Information und Analyse

Christian and Islamic fundamentalists in Aceh

12 January 2005

by Alex Flor

The Indonesian military is tightening its control over relief organizations. From now on, aid workers are only allowed to move freely in the two towns hardest hit by the tsunami disaster, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. All activities outside these two cities require special permission and military escort. The official reason for this given by the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia – TNI) is the imminent danger of attacks by the independence movement GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka –Free Aceh Movement) on foreign aid workers and relief transports.

The argument that foreign aid workers are in danger is put forward with reference to a recent exchange of gunfire near the United Nations compound in Banda Aceh. This, despite the Coordinating Minister for Social Affairs, Alwi Shihab, having already stated: “I have a report from the (military) that a soldier was in a stressful condition and opened fire. GAM (the rebel group) was not involved in this.”

German media complain about the massive restrictions on aid organisations’ freedom of movement: They report in unison that so far no concrete threat is discernable. Nevertheless, there is hardly any German paper which in today’s reporting does not label GAM as a “Muslim”, “Islamist” or even – as Spiegel Online – “radical Islamist” rebel movement.

It shall not concern us here on whose statements these characterisations are based. It would, however, be highly desirable that the media provide reports based on facts and analyses rather than copy each other’s writings and engage in a competition for phrases. Even if one knows only very little about GAM, the one or the other insight can be gained by simply considering their motives, their interest and – last, but not least – their capabilities.

One does not need to sympathise with GAM’s aims nor justify the means the movement employs. And one certainly should not trust every statement that a GAM spokesperson issues. No doubt, GAM, like TNI, has in its 30 years of experience acquired some knowledge in psychological warfare and propaganda skills. Hence, GAM knows how to deal with the media. But GAM considers itself as a nationalist independence movement which does not pursue any religious aims.

The fact that 100% of GAM’s followers are devout Muslims does not turn GAM into an Islamic or even an Islamist movement. This would be like arguing that the US military is a Christian army. And also the Indonesian military, GAM’s arch enemy, consists predominantly of Muslims.

No doubt, life in Aceh is to a considerable extent shaped by Islam. Not without reason the province is known as “Mecca’s Veranda”. Some of the values and customs common in Aceh may not be quite in accordance with the worldview of western people, no matter whether they are rooted in religion or in other traditions. However, the label “Islamism” has been pinned on Aceh by the outside world. Being aware of the significance of religion in Aceh, the Central Government in Jakarta has recently granted Aceh the introduction of sharia law within the framework of special autonomy. This grant was, however, a two-edged gift. None of the essential societal groups in Aceh has ever asked for it. And until the present day it remains unclear what sharia is actually supposed to mean in Aceh. The gruesome hudud penalties like amputations of limbs for theft or the stoning of adulterers may not be applied here; like before, Indonesian criminal law remains valid for the province. But as concerns family and inheritance law, for example, now the sharia applies. This is not an impressive change, however, as it has long been legal in all of Indonesia to refer to the sharia – in accordance with Indonesian law – in matters concerning family and inheritance law. In practice, the sharia and its implementation refer to externalities like the requirement to wear a headscarf, with its abidance at times strictly monitored.

For the different Islamic and Islamist groupings, the decade-old war in Aceh has never been an important issue – neither for the moderate Muslim mass organisations Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama nor for Islamist groups like Laskar Jihad, FPI (Front Pembela Islam – Front of the Defenders of Islam) and MMI (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia – Council of Indonesian Islamic Fighters).

In accordance with TNI, all mentioned groups characterise the conflict as separatism without any religious significance. Concerning domestic conflicts, Muslims got enraged about the allegedly religious conflict on the Moluccas where thousands of Laskar Jihad volunteers were sent. Outside Indonesia, the wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Palestine issue were high on the agenda. However, the fact that in Aceh fellow Muslims have been killed on a daily basis has not earned any particular concern.

An exception is Laskar Jihad, which gained some notoriety as one of the warring parties on the Moluccas. Laskar Jihad has briefly tried to gain a foothold in Aceh, too, but the local population literally chased them away: „We are staunch believers in Allah, the Almighty, we don’t need any lessons from outside – the least from Java,“ was the blunt message.

