Islamic Power Play


Islamic militia groups are growing in numbers in Indonesia. DERWIN PEREIRA of the Straits Times Indonesia Bureau examines the reasons for their rise and assesses the threat they pose to the country’s stability.

NOT MANY Indonesians talk much about wayang in their country anymore. Ten years ago, the Javanese shadow-puppet theatre, in which perforated leather figures based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu epics were manipulated by a dalang behind an illuminated cotton screen, was commonplace.

The wayang analogies for developments in Indonesian politics were de rigueur. Not anymore though.

Its decline reflect two emerging but inter-related trends in Indonesia – the decline of Javanese cultural dominance and the rise of a more Islamic orientation in politics and public life.

What is more, the world’s most populous Muslim nation is also showing disturbing signs of Islamic militancy.

Television images from the country now feature religious zealots parading with swords and machine guns while calling for a holy war in the Maluku islands.

This was unthinkable during the New Order’s heyday. But with so much tinder to burn in Indonesia these days – the Maluku crisis, the Middle East conflict and a strong dose of anti-Americanism – Islamic radicalism is on the upsurge.

Armed militia groups with a strong Islamic tinge or laskars as they are known here are emerging in growing numbers to defend the name of Islam.

Many of them are also being used by the political elite as proxies.


THE impact of Islamic radicalism is felt most strongly in the Maluku islands.

Few parts of Indonesia seem more prone to religious violence than this eastern Indonesian province.

For the last 20 months, it has been wracked by violence that has left more than 3,000 people dead and left tens of thousands of others homeless.

The conflict, which began over a petty bus fare dispute in the capital of Ambon in January last year, is being fought between Muslims and Christians who have lived side by side for centuries.

Central to this bloody violence is the role of the Laskar Jihad. It has declared a jihad or holy war there to defend Islam against the Christian infidels.

The deceptively soft-voiced and sandal-wearing soldiers hone their fighting skills by slashing at each other in mock battles after drinking holy water.

Their leader, Abubakar Wahid, says: “Before we go to the holy war field, we are trained magically. If our magic is strong and we have true contact with God, we will not be killed or wounded.”

Most of the Islamic militia members are between 20 and 30 years old. They come from middle and lower income groups, and many are unemployed.

Some of the more prominent leaders are linked to the old Masyumi Party that led the battle cry for an Islamic state in the 1950s.

It is also significant that a few of them received training in the Middle East.

Other than a fervent belief that they are doing God’s work, the laskars are not monolithic. They are driven by different agendas.

The more genuinely religious-driven militias include the Laskar Jihad, Laskar Mujahidin, Laskar Remaja Masjid, Laskar Kiblat, Front Hisbullah, Pagar Nusa and Laskar Ababil.

Most of them are Java-based and claim the allegiance of more than a million members in total.

They are bound by a need to assert Islam in Indonesia. In particular, they want the syariah or Islamic laws to be implemented.

They have taken a hard line against public places of entertainment such as discos, karaoke and massage parlours.

There have been several instances in which the militias have carried out raids or demonstrated against these joints in Jakarta and outside the capital.

Says a member of the Laskar Kiblat: “What we want is Islamic laws to be put in place. We want a similar system to what there is in Malaysia, where Muslims live strictly by the Quran.”

With the exceptions of the Laskar Mujahidin, which is closely associated with the United Development Party (PPP) and the Crescent Star Party (PBB), and the Laskar Jihad with its informal links to army generals, most of the other groups have scant regard of political parties.

They see the 12 Muslim-oriented parties that emerged in the aftermath of President Suharto’s fall from power as being preoccupied with politics in Jakarta with little interest in furthering Islam’s cause.

“They have made deals with capitalists, communists, Christians and Jews to survive politically,” says the Laskar Kiblat source.

The Islamic parties, of course, do not see it that way. To be sure, these parties want to create a state in which Islam is the dominant religion but most veer away from any talk of passing Islamic laws or creating an Islamic state.

To survive in Indonesia’s pluralist landscape, they have to sleep with their enemies.

Religion is used as a tool to further political goals.

The primary aim is to shore up their support base ahead of the 2004 election.

They see the various Islamic militias as “floating masses that will grow over time” and a resource that they can draw on for support.

