Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Preaching fundamentalism

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Tim Behrend

Two weeks after the attacks on the Kuta nightclubs, Indonesian police arrested Abu Bakar Ba'asyir on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities in Indonesia. The charges against him relate to a series of bombings which preceded, and do not include, the Bali bombing, but he has gained international notoriety for his links to the alleged perpetrators of the Bali attack, many of whom referred to him in their confessions to Indonesian police (see box). According to the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank based in Belgium, Ba'asyir is unlikely to have masterminded the bomb, but probably knows more about it than he is willing to divulge. In the article below, Tim Behrend argues that Ba'asyir's public teachings do not advocate violence. Clearly, Ba'asyir is a controversial figure. Is he a misunderstood preacher, or does he mean to incite violence? We welcome readers' reactions to the following article, which attempts to understand this ambiguous figure.

Government authorities in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and the United States have singled out an Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, accusing him of being the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a shadowy organisation of Islamic extremists 'aim[ing] to set up a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia ' through terrorist means and revolution'. They have assumed links beween JI and al Qaeda, and dubbed Ba'asyir the Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia. From December 2001 they were urging Indonesia to take a stand against international terrorism and arrest Ba'asyir, basing their concern on information gained through the intense interrogation of mostly uncharged, untried political detainees rounded up in post-September 11 terrorist dragnets.

Indonesian officials resisted, claiming rightly that there was no basis in Indonesian law to act on these requests. But after the horrific Kuta nightclub bombings on 12 October 2002, Ba'asyir was fingered by those same governments as the probable Indonesian point man for the attack. Subsequently, Indonesian police arrested Ba'asyir in relation to an earlier series of bombings; charges have not yet been entered for the Bali crime.

The international media remains as convinced today as in the first hours after the blast that Ba'asyir, JI, and al Qaeda are linked to the Bali ombings. Experts on the international lecture circuit continue to expound on Ba'asyir's politics and religious teachings, though few of them have first hand access to the sermons and writings in which Ba'asyir has widely expressed his views; fewer still have the language and cultural skills required to analyse these materials.

In this article, I temporarily put aside the secret prison confessions of uncharged political detainees, the circumstantial evidence of personal and religious associations, and the fear-mongering hype of pundits in the corporate media, and instead examine Ba'asyir's persona on the basis of what he has verifiably said and done. He is, after all, a public figure, not a cave-dwelling shadow. He has been actively engaged in an open exchange on what Indonesia is and should be. What he has contributed to that discourse should not be treated as if it didn't exist.

Abubakar who?

Ba'asyir was born in 1938 in a small town in East Java. His father and grandfather were Hadrami immigrants, his mother of mixed Yemeni and Javanese descent. He boarded from 1959-1963 at Gontor, a well-known modernist Islamic boarding school (pesantren) in Madiun. Afterwards he continued his studies at an Islamic university in Solo majoring in dakwah, the Islamic equivalent of missionary studies.

His politics began in the Islamic Masyumi party, but became progressively radicalised. He indulged in provocative symbolic resistance to the Suharto regime, refusing to fly the Indonesian flag or display presidential icons at the Islamic boarding school, al mukmin, based in the Ngruki neighbourhood of Solo, Central Java, that he co-founded in 1971. Further, he generally considered the secularist Indonesian state to have no validity for Muslims and publicly resisted accepting the state Pancasila philosophy as the formal foundational principle for all social organisations.

Ba'asyir was jailed without trial for a number of years. In 1985 he and others fled to Malaysia to escape further imprisonment. Only after Suharto's fall did he return from exile, part of a tidal flow of repatriating Islamist refugees.

Back in Indonesia, Ba'asyir returned to Ngruki as a teacher and helped found an Islamist non-government organisation called the Council of Indonesian Mujahidin (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia MMI), and resumed his roles as polemicist and preacher with a growing national reputation. After September 2001 he was catapulted to regional then international notoriety by the accusations made against him in the reactive anti-terror campaigns. With Bali he became one of the most recognisable figures of the world terrorist pantheon.

