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Laskar Jihad and the political position of conservative Islam in Indonesia

April 1, 2002

Laskar Jihad introduced itself to the world in April 2000, when a procession of its members marched to the presidential palace in Jakarta brandishing sabres. By the following month, two to three thousand of the group's members had travelled to Maluku (the Moluccas), in eastern Indonesia, to fight alongside local Muslims locked in a cycle of communal violence with the region's Christian population. Their intervention turned the tables in a conflict in which the Christians had previously appeared to have the upper hand. Despite widespread criticism of their response to its activities, the Indonesian authorities have so far taken little sustained action against Laskar Jihad. The group's emergence has aroused speculation on whether it heralds an expansion of the political influence of conservative Islam among the world's largest Muslim population.

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States have focused unprecedented attention on militant Muslim groups across the world and prompted strategists and commentators alike to scour the globe for possible targets in the Bush Administration's "war against terrorism". In the case of Indonesia, considerable coverage has been devoted to the militant conservative Muslim group, Laskar Jihad, and allegations of links between this organization and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Laskar Jihad is a Java-based paramilitary group which, since April 2000, has intervened on behalf of local Muslims in the vicious fighting between Christians and Muslims in Maluku, which is estimated to have claimed more than 9,000 lives. (1) Laskar Jihad leaders have repeatedly expressed their intent to eradicate Christians from Ambon island (Maluku's political and economic hub) and have used murder and terror in their efforts to achieve these ends. (2) In November 2001, the group carried out its oft-stated threat to enter a conflict between Christians and Muslim populations in the region of Poso, Sulawesi, provoking a rapid escalation in the level of violence.

In an interview with the New York Times on 7 January 2002, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, drew attention to the dangers of ungoverned regions within certain countries which had become "havens for terrorists". Wolfowitz chose to illustrate his point with reference to Maluku and central Sulawesi, two areas ravaged by communal violence where "outside Muslims, not outside Indonesia, have come in and exacerbated that situation" -- a clear reference to the armed interventions of Laskar Jihad. This article examines what can be ascertained about the political position of conservative Islam in Indonesia from the emergence and activities of the Laskar Jihad. As President George Bush and bin Laden, in different ways, project a polarizing vision of a world unequivocally divided into friendly and hostile forces, how should we view Indonesia? Do groups such as Laskar Jihad have the capacity to make a difference to whose side, or which list, or axis Indonesia finds itself on?

Subsequent to a brief examination of the context in which Laskar Jihad emerged, the article focuses on the activities of the group in Maluku in eastern Indonesia since April 2000. Laskar Jihad's intervention in this region provided the justification for its creation, and has been its primary zone of operation. As such, it provides useful indicators as to the possible impact on central Sulawesi, and Indonesia as a whole, of the Laskar Jihad's recent intervention in Poso. It also offers substantial evidence for the central contention of this article: that what Laskar Jihad reveals about conservative Islam in Indonesia is the fundamental weaknesses in its political position and its lack of support among the largest Muslim population in the world.

Laskar Jihad: The Context
Laskar Jihad was established in the early months of 2000 at a time when political gains made by conservative modernist Muslim groups during the final years of Soeharto's New Order were in danger of being overturned. Conservative modernist organizations, such as DDII (Indonesian Council for Islamic Predication) and its offshoot KISDI (Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with the Islamic World), which spent the first two decades of the New Order set in lonely and dangerous opposition to the regime's pro-Western, secular outlook, had been co-opted by Soeharto as he sought to establish new sources of support outside the senior ranks of the armed forces from the late 1980s onwards. (3) This co-optation saw the Muslim hardliners attacking Soeharto's opponents in return for state patronage and new freedom to carry out their activities, which included undermining more moderate Muslim rivals. (4) It broadly coincided with Soeharto's elevation of a so-called "Green" (the colour symbolizing Islam) tendency within the TNI (the Indonesian armed forces) -- officers distinguished less by personal piety than by willingness to use Islam as a political tool. (5) The convergence of the "Green" TNI and hardline Muslim organizations behind Soeharto forged alliances between these two groupings which were subsequently critical to the launching of Laskar Jihad.

The rising fortunes of conservative modernist Muslims were dealt a double blow, firstly by the fall of their patron, Soeharto, in May 1998, and secondly by the democratic elections in June 1999. None of the newly formed Islamist parties performed well at the polls, with the largest, the PBB (Crescent and Star Party), capturing just 2 per cent of the vote. The elections, instead, produced an emphatic endorsement of pluralist parties diametrically opposed to the exclusivist agenda of the conservative Muslims, with the largest share of the vote (37.4 per cent) going to the secular nationalist PDI-P of Megawati Sukarnoputri, and a significant share (17.4 per cent) taken by the PKB led by Abdurrahman Wahid.

This provided the context for the creation of Laskar Jihad. In one sense, conservative Muslims' worst fears were being realized as the prospect of a democratic system directly threatened groups with minimal electoral support. On the other hand, the uncertain political climate continued to offer considerable scope for frustrating a complete transition to democracy. The opportunities here derived from the weakness of state institutions, the shattered condition of the Indonesian economy, and the livelihoods of the majority of the population; while conversely, much of the New Order fabric, notably the networks of militant Muslim groups' "Green" military allies, remained largely intact. At the same time, conservative modernist Muslim groups found their public campaigns facilitated by greater freedom of expression. Another factor from which conservatives could derive some comfort was the overall political disorientation of the modernist ummat (community of Muslims). (6) The election results placed particular pressure on the putative leader of Indonesian modernist Muslims, Amien Rais, who had adopted a pluralist political platform for his newly created PAN party, which spectacularly failed to deliver.

Following voters' rejection of religious exclusivism, conservative groups were left searching for opportunities to discredit pluralism and assert their interpretation of Islam. Their tack was to adopt causes with the potential to unite and mobilize the ummat against opposing forces; that by exploiting points of friction between Muslims and non-Muslims, they might persuade Indonesian Muslims to discard their electoral allegiances to rally in defence of their faith.

