Religion, Ethnicity, and Political Conflict



Works and analysis in humanities and social sciences literature have been for a long time focused on attempts to explain why ethno conflicts and other conflicts sometimes occur and sometime not; and why, when they occur, the results are sometimes atrocious, leading to genocide, some are not. However, those very questions and attempts, put under a terminological umbrella of ethno-religious-nationalist conflicts, seemingly tend to complicate problems rather than make the problems better understood.

Why genocides, mass killings, massacres, and mass rapes, tragedies with which we are concerned, should be seen through ethno-religious-nationalist conflicts frameworks? When our very concern is to understand these “dark” sides of human life, then ethno-religious-nationalist analysis could probably be a prejudice unconsciously constructing the “fact” in limited scholarly assumptions at the expense of an analysis open to explanations other than that triad of conflict. By so saying, I would not insist that there exists such a “neutral” point of view; rather, I argue that such predetermined frameworks would leave many explanations other than ethno-religious-nationalist ones unexplained.

Ethnicity, religion, and nationality, notwithstanding their frequent symbolic uses, are merely identities among other identities which individuals belong to. In the heart of a conflict, I would argue, identity is simply a tool to achieve something other than the identity itself. The conflicting groups would strive to find the most powerful tool available at the time being to increase their strength by which they would achieve their common cause. Identity which is providing sense of belonging is desirable to build up a group’s unity. Because no one really has one single identity, the interest groups have to find the most dominant identity that, in turn, provides most powerful support to achieve their goal. When religion is the most powerful identity available among people in a certain place and time, the interest groups will rely on the religion; and when religion is not powerful enough, they would shift to another identity — ethnicity, nationality, geography, shared-history, language, and so on.

It is worth noting, therefore, that identity is inventible and not necessarily given. It might change whenever conditions require it to change. In the case of lack of a powerful identity, the elites would devise the assumed most reliable and available identity. Then they develop and preach it among the populace. The history could be rewritten, language could be taught, and religions could be reinterpreted, all for the sake of constructing a more powerful identity binding the imagined community and excluding the imagined others. To put it differently, I would argue, conflicts create or empower identities rather than the identities create the conflicts.

How then do conflicts create identity? First of all, human beings grow in a group of social unit. In the pre-modern world, for its unity those social units relied on a blood relation (family, band, clan, or tribe), locality (villages, island, or valley), language, or religions.[1] In each social unit a blood relation, a locality, a language or a religion provided a legitimacy on which the elites based their political power. However, these bases alone are not something given and fixed. They have to be continuously maintained as hardly as maintaining the very political power because the relation between them is simply like two sides of a coin.

It is interesting, for example, to notice the primordial blood relation as a basis of political legitimacy.[2] It has been effective from the pre-modern time up to now. But the ways it has been maintained as a basis of political legitimacy have been dynamic ones. At the out set, it was justified because the leader was the father of the family. Then it was justified because the leader is the closer family to the previous leader. After that, they create patriarchal system to maintain. When they begun establishing religion, the legitimacy was derived by creating a myth or belief that the leader is the “descendant” of (or having blood relation with) gods. As they have to deal with other group, the blood relation is then conceived in ethnicity. And so on. The blood relation, in this sense, has been one of the most powerful bases of legitimacy and has been maintained in many interesting ways simply to maintain political power.

Arguably, the political power is the independent variable; while the basis of legitimacy, such as religion, ethnicity, and other potential identity, which are changing and redefined over time, is the dependent variable. Therefore, conflicts of identities are necessarily byproducts of the efforts done by conflicting groups to build, maintain, or fight against a political power. Clive E. Christie aptly points out the case in the French nationalism. Referring to Ellie Kedourie, she said, “In the French revolutionary concept of la nation, the essential foundation of the new state was a matter not of identity, but of political principle.”[3] In similar fashion, Anthony W Marx also begins his discussion on the origin of European nationalism with this search of legitimacy, foundation, to draw the popular allegiance. Modern nationalism, for Anthony Marx, is a kind of meeting point between the elites who hold the power to rule and the populace who gave some of their power to avoid harmful conflicts and ensure their own peaceful prosperity.[4]

Accordingly, the bloody conflicts such as genocides and mass killings are byproducts of this effort of finding power equilibrium rather than a conflict of identities. It is true that the conflicts involve identities (ethnicity, religion, or what so ever), but they were involved in the conflict and not causing the conflict. To put it differently, conflicts create identities rather than identities create conflict.

Based on that insistence, it is my preference to see what so called ethno-conflict and religious-conflict as a power conflict, in which two conflicting parts create and rely on their respective legitimacies (whether it is based on religion, ethnicity, or nationalism). A conflict would stop whenever groups achieve a point where they both see the point of balance in power, an “even” distribution of power. When the point is achieved, the superficial layer of conflicts, such as religion, ethnicity, and nationality, would not be a further justification to fight other groups; and the very identity would be redefined accordingly.

In so doing, my aim is to bring our attention back to the very question of why conflicts occur and how identity (Islam in this paper) is defined or redefined. My paper would show how the relation between political struggles of separatism and the religious/ethno identities is dynamic. It is not a black and white relation where nationalism (represented mainly by the nation-state) and religion/ethnicity (represented mainly by the separatist) stand on a different and contrasting position. Instead, they can accommodate and absorb each other. They merged some time, but they could contradict at other times.

The Cases

The separatisms of Moro and Acehnese are interesting cases to explore my arguments. In the Philippines, the differences of religion between the majority of Filipino and the minority of southern Filipino are supposed to be the bases of the failure of the southern Philippines to integrate with the rest of the country. In Aceh, there is no religious difference between the majority of Indonesian and Acehnese, they are all Muslims. Still, the separatism begins with the declaration of an Islamic state and with Islam as a basis of legitimacy.

