Borchers, H. (2004) - Hardline Islamist Discourse in Indonesia-Sabili
Borchers, H. (2004): Hardline Islamist Discourse in Indonesia: Sabili and the
International Dimension (Draft paper)1
Abstract: The ‘War on Terror’ and US foreign policies subsequent to 9/11 have not
changed hardline Islamist discourse in Indonesia significantly. The players are the
same, locked in the rhetoric of a ‘clash of civilisations’, but certain hardline views –
as articulated in the popular news magazine ‘Sabili’ – have moved from the fringe of
public opinion closer to the mainstream. Thereby, hardline Islamist discourse
contributes to a growing awareness of regional and global issues among the public.
While eyed with suspicion by foreign observers, the prevalence of hardline Islamist
views may be conducive to furthering critical debate on such issues in the Indonesian
Indonesia is in a time of transition. The post-Soeharto years have been characterised
by civil and political turmoil. As the successful elections in 1999 and 2004 indicate,
however, the process of democratisation is positively transforming the country’s
political landscape. One feature of this development is the rise of political Islam.
Historically, the Indonesian state has had an uneasy relationship with Islam. The
question of whether Indonesia should be founded upon secular or religious principles
was at the crux of the problem, but the establishment of a full-blown Islamic state is
now only the aspiration of a hardline fringe within Indonesia’s Muslim majority. As
the elections suggest, most Indonesians are in favour of a secular, pluralistic system
(see Raillon 2004). At the same time, the pluralism of Indonesia’s civil sphere has
also strengthened and promoted a discourse that endorses the imposition of a narrow
minoritarian and exclusionist ideology.
Hardline Islamist discourse in Indonesia is much more visible now than it ever was or
could have been under Soeharto’s authoritarianism, which effectively silenced any
ideology contrary to the principles espoused by the regime. Indeed, it has become a
widespread and vocal element within popular political discourse. The fortnightly
publication Sabili is the flagship of this phenomenon in the publishing world. It
analyses domestic and international affairs from an Islamist perspective. Although its
exclusivist views are representative of a hardline minority among Indonesia’s tolerant
and pluralistic Muslim majority, Sabili has now become among the most popular
news magazines in Indonesia, with a circulation of approximately 145.000 in 2003
(Vatikiotis 2003). This situation leads us to wonder what special appeal this magazine
holds, and how we can account for its popularity ahead of many more moderate
Content analysis of Sabili over the past 15 years suggests that one of its main
strengths has been its ability to tap into the growing political awareness of Indonesia’s
Muslim community. Some of the views expressed in Sabili that are based on domestic
concerns, such as perceived secularisation and a decline in morals, also appeal to a
wider, moderate audience. Moreover, the plight and suffering of Muslim communities
worldwide and America’s role as ‘world police’ has long been a prominent feature of
this discourse. In this international dimension, Sabili illustrates global politics through
This is a draft paper; it should not be cited without authorisation by the author (email@example.com).
the lens of a ‘civilisational clash’, by bluntly portraying Western political domination
as a new Crusade, a ‘War on Islam’ and an attempt to establish a new, post-Cold War,
world order. The wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are
depicted as a clash of Islam with ‘the other’, epitomised by U.S. imperialism and what
is perceived to be a “Judeo-Christian” conspiracy to destroy Islam.
While under the New Order, such views were only asserted by a small, politically
outcast minority and largely ignored by the majority of Indonesian Muslims, they now
enjoy very broad popular support in the context of contemporary geopolitics and the
liberalised information market in which both print media and the internet play
important roles. Sabili appears to be at the epicentre of this phenomenon. The
discursive underpinnings of Islamist extremism now receive wide attention among the
Muslim community, suggesting that certain views are becoming more acceptable and
relevant. The new wave of anti-Americanism and anti-Bushism among Indonesians
generally and the Muslim community in particular resonates with the views about
current world affairs as articulated by hardline Islamists. More importantly, the
hardline Islamist discourse of publications such as Sabili may in fact be an important
stimulus in the construction of a modern Indonesian Muslim identity that could
considerably influence the national and regional policy development. Sabili’s leap
forward from the fringe of hardline Islamism closer to the Muslim mainstream may
exemplify the subtle ideological transformation Indonesia’s umat is undergoing.2
The Roots of Islamism in Indonesia
Though prominently termed ‘the world’s most populous Muslim nation’, Indonesia’s
history has been characterised by secularist politics, legally founded on the 1945
constitution and ideologically articulated in the five pillars of the Pancasila, the state
philosophy. Pancasila was propagated by the political elite, and widely accepted by
the populace as reflecting cultural and moral values held in common by the numerous
ethnic and religious communities of the country (van Bruinessen 2002a). Indonesia
accommodates Hindus, Protestants, Catholics and Buddhists, alongside its majority
Muslim population. Although the first of Pancasila’s five principles encodes “belief in
the one and only God” – a non-sectarian restatement of the doxological la ilaha
illallah, the first pillar of Islam – its lack of overt Islamic language was designed to
acknowledge Indonesia’s religious diversity in language reassuring to the Muslim
majority.3 Also the constitution did not make any explicit reference to Islamic law and
practice.4 Muslim leaders had drafted an amendment for the preamble of the
constitution that would oblige adherents to Islam to uphold Islamic law, or syariah.
However, in a last minute manoeuvre the Piagam Jakarta, or ‘Jakarta Charter’, was
excluded from the final version of the constitution (Hefner 2000:42).
Although until the 1960s all Islamic parties supported the Jakarta Charter, it was
never passed under Soekarno and Soeharto, both of whom promoted a political order
Here, umat stands for the members of the Muslim community, but this transformation would also
manifest itself in society at large.
The other four principles of the Pancasila are nationalism, humanitarianism, social justice and
Article 29 states that [1.] The State shall be based upon the belief in the One and Only God, and [2.]
The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion
orbelief. (Department of Information, 1989, The 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia).
that subordinated Islam to a secular political culture. Support for the amendment
decreased under the Soeharto regime and, in Indonesia’s 1999 election, most of the
larger Islamic parties such as the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) and the Partai
Amanat Nasional (PAN),5 alongside their respective popular support bases Nahdlatul
Ulama and Muhammadiyah, had distanced themselves from the Charter. Overall
support was minimal, and Islamic parties in favour of the Jakarta Charter won just 4%
of the vote that year. This did not change much in the parliamentary and presidential
contests of 2004, with Islamic parties only making modest gains, indicating limited
support for the nation-wide imposition of syariah. All indications are that the majority
of the Indonesian electorate endorses pluralist parties and a secularist political regime
and opposes the exclusivist politics under the banner of Islamism.6
These electoral results appear to confirm the popular notion that Indonesia’s Muslim
majority practices a pluralistic and tolerant Islam, and that many adhere to a syncretic
or idiosyncratic variant of the faith. Islam arrived through trade links with India
andthe Middle East, and in most cases areas adjusted itself to the contours of pre-
existing faiths, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and indigenous beliefs. However, there
was a steady and growing intellectual exchange with the Middle East and the Arab
peninsula since the mid-19th Century. This flow of ideas helped initiate an Islamic
revival in many parts of the archipelago, which endowed portions of the Indonesian
umat with a stronger Muslim identity. Nevertheless, most of Indonesia’s Muslims
remain somewhat nominal in their faith, and casual about their devotional obligations,
with adherence to Islam being a matter of culture or convenience. Only about one
third of Indonesia’s Muslim population is said to practise a devout or orthodox Islam
At the same time, Islam in Indonesia has been ‘on the rise’ for the past quarter
century, experiencing a rejuvenation of belief and practices, expressed in the effort of
moving from a casually heterodox to a committed orthopractic interpretation of Islam.
This is to some extent due to the socio-political and economic changes the country has
experienced over the past decades, and to similar trends in transnational Islam.
Increased urbanisation, economic stagnation, a large pool of discontented poor and
insufficient state education are counterbalanced by the presence of Islamic
institutions, some old, some quite new, including Islamic credit unions and micro-
banks7 and the provision of affordable education in Indonesia’s many pesantren,
Islamic boarding schools.8 The development of these institutions parallel to, or in
place of, government services is significant in that it calls into question the social
The PKB, or National Awakening Party, came in third at the 1999 and the 2004 elections. Its major
figure is Abdurrahman Wahid/Gus Dur. PAN, the National Mandate Party, is led by Amien Rais and
came in fifth in 1999 and seventh at the 2004 elections. Both stand for a secular, pluralist Islam.
See Eliraz (2004:68ff), Wanandi (2004), Fealy (2003), Davis (2002:14), Lanti (2002). Significantly,
the situation is quite different in Jakarta, where the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS), or Prosperous
Justice Party, which is perceived as a “clean Islamic party” that stands for a more orthodox
interpretation of the faith, won the 2004 election with 22 percent, thereby possibly distorting the overall
impression of political Islam in the country (Raillon 2004:2ff). However, the PKS does not support
syariah, which has probably helped in attracting 7.2% of the national vote and 22.8% of the votes in
Jakarta (Eliraz 2004:23-24, Raillon 2004:3).
Particularly since the 1997 financial crisis, Islamic ‘banks’ were at the forefront of bailing out poor
families hit by the crisis. See Wright (2000), also Azra (2003:40ff).
