Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward in Yogyakarta Indonesia

As was reported last week, on August 6 Abbu Bakar Bashir announced his resignation as Amir of the Islamist organization Majelis Mujahid Indonesia or Indonesian Council of Jihad Fighters (MMI). His announcement, only days before the organization’s general convention, came as something of a surprise. It may lead some to believe that there is serious dissension with in the ranks of Indonesian Muslim radicals, and that the movement is in decline.

Such conclusions would be incorrect and are little more than wishful thinking. Bashir’s resignation stemmed from a disagreement about the theological nature of leadership not about the goals or methods of its struggle. He resigned his position as Amir of MMI because he feels that the organization is not Islamic enough. While the title Amir (or Emir) has been in use for centuries it is basically secular. MMI elects its Amir, who is responsible to the organization’s executive board. Bashir believes that he should be the “Imam” and that he is responsible only to God.

With his resignation, Bashir has not so much “stepped down” as he has “moved on” and freed himself of perceived restrictions on his freedom of action imposed by the organization.  He remains a highly charismatic figure. He has hinted that he will form a new organization and that he will continue to work with his former comrades in MII for the establishment of Shari’ah as the basis of the Indonesian State.

Bashir utterly rejects all democratic possesses. But ironically there are rumors that he will run for president in 2009 to force a showdown on the question of Indonesia’s future. This would present the country with an unambiguous choice between a religiously pluralistic democratic state and a Sunni Muslim theocracy as models of governance. Such a contest would also be a betrayal of Bashir’s oft stated anti-democratic convictions.

MMI is an umbrella organization, not a political party or social movement. It is a loose coalition of groups united only by the goal of establishing Shari’ah as the basis of local, regional and national governance. While Bashir was the group’s best known—and certainly most articulate—spokesman his departure does not mean that radical Islam has been weakened significantly.

Nor does Bashir’s popularity depend on his affiliation with MMI. It is rooted in a lifetime of devotion to radical Islamic causes, social networks among students and alumnae of the Islamic school (Pesantren al Mukmin Ngruki) he has led since 1972.  It also stems from his links to other Islamist organizations including the terrorist group Jammah Islamiyah and the vigilante organization Front Pembela Islam (Front for the Defense of Islam, FPI), and his ability to manipulate the Indonesian media.

Bashir was born in Jombang in East Java in 1938. This city is among Indonesia’s theological centers, as is best known as the home of the country’s most liberal Islamic movement Nadhlatul Ulama and former president Abdurahmman Wahid, who strongly opposes Bashir and everything he believes in. Bashir is an Indonesian of Hadrami (Yemini) descent. While Indonesian Arabs are no more or less inclined towards radical Ideologies than others, they are widely revered because they are commonly believed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.  His Hadrami connections have also enabled him to move easily between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore where there are also significant Arab populations.

Bashir is the spiritual leader of Jamaah Islamiyah, the group responsible for the 2002 Bali Bombings in which 202 people, most of them western tourists, were killed. He has consistently stated that the bombers were not terrorists, but Mujahidin, and that the CIA hijacked the operation and used it to plant a “micro-nuclear device” responsible for the death and destruction. This and other conspiracy theories involving US and Israeli intelligence services circulate widely in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Bashir is also the leader of the Surakarta branch of FPI. FPI is a paramilitary organization that carries out violent attacks on bars, nightclubs, pool halls, mystical and marshal arts groups deemed to be “anti-Islamic.” Its’ most recent operation was an attack on an inter-faith rally supporting tolerance and religious freedom sponsored by mainstream Muslim and Christian groups at Indonesia’s Nation Monument in Jakarta on June first.

So Bashir’s departure from MMI does not diminish his power because it is based almost entirely on personal rather than institutional loyalties. He will continue to attract national and international attention and is entirely capable of inspiring, if not organizing acts of violence. Yet it is extremely unlikely that he or anyone resembling him will come to power at the national level. A decade of elections following the Indonesian democratic transition has shown that Bashir and other radical Islamists can organize rallies and gangs of thugs like FPI, but this does not translate into broad electoral appeal. Democracy can be messy, but remains the best safeguard against Bashir and others like him.