Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

From Ambon to Poso: Comparative and Evolutionary Aspects of Local Jihad in Indonesia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

From Ambon to Poso: Comparative and Evolutionary Aspects of Local Jihad in Indonesia

Article excerpt

On 24 December 1998, an argument between a Muslim and a Christian youth over a screwdriver followed by the stabbing of a Muslim youth by a Christian later that evening triggered communal conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi. (1) Three weeks later, on 19 January 1999, a dispute between two Muslim youths and a Christian city transport driver over a bus fare ignited communal conflict in Ambon, Maluku. (2) Both conflicts were rooted in socio-economic and political competition between Christians and Muslims. In both areas, local power-sharing arrangements had been undermined by three decades of President Suharto's centralization and migration policies. Both conflicts resulted in a lacklustre response from the Indonesian government as the communal violence on the periphery of the archipelago was deemed to be less urgent than the political struggles that were taking place in Jakarta following the fall of Suharto's New Order regime in May 1998. This provided an opening for jihadi volunteers from other parts of Indonesia, and gave rise to the Ambon and Poso jihads.

The Ambon and Poso jihads only partially overlapped with the Ambon and Poso conflicts. The Ambon jihad began after the first wave of violence in January 1999, during which Ambonese Christians had targeted Muslim migrants, destroying their market stalls, burning their houses and driving them out of Ambon. The Poso jihad started after the Walisongo massacre in May 2000 in which Muslim students and teachers from the Walisongo pesantren (Islamic boarding school), as well as Muslim migrants from the adjacent village, were hacked to death by Christians. Both jihads continued beyond the end of the communal conflicts in Poso in December 2001 and in Ambon in February 2002. The Ambon jihad waned after an attack on a police post in Loki on Seram island in 2005, while the Poso jihad temporarily ceased with a mujahidin-police shootout in Poso city's Tanah Runtuh neighbourhood in 2007. (3) Both areas remain home to small extremist cells to this day.

This article examines the Ambon and Poso jihads from a comparative and evolutionary perspective. At the heart of this analysis are two interconnected questions: Why was the Ambon jihad so much more disorganized than the Poso jihad? And to what extent was the better organization of the Poso jihad the result of lessons learnt from the "mistakes" of the Ambon jihad? This article argues that the Ambon jihad was undermined by disagreements within one of the main jihadi organizations, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), as well as by the shifting dynamics between JI and the other key jihadi groups, Mujahidin KOMPAK (4) and Laskar Jihad. This article further posits that the Poso jihad was more organized than the Ambon jihad because JI's leadership had a different, more comprehensive, approach to the Poso jihad; because JI and Mujahidin KOMPAK had learnt from some of the mistakes of the Ambon jihad in the areas of leadership, training and using local jihads to achieve national aims; and because the intra- and inter-mujahidin dynamics, and with it the "state of jihad", had evolved between February 1999 and September 2000.

The Ambon and Poso jihads have not been examined in much detail in the academic literature on the violence during the post-Suharto democratic transition. This literature, as exemplified by writings of Jacques Bertrand, Gerry Van Klinken, Yukhi Tajima and Harold Crouch (5) has instead focused on the communal conflicts. It has examined the root causes of the violence, its links to the authoritarian policies of the New Order, the violence as an assertion of identity, and as an expression of the struggle over local resources as well as political power. Jihad in Ambon and Poso was only one element within the broader analysis of the conflicts, and more often than not, it was equated with Laskar Jihad as the most visible of the jihadi groups. The Ambon and Poso jihads have also been a side story in the literature on Islamist resurgence and jihad in Indonesia. …

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