Does Religion Matter? Muslim Jihadists, Christian Warriors & Religious Legitimacy during the Maluku Mayhem


Location: C103 Hesburgh Center


Sumanto Al Qurtuby

Visiting Research Fellow, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

Following Indonesian President Suharto’s resignation in May 1998, the archipelago experienced a series of sectarian conflicts, ethno-religious violence, and riots. Of all the communal conflicts that exploded in post-Suharto Indonesia, the Maluku upheavals in eastern Indonesia were the most disastrous, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and thousands of injuries. About a third to half of the population was displaced, and countless properties were burnt down.

In the mid-2,000s, after thousands of Java-based militias came to Maluku, the conflict was transformed into a deadly large-scale war. The commanders of the Muslim jihadist groups described the Maluku strife as a holy war against the “evil efforts” of a U.S.-led Zionist-cum-Christian conspiracy. Moreover, some elites of the Maluku radical Christian groups depicted the violence in a similar bipolar manner, blaming state-backed policies that favored Muslim groups for the Christians’ loss of control over local cultural, political, and economic resources. 

Sumanto spent 14 months conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the conflict zone of Ambon, the provincial capital of Maluku, from 2010 to 2011. In this lecture, he will examine how religious identities, teachings, doctrines, symbols, discourses, organizations and networks — from both Islam and Christianity — became among the contributing factors of the Maluku wars.

In particular, he will focus on the complex roles played by Maluku’s and Ambon’s local religious actors, especially the religious militias, in initiating and intensifying the mass violence. He will highlight how Maluku militant religious leaders framed the violence and recruited and mobilized the masses in the combat zone, and how the local ordinary religious militias portrayed the wars and transformed their everyday experience. Finally, he will analyze the factors that contributed to the militancy and radicalism of the Muslim and Christian militias engaged in the warfare.   

Sumanto is a cultural anthropologist who defended his doctoral dissertation at Boston University in spring 2012. At the Kroc Institute, he is developing his current research project: “Christian-Muslim Conflict and the Search for Postwar Peacebuilding on the Island of Ambon, Eastern Indonesia.”