Azahari: Death of an Extremist, Not a Martyr
By Farish A. Noor
Though some were sceptical at the beginning, it now seems increasingly clear that the Malaysian academic-turned-militant Dr Azahari Husin has been killed in a shoot-out with Indonesian security forces in the East Javanese town of Malang. Azahari’s death, we have been warned, does not signify the end of terrorism in Southeast Asia – if anything, it is just as likely to prompt other martyr-wannabes to come to the fore to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others for their own exclusive sectarian ends. The ‘moderate’ Muslims in the region may rejoice at his passing, but their celebrations are hasty and laced with a touch of dread: the dreadful thought that in the months and years to come there will be other Azaharis creeping out of the woodwork to carry out their bloody labours in broad daylight.
One question, however, remains: Why is it that the moderate Muslims of the region were so evidently impotent in the face of this threat? After all, Azahari was not merely a threat to the security of ordinary civilians in Indonesia, but to the image of Islam and all Muslims in general. Why were the heads of state of so many Southeast Asian countries so slow in condemning the man and his deeds; why were the famed religious scholars of ASEAN so slow to denounce his actions; and why were the moderates of the region so lame in their critiques?
Perhaps the reason for this lies in the fact that Azahari was seen as ‘one of us’. He was, despite everything, a Muslim, a Malaysian and a citizen of an increasingly wired-up and connected ASEAN region. In this regard, he was almost a proto-ASEAN citizen whose identity was not shored up by parochial bonds of nationality and local belonging. He had a vision for ASEAN, however twisted that vision may have been. The moderate intellectuals, leaders, scholars and activists of ASEAN, however, lacked the same all-encompassing global vision that drove Azahari to the heights and depths that he reached.
But before we get carried away with these observations, a few cautionary qualifications are called for:
Despite his aim to create a singular, united ASEAN region, Azahari’s vision of a Pan-Islamic ASEAN state was a limited one. His was a view of the world that did not recognise the difference between nation-states, but one that merely replaced territorial divisions with an even more repressive authoritarian model of a sectarian religious state that favoured one faith community – Muslims – above others. No, Azahari was not an advocate of a pluralist, multicultural ASEAN that celebrated its religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic difference. He envisaged a singular ASEAN state that was homogenous, uniform, conformist and modelled after a narrow interpretation of Islam that hailed from the drier climes of the Arab world instead. Azahari did not celebrate the historical inter-connectedness of ASEAN and its rich legacy of cross-cultural borrowing with and from India and China: If anything, he denounced the region’s pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist past as something archaic, corrupted and un-Islamic.
Despite his violent tirades against the authoritarian political culture and repressive regimes of ASEAN, Azahari was not a democrat or a friend of democracy. Like many of his ilk, his chaffing at the yoke of political repression did not lead to a cry from more freedom and equality. He did not preach or believe in the equality of the sexes, races, or religious communities; nor did he militate for more pluralism and diversity. Azahari sought and fought to replace the political authoritarianism of ASEAN today with an even more repressive form of religious dictatorship instead, one where power was even more centralised though less arbitrary, bound as it was by the dictates of religious orthodoxy that was based on a non-negotiable discourse of absolutes. The man was no freedom fighter or democratic revolutionary; Che Guevara he certainly wasn’t. His vision of order and stability was rather underpinned by a fear of political contestation and the overwhelming desire to tame that political ‘chaos’ with the stamp of religious dogma instead.
And despite his claims to have laboured and sacrificed for the sake of Muslims, the man was hardly a friend and ally of Islam or Muslims himself. If anything, his actions have only sedimented even further the stereotypical view that Islam is a religion of violence and that all Muslims – even those like him who were the product of secular education at Western universities – are essentially irrational, violent demagogues and tyrants. Azahari was no friend to Indonesia either, for he cared little about the damage that he was doing to the image of Indonesia in the wake of the 1997-98 economic crisis. Here lies the greatest irony of all: while countless Indonesian workers have come to Malaysia to help in the construction of the Malaysian economic miracle, Azahari was a Malaysian who had come to Indonesia to do precisely the opposite: stir up chaos and strife and to complicate life for millions of ordinary Indonesians instead.
In short, Azahari was exactly the opposite of the ASEAN dream of creating an ASEAN by, for and of the peoples of Southeast Asia themselves. He lived and died at the most extreme antipode of ASEAN’s collective dreams and imaginings. If his ghost is to be remembered, it should be as the alterior face of ASEAN itself, not what we want to be, but what we need to avoid at all costs. ASEAN may not know where it is heading and what it wishes to be in the future, but at least now we are a tad wiser and we know what we should not be and where we should not be heading. Anything but that, anything but another monster like Azahari.
Those who call themselves ‘moderate Muslims’ must now pause and take a good, close look at themselves. Azahari was the bugbear that haunted our conscience while he was alive, and with his death his followers and admirers will undoubtedly praise his efforts and sacrifices as laudatory. Yet we all knew that the man was a radically contingent factor who placed himself outside the equation of Islamic social dialectics and represented something far more extreme and radical that most of us would care to admit. This was the man who did not hesitate to label the moderates ‘kafirs’, ‘traitors’ and ‘hypocrites’, and for whom the killing of ‘moderate Muslims’ and ‘non-Muslims’ went hand-in-hand. Lest we miss the opportunity and allow his passing to be transformed into a modern myth by the die-hard extremists, we have to speak up now and condemn the man for what he was: a murderer, a fanatic and an extremist, plain and simple.