Since fighting erupted in Ambon in January 1999, conservative hardliners had attempted to channel Indonesian Muslims' outrage at the government's failure to protect Maluku's Muslims into action against their Christian Moluccan antagonists. Their campaign acquired new impetus following the massacre by Christian militia of at least 500 Muslims in Halmahera, North Maluku, in December 1999, and culminated in a rally in Jakarta on 7 January 2000, which attracted tens of thousands. (7) This rally was addressed not only by conservative Muslim activists and members of Islamist parties such as the PBB but also by the "cornered" Amien Rais and PPP (United Development Party) leader and current Indonesian Vice-President, Hamzah Haz, who endorsed calls for a jihad (holy war) in Maluku. (8)

The rally's conservative Muslim organizers moved rapidly to harness the momentum it had generated. Activists including Ahmad Sumargono of KISDI and the PBB and Eggy Sudjana of HMI-MPO (a faction of the Indonesian Muslim Students Association, HMI), channelled their energies via a hitherto obscure group called the FKAWJ (Sunni Communication Forum) set up one year earlier. The FKAWJ, which pursues an exclusivist brand of Islam and seeks to impose Islamic Shariah law in Indonesia, is led by a preacher named Ja'far Umar Thalib, a former member of the anti-Soviet Mujahidin in Afghanistan. The group formally established on 30 January Laskar Jihad, a force for the defence of Moluccan Muslims against kafir harbi (belligerent infidels). In the weeks that followed, an initial trickle of Muslim fighters made their way to Maluku. However, the Laskar Jihad's mobilization began in earnest in April when it established a military training camp near Bogor in West Java. (9) The following month, two or three thousand Laskar Jihad fighters travelled unhindered to Maluku despite government pledges to prevent them from leaving Java. In the weeks that followed, allegations began to surface that Laskar Jihad was engaging in military offensives against Christian communities in the Moluccas.

Jihad in Maluku
More than three years after it began, there is as yet no authoritative explanation for the causes of the conflict in Maluku. A range of theories variously place emphasis on rivalries between Moluccan Christian and Muslim communities dating from the colonial era, and recent shifts in the balance of power between them; the destabilizing impact of the reintroduction of electoral politics as the means of contest between local elites; and outside interference by political elites in Jakarta and factions of the TNI. While there are abundant indications of external interference, there is compelling evidence pointing to underlying causes centred in political struggles at a local level. (10)

The intractability of the conflict relates not only to the same factors which caused it, but also to the changes and new agendas which the fighting has wrought in the leadership hierarchies of each community. The conflict has permitted previously peripheral, even disreputable, figures on each side to attain new positions of power, the preservation of which is contingent on the conflict's perpetuation.

In assessing the decision to undertake jihad in Maluku, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the anger expressed by conservative modernists and Indonesian Muslims generally at the plight of Moluccan Muslims was sincerely felt. Indonesian Muslims inside and outside Maluku perceived the conflict to have been instigated by the Christians, and believed that Christian fighters were the recipients of assistance, in the form of money and weapons, from Christian Moluccans in the Netherlands, as well as political and military figures in Indonesia. (11) Outrage was almost certainly fuelled by the long-standing sense among Muslims that the Christian minority in Indonesia, through the New Order period, in particular, had built up levels of political and economic influence vastly out of proportion to its numbers. (12) The issue of high-level Christian influence had long been a primary focus for the campaigns of conservative Muslim groups such as DDII.

In other respects, however, the creation of Laskar Jihad was based on calculation and opportunism, reflecting the political priorities of conservative Muslim groups following the 1999 elections. The Maluku violence presented an opportunity because it was so readily represented and perceived as a religious war. Whatever its full complexities, both sides in the conflict have contributed to the impression that it is based primarily on religion. Moluccan Christians have portrayed it as part of a wider campaign by militant Muslims to Islamicize Indonesia. (13) Muslims, meanwhile, have attempted to cast the violence as part of an international Christian conspiracy against Islam and Indonesian Muslims in particular. (14) In mobilizing against a Christian enemy, Laskar Jihad attempted to elevate the meaning of the communal violence in Maluku for the Indonesian ummat; to polarize Indonesians along religious lines and in the process position itself as a standard bearer for Islam.

Through mobilization of Indonesian Muslims, Laskar Jihad could hope to capture for conservative Muslims a political platform outside the nascent democratic system, which threatened to undercut their influence and to exercise leverage over Indonesia's political transition. That a stalling or destabilizing role was one of Laskar Jihad's objectives was implicit in Ja'far Umar Thalib's earliest public pronouncements, in which he demanded President Wahid's resignation. (15) Another political function of jihad against Moluccan Christians was the targeting of a community which had voted overwhelmingly in the elections for the secular-oriented PDI-P of Megawati.

An important facet of the decision to launch jihad was that in intervening in Maluku, Laskar Jihad could claim the additional justification of combating the presumed RMS (Republic of South Moluccas) secessionist movement. (16) That opposition to separatism is strictly a secondary motivation has been admitted by the group's members, who state, in reference to Aceh, that they will not intervene in separatist conflicts unless these can be tied to issues of religion. (17) In the case of Maluku, Laskar Jihad links jihad with separatism via the argument that East Timor's independence is the first stage in a conspiracy by Christians in Indonesia and internationally, to amputate regions in which Christianity predominates in order to weaken (Muslim) Indonesia. (18)

In one sense, the anti-separatism rhetoric conveniently underpins the jihad. Viewed from another angle, however, it implicitly recognizes that many Indonesian Muslims have more sympathy with the unitarian nationalist policies identified with Megawati than with the conservative modernist world-view. The anti-separatism plank in the Laskar Jihad manifesto acknowledges that jihad, in the sense of a struggle based on faith, may not be enough to stir most Indonesian Muslims and it must be seen as an essentially defensive device. It is significant that Laskar Jihad has articulated this objective most vigorously when under pressure. In the weeks following his arrest on 4 May 2000, Ja'far Umar Thalib took great pains to emphasize Laskar Jihad's anti-separatist credentials, going so far as to state publicly that the conflict in Maluku and Laskar Jihad's involvement were brought about not by religion but by separatism alone. (19)

There are further aspects to the choice of Maluku as a venue for intervention, which underline the weaknesses of the Laskar Jihad position from the outset. Features of the conflict, visible even in early 2000, suggested that involvement in Maluku did not offer an effective means of stalling democratic reform and undermining Indonesia's pluralist political leaders. Moreover, the localized nature and scope of the violence had not encouraged the sense of involvement among Muslims elsewhere in Indonesia, which might dispose them to answer the call for jihad. By the time Laskar Jihad set off from Java, the extent of the fighting was in fact already contracting, following successful reconciliation initiatives in southeastern Maluku. The potential for broadening the conflict to engulf other areas of Indonesia thus appeared limited.

