Indonesia's terrorist icon shoots Widodo in foot

President's move to try and release 2002 Bali bombings mastermind Abu Bakar Ba'asyir threatens to derail his re-election bid
Indonesia's terrorist icon shoots Widodo in foot

Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir waves from a police vehicle after he was convicted by a court in Jakarta for terrorism charges in this June 16, 2011 file photo. (Photo by Romeo Gacad/AFP)

He's old, frail and, you'd imagine, just as keen as anyone his age to spend his last years with his family, breathing free air. But Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, 81, believes the law of God — in his case Islamic Shariah — takes precedence over man's laws.

He's refusing to acknowledge the Indonesian state ideology of Pancasila, a pre-condition for his early release from his 15-year sentence for financing a terrorist camp in Aceh in 2010. Ba'asyir would rather see his sentence out than submit to this construct of the state of Indonesia. Pancasila — five principles in Sanskrit — does recognize God, but it isn't specific about which religion's God.

When founding president Sukarno dreamed up the idea at the birth of the republic, that was the point: to keep the archipelago's widely diverse people together, not separate them along the lines of religion.

The first sila (behavioral discipline) of Pancasila is therefore "Belief in the One and Only God." That is followed by the following precepts: A just and civilized humanity, a unified Indonesia, democracy by way of the wisdom of the representatives of the people and, finally, social justice.

Ba'asyir represents a branch of Salafist ideology that goes back some 200 years in Indonesian history, when pilgrims returning from the hajj tried to impose on western Sumatra the austere brand of Islam practiced by the desert tribes that now make up Saudi Arabia. In the end, they were defeated by traditionalists in what became known as the Padri Wars.

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At independence, supporters of the Salafist school tried to introduce what's become known as the Jakarta Charter into the preamble to the constitution. It called on Muslims to practice their religion, but because it was seen as a bid to stamp a Muslim label on the new nation, Sukarno and his allies rejected it.

Ba'asyir has long been a leading champion of the minority view that Indonesia needs to be made to accept Islam as the foundation of the state. As such he has long been seen as the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which orchestrated a series of bombings beginning in 2000 and peaking with the 2002 Bali bombing, in which 202 people died.

Ba'asyir has spent much of his time since then languishing in jail, despite occasional difficulties on the part of prosecutors in finding evidence implicating him in the terrorist acts. He has always denied any direct involvement.

Given the cleric's unbending insistence that Pancasila must be replaced with Shariah law, it came as a surprise when prominent lawyer Yusril Izha Mahendra announced on Jan. 18 that President Joko Widodo had agreed to unconditionally release Ba'asyir on "humanitarian grounds."

Over the following days, the "unconditional" developed a condition: that Ba'asyir should sign a statement acknowledging Pancasila as the bedrock of Indonesian sovereignty. He refused to do so, prompting Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu to state that anyone who didn't acknowledge the ideology was free to leave the country.

Relatives of those who died in the Bali bombings and other atrocities committed by JI's fanatical followers were quick to protest, declaring Widodo's move to free Ba'asyir a punch in their stomachs.

Hard-line Islamists, naturally, said the move was overdue.

Widodo, faced with a tidal wave of opposition, appeared to have second thoughts, and by Jan. 23 Mahendra too was backtracking.

The government was reconsidering the situation, he said, a situation he could understand. In broaching the idea with Ba'asyir, he had only been acting on Widodo's instruction, he stressed.

So Ba'asyir remains in jail, at least for the time being. The country has been left wondering why Widodo floated the idea of freeing the old cleric in the first place. At the least, the president, who faces re-election on April 17, has lost significant support from his natural constituency of relatively liberal Indonesians.

Ariel Heryanto, the current Herb Feith Professor for the Study of Indonesia at Monash University in Australia, believes that the number of those who intend to abstain or make a blank vote (Golput) has risen quite dramatically in the past week. He devised an instant survey on Twitter, and saw a rapid rise in the number of respondents planning to turn their backs on Widodo.

Writer Eko Wustuk described the decision on Ba'asyir as "the biggest mistake of [Widodo's] political career."

Others noted that Widodo over the past few months, starting with the selection of conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his vice-presidential running mate, has been too keen to try to woo his critics from the right wing of the Islamic community and has neglected his own constituency.

"Thinking too much about the other guy's supporters and forgetting his own supporters, that's what people are saying in the coffee shops," stated one commentator on Twitter on the grassroots view.

Widodo, goes the theory, knows that members of minorities such as the Christian community won't support his opponent in the presidential race, former general Prabowo Subianto.

Instead of aiming for the center of the political spectrum, he has embarked on an attempt to convert his critics on the Islamic right. The strategy hasn't worked, with the hard-line community ridiculing his efforts and now angry that their hero Ba'asyir looks like staying in jail.

The electoral fortunes of Widodo and Amin were already looking shaky before the Ba'asyir debacle. According to a survey released by the National Media Survey Institute on Jan. 21, they now hold an electability rating of 47.9 percent, while the electability of Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno stood at 38.7 percent.

Around 13.4 percent of the respondents remained undecided. Widodo has effectively sacrificed half of what was a 20-point lead. Widodo is seen as losing votes as people are turned off by his politics of appeasement.

It was always apparent that the election was Widodo's to lose. In striving too hard to placate his critics, he appears to be at risk of throwing away his chances of a second term.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.

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