Photo Credit: Ansor Jabar Online, May 12, 2017
On Wednesday, March 17th, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service hosted an event entitled: Muslim Militia Working for Inter-faith Peace and Harmony in Indonesia.
The event was moderated by John L. Esposito, Founder of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and included a conversation with Dr. Ronald Lukens-Bull, Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at University of North Florida and a leading expert on contemporary Islamist movements.
The event focused on a youth militia movement in Indonesia called GP Ansor that has ties with the Indonesian Islamist organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Dr. Lukens-Bull, having conducted a research Fulbright grant in Indonesia to study Ansor, provided an overview of the movements and highlighted the group’s interfaith peace-keeping work.
Dr. Lukens-Bull began the conversation by explaining the religious demographics of Indonesia. He highlighted that Indonesia is “not Islamist but is not secular,” as all citizens must ascribe to one of the six state-backed religions. Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world, and is home to more Muslims than any other country.[i]
Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) is a widespread Islamist movement in Indonesia. GP Ansor, a group for young men with a military wing called Banser, is often associated with NU. While Ansor is an autonomous unit, Banser is a“multipurpose brigade and is a semi-autonomous part of Ansor,” according to Dr. Lukens-Bull.
Banser supports traffic control, fire and rescue, maritime and environment issues, emergency preparedness, and first aid for the communities it serves. According to Dr. Lukens-Bull, Christians across Indonesia appreciate Banser’s work, as it includes providing security for churches and mosques alike.
Ansor works to maintain peace and protection for Indonesians when police do not have the “manpower or will power” to protect in some areas of Indonesia. Given this, members of Ansor, and its military wing of Banser, step in to assist.
Dr. Lukens-Bull explained that Ansor is rooted in the ideas of Islam Madani and Islam Nusantara, where its goals are to re-create multicultural community of the holy city of Medina and uphold the unique ancient practices of Islam in Indonesia.[ii]
Dr. Lukens-Bull proceeded to explain the history of the youth movement, which has origins in the 1930s, prior to Indonesian independence in 1945. Upon creation, GP Ansor and its subgroup, Banser, were seen as auxiliary forces for the national police and were utilized when police needed reinforcement. Today, the groups are seen as seen as a multi-religious, peace keeping force, according to Dr. Lukens-Bull.
Dr. Lukens-Bull argued that many “western educated liberals” see the group as “macho vigilantism.” Though many who have this frame of reference do not understand the happenings on the ground and fail to acknowledge that “sometimes the police are sympathetic with radical groups and will ignore concerns of the populace.” Hence, according to Dr. Lukens-Bull, there may be a place for the youth militia to uphold peace and protection in the region.
Some middle-class Indonesians believe young men join the groups due to financial incentives. Dr. Lukens-Bull explained this notion is not fully founded since members only earn pocket money during service and must personally pay for expensive uniforms. Others see Ansor as a radical movement, as videos have circulated of the group burning flags. Dr. Lukens-Bull said there are conflicting sources and contexts to consider with the videos.
Before concluding the discussion, Dr. Lukens-Bull mentioned one significant historical controversy with the group. In 1965-66, Banser and Ansor were recruited by the Indonesian military to carry out the coordinated killings of 500,000 purported communists in Bali and East Java during the Cold War.[iii] Dr. Lukens-Bull explained it is important to remember that the massacre included other religious and non-religious militia groups throughout Indonesia as well. Considering this, it would be useful for Ansor to “issue an apology and move on,” said Dr. Lukens-Bull.
It is important to consider that the massacres of 1965 were carried out by many veterans of the Second World War, noted Dr. Lukens-Bull. Unlike the experienced fighters of Ansor during the Cold War, the groups today have limited training in martial arts and firearms and more extensive training on the ideologies and protocols of the group. While few members are college educated, Dr. Lukens-Bull explained there are workshops created for the members to learn about the principles of entrepreneurship.
Today, the group supports the principles of Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (NKRI) and its objective of pluralistic unity in a multi-cultural and multi-religious state. It is important to note, however, that membership is exclusive to men and there has been little conversation about opening membership to women.
During the Q&A, Dr. Lukens-Bull addressed rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ + issues. He explained there is recognition within Ansor that there is a difference between state responsibility and religious perspective. He explained that Ansor supports “statewide leadership and justice on issue” though it is not condoned on a religious level, according to group leaders.
Dr. Lukens-Bull claimed the Ansor movement and its military force Banser are poorly understood by many, especially in the West. Today, the group serves more as a “show of force” rather than “an actual force” in Indonesia, he said.
The event underscored the importance of utilizing history and context to inform a more holistic perspective on the foundations of militia movements. Before harshly judging and attempting to use broad strokes to paint an accurate picture of the Ansor Youth Movement, it is important to understand the diverse perspectives on the movement across Indonesia. As highlighted by Dr. Lukens-Bull, one should not necessarily let the shadow of the organization’s past fully influence their perspective on the present-day security and peace-keeping operations of the group.
[i] “Information on U.S. and Indonesia,” The United States-Indonesia Society, https://usindo.org/information-on-u-s-and-indonesia/about-indonesia/.
[ii] Azis Anwar Fachrudin. “The face of Islam Nusantara,” The Jakarta Post, July 24, 2015, https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/07/24/the-face-islam-nusantara.html
[iii] Katharine E McGregor, “The Indonesian Killings of 1965-66,” SciencesPo, August 4, 2009,https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/fr/document/indonesian-killings-1965-1966.html