Limited success in forging close ties with the more conservative militias has forced several of these parties to set up their own.

Examples include the PPP-linked Laskar Pemuda Kabah, the Laskar Bulan Sabit under the PBB, and the Laskar Garda Bangsa of the Nation Awakening Party (PKB).

Besides these groups, there are countless others that are set up outside party structures to serve the political and military elite.

These include Kisdi, the Dewan Dakwah and the Front for the Defence of Islam (FPI).

The last is widely perceived as a tool of national assembly (MPR) speaker and National Mandate Party (PAN) chairman Amien Rais and several active and retired generals such as former military chief Wiranto.

It is instructive that the FPI was first to demonstrate vociferously when General Wiranto was hauled up earlier this year by the national human rights commission for the East Timor atrocities.

The FPI, led by Mr Habib Riziek Syihab with a 200,000-strong support base in Java and Sumatra, has also been at the forefront of protests against Israel and what it perceives as United States interference in Indonesia’s internal affairs.

Sources believe that the FPI might have also played a big role in getting some of the smaller laskars to drive out Americans from Solo in Central Java last month.


INTERESTINGLY, political discourse for most of the laskars is limited to only implementing the syariah.

There is rarely any mention of Indonesia becoming an Islamic state.

Laskar Jihad’s leader Ayip Syafruddin maintains that it would be to the country’s detriment to head that way given the need to accommodate diverse ethnic and religious groups in the country.

He points to Pakistan as an example of an Islamic state that has failed.

“The syariah is sufficient,” he says. “Most Indonesians will not support a move beyond that. Look at Pakistan. Look what happened when Zia Ul-Haq set up an Islamic state system. Everything collapsed. There was so much chaos.

“We already have so many problems. Why invite more?”

Mr Irvan Awwas, the head of Laskar Mujahidin, is cautious about any plan to move in that direction.

He tells The Sunday Review: “We need to do things gradually. The important thing now is to make sure Islam takes firm root in Indonesia. If it does, then an Islamic state is only a matter of time.”

Mr Irvan knows the risk of propounding the idea of an Islamic state. He spent nine years in prison during the Suharto era for supporting the old Masjumi party that pushed for an Islamic state in the 1950s.

The Masjumi party was the largest Muslim political party, second only to the nationalist party PNI.

Masjumi was banned in the 1960s, partly for its obstinacy on the Islamic state issue but more importantly because some of its prominent leaders had taken part in regional rebellions.

It did not disappear altogether with many members going underground.

Military intelligence sources say that it reappeared in the ’80s under the banner of the Laskar Sabillah, with bases in West and Central Java and South Sumatra.

It is the most radical of all the laskars and continues to operate underground. The core aim is no different from the Masjumi: Indonesia as an Islamic state.

Several of the laskar leaders are believe to have had training in the Middle East, especially Libya and Iraq, at some point. The Laskar Sabillah is no exception and is perhaps the most penetrated by foreign influence.

Besides persistent reports of funds flowing in from Libya and Iran, there is also evidence that the Philippine terrorist group
Abu Sayyaf might be also providing arms and cash.

Despite such backing, the 100,000-strong Laskar Sabillah is torn by factionalism. Sources believe it is divided into five main groups, each led by a different leader.

The military has largely been responsible for this state of affairs through its covert operations to sow the seeds of dissension in a group it considers a threat to the Pancasila state ideology.


FOR the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), any talk of an Islamic state is anathema. History and the Masjumi experience shaped such thinking.

Mr Suharto and senior army officers made it clear that that they regarded Islamic politics of any kind with deep suspicion. They judged the old Masjumi leaders to have betrayed two of the most fundamental principles of Indonesian political identity: its multi-religious make-up and national territorial integrity.

For much of the New Order, the military kept close tabs on the activities of Islamic groups, channelling much of the shadowy intelligence apparatus to the groups to make sure they kept in line.

Agent provocateurs have also been used to create the appearance of Islamic unrest.

The Garuda hijacking, the bombing of Indonesian-Chinese-owned banks and clashes in several regions between cult-like local Islamic groups and state authorities also served to justify heavy-handed retaliation and continuing vigilance against Islamic militancy.

Observers believe that TNI elements might be pursuing a similar policy today, albeit as part of a much broader strategy to destabilise the civilian government.

