From the Archives
Greg Fealy (ii65: Jan-Mar 2001) interviews the leader of a new, radical and militant sect
Occasional Series - From the (Inside Indonesia) Archive
Inside Indonesia has been published in print since 1983 and online since 1996. Today its online archive includes over 1,200 articles (and growing) relating to Indonesia, its society, politics, culture, arts and environment. This vast collection is available to the public online free of charge via our ‘Past Editions’ page.In an effort to highlight the range and wealth of material to be found there, we now present a retrospective of the best of these articles in our Occasional Series ‘From the Archive’. Articles are selected based on their continuing relevance to contemporary events in Indonesia, and are accompanied by an update, found at the end of the article. Selamat Membaca!
Ja'far's sermons are widely available on YouTube
The Laskar Jihad headquarters belies expectations. I went to the site in late August 2000 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 pesantren (Islamic boarding school). The school is in the village of Degolan, about a 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 Soeharto 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 respectfully to him 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 Ustad 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 salafi (highly conservative and literalist) 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 salafi 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 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’.
Laskar Jihad was formally established on 30 January 2000 in Yogyakarta in direct 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.
In the case of the Laskar Jihad, the labelling of Christians as kafir harbi gave a powerful religious licence to kill
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 [i.e. 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 attack on 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 this year.
In interviews earlier in the year he and his lieutenants have boasted of their relationship with TNI. In one interview, Ja’far claimed to have a hotline to TNI commander Admiral Widodo
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 (http://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 have 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.
Inside Indonesia 65: Jan-Mar 2001
Laskar Jihad would survive just two more years after this article was published. In late September 2002, FKAWJ leaders met to discuss the future of the organisation. Funding had declined sharply since Megawati Sukarnoputri replaced Abdurrahman Wahid as president in July of that year, forcing many laskar to leave the ‘battlefields’ of Maluku and Poso and return home. Moreover, Laskar Jihad had attracted national and international controversy over the stoning to death of one of its members who admitted to an adulterous relationship with an Ambonese woman. Ja’far was arrested by the police for his role in the stoning but was later released without charge. Perhaps most important of all for FKAWJ leaders was the issuing of fatwa by several Middle Eastern salafi sheikhs criticising the direction of the Forum and Laskar Jihad. Within Indonesian salafi circles, great emphasis is placed on adherence to the opinions of prominent Saudi and Yemeni sheikhs. The meeting decided that both the Forum and Laskar Jihad would dissolve, citing the sheikhs’ disapproval. In early October 2002, just one week before the Bali bombings, both organisations went out of existence with only brief media announcements to mark the event.
Most Laskar Jihad seemed to have returned quietly to ‘civilian’ life, though unfortunately, there has been no thorough study of the subsequent careers and attitudes of former members. Ja’far continues to run his pesantren at Degolan, though student numbers and media interest in his views is low. Some laskar remain active in salafi circles, particularly following the teachings and sometimes living at the schools of FKAWJ Islamic scholars who were less controversial and flamboyant than Ja’far. A number of terrorism writers have accused the organisation of being terrorist, implying a link between the FKAWJ’s dissolution and the Bali bombings. There is no reliable evidence to support these assertions and indeed there are only a handful of former laskar who have been implicated in the activities of Jemaah Islamiyah or the Noordin Top network.
Greg Fealy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior lecturer and fellow in Indonesian politics at the College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU