Jihad & Passionate Politics in Indonesia


A review of After Jihad: A Biographical Approach to Passionate Politics in Indonesia, by M. Najib Azca.

Drawing from his own experience as a former religious activist and a rising scholar in Indonesia academe, Najib Azca accomplishes a narrative of religious violence in Poso and Ambon and its aftermath in the post-Suharto era. The main line of inquiry is here three-fold, articulated around the “jihad experience” and “post-jihad trajectory.” Najib asks: “(1) How did non-local jihad actors [jihadist, mujahidin] who come from different Islamic activism networks become jihad activists?; (2) What did jihad’s experience mean to the actors?; (3) How did the jihad experience influence the life trajectory of the non-local jihad actors in the post-jihad period?” (p. 41).

The seven chapters of this dissertation follow a biographical approach, as the lives of ten former jihad actors (including the (in)famous Ali Imron, involved with the 2002 Bali Bombings) belonging to different Islamist networks, unfold.  Chapters 1 to 3 present the context, theory, and methodology of the research: starting with some reflections on conducting fieldwork with jihad actors, in Chapter 2 Najib focuses on his choice of applying the social movement theory of “passionate politics” as a theoretical framework to study jihad movements, actors’ experiences and the aftermath. Part II (chapters 4 to 6) articulates the narratives of his informants, divided according to the network they belonged to. Part III consists of the Conclusions.

Chapter 1, topically titled “From local brawl to (global) jihad,” illustrates the “most massive, severe and protracted cases of communal violence in Indonesia” in connection with the historical development of Indonesia’s Islamic activism and networks. Najib’s capturing narrative guides us through the 1999-2000 conflict that swept the island of Ambon in the Maluku archipelago, and the town of Poso in Central Sulawesi, as key examples of how a local “brawl” rapidly developed into a religious conflict in the background of the collapsing New Order.

Instead of calling for transnational jihadist networks (too often blamed for domestic disturbances in the Muslim world), Najib ties the mobilization of “outside jihad actors” (i.e. from other parts of the archipelago) with the specific context of Islamic activism in the post-colonial experience. Najib rightly points to the Darul Islam movement in the 1940s-1950s, its later quashing (mid-1960s) and resurrection (1970s) at the hands of Suharto’s New Order regime, Komando Jihad’s emancipation in the 1980s, the subsequent splits and fragmentations that let to a multitude of micro-networks in the late 1980s until today, and their blooming in conjunction with the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1997-1998.

Chapter 2 defines the theoretical framework of Najib’s work, as he opts for explaining the jihad phenomenon as an instance of social movement theory because of the very fact that “phenomena of Islamism, or Islamic activism, had been so far excluded from investigation under the mode of inquiry developed by the social movement theory in the West” (p. 50).

Following up on Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper’s critique of the “burgeoning social movement studies,” recently developed under the “hegemonic” approach of the “political process theory” (Rethinking Social Movements; Structure, Meaning and Emotion, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefi eld Publisher, 2004, p. vii), Najib turns to the “passionate politics” approach, thus devoting his attention to “the dynamics of the ‘micro-sociological’ aspects, and in particular the crucial role of identity, meaning and emotion in the jihad movement” (p. 51). Within this framework, Islamist activists are categorized as pious, jihadi, and political (a reflection on such taxonomy follows in Chapter 7).

Chapter 3 is arguably the most fascinating and captivating. Here Najib describes how he “followed the flow” of non-local mujahidins after communal violence in Eastern Indonesia had calmed down, and how he collected life history interviews with 21 informants to track their paths “before, during and after” their participation in the conflict. The second stage of fieldwork he defines as “dig[ging] the deep of the personal life stories” (limited to the ten participants featured in the dissertation), hence referring to Norman Denzin’s distinction between a person’s surface level and inner self (M. Najib Azca, pp. 99-101; Denzin, On Understanding Emotion, San Francisco, Washington, London: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1984; Interpretive Biography, Newbury Park, London, New Delhi: Sage, 1989).

This chapter delves into the selection process, interviewing techniques, and methodological issues related to oral history, interpretative biography, and their links to social movement theory. The most intriguing section is the one explaining Najib’s own networks’ interconnectedness with jihadist organizations in Yogyakarta (where he has been a university lecturer for many years) and Pekalongan (the town in Central Java where he grew up and became a prominent Muslim activist), and how this reality played out in his successes and failures in collecting interviews with “jihad veterans” from Eastern Indonesia and Afghanistan (pp. 103-104; pp. 109-129).

Part II, spanning through chapters 4 to 6, draws the personal narratives of four core informants, structured along organizational lines: Chapter 4 focusing on Laskar Jihad (portrayed as a pious Islamic activist group), Chapter 5 on Jama’ah Islamiyah (a jihadi group), and Chapter 6 on activists emerging from political Islamic groups . The salient distinction made here therefore is between groups rejecting democratic principles and political engagement (pious), those advocating religious justifications for the use of violence and terrorist methods (jihadi) and those openly engaging with formal politics.

The three chapters follow one same structure, answering the questions stipulated at the beginning, in the varying organizational and ideological contexts. Let’s discuss Chapter 4 as an example: interwoven with a “macro narrative” of the role of Laskar Jihad in the Ambon and Poso conflicts, Chapter 4 discusses the life stories of four post-jihadists, showing the multiplicities of background experiences (geographical origins, social strata, education, family’s religious strand within Islam, etc) that dot the Laskar Jihad landscape. Najib here presents the personal development of a high-school graduate, a university student, a university graduate and a “doctor-cum-politician” in becoming and being a mujahidin as well as their re-absorption in society at time of peace.

Although it appears that the path “towards jihad” is consistently facilitated by “radical reasoning” (meaning “a set of micro-sociological processes that constitute the decision-making to join jihad, involving both cognition and emotion through either ‘moral shocks’ or ‘cognitive opening’ or both,” p. 349) and periods of “life crisis” (although these take different forms), the key difference emerges in “life after jihad.” Pious jihadists seem to become disengaged from the wider community but yet retain tight connections to the Salafi network as they reside in enclave communities, defined by Najib as “holy kampong.” Post-jihad activists for the most part experienced jail terms due to the terrorist linkages of their organization, thus delaying their re-insertion in civil society. The political Islamists seem to be the only ones who retain a level of engagement with the wider society, as they are now involved in local politics through the many extant Islamic political parties.

M. Najib Azca’s dissertation makes a strong contribution both in empirical studies of Islamism and to theoretical approaches to this phenomenon. It is noteworthy that despite the scholarly (and not) energy drawn into “Islamism,” there has thus far been no successful attempt to theorization: Najib’s dissertation could be laying the grounds for a more systematic approach.  Indeed sound in theoretical engagement (with both social movement theory and approaches to oral history and its interpretative framework), After Jihad: A Biographical Approach to Passionate Politics in Indonesia is a fascinating account of Islamic activists’ networks — which Najib is able to unveil mostly through his own life experience — and a piece of scholarship unique in its source material and methodology.

Chiara Formichi
Assistant Professor
Department of Asian and International Studies
City University of Hong Kong

Primary sources

Life story interviews with “non-local jihad actors” involved in the Poso and Ambon conflicts, collected in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Pekalongan, Sulawesi
Islamist propaganda literature from Poso and Ambon
Government and non-governmental reports on the Poso and Ambon conflicts

Dissertation Information

University of Amsterdam. 2011. 410+xx pp. Primary Advisor: H.G.C. Schulte Nordholt.


Image: “Kampung Muhajirin”, a former Christian compound which changed to be a Salafi kampong in Ambon city. Photograph by M. Najib Azca.

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