Apocalyptic Thought, Conspiracism and Jihad in Indonesia.

AuthorFealy, Greg

On 13 May 2018, Dita Oepriarto, his wife, and their four children, killed themselves in three suicide bombings targeting churches in Surabaya, Indonesia's second biggest city. Dita's two sons, aged 16 and 18, exploded the first bomb while riding up to a Catholic church on a motorcycle. Shortly afterwards, his wife and their nine and 12-year-old daughters, detonated bombs strapped to their bodies at a Protestant church, badly injuring but not killing members of the congregation. A few minutes later, Dita drove his car into a carpark belonging to a Pentacostal church and triggered a bomb in his vehicle, killing three people. Apart from the six family members, another three people died in the attacks and dozens more were injured. Dita was the head of the Surabaya branch of Jamaah Ansharul Daulah (JAD), the main pro-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in Indonesia. The next day, another family from the same JAD group blew themselves up in an attack on the city's police headquarters, killing ten people. The family's eight-year-old girl was injured in the attack but survived. The bombings shocked Indonesia, including most of its jihadi community, because of the involvement of child suicide bombers, the first such incident in Southeast Asia.

Initially, investigators suspected that the "Surabaya bombings" were a response to either events in Syria or to a riot by terrorist detainees in a police jail in Jakarta the week before, which had led numerous jihadis to attack police in support of the rioters. However, these were soon discounted as major factors given that the Surabaya JAD families had made little mention of ISIS's problems in Syria or the Jakarta jail riot in the months preceding their attacks.

It soon emerged that the critical factor triggering the bombings was eschatological (the study of the end of time, derived from the Greek word, eschaton or "end"): Dita and his colleagues had become convinced the world would soon end and that if their families did not martyr themselves, they might be damned to eternal hellfire. They had been avidly consuming prophesies on various jihadist websites about the imminent collision of a meteor with Earth, which would set off a string of calamitous events, followed by the appearance of the Mahdi (Redeemer) who would ensure those who had undertaken jihad would enter heaven with all their sins expunged. The families were certain that carrying out their bombings against perceived foes of Islam--Christians and the police--would guarantee their salvation. (1)

This terrorist attack was the most extreme manifestation of apocalyptic thinking among Indonesian jihadis. Many Indonesian jihadis, like their counterparts elsewhere, are inclined not only to see the world as rilled with brutal repression and aggression towards Muslims, but also to place these events in the context of the imminent end of the world. They see the plight of Muslims as part of a linear historical process that will lead to cataclysm and finally, the Day of Judgement. For them, history has a purpose; it is not cyclical or random, but rather is in the hands of God who controls all and has a grand design for the playing out of human events. It is the ultimate cosmic battle between good and evil. On the side of good are Muslims who hold true to their faith, such as jihadis fighting in the path of God; on the side of evil are infidels and those nominal Muslims who have failed the test of faith. Pious Muslims go to heaven; infidels and deviant Muslims go to hell.

This article examines apocalyptic discourses in Indonesia, with special reference to jihadism. To date, there has been no scholarly study of Indonesian apocalypticism, though there is an increasingly rich literature on eschatology and Islamism in other parts of the world. In particular, the emergence of ISIS in late 2013, with its extensive use of End of Time narratives to attract recruits, has led to detailed studies of its use of apocalyptic symbols and messaging, as well as the impact which these have on its followers. (2)

This article focuses on the two largest segments of Indonesian apocalypticism: the populist and the salafi-jihadi. The populist forms dominate the market with book sales exceeding tens of thousands per year. This literature is sensationalist and often driven by elaborate conspiracy theories and attention-grabbing marketing strategies. The jihadi material, by contrast, tends to have serious theological and ideological content and is intended for Islamically educated readers. The former can be found on the shelves of mainstream bookstores across the nation, while the latter feature mainly on jihadist websites and in magazines read by committed Islamists.

