Islam's Holy Warriors - Laskar Jihad

Founded just 15 months ago, Laskar Jihad has emerged as a powerful fighting force in the troubled region of Maluku. Some fear its holy war may be only just starting.

AT FIRST GLANCE, there's nothing extraordinary about the small religious school outside Yogyakarta in central Java. Its mosque is a modest affair. The scrawny chickens strutting about in the dirt could belong in any Asian village. And the lush green vegetation all around is common on this fertile island. Two wide-eyed girls are the first indication that this is no ordinary place. Though barely knee-high, the toddlers' heads are demurely covered, their hair hidden from view by the kind of scarves you would usually see only on Muslim women past puberty.

This is the headquarters of Laskar Jihad, a 10,000-strong fundamentalist Islamic group that has shot to prominence in Indonesia by waging a holy war-or jihad-against Christians in the troubled northeastern province of Maluku, once known as the Spice Islands. The violence has killed about 5,000 and displaced another half million. Ja'far Umar Talib, a 39-year-old Islamic preacher, is the unlikely holy warrior behind Laskar. When he isn't leading the faithful in Maluku or drumming up support in Jakarta he lives in a small, modest house behind the mosque. Talib, the grandson of a Yemeni trader who came to Indonesia for business and stayed to raise a family, looks younger than his years. A shock of white in his wiry black hair and a thickening gut are the only signs of approaching middle age. His eyes are animated. His laugh is light. As he sips a cup of dark coffee flavoured with ginger he speaks softly and with sincerity. "For us to defend the country is one of God's orders" he says. "There is no way to get respect from non-Muslims for Muslims except through jihad."

Talib's words resonate most loudly in Maluku. Independent observers say the 15-month-old volunteer force, mainly recruited from Java, has been key to turning the tide in a battle against the province's Christian population since it joined the bloody civil war in May last year. But Laskar's importance goes well beyond Maluku. In many ways, the group's rapid growth illustrates the larger problems facing Indonesia's young democracy. Laskar's existence symbolizes the erosion of central government authority and the breakdown of law and order. It also speaks of an explosion of ethnic violence and creeping religious intolerance amid economic hard times.

Laskar's activities have the potential to mar Indonesia's reputation for practising a tolerant and inclusive form of Islam, the religion of 90% of the country's people. As one Western diplomat who follows the Laskar's activities says, "Indonesia is still a fundamentally pluralistic and tolerant place. But that tolerance is being tested." However, it isn't only Jakarta that has cause for concern. For regional neighbours and the West, the group's alleged links to international terrorism-albeit tenuous-raise the prospect of the world's largest Muslim nation becoming a breeding ground for other radical pan-Islamic groups.

TALIB'S FIRST STEPS toward becoming a holy warrior were taken in 1986 when he left his native village in East Java to study Islam in Lahore, Pakistan. At the time, Pakistan was the main staging ground for a holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan sponsored by America and Saudi Arabia. Talib, then just 24, was drawn to the idea and soon found himself in a training camp, an international jihad university that he says included Afghans, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Burmese, Sudanese, Thais and Filipinos. In 1989, the year the Soviets left Afghanistan, Talib returned home to Java to get married and to take up his vocation as a preacher. But, he says, the idea of jihad stayed with him. Even so, if not for a series of tumultuous events, Talib might have remained an anonymous Javanese preacher. In late 1997, the Asian Crisis hit Indonesia. By the following May, it had helped end the 32-year-old rule of President Suharto, sending out shockwaves that continue to reverberate across the country.

The discredited military can no longer employ the heavy-handed tactics it once used to maintain order. And the fledgling democratic government has lurched from one crisis to the next. Law and order has virtually collapsed. Meanwhile, the state doctrine of Pancasila-which downplays the individual role of Indonesia's religions by harnessing them to a set of universal values-has come under siege. Talib for one has nothing but contempt for it and instead wants Indonesia to be governed by Islamic law. "We don't like Pancasila because it means that Islam is the same as
other religions," he says. "This is not so. We believe that Islam is the highest religion and the best."

According to Douglas Ramage, Jakarta head of the Asia Foundation, an American not-for-profit organization, the Suharto regime is largely to blame for the emergence of sectarian groups such as Laskar. For too long, he says, the legitimate discussion of issues such as ethnicity and religion were buried under a rhetoric of forced tolerance. "It's not surprising that when the authoritarian lid comes off there's a flowering of democratic speech," says Ramage. "But there's also a seemingly natural explosion of fundamentally undemocratic ideas."

