Firebrand preacher’s audience doesn’t burn with enthusiasm
Ba’asyir’s central message was that Muslims must follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith
The village of Paciran lies in the Lamongan district of East Java, an area in which teachers and leaders from East Java’s religious schools are held in great esteem. In October last year, various banners appeared in the village advertising that the well-known Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who teaches at the Al Mukmin Islamic School in Solo, East Java, was scheduled to deliver a sermon in the village. The sermon was intended to mark the period following the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The event was hosted by the Paciran branch of the North Coast Islamic Youth Association, which had erected a stage specifically for the occasion. Two to three hundred locals from the surrounding fishing villages attended, ranging from children to the elderly. Most people sat in front and around the stage, while some watched from nearby houses. The women sat separately from the men.
The MC was a female teacher from the primary school section of the Muhammadiyah religious school in Karangasem. She repeatedly cried out ‘God is Great!’, raising a fist into the air several times in anticipation that the crowd would follow. Only a small group, mostly near the front, imitated her actions. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was introduced in a ten-minute speech by a local community member, who announced that Ba’asyir’s sermon would discuss the way to salvation and heaven.
Ba’asyir is a celebrity figure, so he travels in the company of bodyguards, who flanked him as he mounted the stage. Dressed completely in white, he commenced his sermon with a prayer that lasted several minutes. During the sermon he used some Javanese and Arabic, but mostly Indonesian. Ba’asyir stood throughout his entire oration, which was broadcast through large speakers.
Ba’asyir’s central message was that Muslims must follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith if they are to enter heaven. Much of his speech was spent criticising non-Muslims, a technique he frequently uses for rhetorical effect in his sermons. The kafirs (infidels), he said, were programmed by Satan to wreak destruction. He called them the lowest form of existence, likening them to maggots and snakes. Ba’asyir used Bali, where people walk naked on the beaches, as an illustration of the pernicious influence of non-Muslims.
Ba’asyir argued that the only way Indonesia could become a perfect society was for it to become a caliphate or Islamic state, governed under syariah law. This would help to cure the country’s problems. He tried to inspire his listeners to give Islam heightened meaning in their daily life, saying that nothing should stop a person from performing the five daily prayers, not even his or her boss. He said that a boss at work was not a real boss, because this is a position only Allah could occupy, and that any comparison between an earthly being and Allah was blasphemous. Furthermore, Ba’asyir said, Muslims should be prepared to die as martyrs for their religion.
The sermon lasted for an hour and a half, and after a final prayer from another speaker, everyone headed home. Following the sermon, Ba’asyir’s group was treated to dinner, and I was invited to attend. During the dinner, Ba’asyir listened as other guests asked me all kinds of questions. He then asked me where I was from and if I was a Muslim. To this latter question I diplomatically answered ‘Not yet’. He was polite to me, complimenting me on being an ‘intelligent young man’, but suggested that I reconcile my intelligence with Islam. He urged me not to be like George Bush, and to judge Islam from the Qur’an, not from humans.
Reactions to the Sermon
I had lived in the village for 10 months, but this was the first time I had encountered such a confrontational message from an Islamic teacher. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is not at all typical of Muslim teachers in East Java. One sign of this is the heightened security that follows him. I attended the event with the local police chief, who was an acquaintance of mine. He pointed out to me another 14 police officers, all dressed in plain clothes. Three more policemen controlled the flow of traffic on the passing road. The Indonesian authorities monitor Ba’asyir closely.
Despite Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s charisma and rhetoric, his speeches do not resonate widely with the majority of Indonesian Muslims
Amongst the villagers, I encountered much sympathy towards Ba’asyir’s message. He is seen as being a ‘straight talker’ who vocalises concerns held by many Indonesians about Indonesian society and the world order. Nevertheless, many of those who had some sympathy for him also said that his interpretation of Islam was too extreme. The police chief, for example, said he could not imagine himself telling his superiors they were not really his superiors, as Abu Bakar Ba’asyir had urged in his sermon. In his opinion, Ba’asyir found acceptance only amongst rural, less educated villagers.
Abu Bakar Ba’asyir has many devotees, yet even in this conservative area, dominated as it is by Javanese pesantren culture, people are not fully open to his message. For example, when I asked a villager why only a few people had participated in the shouting of ‘God is Great’, he replied that it was because most people in the audience were just observers and not supporters. Just because people attended the rally didn’t mean they would actively engage with the speaker’s program.
Many people object to Ba’asyir’s radicalism, while others agree with the positions he takes, but don’t see any practical value in such an uncompromising message. My experience in Paciran indicates that even with Ba’asyir’s charisma and rhetoric, his speeches do not resonate widely with the majority of Indonesian Muslims. In fact, despite all the attention and concern this Muslim cleric generates, it is unlikely that his message has any significant impact on ordinary Indonesians. ii
Nathan Franklin (email@example.com ) is a doctoral student at the Charles Darwin University, working on pesantren and political Islam in East Java.