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South-East Asia

Release of Abu Bakar Basyir raises Western fears about Islam in Indonesia

Abdar Rahman Koya

Time was obviously not on the side of Australia and the US, right from the day respected alim Abu Bakar Basyir was sentenced to jail two years ago for a crime he was too frail to plan or carry out. On 14 June, it was like a discordant alarm-clock that went off too early for Canberra, the self-appointed deputy sheriff of Bush's international police force. Abu Bakar was freed after completing his jail sentence after intense pressure on Jakarta to act against him with whatever allegations might put him away, ranging from treason and terrorism to violations of immigration law.

One of his first statements upon his release was that “I will continue to fight to uphold the Shari‘ah”. This may sound rhetorical, but it is significant when one studies the real reasons, in the agenda of the West, for his incarceration. Upon his release, a sea of people greeted him before he had to be forced into the car to Solo, where he runs the Ngruki Islamic boarding-school. Since his release tens of thousands of people have heard him speak, and it is very unlikely that the popular 68-year-old leader will be let off easily by his supporters after his two years' absence.

The West immediately protested, not necessarily against the release of a criminal whose hands are allegedly stained with the blood of more than 200 people killed in the bomb-explosion on Bali island in October 2002. Rather, it is simply because the deputy sheriff and his political masters in Washington, whose history of interference in the region's politics is notorious, have not got their own way in handling Muslims like Abu Bakar who choose not to preach the West-approved version of Islam. Australian prime minister John Howard, the man who once said he would not mind launching pre-emptive attacks on neighbours, sent a message to the Indonesian government: “I want them to understand from me on behalf of the government how extremely disappointed, even distressed, millions of Australians will be at the release of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir,” he said.

Alexander Downer, the Australian foreign minister, urged the authorities in Indonesia to freeze Basyir's assets and restrict his travel. But the simple schoolteacher once said that he has no assets to be frozen. So eager is the rush to strangle Abu Bakar, even if recent earthquake victims in Java have to suffer longer, that the UN's World Food Programme announced that it is cancelling a contract with Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia to deliver aid, because the Majlis is headed by Abu Bakar.

Several weeks before his release Tom Ridge, the US homeland security secretary, could not resist revealing what was in store for Abu Bakar: “Hopefully in due time, at least from our country's point of view and appreciation of the intense and deep involvement of Basyir in both the execution and planning of terrorist activities... he will be brought to justice,” he said.

It is interesting that Abu Bakar's release follows increased debate about the Pancasila state ideology, which was the response of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, to the desire to keep Islam out of politics. To mark the 61st anniversary of Sukarno's famous Pancasila speech on June 1, president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reaffirmed the secular state ideology as the “fundamental basis of our national life”, fuelling further the debate on whether the overwhelming Muslim majority of the country could possibly chart their destiny by Islamic principles in such circumstances.

Many Indonesian “mainstream” organisations, such as Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyyah, have played politics with their attitude to Pancasila (which was a cornerstone of Suharto's brutal de-Islamization campaign in the nineteen-eighties), but a growing number of ulama whose voices were repressed are now challenging and criticising this Indonesian variety of Kemalism; Abu Bakar is only one of these. But because of his popularity and straightforward way of countering Western attempts to appease the Muslim intelligentsia, he was singled out by the West to be blackened as a local leader of al-Qa‘ida.

Abu Bakar Basyir has been accused of being the ‘ideologue' of a group which Western terror ‘experts' have named ‘Jemaah Islamiyyah', whose existence has not yet been proven. Now, the propagandists who labelled Abu Bakar a terrorist have to live with the fact that he has been ‘punished' (albeit for a crime he did not commit), and therefore their next task is to find out other means of ensuring that people like him are stopped in their tracks. Being popular and charismatic, Abu Bakar has made good his revered status among Indonesian Muslims by calling for Islamic Shari‘ah to be introduced, and for secular and Pancasila-based policies to be abolished and replaced. Such calls are unpopular in an election or when one wants to curry favour with the media; this explains the attitude of organisations such as the NU and Muhammadiyyah, as well as of other ‘Islamist' leaders inching out of Suharto's Golkar-party cocoon, to which they once belonged.

