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Indonesia's far-flung 'holy war'

In Ambon, a Maluku official met with the Laskar Jihad for the first time Aug. 16.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / August 23, 2000



YOGYAKARTA, INDONESIA

At a humble mosque on the gentle slopes below one of Indonesia's largest volcanoes, Ja'far Umar Thalib, commander of a Muslim militia accused of terrorizing the Maluku islands, explains what jihad means to him.

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"It does not just mean war. In the Koran there are 13 types of jihad," he says, as a dozen disciples clad in flowing robes gather in a loose semicircle around him. "Sometimes it means peaceful struggle. Sometimes it means doing good works. Sometimes it means a fight against Satan, and sometimes it means a fight against infidels."

So, which kind of jihad is being fought in Maluku, 1,000 miles from his sleepy base? A slow smile spreads across his face as he strokes his wispy beard and answers, "All 13 at once."

Mr. Thalib is a member of a Muslim minority that has been increasingly vocal in Java's heartland since the fall of strongman Suharto two years ago. Mr. Suharto viewed almost all Islamic political activity as a threat to his regime and suppressed it. But since then, previously unknown preachers, who favor Islamic law, have emerged.

In cities throughout Java, they've closed bars and discos, and terrorized citizens they consider enemies of Islam. Thalib may be the most extreme example. Though he likes to insist that the Laskar Jihad, some 3,000 self-declared "jihad fighters" he has dispatched to Maluku since April, are there only to build mosques and homes, the fact remains that their arrival signaled a new and bloody chapter in an 18-month-old conflict that is reverberating with disturbing national and international implications for Indonesia.

Their presence has turned what had been primarily a local conflict between Christians and Muslims into a proxy war for Indonesia's tiny - but growing - band of Muslims that want sharia, or Islamic holy law, applied in this sprawling and diverse nation. They see international conspiracies to "Christianize" Indonesia behind everything from the 1999 liberation of East Timor to the country's ongoing financial crisis.

With every day that he and his militias are allowed to remain in Maluku, the logic of international calls for intervention may grow. Indonesia's own National Commission on Human Rights has recommended that "international cooperation" be considered. The region has been under a civil emergency since late June, but in the past few months Muslim fighters, often with the aid of regular Army soldiers, have gained the upper hand over local Christians in Maluku and North Maluku provinces, once known as the Spice Islands.

Christians have been effectively cleansed from Ternate, the North Maluku capital. In Ambon, the capital of Maluku, 12 Christian villages were attacked from the end of July to mid-August.

"This is no longer a nation of law," thunders Alexander Manuputty, an Ambonese Christian who recently led a delegation to the US to plead with Congress to intervene. "The government is standing by while we're being slaughtered. It doesn't mean anything to be a Muslim anymore."

Thalib and his followers insist that there is an international campaign - spearheaded by the US - to create a Christian republic in the heart of Indonesia to weaken the nation. Secretary of State "Madeleine Albright already has permission from the US government to break apart Indonesia," claims Ayip Syafruddin, who acts as Thalib's No. 2.

Diplomats and human rights investigators say the ability of Thalib to go to and from Maluku on commercial flights (he had just returned from Maluku when he met with the Monitor) is troubling, because it indicates the government's promises to remove the Laskar Jihad from the situation have been half-hearted, at best.

The freedom with which the Laskar have been able to act has terrified non-Muslims and fueled the belief that military officers - angry at the erosion of their power and prestige since the fall of Suharto in 1998, are supporting the conflict as a way of warning civilian politicians to preserve the military's political role. Last week, efforts by legislators in Jakarta to have the military's guaranteed seats in parliament revoked were abandoned.

Though Thalib's base near Yogyakarta is often described as a Muslim boarding school, or pesantren, it's little more than a few ramshackle buildings and a mosque. Millions of Javanese children receive their educations in pesantren, but there are no children and no classrooms in evidence here. Thalib laughs when asked about the children, and says his is a "pesantren for adults."

Despite the unconvincing setup, no one seems willing to act against the Laskar Jihad. When President Abdurrahman Wahid issued orders in mid-July for the Laskar to be forcibly removed from Ambon, Mr. Syafruddin threatened reprisals against "Christian posts" on Java, which was widely interpreted to mean churches. The government backed off. Syafruddin says 1,300 fresh Laskar were dispatched Aug. 6.

That Thalib's headquarters, a peaceful spot less than 10 miles from the Javanese court city of Yogyakarta, is the nerve center for a movement accused of killing hundreds in the past few months at first seems hard to believe. Aside from a few rusty swords in a shed and a punching bag in a dusty courtyard, there are few signs of martial activity.

Still, Thalib claims to be a veteran of Afghanistan's war of independence against the Soviet Union, and the Laskar Jihad have behaved with a surprising degree of discipline. And one of his most powerful weapons to date has been the written word.

In a barnlike building here are two high powered computers that drive the Laskar Jihad Web site, which reports on successful attacks on "extremist" Christians, the conversion of Christians from defeated villages, and the dispatching of fresh warriors to Maluku to carry out their "humanitarian mission."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society