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This was the first draft of the story.


By Jeremy Wagstaff/tagline to Rin Hyndriati

Until Suhendi lost his job as a bellboy at a downtown hotel last month, he wasn’t much of a Muslim. "I’d skip prayers and brawl," the lanky, bright-eyed 23 year old recalls. Now he’s got time on his hands to read the papers and listen to Friday sermons he’s mad. “My religion is under attack. If I don’t fight back, who will?”

Some of Indonesia’s Muslim groups are recruiting for what they call a ‘holy war’, and are finding a receptive audience among disenchanted youth. It’s a reflection of public frustration with the government and political groups on offer but it also reveals just how fragmented and divisive Indonesia has become.

Take the Islamic Youth Movement, which has been swamped by applicants since handing out flyers at nearby mosques earlier this month looking for anyone "willing to die for their religion". Inside, it’s a beehive of activity. Applicants — all of them young men — are ushered into rooms where they’re interviewed alone and behind closed doors. "We got 600 applicants in two days. And that’s just in one office," says movement chairman Darwin (many Indonesians take only one name). Still, it’s no pushover to join: Only 200 have been accepted so far. "We’re looking for quality, not quantity," he says.

It’s not just a drive to attract fresh worshippers: Mr. Darwin — named by his biology teacher father after Charles — believes Islam’s survival is at stake. Brutal ethnic and religious mini-wars have broken out across the country — including the Spice Island of Ambon, where hundreds of people died in recent clashes between Christians and Muslims. Mr. Darwin feels his Muslim brothers are coming off worst, and he doesn’t want it to happen again. His goal: finding candidates for a disciplined Islamic corps with skills in first aid, teaching — and self-defence. Brandishing a wallet of photographs of young men practising martial arts at a location he declines to divulge, Mr. Darwin says: "This is our first contingent; they’re ready for the next Ambon."

He’s not alone in fearing for the future of Islam: other groups are signing up recruits for similar reasons. It’s a troubling sign of a widening social chasm in Indonesia, where race and religion are often at the root of post-Suharto violence. Bloody riots last May were often directed at the ethnic Chinese minority — often Christian or Buddhist and perceived by many Indonesians to be better off. Since then clashes have erupted along ethnic or religious lines elsewhere. And while much of such unrest has exploded and quickly died down, the troubles in Ambon lasted for weeks, destroying much of the town center and creating waves of refugees who spread their tales of religious conflict to other islands.

It’s also happening against a complex political backdrop: For the first time in 30 years, overtly religious political parties are legal. President B.J. Habibie, who replaced his mentor Mr. Suharto after nationwide demonstrations last May, is struggling to hold the country and economy together until elections in June and a presidential election by the new parliament by November. Last week he was booed when he visited Aceh, one of Indonesia’s most troubled – and most Islamic – provinces. In attempting to assuage the country’s more vulnerable groups – chiefly the ethnic Chinese, whose money is regarded as vital to restoring the economy – Mr. Habibie is seen as leaving himself exposed to charges that he’s ignored the problems of Muslims.

In terms of numbers, it’s hard to imagine why Muslims would feel threatened. Accounting for around 80% of Indonesia’s 210 million people, they represent the world’s largest Islamic community. Muslims have lived in Indonesia for around 1,000 years, the first probably traders from the Arab world. By the 16th century, Islam had been embraced by many of the country’s main ethnic groups.

What’s more, most Indonesian Muslims are among the world’s most moderate, and see no significant threat to their religion. Others shudder at what they see as a revival in the use of the term ‘jihad’. The word has cropped up several times in Indonesian history, most notably in 1965 when some Islamic groups considered themselves on a ‘jihad’ to rid the country of communists: some 500,000 people died in months of slaughter. Few academics see a repeat of that period. “There are some areas of disagreement between religions in Indonesia,” says Arbi Sanit, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia (cktk). “But each one is different and I don’t think there are enough extremists to make this kind of movement strong enough.”

Still, more recent history has left some bitter aftertastes for many Muslims. President Suharto kept religion out of politics for several decades. Any whiff of Islamic radicalism was quickly squashed, including a protest by Muslims in the Jakarta port of Tanjung Priok in 1984, when several hundred people were shot dead by security forces. It was only in the last eight years of his rule that he switched tack, wooing Islamic support to bolster his own position. But even with Mr. Suharto gone, the memory of incidents such as Tanjung Priok, and army excesses in the Muslim province of Aceh, have persuaded many radicals there’s still an official campaign to corral and denigrate Islam.

But for some, especially among the more devout Muslim groups, a more unlikely conspiracy is at play. Mr. Darwin, who learned his English working for an British shipping company, echoes others when he says the CIA, Israel and overseas Chinese are plotting against Islam. He’s telling all his staff to watch the movie ‘Enemy of the State’, in which a lawyer is hounded by a National Security Agency (cktk) equipped with hi-tech surveillance gadgetry. “A leaf does not fall from a tree unless the Jews want it to,” he says.