Blanchard (2004a:5-6) observed that almost 20-25% of primary and secondary school children in
Indonesia attend pesantrens. See also Azra (2003:41ff) and Wright (2000).
contract between the state and the people. It could also be interpreted as a basis for
criticism of the nation-state as a Western – and as such unsuitable – concept. The
prevalence and efficiency of Islamic organisations and institutions in the
socioeconomic sphere furthers the erosion of the legitimacy of the secular state and
suggests an alternative, Islamic model (see Ehteshami 1997:189).
Furthermore, Islam is becoming an important social and cultural element among the
middle class that emerged over the past two decades.9 The trend towards devotion to
Islamic values is a widespread phenomenon among well-off and better-educated
Indonesians.10 The growing popularity of Islam was certainly facilitated by the
increased support the faith received in the later years of the Soeharto era, making
Islamic practice more socially acceptable among Indonesia’s progressive urbanites.
The transformation Islam has undergone in recent years is reflected the rising
popularity of the adherence to Islamic dress codes by Indonesia’s youth11 and
attendance at Friday prayers at the mosque.12 Moreover, it is visible in media and the
public, in advertising and lifestyle.
Raillon suggests that in light of the 2004 election, “despite santrification or
reislamization, Islam in the largest muslim country does not translate into a powerful
political force” (2004:5).13 At the same time, subsequent to numerous bombings in the
country, there has been a lively discussion in international corporate media and
academia on the potential rise of ‘radical Islam’ in Indonesia.14 For those who have
observed developments in the country over the past few decades, Islamist extremism
is not a new phenomenon. In fact, alongside Hefner’s ‘Civil Islam’ (2000), there has
been a history of a more politically oriented, more radical and at times militant, Islam
throughout Indonesia’s history as a republic. A brief review of earlier Islamist
movements in Indonesia explains where current dynamics in hardline Islamist
discourse are rooted.
Islamist Movements in Indonesia
Since the declaration of independence in 1945, there has been a lively political
competition between the nationalist, traditionalist and the reformist, modernist
communities regarding the nature of the Indonesian state. Whereas nationalists and
liberals pursued a secular and democratic state, reformist Muslims and hardline
Islamists aspired to setting up an Islamic state governed by syariah. Two major forces
were representative of the different interpretations of the role of Islam during the early
One aspect of this phenomenon is the increase in Indonesian hajis, afforded by improvements in the
socio-economic situation of many Middle-class Muslims and spurred by the effects of globalisation,
such as easier and faster travel. In the last few years, Indonesia consistently sent the largest haj
contingent from outside Saudi Arabia (Azra 2002:35, see also Eliraz 2004:45ff). On Islamic resurgence
as a response to social changes, see also Hefner (2000).
Vatikiotis (2003), Sebastian (2001), Jamhari (1999:181).
S. Brenner (1996), for example, discusses how young Javanese women’s decision to wear “the veil”
is made out of a new historical consciousness that conceptualises the process of how they have used
their knowledge and practice of Islam to bring about personal change.
Azra (2003:40). On Islamic resurgence in Indonesia see also Hefner’s detailed account (2000).
See also Davis (2002).
See, for instance, ICG (2001, 2002, 2005), Jones (2004b, 2004c), Kurlantzick (2004), Batley (2003),
Hasan (2003), Sukma (2003), Vatikiotis (2003), Barton (2002), Davis (2002), van Bruinessen (2002a,
2002b), Lanti (2001).
years of the Republic. Both political parties Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Masyumi
agreed that the country should be governed under syariah, yet they did not have a
clear conception as to how this should work in practice. They disagreed in their vision
of the political system, however; NU pursued a secular state whereas Masyumi
aspired to an Islamic state.
While most Muslim social and political organisations representing Masyumi’s vision
adopted parliamentary and electoral approaches,15 some movements employed a
jihadist discourse and took on more militant approaches to achieve their goals.
Among the most prominent was the Darul Islam, which shook Indonesia through the
1950s until the 1960s. Disagreements with the Republican government during the
independence struggle led Muslim militia in West Java under Kartosuwiryo to break
away and eventually establish their own government and state apparatus based on
syariah. This movement was later joined by groups in South Sulawesi, under Kahar
Muzakkar and under Teungku Mohammad Daud di Beureueh in Aceh.
Darul Islam seriously challenged Indonesia’s republican government long after
independence was finally won in 1949. The rebellion only ended with the capture or
killing of its leaders in the early 1960s,16 but the struggle for establishing a political
‘House of Islam’ is to this day prominently rooted in the minds of Indonesia’s
hardline Muslim community.17 Moreover, there is ample evidence to suggest that
underground networks have persisted until the present day.18 Indeed, according to a
recent ICG report, “[o]ver the last 55 years, that movement has produced splinters and
offshoots that range from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) to non-violent religious groups”
(2005:i). The movement’s leaders have been glorified in hardline Islamist discourse as
heroes fighting for Islam, and as recently as 2001, Sabili reported that Kahar
Muzakkar, or Qahhar Mudzakkar, who is said to have been killed in 1965, may be
alive after all.19
The government’s authoritarian strategies to suppress political Islam were not limited
to radical Islamist movements. Following Soekarno’s “Guided Democracy”
experiment from 1957 and the end of the Constitutional Assembly in 1960, Masyumi
was banned, with its leaders imprisoned. The ban of Masyumi set off what Hefner
called the “long winter of discontent for reformist Muslims faithful to the Masyumi
vision” (1997:82). NU was politically active well into the 1960s, and only in the late
1960s backed away from demands to implement syariah (Hefner 2000:91). The
division within Indonesia’s Muslim community remained, however, and “[u]ntil the
present day, association with NU or Masyumi is an almost primordial attribute of
Indonesian Muslims” (van Bruinessen 2002a).
See Azra (2003: 49), Lanti (2001).
Kartosuwirjo was captured and executed in 1962, Muzakkar was reportedly killed in 1965.
According to Eliraz (2004:61), Kartosuwirjo is considered to be a primary political inspiration for the
‘Ngruki Network’, the group of former graduates of Ba’asyir’s pesantren in Ngruki. On the “Ngruki
Network”, see also ICG (2002). For a Ngruki perspective, see Irfan S. Awwas’s hagiography (1999).
ICG (2005), van Bruinessen (2002a).
Sabili VIII/15:72ff (January 2001). This mystification of leaders of the jihad is an essential part of
hardline Islamist discourse, wherein militarily or spiritually outstanding characters, such as Muzakkar
and Ba’asyir, as well as personalities of the ‘global jihad’, such as bin Laden, Yassin and Basayev,
serve as role models for their followers in the struggle against national oppression and global
hegemony, see Sabili X/25:33ff (July 2002).
In the subsequent decades under Soeharto, Islam was further depoliticised. The
number of Muslim representatives in the country’s military and bureaucracy
decreased until disproportionally small.20 The silencing of political Islam culminated
in legislation that obliged all social and political parties and associations to subscribe
exclusively to the secular tenets of Pancasila. This principle of ‘sole foundation’ (azas
tunggal) was particularly controversial, and led to numerous clashes between Muslim
groups and the army, as well as generally to a radicalisation of politically motivated
Islamist groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, a group alleged to have connections with the
Darul Islam, the Komando Jihad, was held responsible for a string of arson and
bombing attacks on churches, nightclubs and cinemas.21 Further, the bombings of
Borobudur and of a branch of Bank Central Asia, as well as the 1981 hijacking of a
Garuda airplane, seemed to indicate that Islamist extremism as a response to the
country’s secular politics endured (see Lanti 2001). Significantly, in several cases
these incidents – and Komando Jihad activities generally – likely had the direct
support of the army and/or the intelligence services, and ultimately served other
agendas, such as gaining or maintaining power, influencing elections, or intimidating
the Muslim electorate.22
See Bourchier and Hadiz (2003:139), Davis (2002:16), Schwarz (1999:181).
ICG (2005), van Bruinessen (2002a), Hefner (1996:28).
Azra (2003:50), van Bruinessen (2002b), Hefner (1996:28).
Most memorable, however, are the incidents at Tanjung Priok, Jakarta in 1984 and
Talang Sari, Lampung in 1989. In both cases, clashes between Muslim groups and the
army were grounded in popular discontent with the government’s secular policies; the
regime’s determination to deal with this sentiment ruthlessly caused hundreds of
casualties. The alleged involvement in the Tanjung Priok incident of Armed Forces
Commander General Benny Moerdani, a Catholic, only exacerbated Muslim anger
and fed the sentiment that a non-Muslim minority dominated the Muslim majority.23
The impression of government and military repression along with a general
disillusionment with the Soeharto regime fuelled a resurgence of devotion to political
Islam and particularly motivated Indonesia’s students, who had already been inspired
by the 1979 Iranian Revolution.24 Many of these students established Islamic
discussion groups to further their commitment to revitalising and strengthening Islam.