Covert involvement in the Maluku crisis is a dramatic example of what they are doing.

Reports suggested that soldiers sent in recently to North Maluku to quell the violence there put on the robes of the laskar jihad and joined in the killing spree, goading others to take part.

The laskars are obviously being used as pawns in the struggle for power in Jakarta. This is not new, given the rapprochement between Islam and the generals over the last decade.

Military officers like Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo Subianto had found it in their interest to cultivate Islamic groups to serve their political interests.

The two sides are now groping towards some kind of an accommodation given their mutual interests in undermining the current government.

For TNI officers, they also see value in using the laskars to protect its place in Indonesia as defender of the centre against the extremes – Islamic militancy and communism.

Fearful of seeing its central relevance decline, the military has worked hard at keeping the leftist bogey alive.

Sources believe the TNI now is using Islamic militias to counterbalance the “New Left”, a nebulous phrase the generals have ascribed on their new enemies without being too clear on who they are.


UNLIKE the Islamic militias that have been neutral and at times supportive of the military, TNI officers say that “left-wing” groups have been very critical of the army’s role.

This gels with the Islamic militias’ own hatred for the left. Their definition of the left, though, seems to veer more towards New Order thinking. They see them as communists.

The laskars were the first to take to the streets when the government announced that it wanted to lift an age-old ban on communism.

An army general notes: “We have established a comfortable working relationship with several Islamic groups but not the left who keeps bashing us.”

The Sunday Review understands that TNI chief Widodo had passed an order to his regional commanders to maintain close links with the laskars by holding monthly meetings with the different groups.

Some of the militias, especially the FPI, have also received funds and military training.

Underlying these efforts is a need to use the more moderate Islamic militias against the Muslim hardliners such as the Laskar Sabillah that over time could emerge as a potential threat.


ISLAM is one of the world’s great religions. Unfortunately, it gets a bad rap every time acts of violence are carried out in its name. History has shown two faces of Islam: tolerance and militant extremism.

At its worst, it takes on the form as practised by the Taliban in Afghanistan, where radical Islam is at the heart of a civil war threatening to spread throughout Central Asia.

The Talibans suppressed the warlords and criminal gangs when it took control of large parts of the country. But it also brutally enforced its version of Islamic values: isolation of women, long beards for men, flogging, stoning and amputations for petty offences.

They have also slaughtered thousands of opponents and their families in the name of Islam.

Indonesia is no Afghanistan. At the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of years after the religion took root in the country, Muslims in the country are alternating more pointedly now then ever before between tolerance and militancy. The

resurgence of extremism is but part of a broader pattern in the break down of law and order in the country.

Mob politics have always been prevalent in Indonesia but became more pronounced with Mr Suharto’s fall in 1998 as seen by the flowering of not just Islamic militias but other groups across religious and ethnic lines.

The Janus face of Islam will manifest itself time and again given Indonesia’s erratic political heartbeat.

Most of the laskars are reacting to specific events such as the Maluku crisis or developments in Palestine.

Without these specific triggers, however, the broad direction of Islam in Indonesia is one of moderation, exemplified especially by mainstream groups such as the 30-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama.

There is an intolerant strain of Islam that has support in Aceh, southern Sulawesi, Madura and western Java. It was these regions that displayed most restiveness during the years of rebellion in the 1950s.

But these areas remain the exception to the rule in Indonesia.

Despite the muscle power of the laskars, it is doubtful whether Islamic politics can manifest itself into real political power in the coming years.

It is significant that most of the radical Islamic parties in Indonesia did not do well in last year’s general election.

It is a striking paradox that as the country is turning Islamic green, the two largest political parties in Parliament – the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle and Golkar – are of the secular-nationalist mould.

Three decades of modernisation in Indonesia has led to a cultural schizophrenia: McDonalds and the thumping rhythm of discos against the drone of the traditional gamelan and Friday prayers in the mosque.

Most of the MTV generation do not want to have excessive demands of piety imposed on them in day-to-day life. The last and most important piece of the jigsaw puzzle is, of course, the TNI.

The generals and bureaucrats are not quaking in their boots with the rise of fundamentalist Islam. They pose the biggest obstacle for the radicals.

Any group dreaming of an Islamic state will be on collision course with the nationalist and still powerful military.

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