Organisations like NU, for instance, have had to make statements to distance themselves even from their own members. NU's members would like to see its leadership take a more active role in demanding that Islam be the basis of “nationhood”. On June 8 Masdar Farid Masudi, one of NU's stalwarts, lamented that NU was under siege from “fundamentalists”, referring to a growing trend among Javanese Muslims to revert to mainstream Islam, as opposed to the ‘tolerant' Islam (mixed with many Hindu beliefs and practices) espoused by Indonesian leaders.

Since the demise of Suharto – and that of the worst forms of political and judicial repression – the shortage of effective Muslim leadership has been the main crisis facing Muslims inIndonesia. This has resulted in such ‘civil-action'-oriented groups as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which makes surprise raids on brothels, casinos and the like, to protect Muslim society from these vices. Many Muslims have silently approved their actions, and voices have now emerged from more prominent Muslims defending these groups' activities. On June 12 Majlis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), an umbrella organisation of various Islamic groups, criticised the government's plans to ban such groups from operating, especially when these groups are needed most to fill the vacuum created by the authorities' inaction over mushrooming vice that threatens the spiritual and ethical welfare of Muslim youths.

While he lacks sophistication in the choice of his words, Abu Bakar's greatest strength lies in his being an independent alim, not tied to any party-political loyalty. This makes him one ofthe few Muslim leaders in Indonesia to provide reasonable-quality leadership in the state of “anarchy”, so to speak, that Indonesian Muslims currently face. This is also the main worry forAustralia; more leaders like Abu Bakar mean a slow drift from secularism. That is the last thing Australia and its allies want.

Whenever reporting Islam and Muslims in Indonesia, the Western media have been wont to refer to Indonesian ulama as practising a tolerant and pragmatic Islam compared to their Middle Eastern counterparts. Such ulama help (mostly inadvertently, no doubt) to promote plans to undermine whatever Islamic identity and loyalty is left in Indonesian society, much as is happening in Turkey and happened in Iran before the Islamic Revolution. That, however, appears to be a Herculean task in any Muslim society. The recent outcry over the publication of porn magazine Playboy in Indonesia, as well as full support for a bill to outlaw pornography, is only one example of the Indonesian Muslims' attempts to reassert their identity and priorities.

The situation in Indonesia is not dissimilar with that of Turkey, Pakistan or pre-occupation Iraq, where grassroots demand to reassert the Islamic identity is so strong that it requires dictatorship to suppress it. Thus the demise of Suharto's dictatorship in 1997 has been disastrous for the West, whose decades-old friendship with secular leaders in Jakarta ensured that their policies would benefit Western companies and economies, as is seen clearly in the activities of oil-giants in Aceh in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties.

While the US and Australia ponder their next step, Abu Bakar is now safe in the hands of his supporters, providing a much-needed voice in an environment where Muslim leaders have been forced to portray a subdued and distorted image of Islam. But he does not defend the misguided few Muslims either, who are believed to have been involved in some way with some of the bombings that have claimed lives. Instead, he correctly condemns Muslims on his own terms, and not to the dictates of the West.

Addressing a huge crowd the day after his release, Abu Bakar called on Muslims to refrain from violence in times of peace, but stopped short of condemning those whom he criticised as misguided: “They are misguided mujahidin. Fighting using bombs or weapons in a peaceful zone is forbidden,” he said, referring to Nordin Mohd Top, a Malaysian accused by Canberra andJakarta of being behind a spate of bomb attacks. “So I hope they will review their methods. Hopefully there will not be any more violence in the future.”

Defending the misguided militants as mujahidin because their intention was to defend Islam, he also urged Muslims to fight for Islam using peaceful means: “Every time there's a bomb attack in this country, America cheers. They are more afraid of our peaceful struggle,” he said.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 5

Jumada' al-Akhirah 05, 14272006-07-01

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