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Why Do Islamist Movement Die? (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia and its Decline)

  February 19th 2021

Photo illustration by Agus Priatna on

On December 9, 2020, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) held the online Wednesday Forum with the topic ”Why Do Islamist Movement Die?: Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia and its Decline.” The speaker was, Dr. Moh. Iqbal Ahnaf. He is a faculty member at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), Universitas Gadjah Mada. He earned his Ph.D. from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand in 2011. He regularly teaches courses on religion, violence and peace building. Dr. Iqbal has been writing on Hizbut Tahrir and other political Islamic movements and on religious extremism. Moderator of this forum was Azis Anwar Fachrudin, CRCS staff.

In the beginning of his presentation, Iqbal explained that this presentation is based on his research and his writing published as a chapter in the book entitled ‘Rising Islamic Conservatism in Indonesia’, published by Routledge this year. According to Iqbal, the recent rise of Islamist mobilization in Indonesia has strengthened the doubt about the future of the long-established civil Islam in Indonesia. Some have suggested that the 212 rallies represent the accumulation of decades of successful Islamist mobilization in the country. This point of view anticipates an Islamist discourse overcoming the long-standing dominance of moderate Islam in Indonesia. While the potential expansion of Islamist groups, like Salafism, Muslim Brotherhood, and Hizbut Tahrir, should not be underestimated, such a focus overlooks the trend of decline that a number of Islamist groups have experienced. However, the decline of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) suggests a combination of state repression and internal movement dynamics have brought the movement closer to its collapse.

Moreover, to explain the process of regressing the  Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, Iqbal started by describing the organization's journey. Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia is one of the key players of sharia advocacy which was founded in 2000 by Abu Bakar Ba'ashir as a part of the legal struggles of Darul Islam ideology. It is clear that the establishment and the existence of this organization is inseparable with its key resources: the popularity/charisma of Ba'ashir, productive publishing house, national network activists, boarding schools (Ngruki), trained militias, etc. In this organization there was a shifting of rhetoric from establishing an Islamic state to tathbiq sharia (formalization or implementation of sharia), hence Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia portrayed itself as a coordinating body for the Muslim struggle for sharia in Indonesia. In order to realize their vision, the key narratives that repeated by this organization is that Muslims’ right to implement sharia is guaranteed by Article 29 of the constitution. Furthermore, Muslims are the majority in Indonesia, thus, they should have a special right in government and they believe that sharia law protects minorities, reduces crime, and promotes prosperity. Interestingly, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia also proposes that non-Muslim majority areas may also make regulations based on their religious laws to appear impartial.   

In order to analyze the establishment and development of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, Iqbal used the theory of change in three different steps. In the first step, Sharia Platform, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia provided practical concepts for sharia implementation. The second step, Best Practices, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia established best practices of sharia implementation in several areas in Indonesia to gain public confidence in sharia. The third step analyzed whether the Ummah was ready for Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia to mobilize material support for larger sharia implementation. Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia achieved some important developments in realizing their vision, such as the foundation of the Committee for the Preparation of the Implementation of Sharia (KPPSI) and the rise of the sharia bylaws. Furthermore, in six years (2000-2006), there were over 80 sharia inspired bylaws in 52 districts/cities in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, the internal division within Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia’s leadership has become the starting point of the decline after those pivotal achievements. In 2008, Ba'ashir left MMI and founded Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT). JAT engaged in extremist activities (many were arrested for terrorism charges) because, according to Ba’ashir, extremism is actually the true color of their fighting for Darul Islam ideology regarding the limited achievement and disorient factions within the organization. However, the leaders of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia claimed that Ba'ashir left because he could get support for an absolute authority as an amir. After Ba'ashir, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia then relied on the limited influence of new leaders, in which M. Thalib, become a new amir, Irfan Awwas and Abu Jibril (Awwas' brother) as chairmen. Moreover, there were some other signs of the decline of this organization: the decreasing interest in sharia bylaws; KPPSI also losing roles and MMI no longer able to organize large rallies; sporadic resorts to violent vigilantism by Laskar Mujahidin; the closure of publishing stores and outdated websites. Related with the 212 rally, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia is in a paradoxical and confusing position. They supported 212 rallies but warned against relying on the false power of the mass. Majelis Mujahidin attempted to exploit the 212 euphoria by selling the idea of an Islamic revolution council but failed. They also tried to maintain relationships with armed struggles in Syria and Iraq, Jabbah al-Nusrah. They also promoted struggle with otak (brain) over otot (muscle) while at the same time glorifying terrorists.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the decline of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia happened because of two main factors. First, internal dynamics in which there was leadership division after Ba'ashir left. The current leader is not as strong and charismatic as Ba’ashir as seen in their capacity to adapt with new media. The second factor is state repression. Today, Ba'ashir is in prison, many of JAT members were also arrested, which created fragile alliances with political allies in promoting sharia bylaws. Furthermore, MMI faced issues with resource mobilization related to finances and charity organization. Compare with Salafi and Tarbiyah organizations, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia draws less financial support.

Related to the issue of the weak state and the existence of movements and organizations like Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, Iqbal argues that the establishment and existence of an organization or movement like Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia is not merely because the state is weak. The state can have an enabling position as it concerns intolerant vigilantism in many in the state’s unwillingness to suppress these groups. Intolerance and radicalism are not only the result of a weak state but may be the state allowing those organizations to develop, for example, through cooperation with certain companies or local governments. Finally, to conclude, the phenomenon of the decline of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, Iqbal also quoted Christian Davenport’s idea as written in his book entitled How Social Movement Dies: Repression and Demobilization of The Republic of New Africa in which Davenport writes that the state can kill a movement but a movement can kill itself by failing to sustain (Davenport, 2014).