Meanwhile, Mohammad Natsir’s Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII), the
Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council, which was established in 1967 after the
Arab-Israeli war, carried on the legacy of Masyumi mixed with virulent anti-
communist, anti-Christian and anti-Zionist propaganda. It furthered discussions on
domestic issues and, more significantly, introduced analyses of international issues
that spoke directly to the Muslim community. More than any other dakwah
(proselytism) organisation, the DDII forged ties with international Muslim
organisations and increasingly received assistance from donors in Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait and Pakistan.25 Their periodical Media Dakwah, which stopped running due
to financial difficulties in 2003, served “as a broker for Middle Eastern Muslims’
ideas” (Hefner 1997:86) and devoted more attention to the larger Muslim world than
any other Indonesian Muslim media (ibid.94). It adopted an emotive discourse critical
of the liberalisation of Islam, and dwelled at length on a perceived international
conspiracy against Islam, enriched by strong anti-Semitism and an “almost paranoid
obsession with Christian missionary efforts as a threat to Islam” (van Bruinessen
2002a). Hefner (1997:85) observed that the DDII’s efforts to keep the issue of
Christianisation in the public discourse had direct impact on some government
policies regarding restrictions on Christian evangelism, suggesting that already then
hardline Islamist discourse had a certain impact on government policies. Now
considered “a perfectly respectable, if conservative, organisation dedicated to the
implementation of Islamic law” (Jones 2004a:25), the DDII laid the groundwork for
today’s hardline Islamist discourse, and its legacies are most evident in the now
popular publication Sabili.
From the mid-1980s Soeharto increasingly patronised Islam and afforded a more
balanced representation of Muslims in Indonesian politics, military and bureaucracy.
His intent was a strategic move to co-opt Islamic and Islamist dissent, counterbalance
the power gained by the military, and ultimately gain the support of large factions of
Indonesia’s Muslim community.26 To promote Islam, he established the Ikatan
See Bourchier and Hadiz (2003:140). On the impact the Tanjung Priok and Talang Sari incidents had
on Muslim dissent, see Hefner (1996:29ff). Moerdani is one of the favourite bugaboos of Sabili and
likeminded publications, which celebrated his death in August 2004 as a blow to the perceived project
of Christianising Indonesia.
See Eliraz (2004:41).
Hefner (2000:109, 1997:86).
See Betrand (2004:83ff), van Bruinessen (2002a, 1996), Hefner (2000). Also Soeharto’s pilgrimage
to Mecca in 1991 can be understood in this context.
Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia (ICMI), the Association of Indonesian Muslim
Intellectuals, under his protégé B.J. Habibie in 1990. ICMI had the objective of
combining Muslim piety with a secular educational curriculum promoting scientific
knowledge, yet it was ultimately designed to mobilise Muslim support for the
regime.27 This was intended to be perceived by the umat as a sign that the government
was beginning to pay due respect to the role of Islam in Indonesia.
More importantly, the regime attempted to control the growing phenomenon of Islamic
rejuvenation that had been subtly transforming the image of Islam in Indonesia over
the previous two decades, restructuring the social, cultural and, ultimately, the political
sphere. Significantly, this was not only a domestic phenomenon. Islam has experienced a
global rejuvenation or resurgence since the 1980s (Roy 2004). The faith was losing its
association with rural backwardness and attracted a wider following, most notably also
among the urban middle and higher classes.28
Woodward (2002:130), Hefner (2000:125).
Azra (2003:42), Bourchier and Hadiz (2003:141), Lanti (2001), Hefner 2000).
The Global Umat
Lanti has recently argued that “[t]he general Indonesian public may [have become]
more pious in their religious practices and may be more aware of their Islamic
identity, but their political behavior has hardly been changed” (2001).29 In fact, Islam
in Indonesia has significantly changed since the 1950s, having evolved from a rural,
‘backward’ religion to a faith whose adherents on the one hand are rooted in Islamic
values and tradition, yet on the other are increasingly aware of the changing dynamics
of Indonesian society and the social and political environment. Muslims in Indonesia
have become ‘more mature’ (Jamhari 1999:183) as Islamic education has improved,
enabling the Muslim community to participate in discourses about current socio-
political affairs in Indonesia and on the application of and implications for Islamic
values and law.30
Moreover, the notion of a global umat assumed more relevance in the mainstream
discourse.31 The international dimension had already been a popular element of
hardline Islamist discourse, which has played no small role in introducing the idea to
Indonesia’s Muslim community, aided by the revolution of information technology
and wider availability and affordability of print media. At the same time, there has
been a steady and growing intellectual exchange with other Muslim countries,
particularly with – but not limited to – the Middle East.
Links to the Middle East had long been established. From the 16th Century there has
been a steady flow of ideas to Indonesia. Since the 19th Century, growing numbers of
Indonesian Muslims took part in the haj, and until today many Indonesians receive all
or part of their education at institutions in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen and Egypt’s
al-Azhar university.32 Upon return, Indonesian students have maintained contact with
their fellow students from all over the world, thereby forming networks of friends.
These global networks have become a determining factor in strengthening the notion
of a global Muslim brotherhood, which in turn also influenced the Islamisation of
Indonesian society and politics.33
The notion of a global umat vs. ‘the other’ is the most determinant feature of the
international dimension in hardline Islamist discourse, and it calls to mind
Huntington’s theory of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (1993). His hypothesis informs the
essentialist bipolar worldview professed by hardline Islamists that categorises the
See also Azra (2003:42).
See also Hefner (2000:58ff).
The concept of the global umat shares many traits described in Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’
(1991), and other concepts that are informed by Anderson, such as Roy’s (2004) notion of the de-
territorialisation of global Islam, and Mandaville’s (2002) discussion on the transformation of the
Islamic community, the “reimagined ummah”, through global networks and information technology.
See Eliraz (2004), Azra (2003, 2002), Kaptein (2002), van Bruinessen (2002a, 1999). Many of the
returnees from overseas held – and continue to hold – high-profile roles as Muslim intellectuals,
politicians and imam, or preachers. Prominent among them are Nurcholish Madjid, Dawan Rahardjo,
and Djohan Effendi (see Bertrand 2004:85). Also the DDII had sent hundreds of students to education
centres in the Middle East, thereby underlining their internationalist outlook (Hefner 2000:110,
In Azra’s words, “[t]he most important discourse in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago arising from
this wave [of Indonesian students and hajis returning from the Middle East] was pan-Islamism”
world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. The hardline Islamist reading of Huntington suggests that
instead of a civilisational clash among a number of competing civilisations, the world
order is being determined and shaped by a clash between Western civilisation and
Islamic civilisation.34 Islamist hardliners such as the DDII had long been engaged in a
discourse on the struggle of the global umat against a Judeo-Christian conspiracy and
a perceived ‘War on Islam’ that highlighted the West’s role in exploiting and
oppressing Muslim communities, particularly in countries of ‘the Third World’. This
‘Crusade of the West’ has been a popular notion among hardline Islamists worldwide.
In pre-Reformasi Indonesia, hardline Islamist groups were the most vocal voices
critical of what they perceive to be the imperialist agenda of the U.S. and other
The paradigm employed by the Islamists is decidedly anti-imperialist, and thus
reflects certain views held by Soekarno in his instrumental role in the non-aligned
movement, while it is opposed to Soeharto’s agenda of integrating Indonesia into the
international – and Western-dominated – global market. During the Soeharto regime
anti-imperialist and leftist discourse was largely silenced. Soeharto had forcefully and
– to a good extent – successfully muzzled the news media and popular political debate
to quell any dissent and promote political consensus.35 Since the fall of Soeharto the
left is only cautiously being restructured, facing antagonism by both nationalists and
Islamists. With the left essentially silenced, hardline Islamists were about the most
outspoken group in society that articulated critique of the current world order. Their
portrayal of international conflicts was to put forward the notion of a ‘War on Islam’
and thus unify the umat. However, they further utilised this international dimension to
address domestic concerns. Indeed, Hefner notes that a reason for the DDII’s
international focus was “to voice indirect criticism of domestic actors, including
Christians, secularists, feminists, and Muslim progressives” (2000:109).
The hardline rhetoric initially barely resonated with the mainstream of Indonesia’s
population, but the notion of a global umat slowly gained currency. The nature of
conflicts elsewhere in the world, such as in Palestine and Chechnya, increasingly
entered the Indonesian Muslim consciousness through Friday prayers and
international publications. As many Indonesians grew more aware of their Muslim
identity, they increasingly felt a higher degree of ‘primordial’ or religious solidarity
(Lantri 2001) with suppressed Muslim communities in other countries.
In 1987, two leading figures of the DDII established the Komite Indonesia untuk
Solidaritas dengan Dunia Islam (KISDI), the Indonesian Committee for Solidarity
As observed by Eliraz (2004:32), the polarity of this discourse corresponds with the significance the
terms kafir (infidel) and kufur (infidelity) hold in hardline Islamist discourse alongside the concepts of
syariah and jihad. “Radical fundamentalists need worthy adversaries. Confrontation and opposition are
essential to their vitality, for clearly demarcating the borders between them and the unbelievers, to
prevent contamination and to maintain purity” (ibid.: 31).
