Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Fighting against Jihad in Indonesia

Snouck Hurgronje was a Dutchman who lived from 1857 to 1936. He was a scholar of Islam and visited Mecca. He wrote several books about the origin and development of Islam. This was of great interest to the Dutch elites of the time.

In the 19th century The Netherlands had become a more or less unified and modern country, organised according to French legal preceipts. The country had inherited vast Asian possesions from an organisation founded in 1602 on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the VOC. The United East-Indian Company was a cartel set-up by Dutch traders to organise and undertake trade with Asia, from Japan to the East African Coast. After an initial run of successes during which the company chased the Portuguese, Spanish and English out of many ports around Asia the company became the biggest employer in The Netherlands. The company outlawed competition in the areas where it was supreme and started to run out of steam. In 1799 the company was utterly broke and dissolved by the French rulers of the Netherlands. After the defeat of Napoleon the English handed back many of the Asian possesions of the VOC to the new Dutch government.

With this the Dutch elites found themselves the rulers of masses of Islamic subjects and a vast empire in scattered of thousands of small and dozens of big Islands, an empire that was called: "the emerald girdle" due to the appearance of the green Islands in the Asian seas.
Wanting power and money the local Indonesian/Dutch elites started to economically develop the societies they found themselves ruling in order to be able to tax it. And change of course invites opposition, mostly from the local secular rulers, the Raden or noblemen. But another force gathered against the Westerners.

Most local rulers were quickly taken care of by armies of white soldiers shipped in from Europe, supported by local mercenaries, often Christians from the Molluccan Islands. However at a certain point the Dutch had to face a more formidable foe.

The area of modern day Indonesia that lies Westermost is the Island Sumatera. It is a big Island, less densely populated than the dominant and central Island of Java. There are several strong ethnic groups there such as the former cannibals and present day Bataks on the Northern side close to Malasia and the interesting matriarchal Muslims of the Minang Kabau culture on the Southern side of the mountainous Island. On the Western tip of the Island lies the old culture of Aceh. The Aceh people were the first Malays to be converted by Islam in the 14 th century. And they were a strong empire that dominated Sumatera in the 15th and 16th century. In the 19th century their strength was increasing again and so was their national conciousness. Being strongly Islamic their nationalism was strongly shaped and guided by the Qoran and the Islamic scribes. They send out their forces to dominate the other ethnic groups on Sumatera and this did not bother the colonial overlords much, who had only a symbolic presence on Sumatera.

But the Qoran orders the faithful to levy tax on the unbelievers and to loot them. And this is what Aceh pirates did in the seas around Aceh. This included the Malacca straits one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. Packed with shipping which was the lifeblood of the British Empire.

The British demanded that the Dutch would do something about the piracy problem and after some initial dithering the Dutch Govenor General in Batavia (Jakarta) declared war on the Sultan of Aceh and armies were summarely despatched. This was in 1873. The colonial army met with heavy opposition but in the end heavy weapons and European discipline prevailed and the Palace of the Sultan was sacked and burned.

Instead of submitting to Dutch colonial authority however the population continued to resist. The Dutch were at a loss to account for this a-typical behavior. The Dutch colonial government consolidated themselves in a entrenched and well-fortified position ("De geconcentreerde Linie") which was the subject of constant attacks and harrasment by warriors who did not fear death. The war was costly in lives and required the upkeep of a large army of conscipts and mercenaries who had to be paid and supplied. The constant attrition was a drag on the population of The Netherlands which saw its sons send off to die in a war that would not end. The war would last more than 20 years and interestingly enough the Dutch never gave up.
In fact the whole story reads surprisingly like the involvement of the USA armed forces in the Middle East.

At a certain point the Dutch elites became desperate enough to listen to somebody who said he had a key to the problem. This man was Snouck Hurgronje, a professor and a scholar of Islam and the Malay language. He had visited Mecca, wrote books and essays about Islam, lived in the colony in Asia, spoke local languages and knew local customs. He had even married a Muslim wife from the Malay race, "only to study the customs" as he wrote to his concerned Dutch wife.
Snouck taught Dutch officials that the enemy in Indonesia were not the caste of noble warriors and the traditional Malay social and political structure as elswhere in the Indonesian Archepilago. The enemy was Islam and all its believers who belonged to the nation of Aceh.In order to win the doctrine of the Qoran had to be targetted and undermined. This was done by targetting the sites of Islamic schools, the Madrassas. Specifically those Madrassas that were prestigious amongst the most ferocious enemies of the Dutch. Also the notion of Islamic spiritual dominance over the Kufaar had to be undermined and destroyed. This was done by raising a spirit of defiance and the will to dominate on the battlefield. Instead of attacking the forces of Islam from strong forts with artillery and heavy weapons, Dutch forces attacked with light rifles or often just with "Klewang". This is an Indonesian weapon that looks a bit like a sabre. The spirit of the Muslims was broken when they came under constant attacks by fearless White and Molluccan fighters who attacked with slash-and-cutting weapons running through and towards the rifle fire of the fighters of Islam.

The cost of the war was gruesome with more than a 100.000 members of the Nation of Aceh killed amongst whom where many women and children. Aceh was never really subdued it regained its spirit and rose in revolt against the Nationalist and Javanese dominated government of fellowMuslims in the 1960s. The new war is still going on although there is a temporary truce since the 2004 Tsunami. But the Dutch did manage to subdue Islam for a period of more than 50 years.

The General who came up with the military part of the effort to subdue Aceh was General van Heutz. The man is reviled by the left in his country of birth, but is ironically regarded as an icon by the Indonesian Nationalists who run modern-day Indonesia and the TNI, the Indonesian Army. Every year there is a parade and wreath ceremony by the TNI at the statue of van Heutz in Jakarta the capital of Indonesia.

What is more strange is that many Indonesian Muslim groups see Snouck Hurgronje as a friend and "elder brother" of Islam.

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