A key feature of the Maluku conflict, both before and after the creation of Laskar Jihad, has been the reluctance of Indonesian Governments to expend political capital on attempts to resolve it. The contribution of the Wahid administration, for example, was largely confined to fleeting visits to Maluku by the President and his deputy, Megawati, who was personally charged with bringing about an end to the fighting. Despite her claims to have been working energetically behind the scenes, Megawati devoted little attention to Maluku; opting to go on holiday in Hong Kong over the millennium, as the fighting in the region flared once more.

This neglect to some extent reflects the weakness of the post-Soeharto governments and the magnitude of the challenges they have faced. It also indicates, however, their hard-headed assessment of Maluku as being of low political significance at the national level. Both the characteristics of the region itself -- far from Indonesia's political centre-stage and home to less than one per cent of its population -- and the local character of its conflict mean that Indonesia's leaders feel that they can ignore it at relatively low political cost. Unlike Aceh, the fighting in Maluku does not pose a serious threat to Indonesia's territorial integrity. Its lack of political weight, even subsequent to the involvement of Laskar Jihad, was revealed by the fact that Wahid's opponents, rather than heeding the demand of Ja'far Umar Thalib to impeach the President for his failure over Maluku, considered two tenuous allegations of corruption more compelling grounds for his removal in August 2000.

Meanwhile, Megawati's disregard of her responsibility for resolving the Maluku conflict has proved to have few political repercussions. Her early disinterest earned her a mild rebuke from PDI-P delegates but constituted no obstacle to her assumption of the Indonesian presidency. Particularly telling is the fact that the PPP and other modernist Muslim parties, whose primary concern is the advancement of the position of Muslims in Indonesia regarded the Maluku conflict as so peripheral that they saw no political embarrassment in forming a governing coalition with the politician who had most conspicuously neglected this issue.

Recognition by Laskar Jihad that intervention in Maluku was not the optimum means of advancing its agenda at a national level was implicit in its threats to launch a jihad in Java if the government prevented it from travelling to Maluku. This amounted to tacit admission that action in Java would have a far greater impact politically. Going to Maluku represented a second-best option, but the limitations of the Laskar Jihad position meant that it was unable to undertake a comparable initiative in a more politically significant region. The choice of Maluku was furthermore informed by Laskar Jihad's realization that it could only hope to establish itself in an area in which government control had chronically broken down.

It is likely that the beleaguered Wahid government was relatively content to see Laskar Jihad confined to a remote, politically unimportant region of the country. The lacklustre efforts to prevent the group from travelling to Maluku in May 2000 might, as has been suggested, have derived from collusion between conservative Muslim groups and the police. (20) An alternative explanation, however, is that the government, for all its protestations, may have sanctioned the police inaction in the interests of getting Laskar Jihad out of Java. By investing their political and financial resources in the intervention in Maluku, the hardline Muslim groups behind Laskar Jihad must have known that they risked confining themselves to the political margins.

Sources of Support
Laskar Jihad unquestionably has access to substantial funds. It claims to have offices in all major towns in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan, while in Maluku it owns a hospital, a radio station and about ten speedboats, as well as a sizeable military arsenal. (21) Spokesmen for Laskar Jihad claim that most of its funds are contributed by sympathetic members of the Indonesian public. (22) Laskar Jihad's leader, Ja'far Umar Thalib, however, has stated that the majority of its financing comes from overseas, in particular New Jersey (USA), Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Singapore. (23)

Since the start of the Maluku conflict, allegations have repeatedly surfaced that the Soeharto family and their allies are funding groups such as Laskar Jihad, a suggestion denied vigorously by Ja'far. (24) The presumed motive of Soeharto and his associates was to destabilize post-New Order governments which might be inclined to investigate their alleged crimes and confiscate their personal fortunes. Whatever the veracity of these particular claims, the fact that much, if not most, of Laskar Jihad's budget is covered by overseas benefactors, is enough to inform us that the organization's affluence should not be interpreted as a reflection of support from Indonesia's Muslims.

Members of the Indonesian security forces have taken sides in the fighting in Maluku since the early stages of the conflict and there is credible evidence of collusion between Laskar Jihad and sections of both the military and the police. (25) Assistance has been provided by the military from an early stage. Indeed, Laskar Jihad members admit readily to receiving training from TNI officers. (26) In Maluku, TNI troops have even been filmed fighting alongside Laskar Jihad paramilitaries. Ja'far Umar Thalib boasts of co-operation at the highest level, and has claimed to have a hotline to the Indonesian Armed Forces Commander. (27) Laskar Jihad spokesmen contend that their fighters are equipped only with home-made weapons, guns salvaged from World War II wrecks and weapons dumps, and firearms captured from Christian combatants. (28) Eyewitness reports, however, suggest that the group is, in fact, equipped with military-issue weaponry. (29)

These military connections show that Laskar Jihad has been able to build on alliances forged between conservative Muslims and TNI factions during the last years of the New Order period and exploit areas of common interest. Like Laskar Jihad, sections of the military wished to destabilize the Wahid government, with a view to preventing reform of the TNI and the prosecution of officers for crimes in East Timor and other areas. Moreover, the disruption in Maluku and Laskar Jihad's conjuring up of a separatist threat justified the expansion of the military's role in the region, as outbreaks of violence likewise have done in other areas of Indonesia. (30)

Unless the TNI factions working with Laskar Jihad have a strong attachment to the group and its ideals, however, they are likely to see no interest in sustaining its activities once it has outlived its usefulness. Here one can reflect on a range of precedents for the TNT assembling and/or co-operating with paramilitary or criminal groups, before later discarding them. (31) A recent example of this phenomenon is offered by the militia created in East Timor in 1998--99, some of whose redundant leaders now claim to live in fear of TM assassination. (32)

Support from or toleration by the security forces in Maluku is vital to Laskar Jihad's capacity to operate. While such support may reflect the personal sympathies of individual officers concerned, it is not a sustainable basis for Laskar Jihad's position in the long term. Military co-operation, moreover, is certainly not a reflection of popular grassroots support among Indonesian Muslims. In view of the low credibility of the TNI, the association is, in fact, likely to dissuade many Indonesian Muslims from supporting Laskar Jihad.