Despite the rhetoric, few leaders of such groups see themselves as fanatics. Most hold down respectable jobs, like Hamdan Zoelva, a corporate lawyer who specializes in banking cases. “Law I consider as a job,” the besuited father of xx (tk) says in his wood-rimmed office in south Jakarta. “Social work is my hobby.” Social work, in this case, meant taking applications for jihad warriors: in the first two weeks 15,000 volunteers had signed up. “It was a way to pressure the government into doing something about Ambon,” he says. “But we’re keeping it active in case anything unexpected happens.”

Organizers aren’t necessarily calling for violence. Muslim clerics are quick to point out that the term ‘jihad’ has several meanings, and does not always carry the connotation of war.

Abdullah Hehamahua, whose Masyumi party houses the Islamic Youth Movement, says “jihad in Islam does not mean fight, but hard work, or struggle.” That’s the message being given a young applicant, 19-year old student Fedri, who’s being questioned by a Movement official in a dusty officeroom. “I’m not very impressed with your Muslim activities,” the interviewer says. “The Muslim community should be brave, brave enough to make its own decisions, even opposing the government.” The dark-eyed youth, clutching his bag, shifts nervously. “I realize now I must study more about my religion.” At another desk, a youth is taken through his paces singing verses from the Koran.

Another room tells another story. Here applicants are undergoing a ‘physical examination’ which involves being attacked by two mock assailants. There’s nothing mock, however, about the flailing limbs as the youth kicks and punches in an effort to stay on his feet. The test finishes as suddenly as it began, with a handshake and a pat on the back. “We’re looking for fighters,” says Mr. Darwin.

Indeed, there’s little spaces for theological niceties among the applicants. The combination of adventure and certainty attracts Syarifuddin, an unemployed 23-year old who says he wants to defend his Muslim brothers. But he’s not sure exactly how. Mr. Suhendi, the former bell-boy, is more outspoken. “My brothers in Ambon are desperate. I’m a Muslim so I must defend my religion. If I die, I will go to Heaven. It’s simple.”

That so many young men are flocking to organizations like Mr. Darwin reflects widespread disillusionment with the political process underway to create a new democracy. Youths like Mr. Suhendi are dismissive of the main party leaders, some of whom also head the more traditional Islamic organizations. In turn, these mainstream groups are in danger of being outflanked by more outspoken members of the faithful. Friday sermons in recent months have become more fiery, mosque-goers say: in one a preacher enflamed the congregation by reciting the story – possibly apocryphal – of a pregnant Muslim whose unborn child was torn from her womb.

At the Council of Islamic Ulamas — an umbrella group that includes all such organizations — officials fret about the rising temperature. One, Foreign Affairs Coordinator Isa Anshary, wrote an article for a mass daily earlier this month (March) defining the word ‘jihad’ in an effort to take the heat of calls for a armed defense of Islam. Another said he regularly received abusive phone calls from people demanding the council issue a fatwa on Christian Ambonese. "Last week I had more than 1,000 young men banging on my door demanding an immediate jihad. I tried to calm them down by inviting the leaders in for tea. I think I persuaded them not to head for Ambon."

Part of the problem is a theological one: anyone can declare a fatwa, and a jihad is as much a personal struggle as a communal one. This leaves a back door for anyone to set up a movement of his own and start recruiting followers. Which is exactly what Al-Habib M. Rizieq bin Hussein Syihab did last summer. Infuriated by the breakdown in law and order, the graduate of King Saud University in Riyadh set up the Islam Defenders’ Front in his front room. So far, he says, he has 16 million followers — a figure impossible to verify. On top of that, he says he has one million trained warriors ready to defend the faith. Although he set up his organization last August, membership has shot up since Ambon, he says. "The spirit of the youth is growing."

Indeed, Mr. Habib cuts an impressive figure. In flowing white robes common to Middle Eastern countries but rarely seen outside mosques in Indonesia, he sits before a lectern in his front porch dividing his time between dispensing wisdom to a procession of followers, and playing with his four daughters. Above him a picture explains in graphic detail the evils of smoking; alongside it a family tree shows him to be a 38th generation descendant of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. (ck spelling). In case his message isn’t clear, his embossed namecard spells out: "Live through honor, or die through jihad".

So far his crusade to defend the faith hasn’t been an overwhelming success. Last November (cktk) members of one of his Koran study groups in Ketapang, a north Jakarta district, reported scuffles between Muslim residents and some 400 Christian men guarding a nearby gambling hall. He quickly dispatched some 300 of his warriors to defend the local mosque. But things quickly got out of hand when the Christian gang found itself outnumbered. Brutality followed, as mobs burned nearby churches and killed several gang members in brutal fashion. Mr. Habib denies media reports he orchestrated the violence, and says his men were not among the killers. But he believes it was right to intervene, even if the presence of his men encouraged the rioters. "As a Muslim community we reacted. The mosque is a sacred symbol. Once it has been touched Muslims have a responsibility to defend it."

Still, it wasn’t an auspicious start for Muslim vigilantism. And it reflects some of the dangers inherent in such groups. While organizers say they’ve only sent paramedics to Ambon, they’re ready for trouble elsewhere. And that worries human rights groups like Human Rights Watch’s Sidney Jones, who sees the mushrooming of private security squads, both religious and secular, as adding to the menace ahead of June’s elections. “The problem happens whenever you take anyone from outside. It’s only going to make things worse.”


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