See Hefner (2000:17). Habermas’ theory on the refeudalisation of the public sphere is particularly
interesting in this context. The public sphere is the sphere between civil society and the state, in which
critical public discussion of matters of general interest is institutionally secured, thus guaranteeing a
critical discourse monitored by the people. Under an authoritarian regime the public is excluded. The
press and the media serve less as organs of public information and debate than as technologies for
managing consensus and promoting consumer culture (see Habermas 1989). On the applicability of
Habermas’ concept to the context of the Indonesian political discourse under Soeharto, see also Hasan
with the Muslim World. KISDI originally intended to heighten Indonesian sympathy
for the plight of the Palestinians, but subsequently also addressed the conflicts in Iraq,
Bosnia, Kashmir and Algeria, among others. Moreover, it served to attract the
attention of the Indonesian umat and furthered anti-Western and anti-U.S. sentiment
based on allegations of treachery and hypocrisy. To some extent, these allegations
were tolerated, if not supported, by Soeharto.36
KISDI emphasised the centrality that the suffering of the ‘global Muslim community’
at the hands of ‘Western imperialists and Zionists’ held – and continues to hold – in
hardline Islamist discourse. The wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and elsewhere,
along with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, were interpreted as conflicts between
‘Islam’ and ‘the other’. As diverse as the perpetrators may have been, in their attack
on Islam they were all considered part of a global conspiracy designed to weaken and
continue to divide the Islamic community. As such, the nature of the discourse was
already highly polarised in the late 1980s.
This process is not unlike what Greenway understands as the “’kin-country’
syndrome”. According to Huntington, this refers to the phenomenon of “civilization
rallying”, wherein “groups or states belonging to one civilization that become
involved in war with people from a different civilization try to rally support from
other members of their own civilization” (1993:35). Indeed, such a phenomenon can
be observed all over the Muslim world, in reaction to Western hegemony, but also in
reaction to the ill-treatment of Muslim minorities in countries such as China and India
(see Ehteshami 1997: 193).
In Indonesia, however, hardline Islamists – though supported by Muslim
organisations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere – were rallying their countrymen also to
achieve their own goals, the Islamisation of Indonesian society and a greater political
role for Islam in the country. The perception of a ‘War on Islam’ turned out to be a
successful strategy in generating support and solidarity for Muslims elsewhere among
the Indonesian umat – support that could ultimately translate into social and political
power at home.
Sabili’s role in Indonesia’s hardline Islamist discourse
Since it was first published in 1989, Sabili has professed this binary construction of
the image of the enemy along the same lines as KISDI, DDII and the previously
mentioned Media Dakwah. Sabili is published fortnightly and is now among the most
popular news magazines in Indonesia. It is sold in some bookstores and hawked by
book vendors outside mosques in the main cities every Friday. Sabili was founded by
Abdi Sumaiti, alias Abu Rido, who is nowadays a prominent figure of the PKS.
Sumaiti is a former lecturer in Islamic religion at the prestigious Bandung Institute of
Technology (ITB). He had pursued his education at Madinah University in Saudi
Arabia where he joined the Wahhabi movement.37 His reportedly strong anti-Semitic
and anti-Christian stance is well reflected in the early articles of Sabili, which were
See Hasan (2003:3), Hefner (2000:109-110). On the links between the DDII and the Soeharto
regime, see also Azra (2002:36ff).
See Aditjondro (2000), who also discusses Sumaiti’s links to the Laskar Jihad.
initially still copied and translated from publications in the Middle East, such as Al-
Mujtama in Kuwait (see Soekanto 2004).
From 1989 to 1993 Sabili predominantly featured articles that served as moral
guidance, by help of using stories from the lives of the prophet and other, more
general anecdotes. These were to instil a sense of understanding of pure Islamic
teaching and values among the readership, substantiated by sermons and articles on
issues such as Islamic lifestyle, family life and a variety of social issues. Also, it
contained discussions of a theological or religious nature such as the necessity of
dakwah, along with orthodox, literal interpretations of the Qur’an and fiqh (Islamic
jurisprudence). Like the rhetoric of Media Dakwah, Sabili’s religious and moral
language in their coverage of and commentary on current events often reflect basic
themes of the Qur’an and Islamic history.38
Moreover, it prominently featured articles on international issues, such as the conflicts
in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the Balkans, as well as discussions on the
collapse of the Soviet Union and the role of the U.S. in establishing a new world
order. Another element of this international dimension were articles on the
suppression of Muslim communities elsewhere, such as in Africa, the Balkans,
Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Sabili already then invoked the
powerful notion of a global umat and a ‘War on Islam’, that would continue to
dominate the international dimension of its discourse. It thereby tapped into the
“unending stream of anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Shi`a, anti-Ahmadi
and anti-liberal tracts, many of them of Saudi or Kuwaiti provenance” (van
Bruinessen 2002c), that began flooding the Indonesian book market in the 1980s.
Its orthodox interpretations of Islam and its radical views, as well as its analysis of
international issues and its more subtle critique of the moral and social fabric of
Indonesian society may have warranted its discontinuation in 1993. It was revived in
1998, when it also obtained a Surat Ijin Usaha Penerbitan Pers (SIUPP), a
government licence to publish. In the chaos that reigned after Soeharto stepped down,
Sabili made full use of the newly gained press freedom. This is evident by the sudden
entry of domestic politics into Sabili’s discourse, which could now be openly debated
without fear of state repercussions. Discussions on the role of political Islam, as well
as criticism of perceived Christian proselytizing and the history of oppression of the
umat by the government and the military, all of which would have earned it quick
closure under Soeharto, now dominated the publication (see Soekanto 2004).39
Though less frequent in the heated debate on domestic issues during the early
Reformasi period, its international outlook remained unchanged. Sabili continued to
display its sympathies for oppressed Muslim communities in the Middle East, the
Balkans, Southeast Asia and beyond. It further pursued the anti-Western, Anti-U.S.,
anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric that had characterised it already in the late
1980s/early 1990s.40 At the same time, Sabili addressed a number of issues that also
See Hefner’s (1997:89) observations on Media Dakwah.
In the context of government and military oppression, reviews of the Tanjung Priok and Talang Sari
incidents were – and continue to be – prominent examples. For representative examples, see “AMIN
dipancing, Islam dituding”, Sabili VI/22:18 (May 1999) and numerous other articles, passim.
See, for instance, “Ayo berjihad ke Palestina”, Sabili VIII/10 (November 2000), “Intifadhah
membungkan arogansi Israel”, Sabili VIII/23:51ff (May 2001), “Israel mencipta neraka untuk Muslim
appealed to many among the increasingly discontented and confused Indonesian
majority. Indeed, as noted by van Bruinessen, “[s]olidarity with Palestine is only part
of the story; the labels “Jew” or “Zionist” refer to a whole range of internal enemies
and such threats as secularism, cosmopolitanism and globalization, as well as the
inseparable evil pair of capitalism and communism” (2002a).
Communism and Liberal Islam
Communism has long been considered one of the archenemies of Islam in Indonesia,
and the fear of – or antagonism towards – communism remains a significant and
influential sentiment. Although the 1965/66 massacres and subsequent policy
measures such as the ban of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), Indonesia’s
Communist Party, largely incapacitated any leftist discourse, communism as an
ideology still finds its supporters and, much more significantly, adversaries. Hardline
Islamists continue to be among the most vocal – and radical.
After 1965, many Muslim groups took part in the public massacres of PKI members
and followers, spurred on by military provocation and organisation. Radical Muslims
have in fact often been utilised by the military as a means of eliminating dissent or
maintaining the balance of power, most recently in Maluku and Sulawesi. Muslim
antipathy towards communism was thus to a large extent also nurtured by other
elements in Indonesian society, most of all the military, but often with direct or
indirect support by the government. Communism is still stigmatised in Indonesia, and
to this day it is used both by nationalists and hardline Islamists as a rhetorical device
to discredit political opponents and influence public opinion.41
The level of animosity towards communism is surpassed by the denunciation of
liberal trends within Islam. Articles on the questionable morality of liberalisation of
the faith are a frequent feature in Sabili. Liberal Islam is attracting a growing segment
of Indonesian Muslims at the polls. On the Islamic spectrum it is positioned at the left
end, with the moderate majority in the middle and hardline groups on the right.
Liberal Islam in Indonesia advocates, among other principles, tolerance, pluralism,
political secularism, individual and women’s rights, democracy, freedom of thought,
and human progress. As such, it is considered to be a ‘good’ form of Islam by the
West and regularly attracts funding from public and private sources overseas.
Herewith, it has raised the vocal criticism of the hardline community, which considers
the liberalisation of Islam to be heretical and accuse it of treason and allegiance with
the West. Among a populace that feels increasingly attracted to piety, certain liberal
views still cause controversy. Indeed, many moderate Muslim intellectuals and
Palestina”, Sabili VIII/25:52ff (June 2001), “Menanti titik akhir Israel”, Sabili VIII/26:54ff (June 2001),
on the Middle East conflict. Its anti-Zionist rhetoric is also prevalent in the context of domestic events,
such as the April 1999 bomb attacks on the Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta, which was depicted as a means
of discrediting Islam allegedly orchestrated by Soeharto and allies and Israel. See “Bom anti Islam”,
Sabili VI/05:20ff (May 1999).
One only needs to think of the recent removal of leftist and communist literature from bookshelves
of Indonesian book stores. See “Muslim militants force leftist author's works off the bookshelves”,
Australian Financial Review, May 7th, 2001, “Kontroversi razia buku kiri”, Sabili VIII/25:16ff (June
2001). See also Eliraz (2004:35).
politicians tend to side rather with the right than the left end of the spectrum, either of
conviction or so as not to appear ‘un-Islamic’.
