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Indonesian cleric fights for a Muslim state

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

(Page 2 of 2)

"Bashir is respected because of his constant opposition to what he believes constitutes oppression,'' says Wisnu Pramudya, editor of Hidayatullah, a Muslim magazine in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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"Compared to three years ago the prospects for real Islam look good,'' says Bashir. "We are winning, and we will win. It's only a question of when."

"Real" Islam, as Bashir defines it, is rooted in the puritanical Wahhabi traditions of Saudi Arabia. Like many of Indonesia's militant preachers, he is of Arab descent. His students, from 6-year-olds to young adults, are taught that going to war to defend Muslims is as important as performing the pilgrimage to Mecca or giving alms. The school has grown from a few hundred students at its inception to more than 2,000 today.

Bashir receives visitors in an unadorned room at the boarding- school compound, and wears a simple white skull cap, faded pants, and no shoes.

He speaks directly and clearly, occasionally sipping from a plastic cup of water. There's a global conspiracy, led by the US, to keep Muslims poor and weak, he says. In addition, he says, the World Trade Center was destroyed by the US and Israel to justify an attack on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Indonesia, he warns, could be next.

Indonesia walks tightrope

Officials in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines say they've been shown Indonesia interrogation transcripts, telephone records, and surveillance pictures that prove Bashir and other members of the MMI created a network of terrorist cells with at least some assistance from Al Qaeda. And despite the MMI's practice of sending fighters around the country to "defend" Muslims from Indonesia's Christian minority, the Indonesian government says there are no grounds to arrest Bashir, who enjoys support from many of the small Muslim parliamentary parties in Indonesia that hold about 20 percent of the seats.

Bashir has dedicated his life to bringing sharia, or Islamic law, to Indonesia.

In 1972, Bashir and a close friend founded the Al-Mukmin boarding school.

With its emphasis on jihad, and the need for the boys to be prepared to defend Muslims against "infidels," it resembled the madrassahs of Pakistan more than the Islamic boarding schools of Java.

The government grew alarmed. In 1978, Bashir was sentenced to 15 years in jail by the Suharto government for advocating the creation of an Islamic state. Given early release in 1982, he resumed this activism.

In September 1984, Indonesian soldiers massacred about 50 Muslim protesters in Jakarta's impoverished port district of Tanjung Priok. Muslim activists like Bashir saw the killings as a declaration of war by the resolutely secular dictator Suharto. Reprisals followed.

More than a dozen bombings rocked Java from late 1984 to the middle of 1985. The targets included banks owned by Suharto's friends, churches, and the 9th- century Borobudur Buddhist temple in central Java, a symbol of Java's pre-Islamic traditions. When arrests were made, suspects said Bashir had encouraged the attacks. He fled to Malaysia.

In Malaysia, Bashir became a magnet for exiles, including Abu Jibril Abdurrahman and Riduan Isammudin, two other alleged leaders of the JI. Singapore officials say that while Mr. Jibril, who is under arrest in Malaysia, and Mr. Isammudin, still a fugitive, focused on operations for the nascent terror group, Bashir was more of a religious front man – someone who could provide ideological justifications for violence and inspire recruits.

Earlier this month, Fathur Roman Al-Ghozi, an Indonesian who graduated from Bashir's school in the late 1980s, was sentenced to 12 years in jail. Mr. Al-Ghozi said he was financed by Mr. Isamuddin, who is better known as Hambali.

"Once they're done with me, they'll go after others," Bashir says, laughing. "I just hope the Indonesian government does the right thing and stands up to foreign pressure before it's too late."

• Previous articles in this series appeared April 30 and May 1.

Part 3 of 3

Indonesia is in the midst of a painful transition. It left the Suharto dictatorship behind four years ago and is undergoing a transition to democracy.

But destabilizing social forces have reemerged in the more open political climate, and one of them is militant Islam.

Three Indonesian clerics – all exiles during the Suharto years – are accused of building a terror network with Al Qaeda assistance. Their stories show the challenges that political Islam is posing to the elected government and how complicated the US relationship with Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has become in the wake of Sept. 11.