These cases are important to my argument because no matter how obvious Islam is in these conflicts today, it was not the religion that triggered the secession. Muslims, in both cases, were free to exercise their religion before the secession. Though Islam is important factor, it other factors that actually triggered the revolt, not suppression of Islam. Some personalities of the revolts, for example, had assumed positions in the nation (Daud Beureueh was a military governor, Nur Misuari was an instructor, and Hasan Tiro worked for the Indonesian government until he join Daud Beureu’eh). In this paper, I would describe how those attributions to Islam and ethnicity are byproducts of conflicts. I don’t mean to say that Islam or ethnicity is not important, but rather it is merely a matter of the level of importance which is concerned. Islam or local ethnicity is a negotiable factor to achieve other cause.

My paper is organized in four sections. First section is this introduction. The second and third sections each will deal with Moro and Aceh. These two sections would not cover all the aspects of the conflicts. They are limited in describing a brief context and, the main argument of this paper, how religious identity is defined or redefined, maintained, and negotiated to achieve power, politically and economically, objectives. The final section, section four, will be the general conclusion of comparing the two cases.



A. The Sovereign Islamic Sultanates

There was surely no Moklo, Moro, or Bangsamoro in the past. The islands of the southern Philippines were inhabited by bands and tribes rather a large well-organized polity. When Islam came to the islands around the 14th century,[5] it united, as it did in Arabia since the 7th century, some tribal (banua) and economic (barangay) units into a bigger centralized polity, the sultanate. Islam, more than a religion, came to the Philippines and changed the people’s life. It gave them a sense of a religious community, new laws, a more developed political organization, and a new system of writing.[6]

There were two sultanates in southern Philippines, one in Sulu and the other in Mindanao. The sultanate of Sulu was established around 1450, whose territory extended to now Sabah, Malaysia.[7] The Sultanate of Maguindanao, on the other hand, arose around the second decade of the 17th century. Its territory extended as far as to Bukidnon and Butuan in the North of Mindanao.[8] Both sultanates were independent and sovereign. Their economic activities reached geographically as far as China to north and Java to south. According to the Filipino historian B.R. Rodil, at the coming of Spanish colonizers, the Moros in their respective sultanates were the most dominant grouping in the archipelago for some reasons. First, economically, they had monopoly of trade with neighboring countries. Second, politically they were the only large grouping with centralized system of government. Third, religiously, they alone had a monotheistic belief system,[9] a religion that gave them sense of universal identity transcending their tribal local identity.

However, sad to say, their political and economic independences gradually changed as the Spaniards reached and attempted to colonize these rich islands. After conquering northern Philippines, the Spaniards seek to extend their power to south. Unlike the northern Philippines that was easily conquered and Christianized, the well-organized of Southern Philippines were able to defend themselves for long time. For almost 300 years, form 1565 to 1898, the Spaniard and Muslim sultanates had involved in war. The Muslim sultanates had remained fully unconquered by the time of American come to the Philippines. According to one source, it is worth noting that when the Spain “sold” its colonized territory, the Philippines islands, to the U.S, the Treaty of Paris (10 December 1898), the treaty did not include the islands of Cagayan de Sulu group, the islands of Sibutu and certain other smaller islands which in Spanish time were considered part of the Sultanate.[10]

The long war against the Spaniards was irony for the Moros. On the one hand it was an honor to be independent for such a long time. It is a history they deserve to be proud of. On the other hand, however, the long war had weakened the great and rich sultanates, cutting their economic network and leaving the sultanates incapable to survive any longer. When the Spaniard left the island, the sultanate of Sulu, the last one to survive, was not as strong as before. The new colonizer, the United States with its double-edge strategy, easily subdued the sultanate. The United States succeeded in gaining sovereignty over the sultanate both through diplomacy and military forces. As early as 1899, they reached an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu. It was done probably to concentrate their force first to pacify the north; because, as soon as in 1904 the U.S. unilaterally abrogate the agreement and self-claiming of its sovereignty over the sultanate of Sulu. In addition to “lip-service” diplomacy, they

“… came like a thief in the night, bearing death and destruction, frustrating the Filipino aspiration for national freedom… Alongside with armed force the American government trumpeted the ringing rhetoric of civilization and democracy, held so dear in the United States of America but bandied about to deceive and justify the use of force in the Philippines.”[11]

Though unilaterally subjugated by the colonial government of the U.S., the Moros still continue their fight. The sporadic revolts of Muslim communities, led by the datus, continued year to year. During 1903-1916, for example, Datu Ampunaga-os of Taraka led guerrilla warfare.[12] In January 1906, arose a resistance led by three prominent Tausug leaders, Imam Sahirun, Ma’as Abdullatif, and Panglima Sawadjaan. It continued to unleash nationalistic fervor until another major battle erupted — the battle of Bud Bagsak in 1913.[13] All Muslim warriors met their martyrdom in the five day battle against the well-equipped US army. Their defeat marked the end of organized Muslim resistance during the first 10 years of the US colonialism in the Philippines. This decline paved the way for the signing of the Kiram-Carpenter Agreement in August 20, 1915 where the sovereignty of the Sulu sultanate was taken over by the US colonial government. The collapse of the Sulu Sultanate, in turn, led to the integration of Mindanao and Sulu into the colonial rule covering now the Philippines.[14]

B. Reluctant Integration

Having equated the relation between Muslims in Mindanao and the United States as children and parent, a letter written to the president of the United States in 1935 reads:

Should the American people grant the Philippines independence, the islands of Mindanao and Sulu should not be included in such independence because we don’t deserve at all to be independent.[15]

The letter seemingly reflected what Muslims would felt if the colonized Philippines became independent. Under the colonial government of the USA, both south and north Philippines had stand in an equal position, ruled by the other. To some extent, Muslims even had enjoyed some political and cultural privileges. Arguably the power had been distributed evenly between north and south. An independent Philippines, on the contrary, would alter the balance and Muslims realized that the majority in the north would have more powers then they would. The letter also calculated that they would have finally achieved their own independence if they remained ruled by the USA for a certain period. The looming imbalance of power seemingly drove this writer to send this letter.