Since its inception, Laskar Jihad has enjoyed the active support of other conservative Muslim groups. Organizations such as KISDI, DDII and FPI (Front for the Defence of Islam) have backed Laskar Jihad's activities with rallies, demonstrations, and endorsements in media publications. Prominent conservative Muslim activists act as advisers to the group; for example, Eggy Sudjana is one of Ja'far Umar Thalib's legal representatives. Affiliated conservative Muslim political parties have also been at the core of Laskar Jihad's support network. Abmad Sumargono, PBB member of the DPR (House of Representatives) and leader of KISDI, appears to have acted as an unofficial spokesman on behalf of the group during the period when it was being convened at Bogor in April 2000. Important PBB links extend to Maluku itself, where local PBB (and DDII) leader Au Fauzi is commander of the locally-levied Ambon Mujahidin.

The attitude towards Laskar Jihad of mainstream modernist Muslim parties and associations, however, has been far more equivocal. As outlined above, in January 2000, conservative activists' exploitation of a public outcry over the death of Muslims in Halmahera, combined with the post-election disarray of modernist Muslim politicians, enabled them to push more mainstream leaders into supporting calls for Jihad. Since then, Laskar Jihad and its supporters have on occasion successfully used media campaigns to create similar conditions in which moderate Muslim leaders have felt forced to choose between endorsing Laskar Jihad's position (or at least criticizing their enemies) and being perceived to desert the interests of Indonesian Muslims. Such episodes have arisen from the arrest of Ja'far Umar Thalib on 4 May 2001 (for allegedly ordering the public stoning of one of his followers in Ambon), and also the Yon Gab (TNI combined battalion) attack on Laskar Jihad in Kota Ambon (Ambon town) on 14 June 2001. (33) Following these events, several Muslim organizations, including the MUI (Indonesian Council of Preachers), whose Ambon office has hostile relations with Laskar Jihad, and the youth wing of Muhammadiyah, were moved to speak out against the arrest and against Yon Gab. (34) Their sentiments were echoed by provincial leaders of mainstream Muslim parties, such as the PPP and PAN. The pressure that Laskar Jihad succeeded in generating, following the Yon Gab attack, appeared to account for the hasty transfer out of Maluku of the battalion's commander, I Made Yasa, just three weeks later. (35)

These moments are the closest that Laskar Jihad has come to capturing the position of the rallying point for Indonesian Muslims; however, they have been few and far between. Although some junior representatives of the PPP and PAN have continued to show support for Laskar Jihad, securing the wholehearted backing of the leaders of mainstream modernist Muslim parties and mass-membership organizations has proved beyond the conservative Muslims since January 2000. The elusiveness of such moments in part reflects the peripheral position in Indonesia, both geographically and politically, of the conflict in Maluku. It is also indicative of the reluctance of mainstream Muslim figures to endorse an enterprise launched by abrasive and unscrupulous conservative Muslim groups which command little popular support.

The composition of Laskar Jihad's 3,000-10,000-strong membership has been a source of considerable speculation. (36) Some observers have suggested that as many as 80 per cent of its members are, in fact, serving members of the TNI, while others have alleged the involvement of substantial numbers of foreigners in the group's ranks. (37) Laskar Jihad spokesmen state that their membership reflects a genuine cross-section of Indonesian society, although the organization's website stresses that its members "mostly are university students in Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra". (38) The group's spokesmen claim that recruits come from pesantren (Islamic schools) run by teachers sympathetic to Laskar Jihad, or have been inspired to join by conservative Muslim media publications. (39) In tapping into such sources of support, Laskar Jihad is drawing on the efforts of organizations such as DDII and KISDI, both of which have long cultivated followings on university campuses and in pesantren for their campaigns against pluralism and Western political values, such as liberal democracy and human rights. (40)

While examining Laskar Jihad's membership reveals more about the kinds of support that conservative Islam in Indonesia can draw on, the usefulness of such analysis has to be set in the context of the small numbers the group has succeeded in recruiting. Ultimately, the mobilization of 3,000-10,000 from a population of around 185 million Muslims does not amount to a mass movement or signify a sea-change in the character of Indonesian Islam. Even Laskar Jihad members drawn from supposed hotbeds of radical Islam, such as ITB (the Bandung Institute of Technology) admit that their peers and families were perplexed by their decision to join the jihad. (41) While Laskar Jihad leaders have claimed that their ranks are expanding, there are grounds for questioning this assertion. Since closing their training camp in Bogor in April 2000, Laskar Jihad, has, by its own admission, not held any further large-scale training and recruiting programmes and state that training is now only conducted in Ambon itself. (42) While bot h the group and its allies claim that new members are still being recruited, they are reluctant to give any precise figures. (43)

The inability of conservative Islam to find broader support can be traced in part to the position of Islam under the New Order. Until Soeharto's final years and his cultivation of conservative modernist groups, the overtly political brand of Islam promoted by conservative Muslims was suppressed by the regime, which maintained a resolutely anti-sectarian stance and heavy restrictions on all political activity not under its control. Conversely, the New Order did offer space for other interpretations of modernist Islam, which promoted the progress of Muslims outside the realm of politics. This, combined with other social and educational policies of the Soeharto era, stimulated the emergence of a self-consciously Muslim middle class which had little affinity with the outlook of conservative hardliners. (44)

Groups representing conservative modernist Islam, such as the DDII, continued to maintain their core following among sections of the lower-middle and working classes and networks in pesantren and universities. (45) Since restrictions on their activities were lifted, however, they have not expanded their overall popular support among the ummat. This can partly be explained by conservative groups' belated alliance with discredited New Order interests. Moreover, they are promoting an authoritarian and exclusivist form of political Islam at a time when most indicators suggest that Indonesian Muslims are keen to consolidate the freedoms they have won since 1998.

