September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Muslim Politics in Indonesia After September 11 - Robert W. Hefner Institute on Religion and World Affairs, Boston University, Director, Project on “Civil Democratic Islam: Prospects and Policies for the Muslim World”; December 12, 2001


Robert W. Hefner

Institute on Religion and World Affairs, Boston University,

Director, Project on “Civil Democratic Islam: Prospects and Policies for the Muslim World”

In evaluating the situation of Muslims in Indonesia after the September attacks on the United States, we have to distinguish the reaction of ordinary Muslims from intrigues among rival Muslim elites. In the days following September 11, many Muslims expressed heartfelt condolences for the American victims of the violence. By contrast, when the United States initiated its air campaign against al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan, hardline Muslims demanded that Indonesians boycott American-owned businesses and that the government suspend diplomatic relations with the U.S. Islamist hardliners linked to groups battling Christians in eastern Indonesia (about whom I’ll have more to say later) threatened to use their paramilitaries to “sweep” local hotels in search of American and British visitors. Despite these threats, and despite, I might add, the pro-Taliban reporting in once-proud Islamic newspapers like Republika (a newspaper linked to supporters of former President Habibie), no sweepings occurred, and the number of demonstrators outside the American embassy never exceeded more than a few thousand – a pittance in this country of 210 million. Equally important, leaders of the two largest Islamic organizations, the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, which have some 50 million followers, repudiated calls for radical action.

On the basis of examples like these, I believe we can conclude that sentiment among mainstream Muslims remains consistent with the remarks of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who offered soft words of consolation to the victims of the September attacks when she visited the U.S. However, there is an anti-American countercurrent to the mainstream Muslim view. Traces of this sentiment were apparent in the comments of Vice President, Hamzah Haz, shortly after the attack. Leader of a large Islamic party that advocates the implementation of Islamic law, Mr. Hamzah qualified his expression of condolences with the observation that the violence might help the United States “expiate its sins,” presumably in the Middle East. Similarly, in late September, the government-sponsored Council of Indonesian Islamic Scholars (MUI, Majelis Ulama Indonesia) issued an official declaration stating that, if the United States attacked Afghanistan, all Muslims were obliged to join the jihad against the U.S. The MUI declaration was one of the harshest statements of support for the Taliban heard from any state-supported religious body in the Muslim world.

Certainly it is not surprising that Muslims might take issue with some U.S. policies, most notably in the Middle East. Rather than reflecting broad public sentiment, however, extremist statements like those calling for jihad against the U.S. have more to do with a bitter struggle now unfolding between moderates and hardliners for the hearts and minds of the Muslim community. Having succeeded in ousting the former president Abdurrahman Wahid in August 2001, hardline Islamists are now pressing forward, attempting to place the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri on the defensive.

How did things get to be this way? As I noted two years ago, in its final years the New Order was not the Soehartoist monolith that many American policy makers and academics had long imagined. From 1990 on, the ruling party and the military were plagued by bitter factional divides between those eager to play the Islamist card and those (also mostly Muslim) inclined to support secular nationalist policies. Soeharto himself took advantage of this rivalry, playing the so-called green or Islamist generals off against the red or secular nationalist generals. From 1994 on, Soeharto tended to favor the Islamists, providing funding and tactical support to small but militant Islamist organizations. Soeharto looked to the hardliners for help in attacking the democracy movement, which he and they attempted to portray as anti-Islamic.

The turn to ultraconservative Islam also impacted the ruling party, Golkar. Although for most of its history Golkar had been a big tent which included Christians, secular nationalists, and nominal as well as pious Muslims, from 1994 on President Soeharto awarded control of the party’s powerful “strategy bureau” (Litbang Golkar) to hardliners tied to an Islamist faction in the armed forces. In collaboration with the Islamist military, the strategy bureau crafted many of the fiercely anti-Chinese, anti-Christian, and anti-American propaganda tracts issued during the last months of Soeharto rule. Booklets like the Conspiracy to Overthrow Soeharto described an evil conspiracy in which the U.S., the Vatican, Israel’s Mossad, abangan Javanese (i.e. nominal Muslims), and Chinese Indonesians engineered the 1997-1998 financial crisis so as to drive Soeharto from power. The book ended by calling for enemies of Islam to be driven from Indonesia once and for all, singling out the Chinese as especially deserving of such drastic treatment. This tract was distributed to conservative Islamist groups just weeks prior to the riots of May 13-14, 1998, when thousands of Chinese shops were destroyed, and some one hundred thousand Chinese fled the country.