Both discussions on communism and liberal Islam add up to a potent mix, with which
hardline Islamists seek to establish their moral superiority in Indonesian political and
social discourse. The prevalence of a liberal Islam in particular is in part blamed on
the perceived secularisation of Indonesia, and in part on the influence of Western
culture and associated political and social concepts.42
Modernisation and Secularisation
The rapid industrialisation and modernisation of Indonesia’s economy and society has
brought with it the usual repercussions, such as urbanisation, environmental
degradation, overpopulation, and a widening gap between a small pool of the very
rich and a vast pool of the desperately poor, though sandwiched in between we find a
growing middle class. While the rural and urban poor find themselves in a destitute
situation without adequate government support, Indonesia’s middle-class faces its
own challenge in positioning itself in a rapidly changing national and global
environment. As a common response to the challenges and pitfalls of modernisation,
both groups have resorted to spirituality.
It may seem that many Indonesians are concerned about the process of modernisation
that has transformed Indonesian society over the past decades. In fact, mainstream
Muslims do not necessarily reject modernity as such. Islam as a religion and a way of
life is not juxtaposed to scientific and technological development or rational thought.
Yet it entails a strong notion of morality, and a significant emphasis on Islamic values
and codes of conduct, which are ever more perceived to be the only acceptable
foundation of Indonesian society by a growing number of Indonesians. Many
Indonesian Muslims object to certain aspects of the Western sense of secularisation
that are perceived to be detrimental to society and the individual. Accordingly, they
consider secularisation along with foreign influence in and impact on the political,
economic, social and cultural landscape in Indonesia as transforming and destabilising
the moral underpinnings of the nation. While they welcome and utilise technological
innovations, Islamists – and with them many moderate Muslims – reject modernity in
the sense of it promoting and entrenching numerous ‘social problems’. These ‘social
problems’ are perceived to lead to a decline in morals and values. The abuse of
alcohol, drugs, gambling, promiscuous sex, as well as the corruption and desolation of
the social and political spheres are the dominating themes of this debate.
Sabili successfully incorporates these issues into its discourse, thus responding to the
concerns of a growing number of Indonesians whose struggle with social change
See Adnin Armas, M.A. (2003), Pengaruh Kristen-Orientalis terhadap Islam Liberal; Dialog
interaktif dengan aktivis Jaringan Islam Liberal. Jakarta: Gema Insani; Fauzan al-Anshori (2003),
Melawan konspirasi Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL). Jakarta: Pustaka Al-Furqan; Hassan Hanafi (1999),
Oksidentalisme; sikap kita terhadap tradisi Barat. Jakarta: Paramadina; Luthfi Bashari, H. (2003),
Musuh besar ummat Islam: Zionisme, sekularisme, atheisme, sinkretisme, salibisme, JIL, oportunisme.
Yogyakarta: Wihdah Press; Umaruddin Masdar (2003), Agama kolonial; Colonial mindset dalam
pemikiran Islam liberal. Yogyakarta: Klik.
inspires personal change according to orthodox Islamic teaching. Articles that address
these ideas are frequent features in Sabili, and their critique of moral decline is
juxtaposed to the notion that adherence to Islamic thinking and practice strengthens
moral and social security. Therein, Sabili also highlights matters of interest to Muslim
youth, who are thought to be most at risk of being ‘corrupted’. A regular feature of the
magazine called eLKa, or Lembaran Khazanah, consists of a 30 odd-page insert –
introduced in 1999 – that specifically addresses a young readership. It is dominated by
articles and stories on moral guidance that also feature strongly in the ‘adult’ section
of the magazine, and further includes general advice columns. However, its content
relates to the experience and lifestyle of the youth, promoting an Islamic way of life,
often in language appealing to youth. Besides, it regularly features personal portraits
of young Muslim activists and intellectuals, both male and female, who are meant to
serve as role models, to affirm the ‘messianic’ message intrinsic in many of Sabili’s
It is further evident from the reproachful tone often displayed in Sabili’s articles that
hardline Islamists reject the process of secularisation as exemplified by progressive
Indonesians, whose liberal interpretation of Islam and the Qur’an they strongly object
to, and Western powers, which they accuse of betraying the moral high ground they
so vociferously claim for themselves. They consider Pancasila, the foundation
philosophy of the Indonesian state, as illegitimate and even heretical, and thus reject
it, as it is a ‘creation of man’ over Allah. Their interpretation of Islam is considered a
superior ethical code and an alternative social doctrine, representing and
strengthening the values of Indonesian society. 43 As such, Indonesian Islamists
consider themselves in their efforts as guardians of the nation and the Muslim
community, of which many also reject the perceived moral decline in Indonesia.44
Westernisation and Christianisation
The globalisation of capital and the dynamics of the free market are thought to cause
widespread cultural dislocation and economic hardship for Muslim communities.
Western political and economic concepts along with cultural influences dispersed via
global governance and media are thought to slowly destroy the Indonesian social and
cultural fabric. The apparent disintegration of the socio-economically supportive
extended family unit, so vital to the renewal of Muslim cultural values, is considered
indicative of this transformation (see Ehtashami 1997:196). Sabili reflects this
concern by regularly featuring columns and articles that emphasise the importance of
social and therein particularly family values alongside more practical articles on how
to be good parents raising good children in accordance with Islamic teaching. Indeed,
the family circle is considered to be the most important locus for the promotion of
See Behrend (2003) on the teachings of Ba’asyir, and Behrend’s translation of the paper Ba’asyir
presented at the first Indonesian Congress of Mujahidin, Majelis Mujahiddin Indonesia (MMI), held in
Yogyakarta, 5-7 August 2000, both of which clearly outline these views. See further Eliraz
(2004:29,71), Bourchier and Hadiz (2003:140), Schwarz (1999:166, 172).
The plans for new ‘morality laws’ bear witness to the influence these public sentiments have on the
Indonesian decision-making body. See “Revised code criminalizes public kissing”, Diani, H., Jakarta
Post, February 5th, 2005, and “Indonesia plans new morality laws”, BBC, February 6th, 2005.
The discourse of social criticism in Sabili singles out Western countries as a result of
a fear of wholesale ‘Westernisation’ of Islamic cultures and a reaction to decades of
direct intervention by the West in the Middle East and elsewhere, characterised by
enduring military conflict, regime change, and the ‘imposition’ of concepts such as
the nation state, democracy and human rights. The resurgence of Islamic identity and
subsequent popular devotion to Islamic values worldwide indicates that this frame of
analysis is indeed widespread, also evident in the adoption of the Islamic Bill of
Rights by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1990.45 Islamic
fundamentalism in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi
Arabia, Egypt, Sudan and Turkey can thus be considered a form of cultural
nationalism, as much as an effort to challenge the new world order (Ehteshami
1997:184). Interestingly, though, even hardline Islamist discourse as expressed in
Sabili at times articulates itself and its political vision in terms of Western concepts. It
does so to highlight the corruption and hypocrisy of Western ideologies, by pointing
to the double standards employed in the application of these concepts and values. At
the same time, however, hardline Islamists also claim some of these ideologies, such
as human rights, for their own purposes, generally in the context of the oppression of
Muslims in Indonesia and beyond.46
Along with the enduring critique of the detrimental influences of Western thought and
action on the Muslim world, Sabili frequently highlights the perceived threat of the
Christianisation of Indonesia as another indicator of Westernisation and social
disintegration.47 The notion of a Judeo-Christian conspiracy within Indonesia has
been fed by the historical oppression of Islam in the country and the relative over-
representation of Christians in the country’s army, bureaucracy, media, and social
elite. Indeed, Christians own some of the largest publishing houses, such as the
Catholic-owned Gramedia group.48 For many among Indonesia’s Muslim majority,
this continues to represent a red cape, and the anti-Christian rhetoric of Sabili, ICMI
modernists and others echoes at the grassroots level of the orthodox Muslim
community.49 More importantly, those within the Muslim community with a
predisposition for conspiracy theories – and this is by far not limited to hardline
Islamists – readily perceive links between some of the country’s higher officials and
bureaucrats and foreign powers.50
The Islamic Bill of Rights emphasises divine rule and community values based on syariah, as
opposed to the individualism incorporated in the Western concept of human rights.
See, for example, Sabili XI/05 (September 2003) on the arrest of Muslim activists. Also Davis
(2002:26) remarks that the Laskar Jihad has based its media campaign on “Western” values such as
See, for instance, Sabili V/09:40ff (December 1992/January 1993); “Mereka amat membenci Islam”,
Sabili VI/Edisi Khusus:57ff (November 1998), “Pemurtadan berkedok Islam”, Sabili VI/24:51:ff (Juni
1999); “Pendeta versus injil (1)”, Sabili IX/03:38ff (August 2001); “Kristenisasi menyerbu kampus”,
Sabili XI/01:96ff (July 2003).
See Hefner (1997:88).
For a discussion on anti-Christian discourse and sentiments, see Hasan (2003), Eliraz (2004:34).
