When even the mujahideen are not Islamic enough

SCHOLARS of sectarian religio-political movements the world over will tell you that there is one thing that is common among all sectarian groupings, be they Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist: That the infernal logic of religious inflation and the discourse of being 'holier than thou' eventually leads to such groups falling apart and splintering into many other, even more radical, groupings.

By Farish A. Noor (Asian Edge)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Mon 18 Aug 2008, 10:31 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

This is exactly what has happened recently in Indonesia, with the infamous cleric Ustad Abu Bakar Ba'asyir declaring that he was stepping down from the post of Emir of the notorious Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) that has been in the Press since the days of the Bali bombing years ago. Ba'asyir has become a household name across Indonesia and the world at large for his links to the MMI and his alleged role as the leader of the nebulous Jama'ah Islamiyah underground movement. For years he has been a thorn in the flesh of the Indonesian government, spewing venom against a succession of leaders from Aburrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), to Megawati Sukarnoputri and the present President of the Rebublic, Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono.

Though Ba'asyir was known for his political views and his incessant calls for an Islamic state to be imposed in Indonesia since the mid-1980s, he only grew to be what he is today in the wake of the Bali bombings when he was accused of being one of the masterminds behind the attack.

But Ba'asyir is also known for his tough and uncompromising stand on matters related to Islam and politics, and in Indonesia today he remains an influential figure among the hard-core radicals on the right thanks to his view that democracy is haram and that all forms of human laws and constitutions are irreconcilable with Islam. In Ba'asyir's view, democracy is a direct challenge against the supremacy of God and the overriding prerogative to impose and implement God's law on earth - as defined by Ulama like himself, obviously.

Things, however, have not been going so well for Ustaz Ba'asyir of late, as the movement he helped to form and lead — the Indonesian Mujahideen Veterans' Movement, MMI — has also been drawn into the complex web of Indonesian politics. Perhaps one of the most unique features of Indonesian normative Islam is the fact that even the most conservative Islamist groups have members and leaders who are willing to play the game of realpolitik and get involved in the political debates of the country. MMI members are known to include academics, journalists, businessmen and other professionals who somehow reconcile the calls for Jihad while making a daily living as professionals. Furthermore, the MMI has always operated on the basis of collective consensus and is run by a high executive council of leaders.

Apparently it was this 'democratic' element of the MMI that turned Ustaz Ba'asyir against his own movement and followers. At the recent MMI general assembly Ustaz Ba'asyir was conspicuously absent, having withdrawn himself from the movement at the beginning of August. Ba'asyir's argument is that the MMI, despite its blatantly sectarian and conservative leanings, has been 'contaminated' by the evil influence of modern democracy, thereby making it a 'secular' movement that is haram by his standards.

Ba'asyir did not hide his disgust with the movement he once led, and demanded that if the MMI were to remain a truly Islamic movement then it had to submit to the singular leadership of one pious leader, namely himself. All else, he argued, was a concession to democratic ideas and were not acceptable for a movement that had committed itself to dismantling democracy in Indonesia.

Thus it has come to pass that yet another hard-right conservative movement has split against itself, introducing yet another division between the 'democratic' MMI and its former leader, the 'more Islamic than anyone' Ba'asyir. It was reported that Ba'asyir has decided to form another conservative grouping under the sole and absolute leadership of himself and none other. Just what this might spell for Indonesia, which already has several radical Islamist groups, movements and parties on its overcrowded political landscape, is unclear. But it does demonstrate that the discourse of being 'holier than thou' often ends up devouring the very same people who articulate it; which may not be such a bad thing after all.

Dr Farish A. Noor is Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Research Director for the Research Cluster 'Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia', Nanyang Tech Uni, Singapore

More news from