Jihad Misunderstood?

A video containing admissions by three of the suicide bombers who perpetrated the Bali attacks of 1 October has triggered a long-overdue debate amongst Muslims in Indonesia about Islamist terrorism. Bettina David reports

photo: AP
Balinese residents pray as they express their condolescence at a beach near the bomb blast site in Jimbaran, Bali island

​​On 9 November, the Indonesian security forces notched up an important victory over Islamic terrorism: the putative South-East Asian top terrorist Dr. Azahari Husin was killed during an anti-terror unit operation in East Java.

The Malaysian has long been right at the top of Indonesia's list of most wanted people: he is assumed to have been responsible for both attacks on Bali and for the attacks on the Marriott Hotel in 2003 and the Australian embassy in Jakarta in the following year.

A CD containing a film was found in the hideout of his accomplice, Noordin M. Tops, who just managed to escape the security forces. The content of the film has rudely awakened the Indonesian public and made it unmistakeably clear that Indonesia has a domestic Islamic terrorism problem.

In the film, the three suicide bombers responsible for the most recent Bali attack explain that by implementing their deadly plan they were acting on God's command to wage a holy war (jihad) in order to defend Islam against the infidels.

Terrible shock for many Indonesians

Extracts from the film were shown on Indonesian television. It can no longer be denied or ignored: the bombers were Muslims who devoutly invoke their religious belief and the Koran. This was a terrible shock for many Indonesians.

To date the problem of "Islamist terrorism" has been widely suppressed and there has been no open, public discussion about it. Many people find it easier to believe wild conspiracy theories than what is often perceived as a prejudiced western view that considers Islam to be the problem per se and seeks to immediately blame Muslims for every bomb attack.

photo: AP
Muslim militants Azahari bin Husin and Noordin Mohammed - Representatives of various Islamic organisations have condemned the terrorist attacks. But the rhetoric is often vague

​​Now, however, the suicide bombers' video admission would appear to have set the ball rolling. Vice President Jusuf Kalla screened the unedited version of the film to a group of invited Islamic clerics from a variety of institutions. The screening was followed by official statements.

The clerics were unanimous in their conclusions: this was an "unmistakeable jihad concept", the terrorist attacks were in breach of Islam, should be considered haram (religiously forbidden) according to the Sharia (Islamic law) because Indonesia was not in a state of war, and should certainly not be categorised as jihad or a martyr's death.

The Indonesian ulemas council (MUI, "Majlis Ulama Indonesia"), which hit the headlines in the summer by issuing fatwas against religious liberalism and secularism, was quick to point out that it had issued a fatwa after the attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003 stating that terrorism and suicide bomb attacks in peaceful regions were "haram" according to Islam.

No clear and unmistakeable stance

The various Islamic organisations declared that they would work together to do all they could to enlighten the population as to the "real" meaning of jihad and, in so doing, to protect the people against the increasing influence of radical ideologies.

The Ministry of Religion has set up an "anti-terror team", which comprises representatives of the most important mass Islamic organisations and Islamic intellectuals, and which is headed by Ma'ruf Amin, the chairman of the MUI's fatwa commission.

The Islamic clerics' admission that the perpetrators are Muslims who are acting on the basis of a misinterpretation of jihad is a new departure. However, conservative groups are avoiding taking a clear and unmistakeable stance. The principle of jihad as a religious obligation to use, if necessary, violence to defend Islam is not in itself called into question.

Din Syamsuddin, the hard-line president of the "Muhammdiyah", stated: "The concept of jihad is only valid in war zones like Palestine, but not in a country like Indonesia, which lives in peace with its neighbours." Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan are listed by some clerics as countries where jihad, even in the form of suicide bomb attacks, are expressly permitted by Islam.

In doing so, however, some representatives of moderate Islamic organisations are sailing dangerously close to the statements of the imprisoned assumed spiritual leader of the terrorist organisation "Jemaah Islamiyah", Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, who has frequently spoken out in the press in favour of terrorist attacks against the USA and its allies.

Ba'asyir has emphasised in interviews that as far as he is concerned, Osama Bin Laden and Azahari's fight against the West is generally worthy of praise, but that attacks in Indonesia are the wrong way of going about reaching the right goal.

Indonesia has long been a "war zone"

photo: AP
Militant Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir waves to journalists from inside a detention truck as he leaves the court after his trial in Jakarta

​​He says that it would have been better to perpetrate these attacks in the West or in war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan in order to hit the enemy directly without indiscriminately killing innocent Muslims.

The reference to Indonesia as a country that lives in peace is also questionable in view of the widespread conspiracy theories that claim the West is waging a global war against Islam. According to these scenarios, Indonesia has long been a "war zone".

Din Syamsuddin, for example, has called on the government not only to fight terrorism, but also not to lose sight of the "global conspiracy". He also said that the press should not always link terrorist attacks to Islam because terrorism does not have its roots either in Islam or in any other religion. "To link Islam with terrorism is an insult to Muslims," emphasises Din in the newspaper "Jawa Pos".

In view of this continuing defensive stance, M. Guntur Romli of the Liberal Islam Network ("Jaringan Islam Liberal", JIL) points to the key problem: "Are the clerics actually aware that the motives of the terrorists are in line with the content of the sermons, prayer circles, and teachings of a lot of clerics whom we respect as religious authorities?" It appears that we must answer this question with a "no".

Bettina David

© Qantara.de 2005

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan


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