A key question posed in this article is: What is the impact of apocalyptic literature upon the thinking and actions of its Indonesian readers? Populist or conspiracist End of Time writings are often dismissed as innocuous and low brow, and of little consequence to Muslim radicalization, whereas salafi-jihadi literature, as is evident from the Surabaya bombing case, can contribute to lethal outcomes. This article makes two arguments. First, that populist literature has insidious effects upon its readership and that Indonesian apocalypticists often have implicit ideological agendas. Second, that jihadi End of Time discourses can have both a restraining as well as a galvanizing influence upon those inclined towards extremist actions.

Islamic Eschatology

The details of Islamic eschatology are complex and open to a great variety of interpretations. Unlike Christianity's Book of Revelation, Islam has no single, agreed-upon eschatological text. There are brief references in the Qur'an to the Day of Judgement, but most of the prophesies regarding End of Times are drawn from the corpus of hadiths (reports of the Prophet Muhammad's words and deeds). The reliability and meaning of many of these hadiths are often subject to intensive debate among Islamic scholars, and it is not unusual for a report to be dismissed as apocryphal by one group of scholars but to be held as credible by another. Thus, there is great scope for developing different apocalyptic narratives amid this diverse eschatological material and indeed, Islam has a long and rich literature on the End of Times.

Nevertheless, the broad features of Islamic End of Times understandings can be summarized as follows: there will be a sequence of catastrophic human and natural events that will presage the arrival of the anti-Christ, Dajjal, who will eventually be killed by the Mahdi, guided by Jesus. The Earth will then be destroyed and final judgement delivered on whose souls will be saved and whose will be damned. As numerous scholars have pointed out, Islamic eschatology draws heavily upon Jewish and Christian traditions. (3)

The precise sequence of events and the actors involved are where dispute arises, but nonetheless there is reasonable consensus that the following is foretold. Dajjal's appearance on Earth is one of the signs of the coming of the last hours, the Day of Judgment. He is abominable in appearance--usually described as reddish, fat, blind in one eye but a right eye "bulging like a grape". More importantly, he is the great deceiver who tempts Muslims into straying from the true path. He appears to be offering a choice between heaven and hell in each of his hands, but his heaven is in fact hell, and his hell, heaven. As such, those of weak faith succumb to his blandishments and enter what they think is paradise but which turns out to be hell; those who reject him enter his hell which turns out to be paradise. This is Dajjal's cruel deceit; he is leading the forces of evil on Earth, not the forces of righteousness. Only those Muslims true and resolute can read the word "infidel" marked on Dajjal's brow and see him for what he is--a monstrous figure who will lead them to destruction and eternal damnation. (4)

The appearance of Dajjal and final judgement is preceded by "signs of the hour". These are often divided into small and great signs that are precursors to a terrifying and calamitous series of events which end in everyone being held accountable by God for their deeds. Smaller signs are supposed to warn mankind of the approaching End Time and prompt them to repent. These signs usually revolve around ethical and moral decline, in which piety is replaced by pride, and truth by lies. Then we have the great signs that are an extraordinary series of natural disturbances, such as the sun rising in the West, the moving of mountains, stars falling from the sky, boiling seas and the like. All these herald approach of the End Times. (5)

At a key point in these events, Dajjal or the anti-Christ emerges, supposedly from Khurasan in Central Asia, but proceeds throughout the world drawing Muslims to his side. When Dajjal appears to be on the brink of victory, Jesus (Isa) descends to Earth, kills Dajjal, breaks the cross and converts Christians to Islam. (Some scholarly dispute exists as to whether Jesus is Mahdi or whether Jesus and the Mahdi are separate.) The death of Dajjal leads to the Day of Judgement that brings peace and harmony, and Islam's final triumph. Only God can know the exact timing of this event, and Muslims are reminded that their actions on Earth are both prescribed and assessed by Him on the Final Day, leading either to eternal reward or endless punishment. (6)

Until the mid-twentieth century, most apocalyptic literature was produced by ulema or writers of some learning regarding Islamic tradition, especially hadith studies. This began to change in the 1960s as a new, more radical form of apocalypticism emerged in the Middle East, written more often than not by lay professional authors rather than erudite Islamic scholars. This wrought a dramatic shift in the nature of eschatological discourses.

The most influential figures in this new style of writing were the Egyptians Said Ayyub, Muhammad Izzat...

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