The Magazine

Jihad Comes to Indonesia

Bin Laden's allies attempt a hostile takeover.

Dec 31, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 16 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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THE ROAD BETWEEN Poso and Tentena on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi runs past burned-out homes, stores, and churches, and is blocked by checkpoints adorned with pictures of Osama bin Laden. Some have signs proclaiming him "our leader." Islamic militias stop vehicles and check identity papers. Christians have been dragged out of cars and buses and summarily shot.

The checkpoints are the work of the Laskar Jihad militia. In the last two years it has slaughtered thousands. It has also forcibly converted other thousands to Islam, and then circumcised them, men and women, sometimes with scissors. Its goal is to kill, convert, or drive out all non-Muslims, mainly Christians, from Indonesia's eastern islands and to implement Islamic sharia law throughout this sprawling and populous country.

Indonesia is about 85 percent Muslim, but many parts of the east have Christian majorities and are sparsely populated. Some areas, such as Maluku and Irian Jaya, have had independence movements. In the 1970s, the Indonesian government began a "transmigration" program to move people from the overcrowded central islands, mainly Java, to these less populated regions. In addition to its economic motives, the government hoped to make Islam the majority religion in all parts of the country, and so dampen separatist sentiment.

The transmigration effort fueled ethnic and religious tension. Locals feared becoming minorities in their own areas and believed that newcomers were getting government preferences, including the best jobs. Eventually there was violence. The worst carnage came in the Maluku islands, some 1,400 kilometers northeast of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.

In 1998, an argument between a Muslim and a Christian over bus fare led to pushing and shoving, then riots, then full-scale religious war. In the last two years in Maluku there have been 9,000 killed and half a million refugees.

Still, many in Maluku thought peace was still possible, and Muslim and Christian leaders jointly called for reconciliation. These hopes were dashed by Laskar Jihad's intervention in mid-2000. Using tales of Christian attacks on Muslims, some of them true, the group recruited youths in Java, its headquarters. In full view of Indonesian security forces, it outfitted its recruits with white uniforms, gave them military training and automatic weapons, and shipped off thousands to the east.

With the arrival of the Jihad forces, what had previously been religious clashes, with dead on both sides, became one-sided religious cleansing and slaughter. The Jihad swept through Maluku, burning homes and churches, and killing and driving out Christians, as well as the few Hindus and Buddhists. The government stood passively by until early 2001, when the arrival of government special forces brought some order, though sporadic bombings, burnings, and massacres continue.

The Jihad then turned its attention to the neighboring island of Sulawesi, where there had been similar violence. In July 2001, 750 jihadists arrived, after notifying the local governor of their coming. In the next few months, more arrived, broadcasting their goal of driving out all Christians and instituting sharia law.

They set up roadblocks, put up bin Laden posters, and, using armored bulldozers, automatic rifles, and the occasional rocket launcher, isolated and surrounded 60,000 Christians in the Poso area, threatening to finish them off before Christmas. In the first week of December 2001, government security forces finally arrived, and there is now a measure of peace. But there are fears that the Jihad will move into northern Sulawesi, and kill again until someday government forces catch up with them.

THERE ARE OTHER radical Islamic groups in Indonesia. The province of Aceh, at the northernmost tip of Sumatra, has long been hospitable to militant Muslims. Its Islamists have always been highly restrictive, out of step with the easy-going ways in the rest of the country, and have fought for independence in order to create a pure Islamic state along the lines of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. The Indonesian army has repressed them in a decades-long brutal war.

After Indonesia's first truly democratic elections in 1998, the new president, Abdurraham Wahid, sought to end the Acehnese rebellion by reining in the army and meeting some of the militants' demands. In July 2001, the Indonesian legislature gave the province more autonomy and allowed it to institute Muslim courts and sharia. This past October, as part of its program to implement its version of Islamic law, the local government in Aceh Singkil district ordered the destruction of churches and forbade Christians to practice religion in their own homes. The order allowed five small church buildings to remain "as a sign of Islamic tolerance."