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Indonesian cleric fights for a Muslim state

Bashir's recent lawsuit against Singapore seeks $100 million for slanderous remarks.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2002


Abu Bakar Bashir is a schoolteacher. He has white hair, a reedy voice, gold-rimmed glasses – and a growing number of close colleagues in foreign jails.

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Those colleagues, say officials in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, are part of a sprawling international terrorist conspiracy with links to Al Qaeda led by Mr. Bashir. Bashir, however, remains free to run his Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school because Indonesia officials say they have insufficient evidence to arrest him.

"All of these claims of terrorism are fabrications by America and the Jews," says Bashir at his school, a noisy jumble of low buildings in the central Java city of Solo. "They are attacking me, because they hate it when Muslims stand up for themselves."

The anti-American, anti-semitic Bashir is a living symbol of what the US fears for Indonesia. His apparent political clout has led the government to resist calls for his arrest. He also runs a growing organization, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), which is lobbying to convert Indonesia into an Islamic state.

Foreign officials worry that this sends a message to Al Qaeda that Indonesia is a good place to hide. "If they were locking up local radicals, then I think an Al Qaeda fugitive would think twice about coming here,'' says a Western diplomat. "But there's this feeling that the climate is friendly to them."

Though Indonesia is one of the Islamic world's most religiously tolerant countries, Islamic militancy has had a renaissance since the fall of Suharto in 1998. The more open political climate has allowed men such as Bashir, who lived in exile in Malaysia for 15 years, to return home.

The Islamic movement here is running on parallel tracks – political and militant. It has funded paramilitary groups that have ignited sectarian conflicts, conducted vigilante raids on bars and brothels, and burned churches. Bashir has ties to most of these groups through the MMI.

But the MMI also played a more traditional political role. Bashir and other MMI leaders had a two-hour meeting with Vice President Hamzah Haz this week. The vice president told them he shares their dream of introducing Islamic law to Indonesia, says MMI member Deliar Noer, who attended the meeting.

Bashir isn't the only militant leader who has been able to make an impact on Indonesia's stability.

Last week, the paramilitary group Laskar Jihad ignited another wave of killing in Maluku province, where thousands have been killed in sectarian violence since 1999. Indonesian officials had hoped that a three-month lull in the violence and a peace agreement signed in February meant the worst was over.

But militants such as Bashir and Laskar Jihad leader Jaffar Umar Thalib had attacked the peace deal and vowed to bring it down. Last Friday, Mr. Thalib, who has also held meetings with Vice President Haz, led prayers at the main mosque in the provincial capital of Ambon and urged renewed attacks on Christians, calling the peace deal "treasonous."

Bashir says that the MMI and the Laskar Jihad coordinate their activities and that Thalib is doing "good work" in Ambon. Government officials say that Thalib, like Bashir, has remained free because the government worries that arrests could be counterproductive.

"The official government line is that, if they go too hard, there will be a backlash,'' says David Martin Jones, a politics professor at the University of Tasmania in Australia. "This is not a very good strategy in terms of preserving rule of law. The message certainly seems to be that you can get away with murder.''

Singapore and Malaysia say that Bashir leads the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terror group trained and financed by Al Qaeda. Nearly two dozen members of the group were arrested in the two countries last year for conspiring to blow up the US Embassy in Singapore.

Bashir's fame grows

Bashir says the JI doesn't exist, though he acknowledges teaching a number of the detained men about jihad. "Teaching is my only weapon,'' he says. "This is all a slander.''

In fact, Bashir is seeking more than $100 million from Singapore over remarks linking him to terrorism.

"The fact is that some of the detained JI members in Singapore have described Bashir as the overall leader of the JI organization,'' says a Singapore government spokesperson in response to Bashir's denials.

Yet rather than hurt Bashir's image, the alleged link to terrorism has boosted him to national prominence. Millions of Indonesians are angry at the US for the war in Afghanistan and for perceived support of the Israeli offensive on the West Bank. To them, the frail, pious Bashir is more credible than what they see as the American bully.