Indonesia: Spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) gets reduced sentence
Murad Makhmudov and Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The radical Sunni Islamic cleric, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who is the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, will feel relieved after his sentence was reduced from 15 years to 9 years. Ba’asyir will be hoping that a further appeal will also work in his favor and this crafty spiritual leader is not one to underestimate because in the past he overcame many obstacles.
In March this year he received a 15 year sentence for allegedly supporting radical Sunni Islamists in Aceh. According to the court decision Islamists in Aceh were intent on spreading a violent campaign in order to see the implementation of Sharia Islamic law. However, just like in the past, Ba’asyir denies all charges of inciting hatred and encouraging Sunni Islamic terrorism.
Indonesia is the largest mainly Muslim nation in the world in terms of population but not everything is what it appears. This applies to the rapid growth of Christianity which is between 10% and 13% of the population according to various statistics. The official line was that Christianity was just below 10% over a decade ago but more “closet Christians” are coming out because of the growing strength of Christianity in many parts of Indonesia.
Ba’asyir and many conservative and radical Muslims are concerned about this. Therefore, one way to stem the tide and to clampdown on the Christian faith is to introduce Islamic Sharia law and then Muslim apostates would face the death penalty.
However, mainstream Islam in Indonesia is more moderate and many Muslims support a secular notion and that all Indonesians are equal. Yet, in recent times money from nations like Saudi Arabia began to spread the message of conservative Islam and you have had many attacks against Christians and Ahmaddiya Muslims.
Ba’asyir was born in 1938 and during his lifetime you have had many political changes and the gradual growth of conservative Islam meant that more people were open to his thinking. Also, Sunni Islamic funding from conservative nations in the Gulf meant that new opportunities and funding became available for religious leaders, individuals, and radical organizations.
Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar opened a boarding school in 1972 in order to preach to the next generation about the need to implement Islamic Sharia law in Indonesia. In time both individuals would flee to Malaysia because the Suharto regime was in no mood to bow down to Islamists.
In 1999 Ba’asyir returned to Indonesia and clearly he and Sungkar had gained from their exile in Malaysia. This applies to meeting leading Islamists and learning a more composed way of spreading radical Sunni Islam.
Ba’asyir and Sungkar both became involved (some say founded but Ba’asyir plays with words) with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) which was a lose patchwork of various radical Islamic organizations. The main goal was to create a super-Islamic state which would incorporate Indonesia, Malaysia, the southern Philippines, Brunei, and Singapore (some Islamists would also include southern Thailand and Cambodia).
The vastness of this region and the mass complexity is a wonder to behold, however, in the wrong hands it could become a nightmare. After all, you have a very diverse mix of ethnic and religious groups and you already have religious bouts of violence between Christians and Muslims in parts of Indonesia and the southern Philippines. More recently, tensions have erupted between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand. Also, passions often run high in Malaysia which is the most diverse nation in the region when it comes to religion and the Shia faith is illegal in so-called moderate Malaysia.
Ba’asyir can’t be ignored or brushed aside so easily because JI have been involved in many terrorist attacks and have embroiled themselves in communal violence against Christians. Also, when tensions were at their highest many years ago between Christians and Muslims, you had many Sunni Islamic organizations like JI and Laskar Jihad who supported jihad. More alarming, he often plays around with words and distances himself when needed. Therefore, Ba’asyir and terrorist organizations like Laskar Jihad (Laskar Jihad disbanded but was used by elements of the military in West Papua and can be formed easily via many fronts) can melt away from the scene and then come back either through a new organization or during times of severe tensions.
Walid Phares, author of “The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy” and other books, stated “We all know that the process to become a Jihadist, is long and tenuous. It needs a Salafi-Wahabi environment to be produced. The question in Indonesia is this: Who is producing the “ideological culture” out of which Jama’ah Islamiah came from? What are the structural webs that produced Laskar Mujahidin (or Laskar e Jihad), or Laskar Jundullah or even the Sulawesi-based Mujahedeen KOMPAK?”
Walid Phares sums up this complexity by stating that “…the Jihadi “Laskars” around the archipelago are projecting themselves as the “protectors” of the territorial unity of “Muslim Indonesia.” Hence their action against non-Muslims, including in Poso, the Celebes, etc is projected as “in the interest of the nation.” They are trying to emulate Hassan Turabi’s strategy in Sudan: the defense of Islam’s lands.”
