Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

Violence between Muslims and Christians broke out in the city of Ambon, Maluku Province, Indonesia on Sunday, September 11. Official sources state that an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver named Darmis Saiman was killed in an accident on September 10. But rumors sent via text message spread the following day when he was buried claimed that the Muslim driver had been tortured to death by Christians.At last count, seven people have been confirmed dead and at least 60 wounded, and the government has sent between 200 and 400 Mobile Brigade (Brimob) forces to the region as back up. Although rational voices are pleading for calm, Indonesian Islamist extremists are using the conflict to stoke more violence, recalling the sectarian conflict that roiled the region between 1999 and 2002 and claimed some 9000 lives.

Islamists were quick to use the master narratives of the Crusades and martyrdom in their reports on the conflict.  That the incident occurred on the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the United States was not just a coincidence for the extremists. The extremist web site Voice of Islam reported that the attack was provoked by the United States as a way to portray Ambon as a hotbed for terrorists.  The site stated that if Islamist groups come to Ambon to help the Muslims fighting there, America will simply portray it as terrorism and thus use it as an excuse to kill Muslims.

Voice of Islam also covered Abu Bakar Basyir’s statement on the violence.  Basyir is the former spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah and leader of Jama’ah Anshorut Tauhid, recently jailed for 15 years. He issued a fatwa for jihad in Ambon, and repeated the claims that the violence is a conspiracy to to bring attention to the region so that the “crusaders” can eliminate Islam there. Ar Rahmah, perhaps the most popular extremist web site in Indonesia, also invoked the crusader master narrative in its early reporting of the conflict, linking the violence to a coordinated attempt by Christians to wipe out Islam.

In another posting, ar Rahmah urged Ambonese Muslims to be at the ready. The site reported that the violent paramilitary group the Islamic Defenders Front is preparing to send jihad forces to Ambon, using the term “laskar jihad.” This is a loaded term, because Laskar Jihad was a group that formed Islamist militias to go to Ambon in 1999 during sectarian violence there. The group was subsequently disbanded under pressure from the government in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali Bombing.In the story, the FPI claimed that separatist members of the Republic of South Moluccas (RMS) are part of the Christian group, and that Jewish conspirators are behind the violence.

Although there are a few remaining supporters of the RMS in Ambon, and a fringe group called the Moluccan Sovereignty Front emerged during the 1999-2002 violence, separatism is not a serious threat. The RMS exists mostly as a government-in-exile in Holland, and has made recent statements that it is willing to accept Indonesian sovereignty in the region. Nonetheless, the “threat” of separatism — imagined or real — is frequently used to incite violence. A post on Suara Islam Online linked the violence to a supposed Christian military training camp in Bogor, West Java named Christ of Ambon.

Others chimed in to incite. The Council of Indonesian Ulama released a statement as well, claiming as factual that the death of Darmis Saiman was caused not by the accident but by stab wounds inflicted by Christians. They called for a reduction in influence of Christians in Ambon, as well as a call to arm Muslims to prepare for jihad.

Blogger Ghur4Ba invoked the Crusader narrative, and appealed to readers to pray for the warriors of jihad. Voice of Islam, in a subsequent post entitled “The Lessons from Ambon: Preparing Strength for Jihad is Important,” condemned the Crusaders and urged Musims to prepare to fight:

In conclusion, Muslims must begin to prepare for jihad, to begin physical training, preparing the means of war, and make efforts for the perfection of jihad fi sabilillah. That’s because the jihad, according to the basic beliefs Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama, will remain until the end of time.

Despite the rhetoric of the extremists, cooler heads are noting marked differences in the violence between 1999 and Sunday, such as the unwillingness of larger groups to join in, and the fact that the violence did not spread to other regions. In an article in the Jakarta Globe, Najib Azca, an expert on violence in Ambon and a researcher at Gadjah Mada University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, noted that some of the factors that stoked conflict a decade ago remained, such as poverty and religious segregation. Coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence Haris Azhar, however, argued that this wasn’t sectarian conflict, and noted the differences between Ambon then and now. The article noted how the violence remained contained, and that others in the religiously segregated communities worked to protect minorities in their midst.

