Mon, 15 May 2000

Forum aims to protect interests of Islam

By Sri Wahyuni

YOGYAKARTA (JP): It's hard to believe that the quiet housing complex in Degolan Village, Umbulmartani Ngemplak Sleman, some 15 kilometers north of here, is headquarters to the controversial Laskar Jihad Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah Communication Forum.

The jihad force was in the spotlight for its military-style training in a Bogor village, followed by its alleged compliance with authorities to hand in weapons last month, and then the reported arrival of at least 500 members in war-torn Maluku last month who the jihad commander said were there to provide "spiritual needs" to those in suffering.

Authorities are tightening control over the members' entrance into Maluku -- their "massive war training", said a Maluku councillor, made their humanitarian concerns quite hard to swallow, even on the grounds of self defense.

Criticism from the press also came following the beating and intimidation of three reporters suspected of entering the group's building in Bogor with ill intentions, but commander Ja'far Umar Tholib said they were known to be reporters only after they were beaten.

"It was an emotional time and there were rumors that someone was out to poison our food."

Located adjacent to a graveyard, the main building of about 70 square meters in the Forum's compound looks as humble as its surroundings.

With a floor of rough cement, part of it carpeted, the building is divided into four rooms of about the same size. One room is the headquarters of the force claiming thousands of members.

The headquarters occupies part of the Ihya'us Sunnah Islamic Boarding School that Ustadz (Islamic teacher) Ja'far established in 1994.

Members of the forum include some 15 families staying in buildings around the school, which is on a 500-square meter plot rented from locals since 1999 for a 10-year term.

The site blends in with its surroundings, with no dividing wall, as is the usual case with housing complexes.

Most homes are semi-permanent structures, some of them rented. Inhabitants and neighbors perform their prayers at the Usman bin Affan Mosque 25 meters south of the compound, where dozens of members spend their time waiting for their departure to Maluku, the Forum staff said.

Members also tend to their individual businesses to provide income for their families.

The forum so far owns some 3,000 square meters of land there apart from the 500-meter rented plot. Ja'far's three wives also live here in separate houses. He has eight children including those from an ex-wife.

Members are easily distinguished by their clothing; the males usually wear white long-sleeved loose-fitting shirts and trousers cut just below the ankle.

Females wear mostly black flowing robes, with black veils covering their faces.

Ja'far said he and his followers have dressed this way since 1989, when he established his first Islamic boarding school in Tengaran, in the Central Java town of Salatiga.

"We are following the way Prophet Mohammad dressed; doing so is part of practicing our religion (ibadah)," Ja'far said.

The group say they follow what is called the salafiah school in understanding the Koran and Hadith (the Prophet's teachings), reflected in the comparatively strict rules such as male-female communication.

Unless they are of the same family or blood relatives (muhrim), face-to-face contact between different sexes is not allowed. Communication is, however, possible provided that they are separated by, for instance, a curtain.

There are about 36 males studying at the Ihya'us Sunnah boarding school. Many drop out if they have failed but can still listen in.

The secretary of the Forum's central executive board, Makruf Bahrun, said the school aims to produce preachers (dai) -- who are males only, studying for four years.

Female students study for two years, considered adequate "as a foundation for them to become good mothers and housewives," he said, in line with the belief that women's role is in the home. The students study the aqidah (knowledge about the oneness of Allah), Islamic law, Arabic and tafsir, the interpretation of the Koran).

The Forum and its school seems to have attracted many students from various groups and regions.

Those from Yogyakarta, for example, are mostly from nearby universities. "Some stay here, some others come only for classes," Makruf said.

He added that some prospective graduates are sent abroad, mostly to Yemen or Madinah Islamic University, to continue their studies.

The Communication Forum was set up at the school in 1998, initially to organize a mass prayer meeting (tabligh akbar) in Solo. Ja'far said he then perceived that the widespread protests against the government of then president B.J. Habibie were mainly because he came from the Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) and because he advocated the interests of Muslims -- not because of the shortcomings of his presidency.

To defend Muslims' interests, he said, it was necessary to work with the military in preventing further harm coming from those who were against the Islamic community here, including President Abdurrahman Wahid, accused of only protecting minorities at the cost of Muslims.

In the past, people associated with the military also succeeded in preventing then president Sukarno from giving power to the communists, he said.

A scholar on Islamic studies Azyumardi Azra has stated that while "Muslim liberals" might consider such ideas of cooperating with the military alarming and a constraint to building a civil society, hardliners, security forces or their members are considered useful in the promotion of Islamic values, given their potential power.

Ja'far does not acknowledge receiving financial support from the military, but says that funds are requested from "any" sympathetic party. However, his alleged experience in Afghanistan may have provided some of the spirit among some members in promoting Islam, though it is controversial among other Muslims.

The forum eventually developed into an organization claiming some 50 million members, Ja'far said. There are 21 branches in Java, plus others in Medan, Padang, Lampung, Jambi, Riau, Batam, South Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, South Sulawesi, South East Sulawesi, and North Sulawesi, according to the forum.

Members seem to be wholeheartedly following the way of life of the group.

Vinny, the youngest wife of the Ustadz, said she used to be an aerobics instructor before her older brother asked that she study at the Forum's pesantren. She was coming of age and her brother was worried about her "uncertain" future.

"I just followed the classes to please him, and I began to wear the veil," she said. After six months, she said she enjoyed the surroundings and its teachings. Then the Ustadz asked for her hand in marriage, "and it was like a blessing," she said, knowing he was a "man of justice," even though it would mean becoming his third wife.

Abu Cholid, who is among those managing the school, said he first heard about the group through its center in Salatiga. He said he liked to move around Koran reading centers and finally came across the Forum at its branch in Salatiga.

"I think the salafiah teaching (adopted by the Forum) is the closest to the teachings of the Koran and that of the Prophet," he said. The group cited the way of life of the Prophet and his close friends as an example.

If Islam rules that man is only to fear Allah, is it not a violation if the Forum members idolize their leader?

Cholid said it is not true that members regard the Ustadz as an unquestionable figure.

"If anyone among us comes up with a way of teaching that is proved to be more valid than the interpretation provided, then it can be adopted," he said.