Laskar Jihad: Activities, Impact and Prospects
Despite its protestations to the contrary, there can be little doubt that Laskar Jihad's emphasis in Maluku has been on paramilitary activity. The group's involvement in offensives against Christian communities reflects Indonesian conservative Muslims' long-held view of Christianity as a threat. More specifically, the manner of the attacks and Laskar Jihad's public pronouncements point to an attempt to displace and expel Christians from Maluku and thus alter the region's ethnoreligious balance. (46)

Laskar Jihad employs tactics designed to undermine any prospect of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. Just one example is the group's use of snipers in Kota Ambon, who target civilians and thus reinforce the atmosphere of fear and suspicion which pervades both communities in the town. (47) Such violence forms the major part of a sustained effort to polarize the two communities ever more completely. This objective is also pursued via such measures as the severing of intercommunal commercial relations. (48) The desire for communal segregation derives in part from the hardline modernist antipathy towards pluralism and secular society.

At another level Laskar Jihad's emphasis on violence derives from basic self-interest: no conflict, no Laskar Jihad -- only the maintenance of hostilities legitimates the group's position within Moluccan Muslim communities. Ensuring that the parameters of life for Moluccan Muslims are shaped (and narrowed) by constant interreligious violence, helps Laskar Jihad to overcome any reluctance on the part of their local co-religionists to define their loyalties and responses to the conflict solely on the basis of their faith. In order to equate identification as a Muslim with identification with Laskar Jihad, the group has taken steps to bring the symbols and centres of Muslim worship in Ambon under its control. (49)

Beyond the use of violence for aims specific to Maluku itself, it has been suggested that Laskar Jihad has sought to provoke new outbreaks of fighting in order to pressure the government, or otherwise create an impression of democratic reform leading to instability in Indonesia. (50) Laskar Jihad's attempts to expel communities of Christians may also be calculated to create instability and communal tension in other areas of Indonesia forced to play host to large groups of Christian Moluccan refugees. (51)

While fighting Moluccan Christians is the most important aspect of Laskar Jihad's activities, the group has also carried out humanitarian and community work in Muslim areas of Maluku -- for example, in establishing a fully-staffed hospital in Kota Ambon. (52) It has also sought to impose Shariah law in the zones under its control and to close down "places of sin". (53) Such measures represent a rejection of the institutions of the secularized state and the creation of an alternative model founded on the principles of conservative modernist Islam. They are also an important means of exercising control over local Muslims. These actions notwithstanding, Laskar Jihad's insistence that their jihad is based primarily around humanitarian assistance and dakwah predication cannot be accepted at face value. While Ja'far Umar Thalib claims that members of the Laskar Jihad are "basically religious preachers, armed with religious knowledge to preach to locals", more junior spokesmen for his organization admit that few of their number have sufficient knowledge of Islam to preach to Moluccan Muslims. (54)

All observers agree that the intervention in Maluku by Laskar Jihad has had a very substantial impact on the complexion and intensity of the conflict. The group's presence has undoubtedly eliminated any chance that may have existed of the Christians scoring a military victory over their Moluccan Muslim opponents. (55) Furthermore, Laskar Jihad has clearly succeeded in its goal of prolonging and deepening the conflict.

Among Muslim communities in those areas of Maluku in which it operates, Laskar Jihad has succeeded in asserting itself as a symbol of Islam and pahlawan (champion or hero) for local Muslims, regardless of their empathy with Laskar Jihad's brand of conservative Islam. (56) Observers on all sides, for example, agree that Laskar Jihad very effectively presented the Yon Gab attacks on its personnel and premises on 14 June 2001 as an attack on all Moluccan Muslims, and that this served to entrench the group's position within Maluku. (57) Other factors facilitating this entrenchment include Laskar Jihad's exploitation of factionalism within the local Muslim leadership, and, above all, its capacity for defending Moluccan Muslims from Christian attack. Alongside its alliances with factions of the TNI, the position Laskar Jihad has carved out for itself within Maluku has so far helped to deter sustained attempts by the central government to dislodge it. must, however, be put in context. The scope of the group's activities and influence have only been made possible by civil war, the almost total breakdown of state control, and the convergence of Laskar Jihad's agenda with that of other groups. While Laskar Jihad has succeeded in intensifying the polarization of the communities in the region, it has merely exacerbated a situation which pre-dated its arrival.

Viewed in this perspective, Laskar Jihad's achievements in Maluku have, in many ways, been strikingly limited. Although the group has repeatedly attacked Christian settlements, it has had little success in redrawing communal boundaries, which have changed little since it arrived in the region. (58) Religious segregation has now been effected in most areas previously inhabited by both Christians and Muslims. (59) Even here, however, Laskar Jihad has not been entirely successful, failing to break down the mixed Catholic and Muslim community of Wayame in Ambon, for example. (60)

Laskar Jihad's zone of operations has not expanded greatly since the weeks following its arrival in Maluku in April-May 2001. Although the trigger for its intervention was atrocities committed against Muslims in Halmahera, North Maluku, Laskar Jihad has had minimal involvement in the conflict in the northern areas. The group's commanders were, at an early stage, informed by their North Moluccan Mujahidin counterparts that their assistance was surplus to requirements, and they were subsequently deterred from interfering in the province by North Maluku's assertive acting governor. (61) In the southern regions of Maluku, meanwhile, a reconciliation process has prevented Laskar Jihad from making an impact. Even in those areas in which it is well entrenched, observers note rising tensions between the non-Moluccan Laskar Jihad and local Muslim communities which resent the group's domineering behaviour. (62) This underlines the impression that the organization is likely to maintain its position of power only as long as the violence continues.

