 'day' students who have lodgings in nearby villages. If the Laskar Jihad is receiving generous funding from the Suharto family and sections of the military, as is often alleged, there is little sign of it at Degolan.
The head of the pesantren and commander (panglima) of Laskar Jihad is Ustad Ja'far Umar Thalib, a 39-year-old Malang-born teacher and preacher of Arab-Madurese descent. Until the formation of Laskar Jihad earlier this year, Ja'far was little known outside the Arab community and militant Islamic circles, where his fiery sermons had made him a popular preacher. Much of his adult life has been spent quietly enough teaching Arabic and Islamic sciences in the al-Irsyad school system. By his own admission, the highlight of his early life was the two years he spent fighting with the Mujahidin against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in 1988-89. Ja'far had joined the Mujahidin after dropping out of the Mawdudi Institute in Lahore, where he had been taking advanced Islamic studies.
Somewhat portly, with soft hands that suggest it has been a long time since he engaged in combat, Ja'far is revered, and quite probably feared, by his students. Most refer to him respectfully as 'panglima' and speak constantly of his feats in Afghanistan or his knowledge of Islam. One student showed me a collection of Ja'far's articles and told me: 'You need not look elsewhere. This is the truth [pointing to the articles]. Just read Pak Ja'far and you'll learn what Islam is really about.' Another told me how Ja'far had shot down five Soviet helicopters with one missile in Afghanistan (Ja'far later recounted this story to me but did not claim credit for firing the missile). Ja'far's manner with his students is stern. In a plangent voice, he delivers instructions to students and quickly becomes irritated if they are not carried out to his satisfaction.
Laskar Jihad is the paramilitary division of the Forum Komunikasi Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama'ah (most simply translated as the Sunni Communication Forum) or FKAWJ, an organisation formed by a group of hardline Muslim leaders in early 1998 to promote 'true Islamic values'. FKAWJ is controlled by a 60-member board of patrons (dewan pembina), of which Ja'far is chairman. Most board members are leaders of pesantren or prominent preachers and it is their followers who form the core of the Laskar Jihad.
FKAWJ doctrine is notable for its narrow Islamism and exclusivism. Although most of Indonesia's main Islamic organisations regard themselves as ahlus sunnah wal jamaah, FKAWJ believe that only they can rightly use this ascription. For example, Ja'far states that neither Nahdlatul Ulama nor Muhammadiyah can claim to be genuinely ahlus sunnah wal jamaah because they have deviated from the Qur'an and example of the Prophet Muhammad and have doctrines which are corrupted by non-Islamic sources.
FKAWJ also rejects democracy as 'incompatible with Islam' and refuses to support any political party, including the more Islamist parties. According to Ja'far, 'in democracy, people who don't understand anything, and they are the majority, elect their leaders without any educated considerations at all. They only elect those that give them money or say what they want to hear.' By these means, religious minorities and nominal Muslims have been able to 'thwart the application of Islamic law' in Indonesia. In a genuine Islamic society, it is God's law rather than the will of the people that is supreme. FKAWJ calls for democracy to be replaced by a council of experts (ahlu halli wal aqdi) dominated by Islamic scholars who are learned in Islamic law.The council would have the power to appoint the head of state and control government policy.
Its attitudes to women also place it outside the mainstream. Women are not permitted to hold leadership positions in FKAWJ and cannot join Laskar Jihad. For Ja'far, FKAWJ's main responsibility to women is 'to educate them and then marry them to pious men who are capable of preventing them from falling into sin. Men's role is to supervise women and ensure that their behaviour is properly Islamic.' Ja'far has three wives, each of whom wears Middle Eastern-style black gowns and headdresses which cover their faces.
Laskar Jihad was formally established on 30 January 2000 in Yogyakarta in response to what FKAWJ saw as deliberate persecution of Muslims in Maluku. According to Ja'far, the decision to form Laskar Jihad came after FKAWJ despatched a team of researchers to Maluku in late 1999 to gather data on the conflict. It found evidence that Protestant churches had plans to form a breakaway Christian state comprising Maluku, West Papua and North Sulawesi. Remnants of the former Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS) based in the Netherlands were actively involved in this movement. A key part of their plan was to wage war on Muslims in those provinces in order to drive them to other areas. It was, he said, a plan for 'religious cleansing'. When pressed on what evidence there was to support this, he referred to the testimony of Christians who were 'loyal to Indonesia' who had leaked documents detailing the Protestant churches' plans.
Based on these findings, the FKAWJ declared those Christians in Maluku who were attacking Muslims to be kafir harbi or 'belligerent infidels'. Kafir harbi are seen as the most dangerous category of unbelievers and Islamic law obliges Muslims to wage war against them. In the case of the Laskar Jihad, the labelling of Christians as kafir harbi gave a powerful religious licence to kill. FKAWJ subsequently declared the current Islamic year to be the 'Year of Jihad' (literally 'religious struggle' but also with the connotation of holy war) and stated any Muslim killed fighting Christian kafir harbi would die a martyr. Ja'far stated that in mobilising the Laskar Jihad, he was merely doing his duty as a Muslim, because 'clearly the Abdurrahman Wahid government is unable or unwilling to protect the Islamic community. If the state can't protect us [ie. Muslims], then we must do it ourselves.' Ja'far maintains that Abdurrahman's government is anti-Islamic: 'It is positioned to oppress Muslim interests and protect those of the infidels.' FKAWJ is committed to bringing it down.
Mobilising the Laskar
The Laskar Jihad's membership and notoriety grew quickly in its early months. Many of its members were drawn from poorer, less educated sections of the Islamic community, though a small number of tertiary graduates and professionals also joined. It first made national headlines in March when Ja'far led an assault on the followers of a Muslim leader in Cirebon who had alleged that it was extorting funds from local non-Muslims and who had also condemned its plans to send fighters to Maluku (Gatra, 25 March 2000). The following month, it undertook a series of demonstrations and marches in Jakarta, including to the presidential palace and parliament, with many Laskar members waving unsheathed swords and daggers. In late April, about 3000 members departed for Maluku. Press reports estimate there are now about 6000 Laskar Jihad fighters in Maluku, though Ja'far claimed the figure is less than 4000. Total membership, according to the FKAWJ secretary-general, Ma'ruf Barhan, is now at 10,000 and plans are afoot to send units to new troublespots such as Poso in Central Sulawesi, where several hundred Muslims were killed in religious violence earlier in 2000.
Like many other militant Islamic groups, Laskar Jihad has proved adept at promoting its views via the media. It produces a magazine, Salafy, at an office and dormitory complex four kilometres from Degolan on the road to Yogyakarta and also has a regularly updated website run from FKAWJ's Jakarta office (www.LaskarJihad.or.id).
Ja'far dismisses widespread speculation that the Laskar Jihad is backed by influential sections of TNI, saying that the Islamic community has learned through bitter experience not to trust the military. In interviews earlier in the year, however, he and his lieutenants boasted of their relationship with TNI. In one interview, Ja'far claimed to have a hotline to TNI commander Admiral Widodo (Panji Masyarakat, 26 April 2000). Another FKAWJ leader also admitted that TNI officers have assisted in the training of Laskar Jihad (Gatra, 25 March 2000). He says that most of Laskar Jihad's funds are raised through sources in the Muslim community.
Greg Fealy (email@example.com) is a research fellow in Indonesian history at the Australian National University