The spark for this particular explosion came hundreds of miles from Talib's base in Yogyakarta. In early 1999, a local dispute between a bus driver and a passenger in the Maluku city of Ambon soon snowballed into large-scale violence between Christians and Muslims. According to most accounts, the Muslims suffered more in early fighting. As news of Christian atrocities, both real and embellished, filtered into Java, Talib says he was stirred to do something for his co-religionists, "so that they could feel safe in their own country." In January 2000, Talib organized the first gathering of Laskar Jihad in a Yogyakarta football stadium, publicizing it with flyers and by word of mouth. By May the newly formed group had begun to ship its first fighters, armed with machetes and other crude weapons, to Maluku. Despite the media glare surrounding Laskar's departure for battle, President Abdurrahman Wahid's government stood by, unable-or unwilling-to stop them. Since then, claims Talib, Laskar's membership has grown to about 10,000, although this has not been independently verified. At any one time, he says, the group has 3,000 fighters in Maluku province. Most do four-to-five-month shifts before being replaced.

According to a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the presence of the Laskar in Maluku has decisively tipped the balance of power in favour of the Muslims, and is the main source of any continuing fighting. But for many ordinary Indonesians, exposed to magazines, videotapes and Web sites detailing alleged Christian atrocities, the Laskar Jihad are more like white knights in shining armour than a sinister private army with orders from God. Some suggest that Laskar could not exist without a wink and a nod from elements in the army eager to embarrass the civilian government. Talib denies this, though he is adept at infusing his talk of jihad with a dose of old-fashioned nationalism. "If Maluku breaks away like East Timor, it is a problem for all of Indonesia," says Talib. "This will affect other places such as Irian Jaya, Sulawesi and Flores-areas with lots of Christians."

THOUGH LASKAR is an extreme aberration, unrepresentative of most Indonesian Muslims, its rise has coincided with a gradual religious revival in the country. The position of Islam was first boosted by Suharto in the early 1990s, in an attempt to woo Muslims and shore up his waning popularity. More recently, political freedom and economic hardships have given Islam fresh impetus. According to Achmad Rozi, a director with the independent human-rights organization Paham, it has become more common to see men with beards and women covering their heads with scarves in universities.

There are other signs, of rising religious fervour, too: A magazine vendor outside Bandung's main mosque says he always manages to sell every copy of Darul Islam, a new Islamic magazine linked to NII, a hard-line Islamic group with roots in western Java. And last year, another Islamic group, the FPI, made headlines by trashing bars and discos in Jakarta. Talib says most of his recruits are from central and western Java. And there is enough of a groundswell of sympathy for him to be able to openly solicit funds for his group's activities in Maluku. In Yogyakarta, Bandung, and other towns in Java, Laskar volunteers can be seen on busy streets seeking-and receiving-donations.

There's nothing furtive about the group's Bandung office: Large green banners hang outside the house in a quiet neighbourhood, loudly proclaiming the group's mission to defend Islam. Muhamad Haris, a travelling fund-raiser for Laskar says the average donation is about 70,000 rupiah (about $6.60). According to Talib, two such donations are enough to pay for the cost of sending a fighter to Maluku. But not all of Talib's funding comes from the man on the street. Western observers say his operation could not survive without tacit approval from at least some elements in the army. They say that some Laskar Jihad soldiers have army-issue weapons, though most still use crude bombs. Talib denies any connection with the army. He does, however, admit that some of his money is raised through the Internet. Laskar's professional-looking Web site openly solicits donations for its jihad and offers a bank-account number at Indonesia's Bank Central Asia. Essentially, this means just about anybody can funnel money to the group.

Laskar's possible international connections are beginning to raise eyebrows outside Indonesia. Talib says that though some Laskar commanders have studied in Pakistan or Afghanistan foreign participation in his holy war is limited to funds transferred to the group's bank accounts. He says that only one foreigner, a Yemeni man killed in action in Maluku, has signed up to join Laskar. Some observers, however, speak of a possible Osama bin Laden connection and striking similarities between Laskar's Web site and those of Islamist groups operating as far away as Chechnya. But the group's strongest foreign link is probably much closer to home-the Muslim Moro guerrillas fighting the Philippine government.

For now, Laskar's fighters remain in Maluku, from where news of their exploits continues to trickle out. In recent months the violence there has subsided somewhat, a development Western observers attribute to the fact that most Muslims and Christians now live in separate communities. Now, emboldened by what some refer to as Jakarta's "deer in the headlights" response, some fear Laskar may look further afield in Indonesia to continue its jihad, to Java perhaps. Or perhaps its success will encourage other, more radical groups to emerge. Whatever happens, few expect the Indonesian government to bring Talib and his boys to leash. "This is a country of equal opportunity impunity," says Ramage of the Asia Foundation. "Nobody gets punished for anything."

By Sadanand Dhume

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