Suddenly print and broadcast media from CNN to the local radio station were populated by newly minted analysts and commentators, themselves anxious to understand, and help explain to others, what was happening in Indonesia. Many were forced to scramble their way up a steep learning curve, in the process cannibalising one another's ideas in a frenzy of mutually uncited paraphrasing. One idea that continuously appeared was the notion that a radical redrawing of national boundaries was a central tenet of Southeast Asian Islamists. 'The plan is breathtaking - to create one Islamic state from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore to parts of the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar,' according to CNN's Maria Ressa in one version of this idea. Ba'asyir was said to openly campaign for this Islamic super state.

Ba'asyir's public profile

In November and December 2002, I spent several weeks interviewing Ba'asyir, his associates at al Mukmin, members of MMI, and other 'hard line' Islamists. Based on those interviews, a review of Ba'asyir's available writings, and a five-hour underground video CD series of his sermons entitled Understanding Key Concepts in the Teachings of the Islamic Faith, I have not found evidence to suggest that he preaches the overthrow of Indonesia and its replacement with a pan-Southeast Asian Islamic super state.

Ba'asyir does speak regularly and in blanket terms of the moral bankruptcy of the Indonesian state. He preaches the absolute and unique veracity of 'Islam', the need to promote it in society. He rejects the legitimacy of the secular state out of hand (see box).

But he goes farther than simple, if strident, moral absolutism. His political analysis travels far into the realm of conspiracy theory in which international and Indonesian Christianity, together with a cartoonishly-drawn cabal of Jews/ Zionists/ Israelis/ Mossad, combine to divide, corrupt, and undermine Muslims and Islam. A similarly deep vein of anti-Semitism is found in the ideas of other leading members of MMI, particularly its functional chief, Irfan Awwas. In their view the US either perpetrated or allowed September 11 to happen; the American government was also the Machiavellian sponsor of the Bali bombings.

With the exception of his ideas of Islamic moral and civilisational superiority and racially tainted theories of international politics, the thrust of Ba'asyir's teachings is eminently moral: discipline, simplicity, poverty, responsibility, cleanliness, honesty, hard work, dedication, good parenting, good citizenship. Revision of Indonesia's constitution so that it incorporates shari'ah is necessary to enable these virtues to be publicly and universally inculcated. For Ba'asyir, the current environment is far too permissive in general, and fatally flawed by its establishment on kafir principles, including popular democracy, a usurious banking system, social equality of the sexes, and licensing of immoral (and culturally unacceptable) behaviour for economic gain.

But Ba'asyir does not himself publicly advocate violence against the perceived ungodliness of the political system. It must also be emphasised that despite endlessly repeated media claims to the contrary, Ba'asyir does not speak in formal or concrete terms about either the establishment of a Daulah Islam Nusantara, or Southeast Asian Emirate. This political configuration is no more than a gossamer ideal whose formation neither he nor his MMI confederates seriously espouse or actively promote.

Ba'asyir is personally a man of simplicity, religious devotion, abstinence, and discipline. His politics are naive, and only selectively informed. He is devoid of critical, comparative knowledge of world history. He is deeply rooted in a tradition that nourishes anti-Jewish sentiment - as well as other forms of ethnic prejudice - and he in turn has come to embrace conspiratorial forms of anti-Semitism. In short, there is little about Ba'asyir's politics that can be praised, and much that is troublesome.

Despite his patent monoculturalism, Ba'asyir's message challenging the assumptions of American and Western dominance (which he calls cultural terrorism) and offering an alternative view of modernity is timely and fully in tune with international currents. And it is certainly not illegal. An Indonesian democracy worthy of the name must protect even the grating voice of Ba'asyir until proven guilty, however outside the mainstream of majoritarian politics, however out of harmony with the generally liberal and secular opinions that characterise Indonesia today. Anything less would be a step backwards towards the repressive policies and Muslim-muzzling of the Suharto years.

Tim Behrend (t.behrend@auckland.ac.nz) is a lecturer at Auckland University. A more detailed version of this article can be viewed at www.arts.auckland.ac.nz/ asia/tbehrend/

Inside Indonesia 74: Apr - Jul 2003

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