Indonesian leader orders probe into controversial Islamic school

Arie Firdaus
Indonesian leader orders probe into controversial Islamic school Students walk outside an Islamic boarding school in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, Sept. 3, 2021.
[Timur Matahari /AFP]

Indonesia’s president said Monday he had ordered an investigation into a large religious boarding school accused of deviating from Islam’s teachings, after protesters demanded the institution be shut.

The Al Zaytun school in West Java province has been under scrutiny since a video clip went viral on social media after being posted online in April. It showed the campus’s mixed-gender Eid al-Fitr prayer, which some Muslims consider a violation of Islamic norms of segregating prayers between the sexes.

The school is also allegedly run by supporters of the Indonesian Islamic State (NII), a movement that waged an armed rebellion against the government in the 1950s and 1960s, but was crushed by the military, according to the group’s former members.

“Be patient. I have ordered the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs and the minister of religious affairs to look into it,” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo told reporters, although he did not specify which issues were being investigated.

Islam is a touchy subject in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. And as Indonesia goes to the polls next February, observers have cautioned against parties and candidates pandering for votes among ultra-conservative religious groups.

On Monday, Jokowi was quick to deny allegations that his inner circles were protecting the Al Zaytun school.

“No way,” he said, when addressing the controversy.

The allegations were made by Imam Supriyanto, the founder of the Indonesian Boarding School Foundation, who said on a television talk show last week that some retired generals close to Jokowi had connections with Panji Gumilang, the founder of Al Zaytun. 

Imam named Moeldoko, Widodo’s chief of staff, and Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, a former intelligence chief, as among those close to Jokowi who were protecting the school.

“Moeldoko bragged about Al Zaytun’s food self-sufficiency… And I know he gave Panji access to the police at all levels, making him powerful,” Imam had said.

Moeldoko admitted he had a friendship with the school’s founder, but denied any wrongdoing. He said he had visited Al Zaytun twice to deliver lectures as part of his political communication duties.

“Is there a problem? We need to communicate well. That’s the KSP’s (Chief of Presidential Staff) job, to talk to anyone,” the presidential chief of staff told reporters on Monday.

Indonesian Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko gestures during an interview with Reuters at his office in Jakarta, May 28, 2019. [Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

Al Zaytun, whose campus sprawls over 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), was inaugurated by President B.J. Habibie in 1999. Over the years, high-ranking officials and politicians have visited the school.

Al Zaytun has faced scrutiny from religious authorities and former members of NII, a group that analysts have said has spawned militant offshoots such as Jemaah Islamiyah, which was behind a series of deadly bombings in Indonesia in the 2000s.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Muslim clerical body, said in a 2002 study that it found strong signs of Al Zaytun’s relation and affiliation with the NII through the school’s founder, Panji. 

MUI also said it found signs of deviation from Islamic doctrines at the school.

“Panji Gumilang should face legal action for his alleged crime,” Ichsan Abdullah, MUI’s law and human rights deputy secretary-general, said Monday.

The national police said they were still collecting evidence before naming any suspects. They also said they would cooperate with a team from the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs to probe Al Zaytun’s alleged violations.

Al Chaidar, a terrorism expert and former NII member, said Al Zaytun’s initial funding was collected from the group’s members. But he said over time, Al Zaytun’s mission changed.

“Their mission is now only to collect money, not to establish an Islamic state” he said.

‘Women deserve equal rights’

Panji and Al Zaytun’s management did not respond immediately to BenarNews’ inquiries. But Panji told the Liputan6 news website that his school did not deviate from Islam. He said the mixed-gender prayer was a way to give women equal rights. 

“Women deserve equal rights. So, we make them equal, because it’s the right thing to do,” he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, protests against Al Zaytun and Panji have broken out in West Java and Jakarta. 

On Thursday, some groups of local residents rallied outside Al Zaytun’s complex in Indramayu regency, demanding the school be disbanded.

On Monday, the Alumni Brotherhood 212 staged a rally in front of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Jakarta urging the government to shut down Al Zaytun and arrest Panji for being heretical due to the practices at the school.

“Panji Gumilang clearly blasphemed Islam with his deviant teachings that are not part of the four accepted schools of thought in Islam,” said Novel Bamukmin, the group’s spokesman.

The Setara Institute, a human rights group, urged the government to be fair in handling the case of Al Zaytun and to focus on its alleged legal violations.

“The government should not get too involved in the debate over whether the school’s religious teachings were deviant or not, and should not take populist measures,” Setara said in a statement.

Tria Dianti in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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