DILI – After spending two years in prison on terror-related charges, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, widely regarded as Indonesia’s most radical Islamic cleric, is plotting his next career move: into mainstream politics.
A spokesman for Ba’asyir’s Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI) told Indonesian media last week that the controversial cleric is weighing a run for the presidency at the 2009 polls. Ba’asyir’s spokesman said that before officially declaring his candidacy, “He wants to see what people say first.”
Ironically, perhaps, the radical cleric would likely aim to run on a morality ticket, attempting to seize on growing public cynicism over official corruption, including recent damaging allegations that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono received illicit funds to finance his 2004 election campaign. (Yudhoyono has denied the allegations, which were lodged by an opposition politician).
Ba’asyir was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in March 2005 on conspiracy charges related to the 2002 Bali bomb attacks, which killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists. That sentence was eventually reduced and he was released last December, irking Canberra – many of those killed in Bali were Australians – and enraging the victims’ family members.
Western officials have contended that Ba’aysir is the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesia-based Islamic radical group accused of various terror attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 J W Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta, which killed 14 people, and the 2004 Australian Embassy bombing, also in the Indonesian capital.
The United States and Australia contend that JI has links to al-Qaeda, and Ba’asyir is on the United Nations’ list of international terrorists. More recently, JI has allegedly been involved in stirring communal violence in areas surrounding the town of Poso on Sulawesi island.
For his part, Ba’asyir has repeatedly denied that JI exists and denies having links to terrorism. Last month, however, Indonesian police arrested the group’s alleged leader, Zarkasih, and military head, Dujana, in coordinated raids on their hideouts. In detention, Dujana has told Indonesian authorities that Ba’asyir was JI’s leader from 2000-02.
Ba’asyir refuted Dujana’s allegation, repeating his claim, “There are no terrorists in Indonesia. What there are, are counter-terrorists,” he said, adding: “The aims and sacrifices of the bombers, in their efforts to defend Islam and Muslims in making war against the real terrorist – that is, the United States of America and its allies – need to be taken as a model.”
Ba’asyir famously called on his followers to harass and chase American tourists from hotels in Central Java in 2001. On June 25 this year, the radical cleric announced a new political pressure campaign to have Indonesia’s US-backed counter-terrorism police unit, known as Detachment 88, officially disbanded.
Ba’asyir’s legal defense team, known as the “Team for the Defense of Muslims”, has in recent years provided defense counsel to several militant suspects. Team lawyer Munarman alleges that Detachment 88 is financed opaquely by the US, Australia and Singapore, and is unlawfully waging war on Islam and using torture techniques while interrogating suspected militants.
Both the US and Australia provide training and communications surveillance equipment to the elite unit, which has been credited by Western officials with netting several militant suspects. In Indonesia, however, the unit has been viewed with suspicion by some Islamic groups, and rights organizations have raised questions about the growing number of suspects detained without trial. Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has said that his officers were “forward-deployed” during the Dujana and Zarkasih arrests – raising politically sticky sovereignty issues.
Last week Australia issued a new travel warning to its nationals, suggesting that new terrorist attacks could be imminent on Indonesia-based tourist resorts and in-country Western interests. It’s still unclear how much Dujana’s, Zarkasih’s and other key JI members’ arrests have hindered the group’s operational capacity, but judging by Ba’asyir’s recent activities, it appears the radical group could be refocusing its efforts on pro-sharia activism.
Since his release late last year, Ba’asyir has resumed his drive to have sharia (Islamic) law instituted across Indonesia, where 86% of the 234 million population are professed Muslims. Part of that campaign, it appears, is to foment anti-Western sentiment and disseminate conspiracy theories against Yudhoyono’s government, which has worked closely with US and Australian counter-terrorism officials.
The old radical logic goes that fostering a sense of persecution and shared grievance against the West will sharpen Indonesians’ sense of being Islamic and cast the incumbent, secular elites as corrupt, Western lackeys. To be sure, it will be difficult for Ba’asyir, for all sakes and purposes a convicted terrorist, to mount a serious bid for the presidency amid continued JI terror attacks, which the country’s majority moderate Muslims have frowned on.
Rather than promoting crude, religious-based political violence, Ba’asyir is now bidding to launch a more sophisticated form of culture war, aimed at winning over hearts and minds rather than destroying enemies. With both presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2009, political tensions are ratcheting up.
Prior to the 1998 ouster of Suharto, Indonesia was a one-party state and arguably never staged free and fair elections during his 32-year tenure. That changed with the multi-party polls in 2004, and Indonesian democracy now gives scope for Islamic expression in politics. Several Islamist groups are jostling for electoral position with the new political opening, largest among them the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS), or Prosperous Justice Party. The PKS won 7.3% of the vote on a morality ticket, claiming it would end the corruption that has long plagued Indonesian politics. But the party’s popularity, judging by a 2005 public opinion poll, has declined dramatically because of its renewed push to implement sharia law.
Ba’asyir nonetheless seems keen to test the political waters, which he apparently hopes have shifted with the recent corruption allegations against Yudhoyono, who successfully ran on a “clean hands” ticket at the 2004 polls. If Ba’asyir can effectively and emotively conflate voter dissatisfaction with the perceived corruption of the incumbent elite with a sense of injustice toward Muslims, then his presidential bid could gather significant popular support.
More than 70 million Indonesians are members of two main Islamic organizations – the “traditionalist” Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the “modernist” Muhamiddiyah. Both are engaged in varying forms of social work, education and political activism and promote inter-religious tolerance in a pluralistic society – much more moderate than the purist, radical agenda Ba’asyir’s MMI professes.
NU leader and former president Abdurrahman Wahid co-staged early last month a religious-tolerance conference on the resort island of Bali, where he brought together Nazi Holocaust survivors, Buddhist leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and Indonesian Muslims in a display of cross-religious understanding.
The moderate Muslim leader also published a survey showing that 95% of Indonesians support religious tolerance, but with an interesting caveat that an even larger percentage of respondents did not think that pesantren, or Islamic schools, fostered intolerance. The majority of terrorist convictions in Indonesia have come against JI-affiliated pesantren, including aAl Mukmin boarding school, which Ba’asyir founded and still runs in Central Java.
Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online LtdShow