A village in Java tells story of militant Islam's growth

When Ali Gufron set out from Tenggulun to look for work in Malaysia in the early 1980s, he left behind a village that seems to define backwater: dusty streets, wooden shacks, and residents who spend their days coaxing rice and corn from the parched soil.

Now, this tiny town of 2,000 has been thrust into the spotlight by Mr. Gufron and two of his younger brothers - key operatives in the October Bali terrorist act.

One of the brothers, Ali Imron, was arrested last week as he sought to flee across the Indonesian-Malaysian border. Mr. Imron has since told the Indonesian police the he was the driver of the minivan that carried the larger of the two bombs that ripped through Sari Club and Paddy's Bar, claiming 192 lives.

At first glance, this sleepy town seems a largely irrelevant footnote to the tragedy - after all, the plotters had to come from somewhere. But Tenggulun's story shows how and why militant Islam has spread in Indonesia, particularly in the past 20 years.

A religious dispute in this overlooked community is being repeated in dozens of villages across the world's most populous Muslim nation. It will be as important in establishing the future of Islam, analysts say, as the actions of politicians and intellectuals in big cities.

On one side of the religious struggle are the majority of Indonesian Muslims, traditionalists who have long blended local beliefs with Islamic doctrine and tend to be tolerant of other religions. On the other, is a growing militant minority like Mr. Gufron and his brothers, who look to the austere Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia, emphasizing their ties to the Arab world and "legitimate" Islam and dismissing traditional practice as backward and superstitious.

"We should not hesitate to recognize the potential for the radicalization of Indonesian Islam," says Azyumardi Azra, the rector of Indonesian National Islamic University in Jakarta.

Gufron, who Indonesian police allege was the "field commander" for the Bali attack, and his family have been working hard to radicalize their hometown for much of the past two decades, say Tenggulun residents and Indonesian investigators. "They stopped mixing with other people in the village - they became really pushy about their religious views," says Padrun, a farmer in a porkpie hat cutting bamboo. Like many Indonesians, he has only one name.

Maskun, Tenggulun's village head and a traditional healer who mixes herbal medicine with mysticism, says that probably 10 percent of the village shares the Gufron family's beliefs. But that's up from hardly any in the 1970s.

Maskun says the changes began with a wave of young men, including Gufron, who left the village for Malaysia 20 years ago, mostly in search of economic opportunity.

But Gufron, whom neighbors describe as a "strict" Muslim even as a boy, found more than a job in Malaysia. After a few years there, he sought out an Islamic school in Sungei Tiram, started by two Indonesian preachers who fled their homeland after convictions for militant activity in support of an Islamic state - and found a vocation. Gufron quickly became a confident of the school's founders.

The exiles were Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir. Gufron knew of them because he'd attended Al Mukmin, an Islamic boarding school in Solo, Central Java, that also had been founded by the two preachers to teach Wahhabi Islam.

The elderly Mr. Sungkar died in 1999. Mr. Bashir is currently under Indonesian police custody. He returned to Indonesia in 1999 as the alleged religious leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which has ties to Al Qaeda and seeks a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Police this week asked prosecutors to charge him with treason for his role in church bombings two years ago.

Both men were famous for fiery sermons, demanding literal interpretation of the Koran and stressing the glory of jihad and martyrdom. Investigators say that they also used their school in Sungei Tiram as a transit point for young Southeast Asian Muslims looking to fight in Afghanistan and, later, as a recruiting station for JI. Malaysian and Singaporean officials say Gufron became actively involved in drawing recruits.

While in Malaysia, Gufron was inspiring big changes back home. Two of his younger brothers - including Imron - followed in his footsteps at Al-Mukmin, and almost all of his 12 siblings, according to neighbors, were becoming more strict in their religious practice.

Chief among them was Amrozi - a troubled youth known for racing motorcycles and chasing girls. Amrozi aspired to be like Gufron. "He idolized him," says I Made Mangku Pastika, the policeman in charge of the Bali investigation. "It seems he would do anything to please him."

Things came to a head in 1987 when Amrozi led a number of family members in an effort to burn down the tomb of the town's patron saint Sinori, according to Mochamad Sjafi'ie, a civil servant in the district. Villagers ran to put out the fire, and little damage was done. But the incident emphasized the split that was widening in the village.

Tenggulun's people remember Sinori as an itinerant preacher who settled here and used special powers to locate a well on the outskirts of town that never runs dry. When he died, he was buried near the well. To this day, village people pray at his grave for a healthy baby, a good harvest, or recovery from illness.

But to Wahhabis, praying to saints is blasphemous, and Amrozi and his brothers thought they were doing their religious duty - whether or not it brought them into conflict with their neighbors.

"These old beliefs, this praying to saints, it's heresy,'' says Fauzan Al-Anshari, a spokesman for the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, a group founded by Bashir and other alleged members of the JI to promote the establishment of an Islamic state. "What makes us different is that we're modern, we're advanced."

A few years later, Amrozi went to Malaysia to study with his brother. He returned home in the late 1990s, and went on to serve as the chief logistician for the Bali attack - procuring the minivan and some of the chemicals used to make the bombs.

Meanwhile, another wing of Gufron's family was working to spread Bashir's views by more peaceful means. In 1993, two of Gufron's brothers founded an Islamic boarding school in Tenggulun that served as a satellite of Al Mukmin. Teachings focused on Koran recitation and held Java's Muslim traditions in disdain. The tiny school drew 150 students from across Indonesia - few from Tenggulun itself. Bashir, the alleged JI leader, preached occasionally at the school.

"They used the school in Solo to recruit members, they used the school in Malaysia for the same,'' says an Indonesian investigator. "That's probably what the school in Tenggulun was for, though we don't know that for certain."

Indonesian investigators say there have been a proliferation of such schools in Indonesia in recent years, though no one knows how many for sure because, from the outside, they're indistinguishable from the hundreds of moderate Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren.

"All we are doing is teaching the true path of Islam here,'' said Khozin, a brother to Gufron and a school principal, shortly before the school was closed last December.

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