Although it ran an alarmist headline, this Jakarta Post story noted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s desire to not repeat the mistakes of a decade ago, and included plans to reach out to local leaders. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Marshall (ret) Djoko Suyanto acknowledged the role of provocation-by-SMS, and the importance of providing factual information to counter instigation:

In the future, we need to reinforce the people’s resilience so that they are not so easily incited, including through SMS or twitters instigating anarchy. People should be able to filter information.

This brief interview by Radio Australia with International Crisis Group Southeast Asia Senior Advisor Sidney Jones describes the phenomenon of SMS instigation in Indonesia and elsewhere. Consistent with analysis by well regarded Indonesianist political scientists such as Gerry van Klinken, Jones notes that the political context is much different now. In the earlier conflict, in the context of a democratizing Indonesia, local actors in Ambon were jockeying for new political opportunities, which fueled the violence. Politically, things are much more stable now, and it appears that calm — albeit a nervous calm — was restored quickly and has thus far maintained.

Because of the potential for violence, police have been searching passengers for weapons on passenger ships bound for Ambon in Java’s major ports, and continue their efforts to find those who spread incitement via text messages.

Update, 9-21-11:

Reports of police sweeps of ships heading to Ambon noted that some “sharp weapons” were confiscated, but no firearms. The Jakarta Post reports that the police still don’t have a suspect in the sending of the text messages that stoked the violence. Although it is clear Ambon remains peaceful, there are understandably some underlying tensions that remain, as well as some internally displaced persons who have not returned to their homes. Islamist extremists, however, continue to spread disinformation in an attempt to stoke violence.

Islmaist site Ghur4Ba provided some updats on the situation in Ambon, included alerting its readers to where groups of armed Muslims are gathering in preparation for fighting. No fighting broke out, however.

English language site Prisoner of Joy (among others) questioned the police response to the riot, arguing that Muslims were the victim sof the rio, and so it is unjust that they are being targeted by security forces. Accounts of the violence, however, clearly point to Muslim provocateurs sending the original text messages, and starting the upheavals. Although a official account of the death of Darmis Saiman, the ojek driver, showed that he died of injuries sustained in the traffic accident, and that Christian onlookers attempted to help him after the accident, Islamist sites continue to insist that he was murdered and tortured by a group of Christians. Umar Abduh, an Indonesian convicted on terrorism charges but now free after serving a 10-year sentence, argued that the police in Indonesia support “the Crusaders” and, perhaps most astonishingly, that Christians, including those who opposed the Jakarta Charter (which would have made sharia the land of the law in Indonesia), are anti-Indonesia, separatist, and anti-pluralism. This belies a stunning ignorance of Indonesian history, a history in which Christian Indonesians played significant roles in the anti-colonial struggle and in the founding of the Indonesian state. Ar Rahmah posted a story quoting Umar Abduh that paints the violence as a governmnet conspiracy, and argues that the UN should try those responsible in the Indonesian government for the violence. The Islamic Defenders Front, a thuggish paramilitary group organized under the guise of protecting Islam, has given the Indonesian government an ultimatum of one month before they start sending jihadis to the region.

These responses show that the Islamists are merely eager to stoke more violence in the region. It is particularly ironic to hear Islamists such as Umar Abduh accuse the small minority of Indonesian Christians of being against pluralism and diversity — clearly against their self-interest — as well as hear the cry for the UN to get involved, given Islamists history of antipathy toward the organization.

Update, October 4

The International Crisis Group has released its report on the violence in Ambon, available here. As usual, it is a well researched and documented report, and perhaps most notably it describes the presence of “peace provocateurs,” an interfaith group in Ambon who used social media to dispell and counter rumors that were circulating in order to stoke violence:

Their core group was about ten, each of whom had some ten or fifteen contacts around the city’s major flashpoints. They were on the phone with each other constantly, checking out stories and sending informationover Twitter and Facebook and by text messages. When a member of the network in one part of town heard the rumours about the Silo Church being destroyed, he called a member of the network stationed at the church totake a photograph with his phone and circulate it, to prove it was standing undamaged.


 The report also criticizes the government, police and military responses to the violence, and discusses some of the theories circulating about the causes of the violence.