Though the northern and southern Philippines were geographically united under the U.S, for nearly 300 hundred years they had lived under a different culture and influence. On the one hand, the northern had been Westernized-Christianized; on the other, the southern were sovereign-indigenous Muslims ruling their own states (sultanates) for hundred years. The short experience of union under the US colonialism had barely contributed integration of the South and North as a nation.

According to Nunez, an alienation of Moro from the Philippine state particularly grew during the Commonwealth period when the Manuel Quezon administration put an end to the special treatment the Moro received from the U.S. The administration refused to acknowledge the successor to Sultan Jamalul Kiram II, it ended official recognition of the civil title, and the biro of non-Christian Tribes was replaced by the Office of the Commissioner for Mindanao and Sulu. It also abolished the Administrative Code for Mindanao and the Moro Board whose function was to settle dispute according to Islamic laws.[16]

When the Philippines eventually reached its full independence in 1946, what Muslims had worried about simply became more obvious. In Mindanao, the settlement of the island by the northern Filipinos increased rapidly. From 1950 to 1960, Christian prospectors, industrialists, loggers, and politicians disposed the Moros and the Lumads of their lands through title frauds, tedious application procedures, and costly legal processes. Christians began to dominate the political and economic spheres of Mindanao, even in some predominantly Moro areas.

As it is frequently the case, marginalized groups who lost their power try to maintain the rest of the power they have by consolidating their available resources to re-accumulate their power. Empowering available identities is one of the important measures to unify their group. In the Moro case, the gradual but rapid process of marginalization drove them to rebuild their previous and unburied identity: Islam. Nunez notices that a larger development during that process of marginalization was the resurgence of Islam. Muslim preachers from all over the Islamic world organized mission in Mindanao along with the scholarship for young Moros to study in the Middle East. While they were marginalized politically and culturally; their sense of Moro nationalism strengthened instead.

c. The Birth of Bangsamoro

A continuation of colonial policy, migration and settlement program were stepped up by President Ramon Magsaysay in the early 1950s. In 1950, 8,300 families had been brought to government settlements in the South. By 1963, the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration was administering colonies, including over 25,000 families and 695,500 hectares. The flow increased dramatically under the Marcos regime. According to official statistics, the population of the southern was 2.5 million in 1948; by 1976 it had increased to 8.7 million in 1976. Muslims, who formed 98% of the region’s population in 1913, accounted for only 40% by 1976.[17]

Seen from the number, this migration of the Northern Filipinos simply aggravated the situation of Muslims and other non-Muslim natives. In the Muslim side, they had lost almost everything since. Having lost their political independence during American colonization, they also lost their economic resources in the post-independence Philippines. From traditionally owning most land in the South, after the resettlement program Muslim had only 17% of the land. This very small number, even worse, distributed unevenly only among the Muslim elites. Culturally, the decrease of Muslim proportion, from a majority to a relative minority, contributes likewise more latent problems for them.

In 1968, this process of political, economic, and cultural marginalization exploded. The case was triggered by what so called “Jabidah Massacre”. It is not clear, however, what the case was really about. Newspaper headlines screamed of massacre by the Philippine Army men of between twenty-eight to sixty four Moro youths who were part of hundred eighty alleged trainees of Jabidah Forces. The trainee were supposedly part of a secret Marcos scheme to split Islamic ranks, provoke a war between Sulu and Sabah, and then invade and reclaim Sabah. The lone survivor of the killing explained that the trainees were shot because after they refused to attack Sabah, the army feared a leakage of the plan. Some said that the problem is a corruption because of which those trainees were not paid fully as promised.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter what Jabidah Massacre was all about. To be a perpetrator, a case needs no reason and explanation. Jabidah Massacre worked in a way of triggering what had been accumulated until that time: political problems, land conflicts, cultural differences, minoritization of Muslims, and prejudices between two groups of Muslim and Christians.[18]

Soon after the massacre Muslim students in Manila and elsewhere demonstrated to protest it. Cotabato Governor Datu Utdog Matalam immediately set up the Muslim Independence Movement. Maranao representative Rachid Lucman responded to a Malaysian offer to train and arm dedicated young Moros for war against the Manila government.[19] In the Christian side, 1968 witnessed the rise of terror squads that were supported by the PC and the Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP). The largest group was Ilaga, led by seven municipal mayors and three provincial governors and funded largely by timber merchants who sought Muslim lands for their logging operations.[20]

From 1968 to 1972, both political and military organizations of Muslims grew. Two of them were important at that time: BMLO (Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization), which considered themselves the umbrella organization of all Moro liberation forces, and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), led by young Misuari, who tried to distinguished it from Moro elite and to express their disgust with aristocratic leadership. With acknowledgement and support from the Islamic countries, MNLF became the major Moro movement, and begun its armed resistance in 1972, marking the birth of Bangsamoro.

d. Islam and Nationalism

The relation between Islam and nationalism in the Moro conflict, as it has been going on for hundred years, is very complex. At the beginning, in the war between local political power, the sultanates of Mindanao and Sulu, and the colonial power of Spain, Islam involved directly because the rulers were Muslims and at that time religion, as in most part of the world, was the main basis of political units. Vividly remembering the crusade, both powers inevitably used religions in the conflicts.[21] Islam was an effective political, cultural, and economic tool to maintain Moro’s sovereignty and independence in the southern Philippines. Three hundred years of resistance was long enough to prove the role of Islam for Moro sultanates.