The tsunami disaster and resulting presence of thousands of US troops – radical Muslims’ favourite enemy – was the occasion for some Islamist groups to make another attempt in Aceh. Both, FPI which has gained notoriety through raiding bars and nightclubs in Jakarta as well as through extortion, and MMI, suspected of being linked to Al-Qaida and of being responsible for the bomb attacks in Bali and Jakarta, sent forces to Aceh, possibly to some extent even by way of military aircraft.

The GAM leadership in Sweden immediately replied with a sharply worded statement: „…the thuggish so-called Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the terroristic Indonesia Mujahidin Council (MMI) … are not welcome in Acheh and have never been supported by the Achehnese people, nor has their presence been requested. The FPI has been involved in sectarian killings in Maluku and Central Sulawesi and illegal attacks against non-Muslims and others in Java and elsewhere. … The MMI, which is the umbrella organization for groups such as Laskar Jihad, Laskar Jundullah and the FPI, was established in 1999 and headed by the leader of the terrorist organization Jema’ah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. It has the explicit aim of turning Indonesia into a non-democratic fundamentalist Islamist state. … The actions and words of both the FPI and MMI are against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith and contradict the tolerance and faith of Achenese Muslims.“

Maybe even more important as concerns the safety of foreign aid workers are GAM’s and their sympathisers’ rather unrealistic hopes regarding a possible future role of the international community. Spurred by the successful fight for independence of the East Timorese, they cherish the hope for similar developments in Aceh, including a referendum, UN presence and an intervention of foreign troops. Their fellow Muslims in Java reacted with an absolute lack of understanding when during demonstrations the “radical Islamist” GAM carried apart from their own flag also those of the UN and the US. Especially the latter served Islamists on Java predominantly as solid fuel.

Consequently, GAM welcomes the presence of thousands of relief workers from abroad including military forces, who arrived after the tsunami disaster. One GAM press release was entitled: „Thank You World“. It would simply not make sense, if GAM now started attacking foreigners.

TNI’s distrust of relief organisations and the resulting regimentations concerning the latter can only be explained by TNI’s fear of its waning influence. In this situation, xenophobic comments by a spokesperson of FPI are just the right thing: „Because they come here, they might want to open a discotheque. That’s their custom. They want to open a bar, to drink, or to look for women, and so on. That would be a problem because that is forbidden here,“ explained Almascaty of FPI. The Acehnese, on the other hand, react in a pragmatic manner and do not seem to find any problem with relief supplies from abroad. It is likely that they are aware of the fact that Aceh has already for quite some time had one of the highest brothel densities in the whole of Indonesia – thanks to TNI’s presence.

The Indonesian military and radical Islamists speak the same language. With regard to the presence of the Australian military forces FPI speaker Habib Rizieq Shihab, recently stated: “We need to be vigilant. We do not want a second East Timor” /The Australian, 11.1.05/. Under the guise of humanitarian assistance Canberra was pursuing the aim of undermining Indonesian sovereignty. “They should not corrupt Islamic sharia law in force in Aceh, because we know that these foreign soldiers like to bring prostitutes with them. Also, these soldiers drink alcohol and in Aceh it is strictly forbidden.”

What follows from the restrictions is that those in need beyond Banda Aceh and Meulaboh cannot be taken care of while relief supplies pile up in the distribution centres. Indonesian organisations furthermore report about massive interferences by the military, about threats and attacks on volunteer relief workers. Currently, the military was trying to gain control over all stations established by the aid organisations. The day before, in front of a television station a volunteer had been slapped in the face by a soldier so brutally that the wounds required stitching – this without any perceptible reason.

Donations in cash and goods of millions of people in Germany alone did not reach their destination due to the restrictions imposed by the Indonesian military. Organisations such as the Technical Emergency Service (Technisches Hilfswerk, THW), known for their excellent work, complain about considerable „bureaucratically imposed restrictions”, as has recently been reported in the daily evening news programme Tagesthemen in the German TV channel ARD. Many aid organisations – especially the Red Cross – are obliged to remain neutral and cannot call a spade a spade. Those politically responsible should be aware that bureaucracy in Aceh means the military.

The shock about the extent of the catastrophe and the hundreds of millions of Euros in donations in Germany alone, oblige the German Federal Government to make it clear to the Government of Indonesia that relief supplies are meant for the entire population of Aceh.

The attempt by the Indonesian military to abuse their coordinating role for exerting control over relief supplies is inhuman and has to be rejected outright.

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