Mon, 15 May 2000

Jihad force is no one's political tool': Commander Ja'far

JAKARTA (JP): The name of Ustadz (religious teacher) Ja'far Umar Tholib evokes images of military-style training for a holy war following the closure last month of the Bogor training ground for Muslim males dressed in white robes and carrying sharp weapons. A total of 487 weapons were turned over to the police and some 3,000 members of the Laskar Jihad Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama'ah were returned to their base in Yogyakarta.

Yet Ja'far vows that the first batch of 3,000 out of 10,000 volunteers will be sent to Maluku, the site of prolonged clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Ja'far, who studied at Jakarta's Arabic Language Institute and claims he was a member of Afghanistan's Mujahedeen for two years, said the jihad force he helped establish in 1998 has some 50,000 to 70,000 members throughout the country.

At his home in Ngemplak, Sleman regency, some 15 kilometers from Yogyakarta, Ja'far talked with a The Jakarta Post reporter and a reporter from Gamma magazine from behind a curtain. An excerpt of the interview follows.

Question: Why did you surrender your weapons so easily, especially when one thinks of the fierce image of the jihad force?

Answer: The submission was in accordance to an agreement with Bogor Police chief Col. Edi Darnadi in a meeting that had a familial atmosphere. There was no force of will.

It was our own initiative to hand over the weapons, especially after the police chief told us about the legal aspects of carrying weapons. He said it was against the law.

To prove that we have no intention of becoming a group of hoodlums or terrorists we voluntarily handed over our weapons. The motivation was therefore legal, not political. We are not used to playing politics.

Q: Bogor locals have expressed fears over your activities, what do you think about it?

A: Alhamdulillah (thank God), as I saw it, the local people understood our program. We turned a piece of land belonging to locals into a training ground for 10 days from April 7. As the land had already been planted with cassava and bamboo trees, we bought them for about Rp 4 million (before cutting them down).

Some locals offered us food for free but we politely refused it as most of them were (poor) ... We should have been the ones helping them.

Q: You said you would go on with your plans to send volunteers to Maluku...

A: Certainly. Some 3,000 initial volunteers will go to Maluku (soon). Yet, our volunteers are basically religious preachers, armed with religious knowledge to preach to locals.

An investigative team I chaired revealed recently that Muslims in Maluku are not only subject to physical suffering, but also to spiritual suffering because of their lack of religious understanding. Spiritually they have no idea how to overcome their problems.

Based on this, and also because most Muslims' solidarity movements for Maluku are focused more on handling the physical side of the problems, we decided to send preachers along with donations.

So far we have collected about Rp 700 million, part of which has been sent to Maluku while some has been spent to support the jihad activities.

But we also understand that the volunteers will be working in a war situation, so we've armed them with physical training to make sure that the preaching mission does not fail. Still, the main mission is preaching, mending the religious life of Muslims there. Weapons will only be used as a means of self-defense.

Q: Does it mean that volunteers will also take along weapons with them?

A: It depends very much on the situation in the field. They will be provided with arms on the basis of necessity. But they will surely not be armed on departure.

Through this mission we will also see if (Pattimura Military Commander) Max Tamaela's repeated claim about a reconciliation process is genuine.

If it's true, it will be the 11th attempt, as Christians have always broken the (truce). (Christians have made a similar claim about Muslims -- Ed.) It's now time for us to make sure the process is there. If the Christians keep on betraying (the reconciliation process) we will then be forced to act in self- defense.

Meanwhile we're keeping in touch with (Maluku) public figures by phone. We also have two jihad posts in Ternate (in North Maluku) and Ambon (the capital) which keep us informed of the most recent developments.

Q: But the government says the climate there has calmed down...

A: Gus Dur (President Abdurrahman Wahid) has in a way sold the nation's dignity by giving in to foreign pressure. He covers up all the tyranny that Muslims in Maluku have experienced.

He, for example, said that only five Muslims were killed during a mass killing in this year's fasting month. This shows how low is the value of Muslim souls to him.

We are witnessing a government that does not care about Muslims' problems. He doesn't care the least about the history of the killing of Muslims by members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), as his apology to PKI members over what happened back in 1965 attests.

He further disappointed Muslims by his intention to repeal the ban on communism.

Gus Dur is clearly showing his anti-Islam sentiment. He said that what is happening in Maluku is a consequence of spoiling Muslims during the New Order period. This is proof that Gus Dur and (Vice President) Megawati Soekarnoputri have always exploited religious attributes for political interests.

It's time for the Muslim community, together with the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police, to stop Gus Dur from abusing his power, just like in the old days when Indonesian Muslims and the Armed Forces were successful in stopping Sukarno from selling the nation for foreign interests.

Q: Are you saying that Gus Dur's government has to be replaced?

A: That's obvious. Gus Dur's government does not uphold people's aspirations, especially that of Muslims. It's also obvious we are not the only group who wants him to step down. Many other Muslim groups share this idea.

Q: How would the forum realize this?

A: We'll do it through a struggle based on legal means. We do not stand for the type of struggle akin to what hoodlums usually do or by (creating unnecessary) pressure.

We'll stick to legal means. This is what motivated us to meet Gus Dur the other day to convey our aspirations to him personally. (Gus Dur met with Ja'far and his group last month but dismissed them from his office after about five minutes, reportedly because the group offended him -- Ed.).

Q: There are rumors claiming your jihad force is part of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President. Are they right?

A: Alhamdulillah, we don't have any connection to such a scenario that could be carried out by politicians. What we're doing is dictated by Gus Dur's attitude. If our aspiration is the same as those politicians, it's just a coincidence.

It's not a result of any coordination. And it will stay that way. We won't let any group use us as their political vehicle.

Q: There are also rumors that former president Soeharto's family finances the group. Can you explain that?

A: Alhamdulillah, we have not received even one cent from the (Soeharto) family. I forbid any group member to have links with any party involved in a legal case. We've never even met any of the family members or people connected to that family.

Q: What about rumors that the jihad force receives foreign donations?

A: The donations are personal rather than institutional. Donations from foreign Muslims make up the largest part of funds.

Q: Who are the donors?

A: They are Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama'ah activists from, among other places, New Jersey (in the United States), Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Q: There are also rumors saying that the main target of the forum's jihad activities is Java and not Maluku. Your comment?

A: That's not true. The target is Maluku. Waging a jihad on Java once crossed the minds of some of our members when they felt they were being hindered in going to Maluku.

That's why a commander is needed to prevent them from irresponsible actions.

Q: Could you explain why the forum was set up?

A: It was set up in 1998 as an organizing committee for a public meeting and an alert program in Solo (Surakarta, Central Java). The program was intended as a response to various movements held to discredit the government of (ex-president) B.J. Habibie.

We saw (such movements) were developing a "hoodlum" democracy. The reform movement at the time did nothing but de-Islamize Indonesian politics. They, for example, attacked Habibie more because they suspected Habibie was a sectarian.

Q: Other Muslims such as those in the largest organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, are offended because you claim to be ahlussunah wal jamaah ("true followers of the Prophet's teachings") which they identify with in their statute...

A: There is no need to be offended. The meaning depends on who interprets it. In principle we follow the Prophet's teachings as his close friends did. (Sri Wahyuni)