Oct 16, 2021 Last Updated 1:13 AM, Oct 14, 2021

Reshaping masculine cultures of terrorism

Published: Sep 20, 2021

Noor Huda Ismail

Kharis is a former member of Jamaah Islamiyah (JI), a clandestine Indonesian organisation whose members were deeply involved in terrorism activities in the country, including the first Bali bombing in 2002 that killed more than 202 people, including 88 Australians. Kharis’s life has changed since the days he was involved in the group. He now runs a community website called RuangObrol.id (Chat Room), which he established in 2018 with the goal of dismissing the narratives that sustain online and offline networks of violence in Indonesia.

Cultures of masculinity are at the centre of the story of Kharis’ transition. Kharis’ decided to become a member of JI because he was convinced that this was the proper course of action for a ‘real man’ in his environment. JI facilitated his efforts to pursue motivations that were not only ideological, but also motivated by his sense of masculinity. His decision to later leave JI was partly due to an evolution in his reflections upon his own his masculinity. In other words, at all times he was guided by reflections on how to be a good man and act like a man.

A masculine culture

I visited Kharis’ house in Lamongan, East Java. Sitting cross-legged on a simple plastic mat, he described his childhood. Kharis admitted that his parents were very busy with their work and didn’t much pay attention to his personal development. At school, he was the victim of bullying because of his dark complexion. ‘My friends at school mocked me, and I was offended. I lost my self-confidence,’ he explained.

However, in the fishing community in which he was raised, he learned that a man could earn respect through fighting. Those who were fearless and skilful in martial arts immediately earned respect from men as well as women. Kharis’ mother and sisters respected him more if he could fight.

'No human being is born a terrorist. This means that individuals become terrorist actors through a different radicalization process for each individual.' / RuangObrol Instagram

In retrospect, it was from his female family members that Kharis received the first encouragement to violence. In his discussion with me, Kharis mimicked their advice: ‘If you want to be respected, you must be strong like them [they said] … their encouragement to become a tough man inspired me to want to become a preman (thug).’ In Kharis’ mind, being preman wasn’t such a bad idea, for they were socially and economically better off than members of his own family. In Kharis’s community, manliness was invariably linked to physical prowess and fighting ability.

New networks

In 2003, Kharis was searching for a role model. He met Sholahudin, an old friend from his village who was studying at Darussyahadah, one of JI’s schools in Boyolali, Central Java. He gathered many young people in the village around him, including Kharis. Sholahudin taught them a Chinese martial art called Bu Tong Pay.

‘I was fascinated by his martial art skills, but not by his sermons,’ Kharis candidly explained. This attraction is not unusual, for JI was aware that its masculine culture was a powerful magnet to attract vulnerable young people like Kharis. JI channelled his sense of masculinity towards developing values such as strength and discipline, and thereby created a sense of belonging in the organisation. 

Sholahudin explained to Kharis about the need to defend oppressed Muslims. Sholahuddin told Kharis, ‘Our women are being raped and killed. Therefore, as Muslim men, we must be ready to protect our women through i’dad and jihad.’ Kharis had never heard the Arabic term i’dad before but became familiar with its meaning after Sholahudin asked him to participate in military training [‘i’dad’] at night. ‘We do i’dad so that we will be ready when the time comes for us to fight against the enemies of Islam’ Sholahudin explained.

As it turned out, it was not Sholahudin who encouraged him to study at JI’s ‘Al Islam’ school. Rather, it was his mathematics teacher at the Arroudhotul Ilmiyah High School in Kertosono, Nganjuk in East Java who made him want to study there. In 2004, Kharis went to ‘Al-Islam’: ‘I was very surprised and impressed by the school,’ he recalled, ‘Not because of its physical appearance but because of its ambience. I saw a picture of a man carrying an AK47 and a banner that said, ‘Live a noble life or die as a martyr’. Some students were dressed in military fatigues. They were rolling and jumping. Wow, this was a very cool school!’

After graduating from the school in 2008, Kharis was sent by ‘Al-Islam’ to teach at a JI pesantren, the Ibn Mas’ud School, in West Nusa Tenggara. He was inducted as a JI member by his teacher at ‘Al-Islam’ before embarking on that new mission. Of that induction, he recounted:

‘My induction as a JI member was a turning point in my life. I felt that I was a part of an exclusive community of brothers. My identity as a person was gone. I wanted to expand the influence of JI in Indonesia and beyond as a mujahid [fighter for Islam].’

For Kharis, the desire for an education ultimately led him away from JI. He graduated from university in Jakarta / author supplied

From that point on, Kharis was an educator and recruiter for JI. His main job was to spread JI’s violent ideology. Some of his students did not survive the struggle. One of them, Firdaus, died in a bomb accident at the Umar bin Khattab pesantren, founded by Abrori, a JI graduate of Al-Muttaqin, Jepara in East Java. Firdaus’ brother, Nurdin, also a student of Kharis, also became involved in terrorism and was shot dead by Special Detachment 88 in Bima in 2015.

Leaving the network

Despite his new status and influence as a fighter for the cause [mujahid], Kharis’s dedication to the network was shaken shortly after he witnessed the inconsistency and incompetence of the network’s leaders. ‘They say one thing, but they do something else’ he told me.

After reading an Indonesian novel called ‘The Rainbow Legion’, which tells the story of a poor village boy who managed to study overseas, Kharis was inspired to further his study at a private university in Jakarta. This study gradually steered him away from the world of violence. After meeting people from many different backgrounds, ‘My horizon expanded.’

Kharis’ identity as a warrior for jihad was further shaken when he met a girl from South Jakarta who helped him find new expressions for his masculinity, and to feel that his life had purpose. Like many armed groups, JI fostered emotional detachment and contempt for others as signs of manliness. His intimate, romantic encounter in Jakarta shattered his tough self-image as a fighter who refused to show emotion and tenderness.

In retrospect, masculinity was at the centre of Kharis’s decisions to join and leave JI. As a child, he was shaped by a toxic culture of masculinity that equipped him with a narrow vision of being a man: strength and violence were proper outlets for a man. This ideal of masculinity was later instrumental in his joining JI. This group and others in the Indonesian militant community push the ethos that a good man must be ready to die for jihad. By doing so, the group finds male recruits who are confused by their environments and are ready to believe that JI offers ways to resolve real world issues.

Putting that notion of masculinity behind him has not been easy for Kharis: ‘Many of my old friends call me kafir [unbeliever] and I am regularly abused online,’ he says. Nevertheless, people like Kharis have the credibility to challenge and debunk a masculine narrative that promotes terrorism as an honourable and exciting lifestyle.

Ruangobrol.id is a synergetic initiative combining reformed JI members like Kharis and former journalists. Their joint efforts play a crucial role in the projects of combatting violent extremism (CVE). The website enables former members of violent networks to act as credible voices in challenging the narratives promulgated by violent extremist groups.

Noor Huda Ismail is Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam Institute of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has a PhD in Politics and International Relations from Monash University. He is the founder of the lnstitute for lnternational Peace Building in Jakarta.

Related articles from the II Archive
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More than a fanclub
Turning away from terror

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