FOKUS (2002), Rencana pendirian persemakmuran Kristen di Asia Tenggara; Surat Arroyo kepada
Bush. Bogor: FOKUS (Forum Kajian Khusus). Rustam Kastor (2000a), Fakta, data dan analisa
konspirasi politik RMS dan Kristen menghancurkan ummat Islam di Ambon-Maluku. Mengungkap
konflik berdarah antara ummat beragama dan suara hati warga muslim yang teraniaya. Yogyakarta:
Wihdah Press; (2000b), Suara Maluku membantah; Rustam Kastor menjawab. Polemik buku
konspirasi politik RMS dan Kristen menghancurkan ummat islam di ambon-Maluku. Yogyakarta:
Wihdah Press. Sa'duddin As-Sayyid Shalih (2000), Jaringan konspirasi menentang Islam. Yogyakarta:
Viewed within this larger context from a hardline Islamist perspective, Islam is under
threat both at home and overseas. The domestic discourse on modernisation,
secularisation, Westernisation and Christianisation corresponds clearly with the
apparent struggle between the ‘Judeo-Christian’ West and the dar al-Islam, ‘House of
Islam’.51 In this discourse, as Eliraz (2004:36) points out, “anti-Zionism, anti-
Semitism, anti-Christianity, anti-Western sentiments, anti-Americanism, and even
anti-Communism, are interchangeable terms to define the enemy, and are often
expressed in the same breath”. The notion of ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ is obvious, as along
with the depiction of the superiority of Islam, a deconstruction of Western civilisation
and Western notions of modernity is professed. ‘The West’ is considered morally
corrupt, and plagued by countless problems. Indeed, hardline Islamist discourse seems
to suggest that the decline of Western civilisation is well advanced and its final
A common example is, not surprisingly, the American political and social system,
which is considered the ultimate failure of the Western model. Be it race riots in the
early 1990s, or the prevalence of crime, abuse and rape in American society, the
hardline Islamist discourse as reflected in Sabili suggests that America is plagued by
manifold problems at home that mock their efforts of ‘pacifying’ and ‘democratising’
the world elsewhere.52 Furthermore, because of its role as the sole remaining political,
economic and ‘cultural’ superpower, U.S. foreign policies are subject to harsh
criticism and cynical interrogation, as the U.S. purportedly uses a double standard in
its application and acknowledgement of ‘universal’ rights and the values of freedom,
equality, democracy and peace. In this sense, Indonesian hardline Islamists are no
different from many dissident groups elsewhere in the world. Anti-Americanism, and
therein specifically anti-Bushism, is a popular global phenomenon (Ahrari 2005). In
Indonesia, as Hafidz (2003:396) maintains, “one of the root causes of the terror threat
[is the] American factor”.
Anti-Americanism presupposes the existence of Americanism. In Huntington’s words,
Americanism stands for the belief that “[a] world without U.S. primacy will be a
world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than
a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other
country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United
States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom,
democracy, open economies, and international order in the world” (1993b:83).
The current anti-American sentiment can be understood as a reaction to the belief
expressed in this modern notion of Americanism. According to a Pew Research
Centre survey conducted in 2003, just 15% of Indonesian Muslims look favourably at
the U.S. – down from 75% in 1999/2000 (2005:106). However, the Centre’s January
2005 report ‘Global Opinion’ reveals that anti-Americanism is indeed a global
See Eliraz (2004:36), Ehteshami (1997:184).
See Sabili IV/18:4ff (May 1992).
phenomenon that has been prevalent for a long time,53 and that does not distinguish
between cultural, ethnic, or religious affiliation. Anti-Americanism is ‘multi-
civilisational’, ostensibly a unifying voice in a global civil society movement – yet not
excluding governments – that challenges the current world order. Where do hardline
Islamists fit in?
US foreign policies, and the UN’s relative inability in mediating these, have for long
been a bone of contention for Indonesian Islamists, most specifically U.S. support for
Israel during and subsequent to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.54 Indeed, “[f]or Muslims, it
has become almost an article of faith that the United States sides unfairly with Israel
in its conflict with the Palestinians” (Pew Research Centre 2005:112). In Indonesia,
this view is held by 76% of respondents to the Centre’s survey (2005:112). The
Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the main pillars of global discontent among
Muslim communities. But the resentment displayed by Indonesian Muslims is also
directed at U.S. policies at large, though hardline Islamists do distinguish between
those aspects of relevance to the umat and those that lie outside their sphere of
strategic interest. In Sabili, one finds little reference to U.S. foreign policy
interventions in the non-Muslim world.55 The focus is largely on Muslim communities
and their encounter with ‘the other’, as the complexity of world affairs could
otherwise distort the hardline Islamist vision of a ‘War on Islam’. This notion
promises to have the potential of unifying Muslims in Indonesia and beyond against a
foreign oppressor. which could further lead to rejuvenating Islam. But Indonesian
hardline Islamists may misjudge and overestimate the extent and influence of anti-
Is anti-Americanism among Indonesian Muslims any different from the anti-
Americanism prevalent in the Middle East? There, according to Rashid Khalidi (in
Shohat 2004:112-113), one has to distinguish between the sentiment of a minority of
Islamists that rejects America as a whole, ‘visceral anti-Americanism’ in his words,
and those Muslims who are particularly critical of specific aspects of US foreign
policy, while having respect for other aspects of American social and political culture.
In this context, the relative anti-Americanism of people in the Middle East, that
rejects aspects of U.S. foreign policy while embracing American materialism and
consumer culture, the free market and democracy, appears to serve as a counter-
narrative to the official US discourse depicting the extent of anti-Americanism within
Muslim communities. Richards view is representative of this official discourse, in that
he believes that “’Islamic radicals’ enjoy so much sympathy in the Middle East and
wider Muslim world” (2003:v).56
Despite much supposed evidence to the contrary, Indonesian Muslims professing a
visceral, all-encompassing anti-Americanism are in the minority. This strand of anti-
Americanism is likely to remain the domain of hardline Islamists who profess an
See Ross and Ross (2004).
In this context, Sabili claimed that “’[t]he Crusaders’ (...) together with international Zionists have
already succeeded in obstructing the Muslim community’s most strategic asset/territory, the Middle
East” (’The Crusader’ [para penjajah Nashrani] bersama dengan Zionis Internasional, telah berhasil
menghalangi wilayah kaum muslimin yang paling strategis, yaitu Timur Tengah”, IV/1:24, 1991). See
also Hefner (1997:94).
See, however, Sabili X/07:20 (October 2002) for a list of U.S. interventions worldwide.
See also Tan (2003).
essentialist view of the world and ‘the other’ as a means of furthering their own
agenda. The majority of Muslims in Indonesian and elsewhere share in and embrace
values and ideals claimed by U.S. government officials and the corporate media as
‘essentially American’.57 Khalidi (in Shohat 2004:120) argues that “[f]or a majority of
people in the Middle East, the problem with the United States is not its ideals; it’s that
the United States is not true to them, as far as democracy, representative government,
constitutionalism, and human rights are concerned”. Here, even the most moderate
Muslims in Indonesia cannot but agree.
See Jones (2003:75), Tan (2003), Wright (2000). At the same time, Hefner (1997:94) remarks that
alongside anger towards U.S. foreign policies, America’s cultural influence evident in the popularity of
American films that appeared to condone of pornography, violence, drugs and moral permissiveness, is
also considered a threat to Indonesia’s popular morality.
9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’
One can barely imagine how pleased hardline Islamists must have been about the
events following 9/11. The American project had not changed dramatically, but
Bush’s rampant imperial Americanism subsequent to 9/11 differed significantly from
the hegemonic Americanism of the Clinton era. The events of 9/11 presented the Bush
administration with an opportunity to pursue their policy ambitions of unilateralism
and global hegemony (see Ross & Ross, 2004:4-5), and provided the necessary policy
context that nurtured the rhetoric of the ‘clash of civilizations’ both among the
‘hawks’ in the Bush administration and among Islamists.58 Bush himself brushed all
subtlety aside, and his public statements played into the hands of Islamists and anti-
imperialists worldwide. The U.S. finally seemed to provide ample evidence that the
Islamists had been right all along, with Bush adopting the same ‘Crusader’ rhetoric
that had been preached by Islamist hardliners since the early 1990s. In the 1990s,
hardline Islamism was a peripheral phenomenon; it gained momentum in the wake of
the ‘War on Terror’.59
For the U.S., the ‘War on Terror’ may serve as a means to maintain Cold War-style
politics and polarisation (see Roberts 2004:251), yet for Indonesia’s hardline Muslim
community, it is the perfect rhetorical device to elicit sympathy and wider support
among the Indonesian umat. While after 9/11 criticism of U.S. foreign policy featured
prominently across the board of Indonesian media, Islamist groups continued to be the
most vocal and radical critics of the U.S. government and Western domination in
world politics.60 The ‘War on Terror’ and ultimately, the notion of the ‘War on Islam’
– which had been prevalent since the 1990s – have been regular features of Sabili,
with the recurrent allegation that the U.S. and Israel are the ‘real terrorists’.61 The
frequent and controversial coverage of current geopolitics registers with a population
that has been highly critical of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Indonesian
government’s relatively weak stance towards Western governments. The
government’s perceived reluctance to crack down on suspected terrorists could also
partly be explained as an acknowledgement of public opinion, which – for a while –
swerved significantly to the right.62
Any policy that may be considered un-Islamic, such as the government’s cooperation
with America’s foreign policy agenda, does not go down well with many among the
Muslim community. For example, prior to Ba’asyir’s arrest in relation with the Bali
bombings, it had become “a point of national pride [...] not to give in to foreigners’
haughty demands for Mr Basyir’s [sic] arrest” (Economist 2002). This interference in
Indonesian domestic politics is considered America’s extended arm of global rule, and
regarded by some as ample proof of the validity of hardline Islamist arguments.63
See Tan (2003).