These comments by Walid Phares were stated several years ago and many radical Sunni Islamic organizations change their operational styles or disband and then come back under a different name. This game is also part and parcel of Ba’asyir
Given this, JI moved easily between supporting Muslims during communal violence against Christians in Maluku and Poso in Indonesia; and then to targeting economic and Western interests throughout the region. At the same time you had inter-links between JI, Al-Qaeda, MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic organizations.
However, it must be stated that JI isn’t on the same wavelength when it applies to Abu Sayyaf and what is termed Al-Qaeda. Also, MILF in the Philippines is much more moderate, despite being deadly, than Al-Qaeda/Abu Sayyaf and clearly their focus is on their homeland and powerbase. International Sunni Islamic jihad is not on the agenda of all Islamists and JI works within “a means to an end” but not on the inter-Muslim bloodletting of Al-Qaeda.
This is not meant to downplay JI because they have been responsible for many deadly deeds and this applies to killing 15 people in 2000 after an attack against the Jakarta Stock Exchange. Also, in the same year many Christians were killed during Christmas Eve bombing in Indonesia. They have also spread their terror to the Philippines with several attacks and an attack was thwarted in Singapore by intelligence agents. Other notable attacks apply to the 2002 Bali bombings and two hotels were attacked in Jakarta in 2009.
Returning back to Ba’asyir he stated in 2002 that “If non-believers have weapons capacity, the funding, then they will go to war against Islam. In the Koran Allah has said they will always wage war against you, they will always attack you as long as they have the capacity.” He further stated that “The government of Indonesia right now is being directed by America to service its needs and the primary need of America is to bury Islam particularly in Indonesia.”
Ba’asyir also stated “…Hence our religion Islam, our nation and our country is currently being threatened by foreign races with all manner of libels, with the bombings in Bali, with explosions everywhere, all of those are the plots of non-believers whose aims are to weaken and profane the believers of Islam.”
Therefore, Ba’asyir is somehow trying to claim that the Bali bombings were done by non-Muslims and this is similar to the September 11th conspiracy theory. However, this is clearly ridiculous and Osama Bin Laden and other brutal killers don’t play the “conspiracy game” when it comes to denial. In many ways JI is much more dangerous than Al-Qaeda when it comes to a lasting legacy, ideology, and patience.
Irrespective if the organization JI exists in name isn’t important because the ideology will remain within another organization. Also, Indonesia is a very powerful nation when it comes to geopolitics and the future of this nation will influence the religious pluralism of the entire region.
On page 166 and 167 of Zachary Abuza’s book called Militant Islam in Southeast Asia, Crucible of Terror. Zachary Abuza comments that “Although Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was named by both Malaysia and Singapore as a prime suspect and a leader of Jemaah Islamiya network, he continued to live and preach openly until October 2002.” He also told Zachary Abuza personally that “I am not a member of Al-Qaida, but I really respect the struggle of Osama Bin Laden, who has bravely represented the world’s Muslims in their fight against the arrogant United States of America and their allies.”
Yet what logic can be found in these words by Ba’asyir? After all, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were involved in the massacres of thousands of Shia Muslims in Afghanistan. This was followed by countless numbers of terrorist attacks against Shia Muslims and other non-Sunni’s in Iraq; and of course innocent Sunni Muslims have been killed by radical Sunni Islamists in many nations.
Islamic radicalism is a serious threat in Indonesia and in many other nations. However, Ba’asyir is not your usual radical Sunni Islamist leader because he is cunning and manipulates language when it suits. Therefore, it is very difficult for the authorities in Indonesia to pin Ba’asyir and not only this, he does have connections even if the trail leads to dust.
The saga will go on and Ba’asyir will continue to be loved by his supporters and hated by individuals who support religious pluralism. Whatever happens, it is doubtful that Ba’asyir will settle for his reduced sentence and it is also doubtful that he will reject Islamic jihad and terrorism within his heart.
However, the Aceh affair does remain open to interpretation because Ba’asyir isn’t foolish nor naïve and if he believed that he would be held accountable – then the Ba’asyir that most people know, is an individual who likes to cover his angles.