Along with the decline of Islamic sultanates elsewhere, a lost of economics network, and exhausted by the long and costly war, the Moro sultanates had to think pragmatically by the time Americans took over the Philippines Islands from Spain. The treaty that was soon signed between Sultan of Sulu and the USA marked a decline of Islam’s role as a political power. Islam in the southern Philippines could no longer sustain the unity and sovereignty of the sultanates. When the sultanates eventually collapsed, marking the death of centralized political Islam, it was not easy anymore to read the conflict on Muslim and non-Muslim basis.

With the collapse of the centralized power, Muslims were divided among the datus. Even though some datus were pious caring their community, some were opportunistic politician pursuing their own interest. Some strived to maintain their independence, but some took pragmatic measures. The above mentioned letter to the president of the United States is an example that under American colonialism, with its cultural and educational strategy, the clear-cut analysis of Islam and non Islam would be difficult to be applied.

The period of 1946 – 1967 also presents significant features when religious and national identities could live in relatively different arenas. It was not a real problem to be a Filipino and Muslim at the same time. Most prominent proponents of Moro separatism post-1967 violence were a full member of Filipino nationality and some of them were government officials. Datu Utdog Matalam was the Governor of Cotabatu; Rachid Lucman was Maranao Representative; and Nur Misuari, the most important leader of separatism, was an instructor at the University of the Philippines. As long as this twenty years period is concerned, we don’t see Islam as a competing identity to the Filipino nationality.

When the political, economic, and cultural marginalization increased during two decades of marriage, however, an alternative ideology was needed to voice those political, economic, and cultural grievances. Was it Islam? If we look at what happen during 1967 – 1996, the use of Islam as an alternative ideology in political struggle in southern Philippines was ambiguous. Islam and nationalism invariably have played important roles in the both military and diplomacy battles for the Moros. I would argue that both Islamic identity and nationalism framework were dynamically negotiated to facilitate political and resources conflicts between the Moros and the Philippines state, in international level and local level alike.

The MNLF uses Islamic credential to gain political and financial support for his struggle from international community. With its Islamic identity, the MNLF derives support from Islamic international communities. Libya, for example, supported the Moros with arms, military training, and diplomacy. The neighbor Malaysia was the refuge for those fled from their hostile fatherland. The OIC (the Organization of Islamic Conference) provided the stage for internationalization of the conflict, mediating the government of Philippines and MNLF. Still, Indonesia, a co-member in ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asia Nations) to the Philippines and a Muslim “brother” to the Moros, eventually helped them to reach the final peace agreement in 1996.

On the one hand, MNLF also thought realistically that Mindanao did not fully belong to Muslims. Other important stake holders were non-Muslim natives. The use of Islam could have been counter-productive to build a coalition with other oppressed natives. To have a sound argument for secession, the grievances of Southern Filipino should be altogether attributed to other natives. Therefore, they prefer to extend the term Bangsamoro to include both Muslims and non-Muslim native to the Mindanao and Sulu.

From an international perspective, it is worth noting that nationalism indeed won the battle over the Islamic identity in the Philippines. The OIC, notwithstanding its Islamic nature and cause, has never supported an Independent Islamic state for the Moros. Nur Misuari has hard times to gain the OIC’s support for an independent Moro trough its series of its ICFM (the Islamic Conference of Foreign Minister). Since the 1973 ICFM, the OIC acknowledge Moro’s problem as an internal problem of the Philippines. The Tripoli Agreement signed in 1976 in Tripoli, Libya, confirmed the OIC’s position. The MNLF would only gain an autonomy status rather than an independent state. The 1984 15th ICFM once again respects the Philippines territory.

Following these facts, we might conclude that while Islam has drawn an international solidarity of Islamic countries, it only drives them to the point where Muslims in the Southern Philippines are politically and economically protected. It is also the case of MNLF itself when it has to deal with their fellow Southern Filipino. Islamic identity might be downplayed when politically not supportive, such as the case of their political consideration to build a more powerful legitimacy by including non-Muslim natives to the common cause. As Gutierrez said, “Religion has very little to do with it. Rather, the situation can be better described as conflict between natives who happen to be Muslims and settlers who happen to be Christians. Animosities exist among Christians themselves, and it is well known that different Moro ethnic groups are not always on good terms with each other.”[22]

We will find another similar case of a dynamic relation between religious identity, ethnicity, and nation state in the case of Aceh, Indonesia, in the next part. In the Acehnese case, it was religious identity that arose initially in the first rebellion, but ethnicity became stronger than religious identity at the second rebellion.



a. The tale of Serambi Makkah: from a center to a periphery

Aceh is a province at the northwest tip of Indonesia. Geographically and politically speaking, it is a periphery of what now Indonesia. But it was not a periphery when Indonesia was not yet born. Aceh was the gate of the archipelago’s contact with great powers and civilizations from the West: from India, the Middle East, and then Europe. For ancient India, it was part of the Suvarna-dvipa, the gold land, the mysterious land in the Indian epic. For Muslims, Aceh is a step-stone in spreading Islam throughout the archipelago. Aceh sultanate is the one that introduced the use of Arabic script for Malay. And it was the center of Islamic learning. It was a Mecca of Indonesian Muslim and for that reason it was named Serambi Makkah, the Veranda of Mecca. For Dutch, English French, Aceh was the first Asian targets because of its abundant pepper and its own aversion to the Portuguese enemy.

Antoni Reid writes, “In this popular period Aceh was one of the important powers of Asia, with its authority stretching as far as Tiku and Pariaman (near Modern Padang) in west Sumatra, Asahan in east Sumatra, Pahang, Johor and Kedah in the Peninsula. Thousands of captives were brought back from its victorious naval expeditions to populate the city, man the war galleys, and conduct the heavy construction work in the sultan’s building.” Aceh, in many senses was the center of the archipelago, extending its political and cultural influence throughout Indonesia.