Carroll (2004), Hafidz (2003), Hasan (2003:13).
See Abdurrahman, in USINDO (2002), Brief: Islam in Modern Indonesia. Session III: Indonesian
Reactions to September 11, Extremism, and U.S.-Indonesian Relations.
See, for example, “Latah”, Sabili IX/09:18-19 (October 2001); “Pamflet Sesat dari kedubes AS”,
Sabili IX/15:26-27 (January 2002); “Tak ada Al-Qaidah!”, Sabili X/07 (October 2002); “Rekayasa
bungkam Islam”, Sabili XI/02 (August 2003);
See Hafidz (2003), Ramakrishna and Tan (2003:23).
The Ba’asyir case is thought to be part of U.S. efforts to fight global Islam (see Sabili X/09:8ff,
November 2002). See also “US Sought Baasyir Before Bali Blasts”, Laksamana.net, January 13th,
More significantly, the government’s handling of this case – and its overall
performance in the ‘War on Terror’ – could reflect on Indonesia’s transformation
towards democracy. Indeed, Behrend argued that “[a]n Indonesian democracy worthy
of the name must protect even the grating voice of Ba'asyir until proven guilty,
however outside the mainstream of majoritarian politics, however out of harmony
with the generally liberal and secular opinions that characterise Indonesia today.
Anything less would be a step backwards towards the repressive policies and Muslim-
muzzling of the Suharto years” (2003).64
The international media played no little part in supporting the attempts of Indonesia’s
hardline Islamists to gain wider support. The “demonising of Islam by the American
press and the insensitive use of words like ‘crusade’ by the U.S. leadership had
inflamed the sensitivities of Muslims in Indonesia” (Sebastian 2001). The Bush
administration did little to ease such impressions within the Muslim world. Indeed, it
only added fuel to the fire. The paranoia of Western media subsequent to the Bali and
Marriot Hotel bombings, which led to accusations of Indonesia harbouring terrorists,65
and declaring the region the ‘second front’ in the ‘War on Terrorism’66 did not help to
dispel the resentment felt among Indonesia’s umat either. Sabili argued that although
Indonesia was ‘under attack’ – thereby evoking the rhetoric used by the Bush
administration post-9/11 – it is being accused of nurturing terrorism.67 In a classic
twist of conspiracy theory, Sabili and other Islamic publications alleged that only
Israel and the U.S. would have had the capacity and knowledge to build a bomb such
as the one used in Bali. Accordingly, the bomb was purportedly a pretext to increased
surveillance and oppression of Muslim organisations in Indonesia. 68 Generalised
accusations of Indonesia turning anti-American only exacerbated Indonesian
animosities towards the U.S. Within this ongoing discourse of anti-Americanism,
Bush stands out as a symbol of neo-colonialism and imperialism, and “the lightning
rod for anti-American feelings” (Kohut 2003).
An analysis of Sabili after 9/11 suggests that the rhetoric employed by hardline
Islamists has not changed significantly. The glossy cover pages more frequently
depict images of international relevance, but there was no need to adapt their
discourse to current affairs. Geopolitical dynamics played into the hands of Islamists,
2005, and “Indonesian cleric rejects Bali bomb link, says Bush behind charges”, Channel News Asia,
February 17th, 2005. The more recent verdict against Ba’asyir is also indicative of how Indonesian
authorities attempt to please both foreign governments and the Muslim electorate at home. See Guerin
(2005), “Cleric linked to Bali blasts gets 30 months”, Asia Times Online, March 4th, available at:
For example, a drafted revision to the criminal code is perceived by some legislators as a setback to
press freedom. It could put considerable pressure on publications such as Sabili. Accordingly, the draft
stipulates harsh penalties for certain offences, such as the dissemination of information that undermines
the state ideology Pancasila or offending the president or vice president, the heads of state of
neighbouring countries and state bodies, races or groups, and religious groups. See Hari (2005),
Legislators question revisions to Criminal Code. The Jakarta Post, February 11th, 2005.
For a detailed analysis of these allegations, see ICG (2002), Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia: The Case of
the “Ngruki Network” in Indonesia, and ICG (2001), Indonesia: Violence and Radical Muslims.
Ramakrishna and Tan (2003:14ff).
“Mengubah paradigma bom Bali”, Sabili X/09:13ff (November 2002).
Sabili X/09:15ff (November 2002), ‘Mikro nuklir, bukan C-4 apalagi TNT’. According to Harsono
and Eriyanto (2003), this theory resonated well with many Indonesians, including some legislators
from Megawati’s PDI-P. In a similar vein, the 9/11 attacks were depicted as having been orchestrated
by the CIA and/or Mossad to legitimise a ‘War on Islam’ (see Hafidz 2003:384).
affirming and thus legitimising their views that refute America’s claim of defending
democracy and human rights with every civilian casualty in Palestine, Afghanistan
and Iraq. Though guided by different agendas, the pro-Afghan demonstrations that
took place before and after the U.S. strikes on Afghanistan were the first major
display of public sentiment over an international issue (Hafidz 2003:385). As Hafidz
notes, this phenomenon indicates that the notion of the global umat was not merely
rhetorical. Moreover, U.S. foreign policies united those concerned about the violation
of democratic principles with those who believed in a U.S.-led ‘War on Islam’ (ibid.).
However, “[i]f the protests against the American attack on Afghanistan were
dominated by hard-line Muslim organisations, the later rejection of US President
George W. Bush’s plan to attack Iraq was shared across the board, regardless of
religious and political orientation” (ibid.386). Moderate and liberal organisations were
in fact at the forefront of the opposition to the Iraq war.69 Bush has thus become a
popular image of the enemy, symbolising ‘the other’ in the ‘War on Islam’ as
depicted by hardline Islamists.
At the ‘homefront’, the usual issues continue to dominate Sabili’s discourse, more
notably before national events such as the 2004 elections. Among the most prominent
continue to be the liberalisation of Islam,70 the threat of Christianisation71 and the
moral decline of Indonesian society, which tends to be blamed on the West and the
‘Zionist connection’.72 Moreover, the government’s handling of the ‘War on Terror’
led to harsh criticism by hardline Islamists and many among the moderate Muslim
community, invoking the notion of a ‘War on Islam’ and the historical repression of
Muslims in the country.73 In this context, the Tanjung Priok and Talang Sari
massacres continue to be popular examples of the Indonesian government’s brutal
history of repressing Islam. They are frequently referred to in Sabili in the context of
numerous events, such as the arrest of Muslims in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’,
and the Bali bombings.74 Indeed, the massacres are yet to be fully investigated by the
government.75 In 2004, Major General Rudolf Butar-Butar (ret.) was the first to be
tried for his role in the Tanjung Priok incident.76 On the other hand, General
Hendropriyono (ret.), who is suspected of having been responsible for atrocities in
Talang Sari, was named National Intelligence Chief within the Badan Intelijens
Nasional (BIN), the National Intelligence Agency, under President Megawati. In this
position, Hendropriyono was also a key player in the ‘War on Terror’, with the BIN
identifying and arresting many suspected terrorists.77
Also, the strong opposition towards U.S. intervention in Iraq, culminating in a million-strong
international protest in April 2003 only indicated the convergence between domestic and international
rejection of U.S. unilateralism (Hafidz 2003:394).
Sabili XI/18 (March 2004).
Sabili XI/19 (April 2004); XII/05:95ff (September 2004); XII/12:16ff (December 2004).
“Kehancuran membayangi Indonesia”, Sabili X/09:96ff (November 2002).
Sabili XI/04:29ff (September 2003); Sabili XII/09:16ff (November 2004).
See Sabili X/09 (November 2002); Sabili XI/16:ff (February 2004); Sabili XI/20:18 (March 2004)
and Sabili XI/19:40 (April 2004).
An investigation by Komnas HAM, the National Human Rights Commission, was criticised by
Muslim groups, such as the FPI, for lack of objectivity (see van Bruinessen 2002).
See “Ex-General Acquitted Over Tanjung Priok Case”, Laksamana.net, August 10th, 2004.
See “Hendropriyono’s Spy Games”, Laksamana.net, November 14th, 2004. Jones (2004a:25-26)
points out that the Indonesian NGO community – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – was concerned
that anti-terrorism legislation would invite Soeharto-era-style abuse by the government to silence
Muslim activists and other dissidents. The arrest of 15 suspected JI members caused a public outcry,
for example, due to police misconduct, and was depicted as a kidnapping by family members and
With controversial, high-profile personnel still represented in Indonesia’s decision-
making echelons and involved in policy decisions considered detrimental to the
Muslim community, many Muslims, both hardline and moderate, cannot help but feel
distaste about the government’s apparent lack of commitment in respecting the
country’s Muslim majority. Their feeling of discontent as regards the perceived
historical subordination of the umat in Indonesian politics and society remains, and is
readily exploited by publications such as Sabili. At the same time, Indonesian
Muslims are under rising pressure from abroad, as developments in the radical
Islamist environment that recall the legacy of the Darul Islam as an influential factor
in Indonesia’s political and security context have further contributed to the
international image of Indonesia as a terrorist haven.