In the context of Indonesia as a whole, Laskar Jihad's impact has been highly localized. Although it has recently tried to establish itself in Poso, the general absence of the particular kind of religious strife the group requires as a precursor for further jihad has made large-scale expansion of its activities difficult. (63) In Maluku, the group has failed to involve significant numbers of Indonesian Muslims in its campaign. Whereas circumstances have largely compelled Moluccan Muslims to accept partisanship based on religion, Laskar Jihad's rhetoric has not persuaded their co-religionists elsewhere in Indonesia to respond to the conflict in the same way.

As noted, there have been occasions on which Laskar Jihad and its conservative Muslim backers have been momentarily able to elicit support from more moderate Muslim groups. However, apart from the initial rally of 7 January 2000, these rare successes have not come in the context of Laskar Jihad generating new momentum for its activities. They have instead occurred in desperate situations in which the organization has found the need to portray itself as a victim: notably the arrest of Ja'far Umar Thalib and the Yon Gab offensive in Kota Ambon. In the latter case, Laskar Jihad's response suggested that it believed it could not rely on its credibility as an Islamic organization to bail itself out of trouble. Rather than referring to the Middle Eastern ulamas' fatwas that it claims to legitimate its activities in Maluku, Laskar Jihad has based its robust media campaign against the "communist" Yon Gab around the same "Western" values it argues that Indonesian Muslims should reject, leading with the accusation that Yon Gab's actions constituted gross violations of Laskar Jihad members' human rights. (64)

While the launching of Laskar Jihad has generated for Muslim hardliners considerable attention, it has failed to make a serious impact on Indonesian politics at the national level. The group's activities have not afforded conservative Muslims significant political leverage in Jakarta. As the transfer of presidential office from Wahid to Megawati in 2000 demonstrated, Laskar Jihad has been unable to shake the hold on power of its pluralist political opponents.

The ascendance of Megawati in many ways encapsulates the increasing difficulties Laskar Jihad and its conservative supporters are now facing. Megawati is perceived as representing a range of political values directly antithetical to those of Laskar Jihad: notably, secular nationalism, pluralism, and democracy. Moreover, in contrast to the rickety presidential platform of Abdurrahman Wahid, who acquired the office via elaborate political horse-trading, Megawati has become President with a mandate from the electorate, together with endorsement by the military and modernist Muslim coalition partners (notably the PPP), who had previously echoed conservative Muslims' opposition to the idea of a female President. The conservatives are thus faced with a much stronger President, who has neither use nor sympathy for groups such as Laskar Jihad, and who has formed alliances with elite groups (mainstream modernist Muslim politicians and the TM), on whom Laskar Jihad depends for support.

This inauspicious outlook does not necessarily signal Laskar Jihad's imminent collapse. In the short-term, the Megawati government faces several political hurdles it may wish to clear before turning its attention to clamping down on Laskar Jihad. Not least of these is securing its relationship with the army, which could be tested by international pressure for the prosecution of TNI officers who oversaw the destruction of East Timor in September 1999. That the government is choosing to leave the Laskar Jihad issue on the back-burner reflects in part the range of complex challenges it faces. It also highlights the minimal political threat that the group in fact poses.

If anything, the impact of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States may be to hasten rather than avert government action against Laskar Jihad. Although the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan caused considerable disquiet among Muslims in Indonesia, it did not precipitate a sudden surge in support for the exclusivist brand of Islam espoused by the Taliban, nor the international terror agenda of Osama bin Laden. For Indonesia, the key outcome may prove to be less the immediate reaction of the country's Muslim population than the acceleration of the U.S. government's efforts to see the resumption of ties with the Indonesian military. Such an eventuality would offer the TNI a degree of political rehabilitation and access to resources far more valuable than continued connections with militant Muslim fringe groups. As the comments of Paul Wolfowitz and others make clear, a condition of any kind of U.S. rapprochement with the TM would undoubtedly be the elimination of Laskar Jihad.

As already observed, Laskar Jihad has been most successful in finding support beyond its narrow core constituency when portraying itself, or those it purports to defend, as victims of aggression. Ironically, the group's best chance of securing sympathy from the Indonesian ummat might come through a badly timed or executed government operation against it, although this can hardly be a scenario Laskar Jihad would wish to pin its hopes on.

In the aftermath of 11. September, Laskar Jihad has chosen to concentrate on reigniting the conflict between Christians and Muslims in the vicinity of Paso, Central Sulawesi, perhaps gambling on greater popular approval within Indonesia following the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. The extent of Laskar Jihad's commitment in the Poso region is not yet clear. Assessment of the intervention, however, requires consideration of the limitations on Laskar Jihad's resources and available manpower. There is little evidence to suggest a sudden expansion in the group's capacities sufficient to cover two similarly vigorous campaigns in different parts of Indonesia. If the group has indeed decided to concentrate its efforts on Sulawesi, this will almost certainly necessitate a commensurate downsizing of its operations in Maluku. Needless to say, a withdrawal from Maluku at this stage would be a significant admission of the failure of the jihad to achieve its objectives.

In conclusion, we can see that the capacity of conservative modernist Muslims to launch Laskar Jihad in early 2000 reflected a position of political influence built up during the last years of Soeharto's presidency and the brief period of Habibie's presidency. The stimulus for Laskar Jihad was the threat posed to this influence by Indonesia's movement towards greater democracy. The jihad project revealed the ability of hard-line Muslim groups to take advantage of the breakdown in state control wrought by the conditions of political transition. These groups, moreover, showed themselves adept at using alliances with other interests threatened by political reform, and skilful in exploiting the disarray of modernist Muslim rivals. In the context of an increasingly hostile political environment, Laskar Jihad was an attempt to shore up the position of conservative Islam and to hamper the unwelcome democratic transition in whatever way possible. It sought to overturn the ummat's allegiance to secular or pluralist political parties in favour of asserting religion as an overriding point of identity. However, although the creation of Laskar Jihad was nothing if not audacious, aspects of the venture reveal weaknesses in the conservative position even at the moment of its inception. The Laskar Jihad experience highlights the paucity of causes capable of rallying the Indonesian ummat behind the self-appointed champions of Islam. Maluku, while in some senses an obvious venue for conservative Muslim intervention, was in many respects a less than ideal choice, principally because of its lack of political significance.