Aceh was the only unconquered land for most part of the archipelago colonial history. As early as 1524, Sultan Ali Mughayat Syah consolidated its power and drove the Portuguese out of Aceh forever. Aceh remained independent while most parts of the archipelago had been conquered by the Dutch. An eighty years long and bitter war, the most costly one in the history of colonial wars in the Southeast Asia, kept Aceh from Dutch colonial power until the beginning of the 20th century, jus a few years before Japanese invasion got rid the Dutch off Aceh.

b. A Full-Hearted Integration

Indonesia was nothing than an archipelago of many polities united by colonial rule of the Netherlands. When Indonesia declared its independence in 1945, did these polities really feel as a part of this new state? What about the latest land absorbed into the colonial rule? The secessionist versions clearly deny that the Acehnese voluntarily integrate themselves into Indonesia. As quoted by Schulze, Hasan di Tiro argues that:

Aceh has nothing to do with Javanese “Indonesia.” The Netherlands declared war against the Kingdom of Aceh, not against “Indonesia” which did not exist in 1873; and “Indonesia” still did not exist when the Netherlands was defeated and withdraw from Aceh in March 1942. And when the Netherlands illegally transferred sovereignty to “Indonesia” on December 27, 1949, she had no presence in Aceh.[23]

The statement is interesting in two ways. First, it is an effort of “othering” Indonesia from Aceh. In so doing, Tiro uses three elements here: (1) Cutting any relation with Indonesia; (2) defining other Indonesia as a “Javanese” Indonesia; and (3) defining his own political Aceh as an independent polity, a kingdom, existing earlier than Indonesia. Second, he reinterprets the history by downplaying the critical episode of 1942 – 1949. He smartly avoids this critical period to connect directly his time and the past, crating a new other body of an imagined self-history. To some extent, this transitional period was the most obvious integration of Aceh within Indonesia instead. Reid even considers Aceh a model of outward loyalty to the central government.[24]

The first evidence of how the Acehnese greeted Indonesia’s independence is Maklmumat Ulama Seluruh Atjeh in October 15, 1945, two months after the independence’s day. Contrary to what Hasan di Tiro said, the Acehnese had considered Java as part of their “we-ness”, a single imagined community. The text reads,

Di Djawa bangsa Belanda serta kaki tangannya telah melakukan keganasannja terhadap kemerdekaan Republik Indonesia hingga terdjadi beberapa pertempuran di beberapa tempat jang akhirnja kemenangan berada dipihak kita.[25]

The paragraph which begins with a description on the battles against the Netherlands in Java, only celebrates “our victory” (kemenangan di pihak kita) at the end of it. More importantly, the very text also ensured the Acehnese public that the struggle for the new republic is necessarily a continuation of the previous struggles in Aceh led by local national-heroes (perdjuangan ini adalah sambungan perdjuangan dahulu di Atjeh jang dipimpin oleh almarhum Tgk. Thjik di Tiro dan pahlawan-pahlawan kebangsaan lainnya). This heavily “nationalist” text was signed by four prominent Achenes ulama (religious leaders and scholars) and by the new national authority in Aceh.

The second obvious and popular case to be made is the fund-rising to buy two airplanes for the new republic. When President Soekarno visited Aceh in June 16 1948, he was able to ensure the Acehnese to help new independent Indonesia buy airplanes. For this proposal, the Acehnese collected money and any other goods comparable to 25 kg gold. From this money, the new republic then bought its first DC-3 airplane named Seulawah (Mt. Gold).[26] Oftentimes, when the Acehnese feel betrayed by Indonesia, they mention that great contribution they have made in the beginning days of independence. Both pro and anti-Indonesia invariably agree on this fact, though the secessionists say the Acehnese was cheated.

Another event important to understand the process of the Aceh integration into Indonesia is Perang Cumbok (Cumbok War) in 1946. It was a head-on confrontation between two distinct social forces, uleebalang and ulama, with rival claims to leadership. Uleebalangs were the local officials who administered a district on behalf of the sultan and then colonial rules. As they became direct hands of these colonial powers in oppressing the populace, it is understandable that the populace disgust them. A Japanese official’s memoirs record an ulama’s explanation of the domestic Aceh situation in January 1942:

The people of Aceh felt extremely resentful towards the Dutch and uleebalangs. The uleebalang are the confidants of the Dutch, and oppress the people, so that almost all the people distrust and even hate the uleebalangs.[27]

Ulama, religious scholars, on the other hand, had led all the struggles against colonial powers and held popular influence over the society. Rivalry between the two groups silently had begun during the transitional period from the Dutch to the Japanese. During the Japanese occupation, uleebalang continued hold their formal-political power but the ulama increased their field influence over the populace. With the Japanese surrender to the ally and the appointed local government itself, residen Aceh, has not yet strong enough to control the region, the rivalry between uleebalang and ulama exploded into violent confrontation over control of the new independent government. The first bloody confrontation was in Sigli, where 50 people died, and reach its climax in Cumbok, a region under administration of an uleebalang named Muhammad Daud.[28]

It is beyond this paper’s scope to deal with this war thoroughly;[29] my own interest here is to emphasize that in that bloody conflict, both uleebalangs and PUSA (led by ulama and dominated by pemuda) competed over the control of “new independent government”, not in separating Aceh from the republic. Uleebalangs tried to maintain their political power in the new government as they had had before independence; and the pemuda who dominated PUSA and the anti-uleebalangs movement demanded political reformation in accordance with the national changes. In the either competing sides, there was no question about the integration with Indonesia; on the contrary, they took it for granted.