Subsequent to the downfall of Soeharto, several hardline Islamist groups took
advantage of the power vacuum thus created and stepped into the open. Their
activities, thought to promote a militant view of jihad as “holy war”, have received
even more international media and government attention following 9/11 and the Bali
bombing, to the extent that they “destructed [sic] Indonesia’s reputation for practicing
a tolerant and inclusive form of Islam” (Hasan 2003:1). The fact that “many
Indonesians [...] turned out in droves at rallies condemning radicalism” (Kurlantzick
2004:52, see also Hafidz 2003:398). did not feature as prominently in international
news headlines, with the focus instead on newly emerging radical Islamist
Beside the DDII, the three groups that were most visible internationally are the Front
Pembela Islam (FPI), the Laskar Jihad and the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI).
The FPI, or Islamic Defenders Front, was led by Habib Rizq Shihab. It was allegedly
established as a militia by the military in August 1998 to act as a vanguard against
Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement. More recently, it became known for its tactic
of using thugs to attack discos, nightclubs and other establishments considered un-
Islamic and a threat to the moral underpinnings of the nation. After the Bali bombing,
the group was disbanded, though it is now resurfacing – most prominently as a
volunteer aid-giver in post-Tsunami Aceh.
The Laskar Jihad, led by Jafar Umar Thalib, was established in response to the civil
unrest between Christians and Muslims in Maluku in 2000, but was surprisingly
disbanded in October 2002, shortly after the Bali bombings.78 The role and
significance of the Laskar Jihad has been distorted in international media, however,
which preferred to depict the communal conflict as a sectarian one initiated by
jihadists.79 Moreover, Muslim militia were in fact encouraged and supported by the
Sabili (“Aktivis diculik. Dengar Jeritan Keluarga Mereka”, XI/05). For a more detailed account on
Indonesia’s national security strategy, see Sebastian (2003).
According to Jones (2004a:34), this was due to discontinued Saudi funding and, more importantly,
internal dissession. Hafidz (2003:384), however, argued that the Laskar Jihad disbanded in anticipation
of the Megawati government’s assertiveness to wage the ‘war on terror’ subsequent to the issuing of
anti-terrorism legislation. Shihab’s and Thalib’s temporary arrest after the Bali bombings appeared to
affirm this assessment. They were released shortly thereafter, though, apparently as a concession for
the disbanding of their organisations (ibid.:393).
The media thereby played into the hands of the Laskar Jihad, which attempted to transform the local
conflict in Maluku into an inter-religious conflict (see Eliraz 2004:34-35). See also Aditjondro (2000)
and ICG Asia Reports N°10 (2000) and N°31 (2002), via
TNI, the Indonesian military, in the hope of destabilising the Wahid and Megawati
governments and leading the army to regain power and influence. For the Indonesian
government and the public, the activities of Laskar Jihad only seemed to be a
phenomenon of peripheral significance.80
The MMI, or Indonesian Mujahiddin Council, was established in Yogyakarta in 2000
and appointed as its amir Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. The MMI acts mainly as a watchdog
for the safeguarding of Islamic values. For instance, it has been critical of HIV/Aids
awareness-raising campaigns and the activities of liberal Islamic think-tanks. At the
same time, the MMI is said to have links to radical groups. Many of its members are
graduates of Ba’asyir’s pesantren in Ngruki, near Solo and are said to be linked to the
Darul Islam network.81
The one group that is said to be the extended arm of global terrorism in Indonesia is
the obscure Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI), which is thought to be responsible for the Bali
bombings, among others. International government and media attention has been
closely centred on this shadowy network. Ba’asyir was until recently on trial for
allegedly having been the spiritual head of the network, a claim that has been difficult
to substantiate. Indeed, despite several arrests of alleged members of the network, the
very existence of the JI is still contested among many Indonesian politicians and the
public, with frequent references to the notion that JI is, very generally, the
‘community of Islam’, not a terrorist organisation.82
Not surprisingly, “[t]errorism has not been an election-year issue in Indonesia, and
stories on JI don’t sell newspapers in Indonesia the way they do in Australia and the
United States” (Jones 2004b).83 At the same time, these phenomena have attracted
extensive international media coverage, which consequently – and unfortunately –
distorts the international image of Indonesian Islam by depicting it as becoming
increasingly radicalised.84 This is even more surprising as until quite recently,
Indonesia was far from being considered a ‘terrorist haven’, instead being known to
accommodate a tolerant and pluralistic Muslim majority. How could this image have
changed so dramatically within a few years?
The image created of Indonesian Islam overseas naturally has a considerable impact
on the consciousness of Indonesian Muslims in general. The media, and here
particularly popular publications such as Sabili, contribute to the notion that
individual Muslims are part of a larger, imagined community under threat, thus
politicising one’s own, personal experience and perception of domestic and global
political phenomena. The ‘War on Terror’, and subsequently the perceived ‘War on
Eliraz (2004:68-69), Davis (2002).
My understanding of MMI has also benefited from informal discussions with Dr. Tim Behrend who
is currently studying this organisation. See also ICG (2005, 2002).
See Sabili X/09:24ff (November 2002), Jones (2004a:24-25). For a detailed analysis of JI, see ICG
(2002), How Jemaah Islamiyah Terrorist Network operates, and ICG (2003), Jemaah Islamiyah in
Southeast Asia: Damaged but still Dangerous.
See also Ramakrishna and Tan (2003).
In 2003 the U.S. government included Indonesia on its terrorism ‘watch list’, thus burdening
Indonesian immigrants/visitors with additional and discriminatory procedures, such as the obligation to
report periodically to an American immigration authority. This was not well received in Jakarta – and
elsewhere in Indonesia – and the Indonesian government ‘retaliated’ by issuing a ‘travel advisory’
against the U.S. (see Hafidz 2003:387).
Islam’, become personal issues as much as ‘Corporate Power’ becomes a personal
concern for ‘anti-globalisation’ activists rampaging through the streets of Seattle and
Genoa. Unsurprisingly, there is a growing sentiment of discontent and anger among
the Indonesian umat, particularly its disaffected youth. Tan (2003:275) has a point
when he says that “[i]n the name of protecting and preserving the liberty and lifestyle
of a supposedly self-evident ‘America’, ideological representations of tyranny and
terror – and the policies formulated and practices implemented in response to those
representations – may well prove just as if not more tyrannical and terrorising”.
Although the presence of a radical Islamist core in Indonesia and the region could be
detrimental to regional security and requires concerted policy responses at the
national and regional levels, the wholesale stigmatisation of Indonesia’s umat, as
currently perceived by many among them, serves no purpose but further fuel the fire.
An analysis of the popular Islamic publication Sabili suggests that hardline Islamist
discourse in Indonesia – and therein specifically the international dimension – has not
changed significantly since the ‘War on Terror’ and U.S. foreign policies subsequent
to 9/11. Instead, geopolitics has played into the hands of Islamists by serendipitously
affirming their long-standing accusations, and their depiction of a civilisational clash
between ‘The West’ and the global umat. Sabili plays a prominent role in this
discourse, as it is the most popular mouthpiece of a hardline fringe in Indonesia’s
Muslim community that continues to attract sympathisers based, among others, on the
fact that there are few groups in Indonesian society as vocal in their criticism of the
current global world order. It is highly unlikely though, that this phenomenon is
indicative of a generalised trend of a radicalisation of Islam in Indonesia. Radical
Islamists continue to constitute a small minority of Indonesia’s Muslim community.
The magazine’s popularity rather suggests that some of the themes prevalent in
Sabili’s rhetoric require more critical debate in Indonesia’s mainstream political
Azra (2002:49-50) asserts that while hardline Islamists could potentially threaten the
future of democracy during this transitional period, “once Indonesia attains a new
equilibrium in this painful transition, most – if not all – of these hardline groups will
lose momentum”. At the same time, the stimulus provided by the current hardline
Islamist discourse could indeed contribute to the formation of a more pluralistic and
ultimately more democratic Indonesia. It is desirable that the political consciousness
of Indonesian Muslims, with their growing awareness of the international political
environment and their participation in a global political discourse, is further integrated
in mainstream media and politics to foster critical debate, inform the country’s foreign
policy discourse, and thereby articulate democratic values within Islamic doctrine.
As Sukma (2003:353) maintains, “[w]ithin a democratic Indonesia, expressing one’s
view in a radical but non-violent way […] is common, if not quite ‘acceptable’
political behaviour”. Sabili’s radical views certainly stimulate debate, and the growing
popularity of the publication suggests that some of these views find wider acceptance
among a Muslim community that identifies with other communities in the Muslim
world and that is increasingly critical of the current world order. Sabili’s main
influence – and relevance – thus lies in the Indonesian marketplace of ideas, where it
competes with equally strong notions of tolerance and pluralism, “as a model of and
for the construction and, crucially, the re-cognition of collective and individual
identities” (Spyers et al., page 8). Despite – or because of – the controversy Sabili
causes, its hardline views could stimulate the discursive process for shaping a new,
Pan-Indonesian Muslim identity that is well aware of its global position and its
relative influence on national, regional and global politics.
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