IRIP News Service
Laskar Jihad ('Holy war fighters') is Indonesia's most notoriously militant sect. Its parent body, Forum Komunikasi Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama'ah (FKAWJ), officially surfaced on 14 February 1998 in Solo. It was a moment of extreme political instability. Just months later, Suharto was ousted and his New Order regime dismantled. All kinds of political, religious, youth and student groups scuttled out from underground exile to agitate for their respective interests against a weakened government. As the full weight of the monetary crisis bore down and propelled millions below the poverty line, extremists from all ends of the spectrum found audience among the desperate. It was the perfect climate for a group such as FKAWJ to venture into the public eye.
However, the community of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama'ah (from which FKAWJ arose) had been growing quietly for over ten years. Its leader Ustadz Jafar Umar Thalib purchased land for it near Yogyakarta in 1993 with donations from the wider Islamic community. Pondok Pesantren Ihyaus Sunnah, founded the following year in Degolan, became Jafar's private residence, and the hub of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama'ah operations. From here Jafar, along with some others who later made up the Central Board of FKAWJ, began to consolidate the community across Java and the archipelago.
Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama'ah members are deeply religious. Enchanted by the charisma of Ustadz Jafar Umar Thalib and the religious fervour of the group, they discover a willingness to give their lives for the Jihad mission in Maluku, and for their dream of implementing Islamic law (Syari'at Islam) in Indonesia. As in many sects, an unnatural amount of the community's cohesion is based on fear, lies and propaganda, on social isolation, rigorous peer pressure and outright force. The structured, prescribed way of life and philosophy makes the group experience all the more intense. Its members strive to follow a very literal understanding of the way of the Prophet Muhammad in their everyday lives, leading more liberal Muslims to accuse them of 'fundamentalism' and 'fanaticism'.
Regular members of Laskar Jihad and FKAWJ come across as ordinary young people, generally aged between 17-40. Ustadz Jafar Umar Thalib attracts a wide variety of people, bound together by their youth, their religious devotion and their nationalistic fervour. There are students, unemployed graduates and businesspeople. Many are educated with young families. Others are the lost and lonely, the homeless and poverty-stricken. Some members had led the life of a street thug ('preman'), heavily into drugs, violence and crime, before they were saved by the movement's disciples.
These people crave for the totalising, all-encompassing identity that Laskar Jihad offers. They are the by-products of the economic and political crisis, the angry rejects of society, isolated and disadvantaged by reformasi. Many speak fluently of globalisation, marginalisation, of Western cultural hegemony and of the way the West demonises Islam and Islamic peoples. They see themselves as losers in the global political order. Their overwhelming violence and anger, the fabric of Laskar Jihad, begins there.
Laskar Jihad wants Syari'at Islam implemented as Indonesia's supreme governing force. In order to achieve this goal, they are maneuvering themselves to become a potent force within the Islamic community and the national arena. Since it emerged in Yogyakarta on 30 January 2000 as FKAWJ's military wing, Laskar Jihad's activities have been high profile for this reason.
The proclamation of the Jihad fi Sabilillah ('Strive for God') campaign in Jakarta on 6 April 2000 is Laskar Jihad's largest and most costly undertaking so far. At least 3,500 young men were dispatched to Ambon and surrounding islands to support Muslims in the religious conflict that has now besieged the area for over two and a half years.
In Java and Sumatra, certain branches of Laskar Jihad have joined other militant groups to conduct 'sweeping' operations against entertainment venues. Ardent nationalists, they speak of themselves as the 'defenders', 'the pioneers' and 'the owners' of the nation. They speak of their right and responsibility as good Indonesian Muslims to assume a military role, a role which certain shadowy elite figures are all too happy to encourage for their own gain.
For there can be no doubt that Laskar Jihad's leadership mixes in some elite circles. On 30 May 2000 a Laskar Jihad jeep exploded in the East Java town of Nganjuk. It was laden with TNI-registered weaponry and en route to Surabaya, the departure point for Ambon. The security apparatus in Surabaya at the same time refused to implement a presidential instruction to stop Laskar Jihad from embarking for Ambon. Laskar Jihad members themselves claim to be 'intimate' with the TNI in Ambon. On 30 October 2000, the military arrested twelve of its members in Ambon city bearing sophisticated TNI weaponry and uniforms.
Their repeated ability to slip prosecution points to a high level of collusion with elements of Indonesia's military and political elite. Even Ustadz Jafar Umar Thalib's arrest in May 2001 (on grounds of inciting religious hatred and stoning a member to death), which momentarily augured well for the future, ended in his release and even a one million rupiah 'compensation' payout. Clearly some extremely powerful figures have taken this organisation under their wing. For now, Laskar Jihad is untouchable.