Another case to learn the sense of “Indonesianess” among the Acehnese was secessionist movement of Darul Islam. In September 21, 1953, Teungku Muhammad Daud Beureu’eh, a prominent Islamic scholar, freedom fighter for Indonesian independence, announced Aceh as a part of the new declared Islamic Republic of Indonesia led by Kartosuwiryo.[30] Again, it was not fully a denial of Indonesia, rather a resistance against government policies they consider not compliant with local aspirations, a demand to create a “real” Indonesia as it had been imagined by the Acehnese: more local political autonomy and particularly preservation of local Islamic values (such as implementation of Islamic law). Therefore, this separatism was not declared as a separated state of Aceh, but rather an Aceh as a part of the Islamic Republic of Indonesia.

The separatism was finally resolved and Aceh reintegrated to Indonesia when the central government promised a special region status as demanded. It is interesting how in this case a nation state was not considered as an anti-thesis of Islamic values and its implementation. In his dakwah that marked the reintegration of Aceh to the “non-attributed” Indonesia (a republic without “Islamic” adjective), Teungku Daud Beureu’eh thought the implementation of Islamic values would enable the Acehnese to contribute more for the republic.[31] There was no idea of a contradiction between a nation-state and religion as long as the nation-sate, the Indonesia republic, could accommodate more local autonomy and values.

Last but not least, the feeling of “Indonesianess” among the Acehnese can be read in the statement of a 23 years old Acehnese in his treaties on the Aceh history. Reid accurately found this young man’s words:

As it was in the past, Aceh is an indivisible part of the Negara Republic Indonesia, so also its history too is one undivided part of Indonesian history, and our slogan is one nation, one language, and one fatherland.[32]

This man is the same man who declared the independence of Aceh from Indonesia in 1976, the man who wrote the treaties in 1948 and who in 1995 denied any relation between “Javanese” Indonesia and Aceh. He is the same Hasan di Tiro. Time changes people’s mind, self-portraying, and identity.

c. Islam, Aceh and the Indonesian Nationalism

The change of Hasan di Tiro’s identity, from a lover to a separatist denying any relation with Indonesia, records a broader dynamic of the relation between the nation-state Indonesia and the Acehnese, a relation that has been marked by the continuing bloody conflicts between the central government and local forces or among local forces alike.

Aceh had been for along time an independent polity before the birth of Indonesia. In that long struggle, Islam played very important role as the source of unity among the Acehnese, a defining factor of the self and the other (we Muslims and the infidel Portuguese and Dutch), and, for the sultanate itself, as the basis of its legitimacy. To the extent that almost all Acehnese are Muslims, it is then very difficult to discern Islam and any political issues, including nationalism.

The underlying factor that had made Aceh unconquered until the beginning of the 20th century was, among others, Islam. First, sultans were always Muslims whose belief, behavior, and act were derived, directly or indirectly form the Islamic corpus.[33] Second, the political structure of the sultanate was established within the tradition of the “Islamicdom” (from a centralized caliphate to decentralized form of sultanate stretching as far as from North Africa to eastmost sultanate of Ternate and Tidore). Third, Islam was the unifying factor of the Acehnese polity, between the commoner as well as the elites. The “imagined community” under the sultanate was an “Islamic community”. When they go to the battles, it was not for the sake of serving the sultan, rather for the sake of the Islamic community with a hope of divine reward in the hereafter life. Hikajat Prang Sabil (the Tale of the Holy War)[34] was the lullaby, planting an Islamic pride of dying for the sake of religion since the Acehnese were babies. Downplaying Islamic role in the Acehnese politics will not make any sense.

However, it is worth noting that the importance of Islamic role doesn’t necessarily mean that the Acehnese brought Islamic stick in every political act. When Aceh confronted the Portuguese in Malacca, it also had to confront the rivalry sultanate in the peninsula, the Sultanate of Johor who helped the Portuguese drove Acehnese forces out. While it called Turkish support on the basic of Islamic relation to defend Aceh from the infidel, it also had a good relation with Western forces, such as Britain and French. It was also fine to contact the Japanese forces in Penang to gain their support in driving out the Dutch of Aceh in 1941-1942. The Islamic card was played at a time it is needed.

As we have seen from the preceding section, it was interesting that the Indonesian state was easily accepted during the first years of Independence. From the maklumat until the declaration of the Islamic Republic of Indonesia, there was no question about Indonesia and the Islamic identity of the Acehnese. Nazaruddin Sjamsuddin whose work is on the Acehnese rebellion, found that from the beginning of the rebellion its leaders had no intention of separating the region from the rest of the country.[35] Benedict Anderson’s account also supports the evidences presented in the previous section. In a paper presented in Jakarta in 1999, he said,

“During the whole history of the independence movement from the late-colonial period on, no Acehnese I’ve heard of ever had aspirations for “independent Aceh.” During the Revolution, Aceh was the only province where the Dutch didn’t dare come back. But far from taking the chance to declare an Independent Aceh, the Acehnese made, on a fully voluntary basis — I want to emphasize voluntary — huge contributions to the revolutionary cause in terms both of manpower and economic resources.”[36]

However, the political situations, the policies the central government pursue had changed this identity. First, it was an Islamic identity that was reinforced, nine years after the voluntary integration with Indonesia, when Teungku Muhammad Daud Beureu’eh declared Aceh as a part the Islamic Republic of Indonesia. The real problems that caused the rebellion were not strong enough to demand changes in the central government’s policies to ward Aceh. Islamic cause, therefore, had become an ace card to unify the Acehnese against that centralistic policy. To put it in Nazaruddin’s account, “… despite the fact that the statement [of independence] itself was preoccupied with the religious argument, it was obvious that it also accommodate regional sentiments of the neglect of Aceh in matters of economic, social, and political development.”[37] Here, religious identity was used even though the driving causes were not.