After Soeharto’s fall in May 1998, it looked for a while as if hardline Islamists in the armed forces and bureaucracy had been discredited once and for all. However, recent events show that over the past year these groups have staged a remarkable come back. It is no coincidence, for example, that the principle architect of the September statement from the Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI) calling for jihad against the United States was also the man who directed Golkar’s Strategy Bureau during the years Soeharto pursued his alliance with hardline Islamists. This same man spearheaded Islamist opposition to former President Wahid; more recently, he has lent his support to hardline groups calling for jihad against Christians in Maluku and Sulawesi. This man and his associates are skillfully exploiting the issue of American involvement in Afghanistan to advance their political careers and ratchet up pressure on the Megawati government.

The primary threat in Indonesia, then, is not extremism in the public as a whole but the efforts of a small but influential faction in the political elite to hijack the political process and the Muslim community. With this general observation in mind, let me end my testimony today with a few comments on the violence in the eastern Indonesian territories of Maluku and Poso, Central Sulawesi. Over the past three years, an estimated 6000 people have died in Muslim-Christian violence in these provinces.

I must emphasize from the beginning that neither the Muslim nor Christian side in these awful conflicts has had a monopoly on the use of horrific violence. In fact, in both provinces Christians were involved in some of the earliest incidents of violence, including mass killings of refugee women and children. Nonetheless, it is clear that tensions in both of these regions have been exacerbated by the arrival of well armed and well-funded Islamic paramilitaries from Java and Sumatra. The largest of these groups is known as the “jihad militia” or Laskar Jihad. This organization has its roots in a conservative Islamist movement founded in central Java in the early 1990s by a young and charismatic Arab-Indonesian, Jafar Umar Thalib. Having studied in Pakistan and fought alongside the mujahidin in Afghanistan, Jafar returned to Indonesia in the early 1990s. Today he is reported to have ties to the Islamist wing of the armed forces, as well as associates of former President Soeharto. It is equally true, however, that other factions in the military and government oppose Jafar’s activities.

The Laskar Jihad asserts that the U.S. and Israel are coordinating an international campaign to destroy Muslims in general and Indonesia in particular. On this point, at least, the Laskar Jihad’s ideology bears a strong resemblance to that of Osama bin Laden. In recent years some members of the Laskar Jihad have had contacts with bin Laden, and a few dozen Arab fighters are reported to have traveled to Maluku and Poso to aid in the battle against Christians, the most recent having been sighted last month by BBC reporters.

However, we would do well to distinguish the Laskar Jihad from bin Laden and al Qaida. In recent weeks, as the United States has mounted its campaign in Afghanistan, the Laskar Jihad leadership has taken pains to distance itself from bin Laden. Laskar Jihad press releases describe bin Laden as a “Kharijite” or a religiously deviant rebel. Whatever the extent of its earlier contacts, the Laskar Jihad depends primarily on domestic support for its survival. In light of this dependency, and in light of elite sponsors’ wariness of risking the ire of the U.S., it is not surprising that the Laskar leadership has taken pains to repudiate bin Laden More generally, I believe we can conclude that the primary influences on Indonesia’s religious violence are domestic, not international. They are related above all to the continuing erosion of state authority, the growing reliance of local groupings (Christian as well as Muslim) on paramilitary violence, and a fierce struggle between moderates and hardliners for the heart and soul of the Muslim community.

Let me end with four summary points. First, elite politics in Indonesia was bitterly factionalized by the end of the Soeharto era. Taking their cues from Soeharto himself, some among the political elite turned to hardline Islamists as a foil against the democratic opposition and against those calling for investigations of the military.

Second, this factionalism carried over into the post-Soeharto period. Hardline Islamists in the military and Golkar at first seemed discredited by their earlier collaboration with Soeharto. However, the international outcry against the September 1999 violence in East Timor and anxieties about calls for human rights investigations led some old regime associates to grow alarmed at Indonesia’s reform process. The result was that they renewed their tactical alliance with hardline Islamists. The resulting flow of funds to jihad groups has exacerbated the violence in eastern Indonesia considerably.

Third, with Wahid removed in August 2001, and with public support for Megawati Sukarnoputri slipping, hardline Islamic groups had decided to mobilize against Megawati Sukarnoputri even before the events of September 11, 2001. The American campaign in Afghanistan provided the hardliners with additional ammunition against moderate Muslims and secular nationalists.

Fourth and finally, however, the contest for the hearts and minds of Indonesian Muslims is far from over. The majority of Indonesian Muslims are moderate; many support democracy and look with sympathy to the West. Over the past year, however, the moderates have been skillfully outmaneuvered by Islamist hardliners. Nonetheless, despite the disarray in their leadership, a clear majority among Muslims opposes the jihadi violence in the Maluku, is uneasy with strident anti-Americanism, and yearns for a politics that is moderate and inclusive.

All this means that the US campaign against al-Qaida will continue to have a serious impact on Indonesia’s Muslim community. But the impact need not be fatally destabilizing. Much depends on the efforts of Megawati and the mainstream Muslim leadership, and on whether moderate elements in the armed forces can be urged to pull the country back from the current political and economic abyss.

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