The emergence of Laskar Jihad shows how conservative Muslims have been able to secure backing from powerful sections of the Indonesian military, as well as a network of foreign funders. However, it also reveals the low level of support for their brand of political Islam among Indonesian Muslims. This limited support reflects the failure of conservative Muslim groups to convert state patronage during the last years of the New Order into a significant broadening of their constituency. Moreover, the uncompromising approach of the conservatives has hindered their efforts to gain the endorsement of mainstream Muslim political parties and associations. Critically, the activities of Laskar Jihad have not been of sufficient scope to touch the lives of most Indonesian Muslims, let alone to persuade them to take sides in the struggle between the group and its opponents.

To sum up, while the Laskar Jihad venture is spectacular, not to mention violently destructive, it illuminates fundamental fragilities in the position of its conservative Muslim architects. For conservative Islam in Indonesia, Laskar Jihad constitutes less a dramatic advance, so much as a bloody rear-guard action.

The author is particularly grateful to John Sidel for advice on the preparation of this article and to Nicola Frost for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

(1.) Kompas, 30 March 2001.
(2.) Jakarta Post, 11 September 2000.
(3.) Robert W. Hefner, "Co-option, Enmitization and Democracy: The Modernist Muslim Dilemma in Indonesia" (Paper prepared for the conference on "Consolidating Indonesian Democracy", Ohio State University, 11-13 May 2001), pp. 17-18.
(4.) Robert W. Hefner, "Print Islam: Mass Media and Ideological Rivalries among Indonesian Muslims", Indonesia 64 (October 1997).
(5.) Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam (Princeton University Press, 2000), p.151.
(6.) Robert W. Hefner, "Cooption, Enmitization and Democracy: The Modernist Muslim Dilemma in Indonesia", p. 29.
(7.) Jakarta Post, 10 February 2000.
(8.) According to Moluccan sociologist Tamrin Amal Tomagola, Amien Rais told him after the 7 January rally that he had been "cornered" by the Muslim outcry against the Halmahera killings. Political pressure had left him with no choice but to offer his endorsement of conservative Muslims' jihad initiative. Interview, 29 June 2001.
(9.) International Crisis Group, Indonesia, Overcoming Murder and Chaos in Maluku, ICG Asia Report No.10 (19 December 2000), p. 8.
(10.) For contrasting interpretations of the involvement of local and national elites in triggering the conflict in Maluku, see George Aditjondro, "Guns, Pamphlets and Handie-Talkies: How the military exploited local ethno-religious tensions in Maluku to preserve their political and economic privileges" (Paper prepared for the Conference on "Conflicts and Violence in Indonesia", Humboldt University, Berlin, 3-5 July 2000); and Gerry Van Klinken, "The Maluku wars: Bringing Society Back In", Indonesia 71 (April 2001).
(11.) A Muslim leader from Ambon claims that he and other Muslims discovered at the start of the conflict that Moluccans in the Netherlands were shipping guns to the Christians in Ambon, hidden in coffins with false bottoms. Interview, April 2001.
(12.) John T. Sidel, "Macet Total: Logics of Circulation and Accumulation in the Demise of Indonesia's New Order", Indonesia 66 (October 1998): 166-67.
(13.) Jubilee Campaign, UK, Analysis of the Sectarian Conflict in Maluku and its Role in the Islamicisation of Indonesia (Jubilee Campaign, UK, December 1999), pp.3, 7,
(14.) Interview with Dr Fawzy A.R., Head, Yogyakarta branch of the United Development Party (PPP), 22 June 2001.
(15.) Jakarta Post, 15 May 2000.
(16.) Moluccan Muslims allege that Christians have resurrected the RMS (Republik Maluku Selatan or Republic of South Moluccas) separatist movement. The original RMS was an unsuccessful attempt by a group of predominantly Christian members of the Moluccan elite to establish a separate state, outside the nascent Republic of Indonesia, in the early 1950s.
(17.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(18.) Ibid.
(19.) Antara, 14 June 2001.
(20.) Aditjondro, op. cit.
(21.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001. Interview with Ichsan Malik, Facilitator, Baku Baa Maluku reconciliation programme, 26 June 2001.
(22.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(23.) Jakarta Post, 15 May 2000.
(24.) Ibid.
(25.) Anonymous interview with an Indonesian analyst of the Maluku conflict, June 2001. This analyst claims to have videotaped footage of former Chief of Police in Maluku, Firman Gani, helping to organize a Laskar Jihad operation. See International Crisis Group, Indonesia, Overcoming Murder and Chaos in Maluku, p. 20.
(26.) Greg Fealy, "Inside the Laskar Jihad", Inside Indonesia
(January-March 2001), p. 29.
(27.) Ibid.
(28.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(29.) Personal communication with Jonathan Miller, maker of "A 21st Century War" documentary film for Channel 4 (UK).
(30.) Such as Aceh and West Kalimantan, as well as Maluku.
(31.) This trend can be traced all the way back to the creation of the TNI in 1947 and its cooptation of the first Indonesian paramilitary groups adopting the moniker lasykar during the Indonesian Revolution. Another more recent case was the use of criminals during the 1982 elections, who were subsequently murdered in the so-called "Petrus" killings. Robert Cribb, Gangsters and Revolutionaries- The Jakarta People's Militia and the Indonesian Revolution 1945-1949 (University of Hawaii Press, 1991).
(32.) Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 December 2000.
(33.) Tempo, 15 May 2001.
(34.) Interview with Human Rights Representative, Moluccan Protestant Church, 27 June 2001.
(35.) According to Yogyakarta region PPP leader, Dr Fawzy A.R., on 14 June, Yon Gab dragged 20 people out of their houses in Kebun Cengkeh, Kota Ambon, made them lie down in the street and then ran them over with a truck. Interview, 22 June 2001. Pikiran Rakyat, 10 May 2001; and Jakarta Post, 12 May 2001.
(36.) Laskar Jihad spokesmen stated in June 2001 that there were 3,000 Laskar Jihad personnel in Maluku. Other estimates have been as high as 10,000. Interview, 29 June 2001.