By contrast, when in 1976 Hasan Tiro declared the independence of Aceh, he changed all his Indonesian past into an anti-Indonesian today and future. Unlike Daud Beureu’eh who fought in the Islamic cause, Hasan Tiro preferred an ethnic identity and cause. His declaration refers not even single Islamic word. There were no basmalah (a sentence marking the beginning of Muslim documents and acts) in his text, no mention of an Islamic identity of Aceh, and even the text uses the word Tuhan, common Malay name for “God”, instead of Allah, the name of God in Islam. His declaration was fully expressed in an anti-Javanese terms, instead of contrasting secular Indonesia with an Islamic Aceh.

We are not sure about why Hasan di Tiro put aside Islam in his declaration. Some analyst said that it was a strategy to gain a general international support for their struggle. An Islamic identity close to a fundamentalist image, seen from this point of view, was not helpful.[38] Another explanation is that an “Acehnese” identity itself would imply an Islamic identity because a true Acehnese, concludes Schulze, is a person whose family resided in Aceh over several generations, a member of one of Aceh’s nine suku (tribes), and a Muslim.[39] The way GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), Tiro’s field organization, impose pajak nanggroe (tax), for example, also represents this separatism’s position on Islam. Pajak nanggroe is originally based on Islamic teaching of infaq (a form of religious charity in Islam); however, said Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba, “…that Aceh is no longer struggling for an Islamic state it is called pajak nanggroe”.[40] This second separatism now rely more on ethnicity than the first one did.

If we compare both separatisms, however, it is noticeable that in both cases, whether referring to a religious identity or an ethnic identity, the root of their separatism was not religion or ethnicity. It has been always injustice. Daud Beureu’eh, declared the independence when Indonesia was economically week, found religion as the most appropriate identity to compete with Indonesian nationalism. On the other hand, Hasan di Tiro who declared the independence when Indonesia exploit Aceh’s economic resources with the support of military (personnel of which are mostly ethnic Javanese) and the Javanese immigrants flowed to Aceh found ethnicity as the appropriate identity to call a unity among his fellow Acehnese and to resist against the central government of Indonesia.

We will compare these findings on Aceh and those on the southern Philippines in the final part of this paper. Hopefully we can contribute account worth to our discussion on the ethno-religio-nationalist conflicts.



In the previous pages it seems that the Moros and the Acehnese are people who have been “unlucky” enough on their experiences in modern history. From independent, sovereign, and wealthy ethnics, they have to experience colonization, displacement, humiliation, and massacre. They lost their political power when the glory sultanates of Aceh, Sulu, and Mindanao, are conquered by foreign powers. Their grievances did not end when their respective “nations” reached their independence. On the contrary, they have been oppressed by their fellow countrymen, by those who hold a power of state (an institution that has legitimate monopoly to use violence and, in both cases, has used it against its own citizens). Against the state’s oppression, both the Moros and the Acehnese have used a contra-violence as the only way to fight against the states. It was not an immediate and instant process though. The oppressions were done gradually and the social grievances accumulated in not a short time. In the case of the Moros, it needs 20 years; in the case of the Acehnese, it needs eight years.

In both cases, there was a problem of the relation between central government and local people. The relation was bad because the central government trivialized the local interest, politics, economy, education, culture, and religion. In happenstance, there was other potential difference along with those general interests: ethnicity and religion. The majority of those in Manila are Christians; while the Moros in the South are Muslims. The majority of those in Jakarta are the Javanese; while those in Aceh are the Acehnese. These religious and ethnic differences, initially downplayed when they integrated into a nation, arose again as they are used in defining “us,” the local people, and “them”, the central government.

Interestingly, in both cases, these differences were aggravated by a marginalization of local ethnics as a result of the settlement of immigrants whose ethnicity or religion are the ethnicity or religion of those in power. The local ethnics accused the settlement policy as an intended program to marginalize them. It is a bold perspective both in Mindanao and Moro; while at the same time I have not found any document from the majority to confirm this claim. The states’ reason of resettlement policy in Indonesia as well as in the Philippine is to reduce the density of the overpopulated island, Java or Luzon, by resettling the population to the under-populated Sumatra or Mindanao. Those different perspectives arose, I think, because the national project was not pursued in a common project terms involving the local ethnics. In the Indonesian case, the central government never asked the Sumatrans if the Javanese were resettled there. On the contrary, the central government simply thinks Sumatra their political territory, their belonging, so that they do not need local consent. Anderson says that in the Soeharto regime’s mind, it was “Too bad there Acehnese in Aceh and Irianese in Irian.”[41]

Therefore, it is arguable that there is really a process of “othering” on the both sides. The governments simply think the local ethnics as an outside entity beyond the nation. They do not consider the local ethnics fellow countrymen to whom they have to talk about the local interest, but rather a “problem” or “obstacle” for the claimed “national” (majority) interests. As a result, the local identities were reinforced along with these political, economic, and cultural negations which the central governments impose. In this process, the local ethnics take a similar measure: “othering” the central government. “We are Bangsamoro and we had been independent nation before the Philippines was born,” said MNLF freedom fighters. And “We have nothing to do with Javanese Indonesia”, said the freedom fighters of GAM in Aceh.

On these conclusions, I would insist again that conflicts creates or reinforces identities rather the identities creates conflicts.



[1] Daniel Chirot, “Introduction”, in Ethnopolitical Warfare: Causes, Sonsequences, and Possible Solutions, Daniel Chirot and Martin E.P. Seligman (eds.), Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2002, p. 5.

[2] Some theories in political literature distinguish legitimacy, charisma, and coercion as a basis of political power. In my paper, however, I put no emphasis on such details as my attention is on “the basis” itself, whatever we name it.

[3] Clive E. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonization, Nationalism, and Separatism, London, New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1996, p. 4.

[4] Anthony W. Marx, Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 3-4.

