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

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.

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."

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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.

"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.

"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.

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