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Row Over Dogma Splits Indonesia's Jihadi Extremists

New America Media, News Analysis, Bramantyo Prijosusilo Posted: Sep 10, 2008

Editors Note: A split in the Indonesian Islamist movement on the eve of the holy season of Ramadan exposes fault lines that ultimately weaken the jihadi movement in Indonesia. Bramantyo Prijosusilo is a contributing writer for NAM based in Indonesia.

A split in the Indonesian Islamist movement on the eve of the holy season of Ramadan has exposed a counter-movement against its extreme and dogmatic doctrinal positions.

Just before the Indonesian Mujahidin Council's (MMI) third congress in Yogyakarta early last August, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, alleged spiritual leader of the notorious Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist organization, resigned from the position of the council's supreme leader (amir). The MMI was formed to agitate for the implementation of Sharia law in Indonesia through jihad.

Jemaah Islamiyah, which claimed responsibility for the horrific bombings in Bali in 2002 and Jakarta in 2003, seeks to overthrow governments in Southeast Asia and establish strict Islamist states. Its terrorist activities have reached Malaysia, Singapore and parts of the Philippines.

Ba'asyir charged that although MMI was correctly promoting the implementation of Sharia law by the state, internally it was following democratic traditions that, according to him, contradicted Islam. He complained further that he did not have absolute power in the organization.

Ba'asyir also explained why he waited eight years to react against the democratic practices within the organization. For most of his time as amir, he said, "The enemies of God" had him in prison. The Indonesian government imprisoned Bas'syir from 2003 to 2006, after charging him with involvement in the deadly bombings in Bali in 2002 and of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003. His conviction for conspiracy later was overturned.

The MMI elected Muhammad Thalib, who was Ba'asyir's deputy, as amir until 2013. Elected deputy amir was Abu Jibril, an Indonesian who was imprisoned in Malaysia in 2001 for terror-related activities and deported to Indonesia in 2004. Capitalizing on Indonesia's democracy and freedom, Jibril has made jihadi propaganda and recruitment more sophisticated by setting up a pro-Al Qaeda Web site (www.arrahmah.com) and publishing the glossy Jihadmagz, whose motto is "Always making the world better," without a hint of irony.

Ba'asyir's allegations that MMI's internal democratic methods rendered it un-Islamic resonated with Islamist sensibilities. MMI denied to the media that it was not following the Sunnah of Muhammad, it just did not follow Ba'asyir's whims, it stated. The new amir, Thalib, accused Ba'asyir of being a Shia and an Ahmadi. Salafi Islamists, such as those who are currently campaigning for Sharia law in Indonesia, do not consider Shias or Ahmadis to be Muslims.

Indonesian Islamists recently have relentlessly hounded and condemned the Ahmadi, accusing them of blasphemy, desecration and heresy. The MMI is still demanding that the government ban the sect outright, even though the government has already weakened the Constitution by banning the Ahmadiyah from all public activities and proselytizing.

Not long ago, Ba'asyir, happily shared a podium with an Islamist who goaded the audience to kill Ahmadiyah followers. He now says he is going to form a new organization that follows the Sunnah of Muhammad more closely before the close of Ramadan this month.

The rift between Ba'asyir and others in the MMI undoubtedly weakens the jihadi movement in Indonesia. It exposes a secret kept by most Islamists: that it is impossible to follow faithfully the ways of Muhammad who lived 1400 years ago, because the understanding of what he did and said (his Sunnah) is based on multi-interpretable texts written within a context that is now long gone.

Ulil Abshar Abdalla, founder of Indonesia's Liberal Islam network, who is currently studying for a Ph.D. in Boston, says that puritanism within organizations that claim to be following the Sunnah "correctly" will always lead to schisms. Those who feel "holier than thou" will accuse others of complacency or heresy. Abdalla advises Muslims to use their common sense and critical thinking and to be wary of claims of purity and holiness.

The more pragmatic Islamist organizations in Indonesia, such as the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), have benefited in recent local elections by moving away from Sharia propaganda. Even though some organizations continue to exploit Sharia law as an easy way to mobilize the masses, Sharia propagandists tend to lose in democratic elections.

Related Articles:

New Violence in Indonesia Over Papuan Independence

Should Indonesia Execute the Bali Bombers?

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