[5] There are at least six theories explaining the coming of Islam in the Philippines, including, “trade”, “missionary”, “political”, “economical”, “religious”, and “resistance” theories. About these six theories, see FR. Eliseo R. Mercado, Jr. OMI, Southern Philippines Question: The Challenge of Peace and Development, Cotabato City: the Philippines, 1999, p. 9-13.

[6] Rosalita Tolibas-Nuñez, Roots of Conflict, Makati City: Asian Institute of Management, 1997, p. 9. Notice that “writing”, or print capitalism in the Anderson’s work, is more than important to create the imagined communities.

[7] Ibid., p. 13

[8] B.R. Rodil, A History of Mindanao and Sulu in Question and Answer, Davao City: Mincode, 2003, p. 11.

[9] Ibid., p. 23

[10] B.R. Rodil, A History …, pp. 55-56.

[11] Ibid., p. 39.

[12] Aijaz Ahmad, “Class and Colony in Mindanao”, in Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch (eds.), Rebels, Warlords, and Ulama, Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, 2000, p. 105.

[13] For secondary account on this war, see Ferdinand C. Llanes, “Destroying Moro Communities: Remembering Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak”, in

[14]From another secondary source on:, downloaded on June 3, 2006.

[15] Aijaz Ahmad, “Class and Colony in Mindanao”, ibid., p.6.

[16] Nunez, Roots of Conflict, p. 17.

[17] Aijaz Ahmad, “Class and Colony”, p. 13.

[18] In a quantitative open-ended questioner, Nunez found these result from both sides. According to Muslims, the root of conflicts are: (1) the government’s failure to be fair to Muslims; (2) land conflict; (3) cultural differences; (4) the “minoritization” [sic.] of the Muslims; (5) stereotyping and discrimination, biases and prejudices between Christian and Muslims; and (6) historical events. From the Christian side: (1) The desire of Muslims to control Mindanao even if they are in minority; (2) land conflict; (3) misunderstanding caused by differences of cultural and customs, beliefs, and traditions; (4) “the minoritizations” of Muslims; (5) biases and prejudices between Muslims and Christians; and (6) the government’s failure to bring economic development to Mindanao. Nunez, Roots of Conflict, p. 49.

[19] Nunez, Roots of Conflict, p. 20.

[20] Aijaz Ahmad, “The War against Muslim”, in Rebel, Warlord, and Ulama, p. 28-29.

[21] On how Spain waged its wars in the Southeast Asia, see Paul B Means, “Religious Background of Indonesia Nationalism”, in Church History, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1947, p. 239 where he quotes a bold statement of Vlekke on Portuguese and Spain wars, “With them, they brought another holy war, that of the Christians of Spain and Portugal against the Moors of Africa. The idea of the Crussades was always present in the mind of the Portuguese conquistadors. It influenced all their colonial activities”.

[22] Eric Gutierrez, “Afterword”, in Nunez, Root of Colflicts, p. 97.

[23] Hasan di Tiro, Denominated Indonesians, an address delivered to UNPO General Assembly, The Hague: 1995, as quoted by Kirsten E. Schulze, The Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization, Washington: East-West Center Washington, 2004, p. 6. He wrote a paper with similar tone in July 1985, “Indonesian Nationalism: A western invention to subvert Islam and to prevent Decolonization of the Dutch East Indies”, presented in London.

[24] Anthony Reid, An Indonesian Frontier, p. 316.

[25] “Maklumat Ulama Seluruh Atjeh”, attached in M. Nur El Ibrahimy, Peranan Tgk M. Daud Beureu-eh dalam Pergolakan Aceh, Jakaarta: Media Dakwah, 2001, p. 289.

[26] “Seulawah, Si Gunung Emas yang tak Tersentuh Tsunami” in Pikiran Rakyat, January 17, 2005, downloaded from on June 9, 2006

[27] Reid, An Indonesian Frontier, p. 285.

[28] Accounts on this, see M. Nur El Ibrahimy, Peranan Tgk M. Daud Beureu-eh…, p. 113-124.

[29] For more detail account, see Nazaruddin Sjamsuddin, Revolusi di Serambi Mekah, Jakarta: UIP, 1999.

[30] Kartosuwiryo proclaimed his Islamic State of Indonesia in August 7th, 1949 in West java. On this event, see Jan Pins, “Some notes about Islam and Politics in Indonesia”, in Die Welt des Islam, New Series, Vol. 6, Issue 1/2 (1959), p. 120-121.

[31] Teungku Muhammad Daud Beureu’eh, “Dakwah”, attachment 23 of M. Nur El Ibrahimy, Peranan …, p. 332.

[32] Reid, An Indonesian Frontier, p. 346.

[33] Accounts of Ibn Batuta as quoted by Raden Abdulkadir Wigdjojoatmodjo, “Islam in the Netherlands East Indies”, The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Nov, 1942), p. 49.

[34] An account on the text of Hikayat Perang Sabil can be found in Teuku Ibrahim Alfian, Wajah Aceh Dalam Lintasan Sejarah, Banda Aceh: Pusat Dolkumentasi dan Informasi Aceh, 1999, p. 167-180.

[35] Nazaruddin Sjamsuddin, The Republican Revolt: A Study of the Acehnese Rebellion, Pasir Panjang, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1985, p. 197.

[36] Benedict Anderson, “Indonesian Nationalism Today and in the Future”, in Indonesia, No. 67 April 1999, p. 4.

[37] Nazaruddin Sjamsuddin, The Republican Revolt, p. 103.

[38] M. Isa Sulaiman, Aceh Merdeka, Ideologi, Kepemimpinan dan Gerakan, Jakarta: Pustaka al-Kautsar, 2000, p. 27.

[39] Kirsten E. Schulze, The Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization, p. 7

[40] Ibid., p. 24.

[41] Benedict Anderson, “Indonesian Nationalism…,” p. 5.

Post a Comment

Lebih baru Lebih lama