Indonesian School Accused Of Ties To Banned Group

Jul 5, 2011
Originally published on May 30, 2012 10:12 am

A student's call to prayer echoes through an empty mosque at dusk. The scene is Al-Zaytun, Indonesia's largest "pesantren," or Islamic boarding school. More than 6,000 students in 12 grades study at its sprawling campus in Indramayu, West Java. They memorize the Koran, and they study computers, human rights and journalism.

But outside, there is concern about the school. This year, the head of a parliamentary religious affairs committee and the head of the country's main Islamic umbrella group have called for an investigation into the school and its reported ties to the outlawed Islamic State of Indonesia, or NII. The group seeks an Islamic state under "sharia," or Islamic law. Reports of students at several schools being kidnapped and brainwashed, plus a spate of bomb attacks, have heightened fears of radicalism.

Earlier in the day, students were moving into their dorms as a new term starts. Many have seen news reports alleging their school's links to the NII. But Azri, a Singaporean student who goes by one name, says the school's critics are misinformed.

"As time goes on, I understand about this place. So what I understand is, all the rumors, it's not true," he says emphatically. "What they say, maybe they don't understand about this place and they just talk."

Malaysian student Husmaru Zaini Syaza says one example of the school's tolerance is that female students participate fully in all religious activities.

"Here, unlike at home, I'm allowed to attend Friday prayers, listen to the sermon and attend the service from beginning to end," she says, smiling out from under her headscarf. "Also, in Malaysia, women are not allowed to read or even touch the Koran or enter a mosque when menstruating. But here we can do that."

Assertions Of Humanism

Al-Zaytun's founder is Panji Gumilang, a heavy-set man in a batik shirt and traditional black felt cap who speaks with an air of confidence and authority. He says his students are being nurtured to be moderates and humanists, not militants.

"The best way to prevent Indonesia's children from becoming radicals is through education," he asserts, sitting in Al-Zaytun's dining hall. "At Al-Zaytun, we teach children to be patriots, not radicals. The Al-Zaytun movement is a form of de-radicalization."

But, Panji Gumilang's critics say he leads a double life. They claim his alter ego is Abu Toto, Jakarta regional commander and imam of the NII. Panji dismisses such charges as fabrications of NII's opponents, adding that NII ceased to exist long ago.

"As for reports that we support an underground organization, these allegations can not be proved," he says with a steady gaze, "and therefore the organization does not exist."

The NII was founded in 1949 by Kartosuwirjo, a charismatic imam who rebelled first against Dutch colonialists and later against the Indonesian government. He prophesied that Indonesia would be come a utopian Islamic state, a "Medina" for the 21st century.

He and his forces controlled much of West Java until 1962, when the government caught and executed him. But to this day, Kartosuwirjo's legacy inspires other militants, including radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, whom an Indonesian court recently sentenced to jail, and Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist group behind the 2002 Bali bombings.

When President Sukarno declared Indonesia's independence from the Dutch in 1945, Indonesia had to choose a political system, much like other postcolonial Asian nations.

"Three alternatives emerged during the late colonial period," explains Professor Ali Munhanif, of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, "between an Islamic movement that proposed that Indonesia should adopt an Islamic state or Islamic constitution, and then nationalists that proposed that Indonesia should be secular and liberal, and then the others are the communists."

Indonesia chose secular nationalism. Its government suppressed the communists militarily and forced those advocating an Islamic state underground. Today, Indonesia's mainstream Islamic establishment rejects radicalism and would like to see NII stamped out, even though that is highly unlikely.

Fears Of 'False Teachings'

Aminudin Yacub, vice chairman of the Fatwa (religious edict) Committee of the Indonesian Ulama Council, the main umbrella group for Islamic organizations, has researched the NII. He says this research shows clear linkages between the NII and the Al-Zaytun school.

"We want the government to take action because the NII promotes false Islamic teachings," he urges. But he suggests that his council's objections to the NII are more political than religious.

"The NII's teachings are subversive and may damage patriotism," he says. "We believe the government should take over the Al-Zaytun School and put NII leaders on trial according to law."

Aminudin says the NII recruits members outside Al-Zaytun's campus, and it's more interested in money than radicalism. But, he warns, NII's members are potential recruits for more violent groups.

Several ex-NII members have also confirmed the links with the Al-Zaytun school. Panji Gumilang's former secretary, Sofyan Ardyanto, was a communications officer for the NII. He says he joined the group because NII clerics had answers to his questions, which other clerics couldn't answer, about religion and society.

Now, Sofyan runs a support group for ex-NII members. He says the NII robbed him of his money and his identity.

"When I was initiated into the NII, I renounced my Indonesian nationality, and became a citizen of the NII," he recalls. "I pledged an oath to live to uphold the NII, and to be ready sacrifice my body, my soul and my money."

Sofyan describes an organization that's part mafia, part cult and part pyramid scheme. The NII, he says, has essentially established a shadow government with 15 "ministries" and nine regional commands. Each new recruit is indoctrinated by the commander of his or her local cell. Aminudin estimates the NII may have as many as 150,000 members, and he says Panji Gumilang's K9 faction is the largest and most active branch.

Sofyan says NII members are given monthly fundraising targets to meet by exploiting new recruits: Those who meet the targets are promoted; those who don't are demoted. He adds that many NII officers have quit in disgust at what they consider Panji Gumilang's corrupt and authoritarian style, and his desire to create a family dynasty.

"NII assets total trillions of rupiah," he says, displaying copies of NII financial documents he says he obtained, "all built upon the sufferings of the people at the grass roots."

Expanding Al-Zaytun

Despite the controversy outside its walls, Al-Zaytun is apparently growing and thriving. The school is already largely self-sufficient with its own factories and farms. Now it is building a huge mosque and expanding from its current 12 grades to include college.

The school also has powerful backers, and has received visits from former presidents Suharto and Habibie. Local media have reported that Indonesian intelligence services have co-opted and shielded Panji Gumilang. The minister of religious affairs recently gave Al-Zaytun a ringing endorsement and denied the school had ties to the NII.

The Islamic Ulama Council's Aminudin says politicians protect the school because it can deliver the votes of its students, teachers and staff, and because the NII is a handy threat that politicians can trot out whenever they need to distract the public from other political crises.

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