Militant preacher a focus for Asian terror hunt
Indonesia, once known for its moderate brand of Islam, is facing new scrutiny as an Al Qaeda hub.
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For years, this radical minority in Indonesia operated in relative obscurity during the 32-year reign of the secular dictator Suharto, who outlawed Muslim political activity and jailed and harassed the preachers he considered a threat. Suharto's policies simply drove the movements' leaders underground, say experts here.Skip to next paragraph
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The 63-year old Bashir was one of them. From a poor family, his formal education stopped when he dropped out of sharia law school to preach to the masses, according to local press reports.
In the 1960s, he ran pirate radio stations that broadcast the call to jihad across the rice paddies of Central Java. In 1971, he established a puritanical Muslim boarding school in the court city of Solo, many of whose graduates have fallen afoul of the law here and elsewhere. And from 1978 to 1982 he was in jail for trying to start an Islamic militia. Shortly after his release, he was convicted again - for subversive political activity. He fled, along with Abdullah Sungkar, his closest collaborator, to Malaysia to escape prison.
During their years in exile, the two men gathered a group of like-minded Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos, and Singaporeans around them, articulating in writings and teachings their vision for a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, Singapore intelligence officials say. Sometimes they referred to themselves as the Jemaah Islamiyah, or the Islamic Group.
In a 1997 interview with an Australian Muslim magazine, Mr. Sungkar, who was identified as the leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah, said the group's goals were to "establish the supremacy of Islam [in Indonesia] by the strategies of preaching, strategic evasion, and Jihad.''
He said the group's primary forerunner was the Darul Islam, a violent movement that tried to establish an Islamic state on Java before being crushed by nationalist soldiers in the early 1950s. Bashir, however, told reporters this year that the Jemaah Islamiyah is "simply a study group."
Only a week after Suharto fell in May of 1998, Bashir and Sungkar jointly penned a political manifesto that was published in regional Islamic magazines. They said Suharto had held power by use of "a strategy of deceit and torment devised by... Chinese and Christians." It said that "corruption, crime, nepotism, and various other misdeeds will only be ended by the laws of Islam."
By early 1999, they had come home, seizing on the daylight for political organization that Suharto's fall had created. That year they were instrumental in the creation of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), an umbrella group for organizations that want to make Indonesia an Islamic state. Sungkar died soon after, and Bashir became the movement's head.
"Suharto's fall has paved the way for the emergence of political Islam on the level of the masses,'' says Din Syamsuddin, secretary general of the Indonesian Council of Ulamas, which is an umbrella for mainstream Muslim groups.
The MMI busied itself holding seminars on Islamic law, sending volunteers and money to help in sectarian fighting between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia's Maluku provinces, and seeking new followers. In September and October of last year, according to local press reports, the MMI signed up hundreds of young men and promised to send them to Afghanistan to fight. The plan fell through when Pakistan restricted border access.
Meanwhile, Indonesia's transition to democracy has been far from smooth, with separatist and communal conflicts flaring across the country. Generals who lost political power when Suharto fell are angling to get it back, and President Megawati's government has been struggling to contain separatism and a breakdown in law and order in many provinces.