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All Quiet on the Jihadi Front Jun 12, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. NoorUstaz Ja’far Umar Thalib is a rather bored man these days. The former head of the now-disbanded Laskar Jihad was looking rather glum and down when I interviewed him recently, at his Pesantren al-Sunna in the outskirts of Jogjakarta, Central Java.

In the early 2000s Ja’far Umar Thalib was the man to watch, the flame-eater and flame-thrower of the moment. Following the economic and financial crises that rocked Southeast Asia in 1998, Indonesia was thrown into turmoil. Overnight the collapse of the value of the Thai Baht led to the subsequent collapse of the Indonesian Rupiah, Filipino Peso and Malaysian Ringgit. President Suharto was ultimately overthrown by angry demonstrators led by students who stormed the Parliament in Jakarta.

While the country was reeling from the effects of the economic meltdown, racial and religious tempers flared. The unfortunate Chinese minority were singled out as economic traitors and the Chinese quarter of Glodok in central Jakarta was set to the torch by angry mobs looking for scapegoats. In the outer island provices of Moluccas, Muslim-Christian antipathy flowed into the streets and led to mass killings on both sides.

It was during this time that Ja’far Umar Thalib, one of the lesser-known firebrands of Indonesia, came to the fore. Based at his pesantren in Jogja, Ja’far rallied his students and followers and created the notorious Laskar Jihad (Army of Jihad), a semi-underground movement of militant volunteers who were then despatched to the Moluccas to avenge the killing of Muslims by Christians.

The Laskar was but one of many right-wing conservative militant movements that flourished during the troubled months that followed the toppling of Suharto. The weak leadership of B. J. Habiebie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri that followed did little to help, as it lended weight to the impression that nobody was running the country. Acting with impunity the Laskar Jihad opened training camps that gave paramilitary combat training to the hundreds of assorted unemployed premans (freemen, mercenaries) who swelled the ranks of the Laskar. Soon after they were sent by boats to the Moluccas, where needless to say their presence merely made things worse. While the Laskar Jihad did battle with Christian militias such as the Laskar Kristus, the Moluccas burned and the capital of Ambon looked like a battleground.

Since then the Laskar and its leader have been making the headlines in Indonesia. Following the debacle in the Moluccas Ja’far Umar Thalib and the Laskar Jihad turned their attention to the cosmopolitcan cities of Jakarta, Jogjakarta and Surakarta, where they became famous (or infamous) for their tough brand of moral policing: Attacking and destroying night-clubs, discos, cinemas, video stores, etc all became their hallmark. In time their commando-like members, dressed in soldiers outfits, even raided hotels to demand that Western tourists leave the country…

By 2005, however, the Laskar had become an embarrassment for the country and were told to disband in no uncertain terms. Local political observers argued that this pointed to intimate connections between the Laskar and the Indonesian security forces, something that Ja’far himself admitted in his press interviews three years ago. Having served their role as trouble-makers on the pay of the rich and powerful, they have had their strings cut and Ja’far Umar Thalib is now very much an isolated and discredited individual. Not even the other Indonesian radical groups like the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia or Fron Pembela Islam would care to talk to him. Left alone at his madrasah, Ja’far has little to do but tend his flock. “I have returned to my original struggle, my original Jihad, which is education” the man admits.

The lesson to be gained here is that religious militancy in Indonesia remains an abberation, and not the norm. Ja’far Umar is but one of many leaders who shot to fame when the country was in a state of crisis, and whose popularity depended in part on the poor record of governance in the country and the blunders of the Western and American forces in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. But with America’s withdrawal from Iraq already on the cards, Ja’far has less to complain about, and even less to rant about. The papers have already forgotten him, and once again the mainstream moderate Islamist organisations of Indonesia are setting the tone and temper of Islamic discourse in the country. Ustaz Ja’far is thus left with little to do, save to wait for the next American military blunder that will exite his followers and get the Jihadis on the streets again…

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