(37.) Ichsan Malik, Facilitator for the Baku Bae Maluku Reconciliation Programme, visited Laskar Jihad's headquarters in 2000 and estimated that perhaps as many as 80 per cent of the group's members were TNI personnel. Interview, 26 June 2001.
This view that a proportion of the Laskar Jihad are in fact soldiers is echoed by other researchers of the conflict, as well as eyewitness accounts of soldiers disguised in white robes launching attacks on Christian villages. Aditjondro, op. cit. TNI spokesman Air Rear-Admiral Graito Usodo has admitted that "there are some troops roaming around and creating chaos outside the chain of command and some even joined the Laskar Jihad warriors". Jakarta Post, 1 March 2001.
It is commonly alleged that Laskar Jihad forces include foreign fighters from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Laskar Jihad has admitted that it has received assistance from a few foreign volunteers, but say that these men have come of their own volition and only take part in humanitarian activities. Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001. An assessment of these claims is complicated by the fact that the locally levied Mujahidin forces in Maluku have recruited a number of foreign fighters who have no formal connection with Laskar Jihad. Philip Hatch-Barnwell, unpublished journal account of working in Maluku with Kompak, a Muslim relief organization affiliated with DDII, September to November 2000.
(38.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001. Press release,, 10 May 2001. A Muslim leader in Ambon claims that Laskar Jihad has attempted to coerce Muslim villages in Maluku into providing it with recruits. Interview, 1 April 2001.
(39.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(40.) Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam, pp. 109-10.
(41.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(42.) One of Laskar Jihad's training camps in Ambon is the formerly Christian village of Waai, which was attacked and largely destroyed by Laskar Jihad in July 2000. Jakarta Post, 28 March 2001.
(43.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001. Interview with Dr Fawzy A.R., leader of the Yogyakarta branch of the United Development Party (PPP), 22 June 2001.
(44.) John T. Sidel, "Macet Total: Logics of Circulation and Accumulation in the Demise of Indonesia's New Order", Indonesia 66 (October 1998): 171-72.
(45.) Robert W. Hefner, "Print Islam: Mass Media and Ideological Rivalries among Indonesian Muslims", Indonesia 64 (October 1997): 91.
(46.) Jakarta Post, 11 September 2000.
(47.) Paul Brass analyses the role played in instigating and sustaining communal violence in northern India by "fire-tenders" who form part of managed riot networks. Paul R. Brass, Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence (Princeton University Press, 1997).
(48.) Interview with a representative of Baileo, a Moluccan non-government organization (NGO), 27 June 2001. FKAWJ press release, 4 May 2001.
(49.) Interview with a member of a conflict resolution team from Gadjah Mada University, Yagyakarta, 20 June 2001.
Domination of Maluku's Islamic institutions by an outside group led by a preacher of Arab extraction (Ja'far Umar Thalib is of Yemeni descent) constitutes a somewhat ironic development in the context of Islam in the region. Richard Chauvel writes that the erosion of the traditional religious authority of Arab preachers in Kota Ambon was a significant element of what he terms the "emancipation of the (Moluccan) Moslem community" in Ambon during the 1930s. Richard Chauvel, Nationalists, Soldiers and Separatists (Leiden: KILTV Press, 1990), pp. 163-64.
(50.) Interview with Human Rights Representative, Moluccan Protestant Church, 18 April 2001.
(51.) The displacing of communities for strategic ends was carried out within Aceh by both the TNI and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), for example.
(52.) Interview with Dr Fawzy A.R., leader of the Yogyakarta branch of the United Development Party (PPP), 22 June 2001.
(53.) FKAWJ press release, 25 March 2001.
(54.) Jakarta Post, 15 May 2000. Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(55.) International Crisis Group, Indonesia, Overcoming Murder and Chaos in Maluku, p. iii.
(56.) Interview with Ichsan Malik, Facilitator, Baku Bae Maluku Reconciliation Programme, 26 June 2001.
(57.) Interview with a member of a conflict resolution team from Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, 20 June 2001. Interview with Human Rights Representative, Moluccan Protestant Church, 27 June 2001.
(58.) Interview with Ichsan Malik, Facilitator, Baku Bae Maluku Reconciliation Programme, 26 June 2001.
(59.) Ibid.
(60.) Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(61.) Interview with Moluccan sociologist Tamrin Amal Tomagola, 29 June 2001.
(62.) Philip Hatch-Barnwell, op. cit. Personal communication with Jonathan Miller, maker of "A 21st Century War" documentary film for Channel 4 (UK). Interview with a member of a conflict resolution team from Gadjab Mada University, Yogyakarta, 20 June 2001. Interview with a Muslim leader from Ambon, 1 April 2001. Muslim residents of Tial village were reported as complaining about the unwanted presence of Laskar Jihad in their village. Jakarta Post, 8 November 2000.
(63.) Laskar Jihad has also investigated the feasibility of involving itself in the communal violence in Sampit, Kalimantan. Interview with Laskar Jihad spokesmen, 29 June 2001.
(64.) On 25 June 2001, Ja'far Umar Thalib went in person to the office of leading human rights NGO YLBHI to complain that his followers' human rights were being abused. Interview with Ichsan Malik, Facilitator, Baku Bae Maluku Reconciliation Programme, 26 June 2001.
On a previous occasion, following a Yon Gab raid against a Muslim base in Kota Ambon, Ja'far lodged similar complaints with the state human rights organization Komnas HAM. Kompas, 10 February 2001.
This concern with human rights might be contrasted with the vigorous critique of the Western human rights doctrine by Laskar Jihad supporters KISDI. Robert Hefner, Civil Islam, p. 110.
The "communist" way of thinking of the Yon Gab is referred to by, 19 June 2001.

Michael Davis (Researcher at the International NGO Training and Research Centre in Oxford, UK)
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)

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