Radical Islam in Southeast Asia

Sermons in Sungai Manggis

Abu Bakar Bashir leaves the hospital
Abu Bakar Bashir leaves the Muhammadiyah hospital in Solo, Indonesia, Oct. 28, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The wooden house in Malaysia looked deserted. The green paint over the wood panels was faded. The lack of care was also evident in the weeds growing wildly at the front and side of the house. The soil around the wooden building looked dry. Desolate. Four water faucets stood unused.

There would be no more azan (calls to prayer) or ikamah (final calls to prayer) for the Muslims from within the wooden house. This is in contrast to the past when the house was known as a small communal building for an usrah (Quran recitation group). Next to it, there was a bigger partitioned house measuring about 20 x 40 meters. It was here that Abu Bakar Bashir used to live, five years ago. Across from it is another unit. The people in the community say that Hambali used to live in the house in front of Bashir’s house.

Kampung Sungai Manggis. That is the place that welcomed Bashir and Hambali into its midst, two wanderers who called it home for nearly 15 years.

Bashir and Hambali are no strangers to the Kampung Sungai Manggis residents. A neighbor, let’s call him Zuhaid, recalls them as a group of freelance pendakwah (propagators of the Islamic faith). The title refers to a group of ustad (Islamic teachers) who travel from one region to another to provide religious teachings in Malaysia.

Who would have thought that the pendakwah they knew would become criminal suspects in Indonesia and be pursued by security officials in Singa-pore and Malaysia? The Indonesian police have charged Bashir with planning the murder of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the Istiqlal Mosque bombing in 1999, and a spate of Christmas Eve bombings two years ago. Hambali is thought to have contacts with Al-Qaeda and was called “Bashir’s right-hand man” by Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Bashir’s acquaintance with the Malaysians started with his arrival in April 1985. He didn’t have to worry about costs. A number of donors were ready to give aid to the ustad. “Whenever the ustad asked for donations, I didn’t have to think twice about helping,” said Dody Achmad Busubul, a tile businessman in Jakarta.

When Bashir moved to Kampung Sungai Manggis, the local residents recalled that Hambali lived in a building across from Bashir’s home. No one can remember the exact date Hambali took up residence there. One of them said around 1993.

With regard to performing religious services, Bashir and Hambali were exemplary. “They were very devoted and very gracious,” said a caretaker of the Ar-Rahman Mosque, when describing the Bashir whom he knew. When taking his walks, Bashir didn’t think twice about approaching people who were sitting to start talking about religion. He was soft-spoken and wise, especially when reminding the local youths to go pray the minute the call for prayer could be heard from the mosque or from the worship house next to his house.

“There were no indications that Bashir and his friends were inciting people to go to war,” said a resident. Bashir’s sympathetic way of teaching easily attracted the attention of people living in Kampung Sungai Manggis and its surrounding areas. It’s no wonder that some of the people who attended Bashir’s Quran recitations refused to believe that their beloved ustad was accused of violent acts in Indonesia and Singapore, together with Hambali. “As far as I know, whenever they came here, they were very diligent in praying together with the people, but afterward, they could disappear for a long time,” said a resident. Sometimes Bashir invited guests who were big and tall from Africa and Pakistan to stay at his house.

The various negative labels about Bashir and Hambali as Jemaah Islamiyah figures intimate with terrorist actions have made life for the Kampung Sungai Manggis residents a little uncomfortable. The local police have visited several times to ask them for information. The owner of the house that was rented by Bashir had to stay for 60 days in the police station, being interrogated.

Two Interpol investigators from Jakarta once again went to Malaysia last Thursday. The police plan to continue their efforts to trace Bashir and Hambali’s activities. Witnesses must be sought and evidence against the suspected terrorists must be found. No matter how long it takes.