TCS Daily

Aceh and the Islamists

By Yang Razali Kassim - March 11, 2005 12:00 AM

In its post-tsunami statement, the Free Aceh Movement -- better known as GAM --
made a conscious effort to keep its distance from an Islamist organisation known as the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia (the Indonesian Mujahidin Council). GAM referred to MMI as an umbrella organisation for hardline groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front or FPI) and Laskar Jihad which it did not want to be identified with.

MMI was founded in August 2000 by Abu Bakar Bashir, whom foreign governments alleged to be the spiritual head of the outlawed Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). FPI is headed by Muhammad Habib Rizieq who is better known for his radical approach of confronting bars and nightclubs that refused to shut down during the fasting month of Ramadan. Laskar Jihad in turn was started by Jaafar Umar Thalib, an Indonesian of Yemeni descent who took part in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Laskar Jihad follows the purist Wahabbi doctrine and draws membership from the less educated. Laskar Jihad was also formed to protect Muslims in Maluku in the inter-communal conflict there with Christians.

The hardline stance adopted by MMI, FPI and Laskar Jihad is however not really shared by the majority of Indonesia's Islamic community, although they empathise with the groups' motivation to advance the interests of the Muslims. For example, the Justice and Prosperity Party, (PKS), the Islamic party which is even more active in Aceh doing relief and humanitarian work, is not comfortable with the militancy of FPI and Laskar Jihad.

Aceh is where Islam first landed in Indonesia and subsequently spread to the rest of South-east Asia. That is why it is also known as Serambi Mekah (Window to Mecca). The attachment that Acehnese have for Islam is therefore deep-seated. Analysts see Aceh's relationship with Islam in terms of three phases: First, Aceh as an independent and prosperous Islamic sultanate having its own diplomatic ties with Europe (from 1524 to 1873); Second, Aceh during the Dutch colonial period, during which the Acehnese sultanate put up the strongest resistance against Dutch attempts to colonise the East Indies; and third, Aceh's role in its war for Indonesian independence and the subsequent fight for an Islamic state known as Darul Islam (1945-1959). The three phases shaped Aceh's distinct Islamic identity.

In 1976, however, the Free Aceh Movement or GAM emerged as the leading vanguard of Acehnese political expression. It marked a shift towards Acehnese secular-nationalism at the level of the elite who strive for independence. But on the ground, the Acehnese inclination towards the Islamic identity remains strong. This is a fact which GAM itself has had to accommodate. It is also a reason why the Indonesian government found it sensible to compromise and offer a special autonomy package that allowed the implementation of syariah or Islamic law in Aceh, provided the province remained part of Indonesia. The offer of syariah is a major concession for Jakarta in view of its staunch commitment to the secularist-nationalist ideology of Pancasila.

If both GAM and Jakarta regard the separatist conflict as having gone on for too long, the post-tsunami period is the best time to end it. It is just as well that both have begun peace talks in Helsinki to find a rapprochement. But the road to permanent peace may not be easy to travel. It will depend on one fundamental: Can the two sides agree on what the future Aceh will be?

GAM, given its ethno-nationalist ideology, is not fighting for an Islamic state. But its ultimate goal has always been an independent state of Aceh -- which is however something Jakarta will never accept. In the Helsinki talks, Jakarta has even rejected GAM's offer to suspend its quest for independence in return for a referendum in Aceh within a decade.

In the latest round of talks in Helsinki, GAM continued its peace offensive by signalling a readiness to discuss Jakarta's offer of special autonomy in Aceh in return for "self-government". Has GAM become pragmatic and accept what it could well see as the new reality on the ground? Or has GAM become so weakened by the tsunami disaster that it is prepared to accept a final solution that falls short of its dream of an independent Aceh - Islamic state or not?

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


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