JULY 3, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 26
Army of Loyal Believers
By ZAMIRA LOEBIS Jombang
Supporters gather at an NU celebration.
with the Nahdlatul Ulama, and chances are the banser, the muslim organization's
most vocal subgroup, will come knocking on your door. And it probably
won't be a pleasant visit. Journalists at Jawa Pos, a Surabaya newspaper,
found out the hard way last month after publishing a report suggesting
that Hasyim Muzadi, the NU's chairman, had received a payoff of more than
$4 million from a government agency. No sooner had the paper hit the newsstands
than the Banser (short for Barisan Ansor Serbaguna, literally translated
as Multipurpose Front) descended by the hundreds on the paper's offices.
They surrounded the building, shouted slogans, prevented staff from entering
and blocked publication for a day. In the end, they left the offices after
Jawa Pos agreed to publish an apology.
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hard to argue with the Banser. For one thing, there are around 400,000
of them (and the NU has 30 million members). For another, they have friends
in high places: President Wahid himself was head of the NU for 15 years
until taking political office last October. While most political parties
condemned the Jawa Pos episode as an attack on press freedom, Wahid instead
accused the paper of bias. "The press is one-sided in many ways," he told
Time. "Part of it is controlled by people who are against the government,"
he says, citing the Pos case. "It wasn't the Banser who told them to stop
publishing, they did it themselves, to gain sympathy from the rest of
edition's table of contents
It was not the first time the Banser has shown its clout. In April, after
Speaker of the House Amien Rais said he would "tweak Wahid's ears" when
the President presents his progress report to parliament in August, more
than 100,000 Banser gathered at a Surabaya rally as NU leaders gave speeches
condemning Rais. "Banser's duty is to defend the NU," says Abdullah Faqih,
a respected Muslim cleric in East Java. If the organization or its priests
are offended, the Banser will rise, he adds, "like bees run amok when
their hive is disturbed."
Established in the early 1960s by Gus Dur's paternal uncle to protect
the NU from attacks by the communist youth wing, the Banser is made up
exclusively of NU members. Though they are given martial arts training,
Banser members are best known for the rallies and demonstrations they
conduct in support of the NU. Banser is known as the "multipurpose front"
for Ansor, the youth wing of the NU. To understand what makes Banser tick,
travel to Jombang, the sleepy town 80 km south of Surabaya where Wahid
was born. Jombang is home to the country's four largest Islamic schools,
or pesantren (with as many as 6,500 students each), all controlled by
relatives of the President. In a pesantren, the world revolves around
the kyai, or clerics. A kyai is regarded as a combination of king and
holy man: his word is law and he is accorded absolute loyalty.
For the Banser faithful, Wahid is the greatest kyai of all. "I serve him
as a kyai, not as a President," says Masnuh, an East Java businessman
and a big NU supporter. "A President can be replaced tomorrow, but a kyai
will forever be a kyai." Such solidarity helped Wahid become President.
But it could also spark unrest if he runs into political difficulty. Opposition
parties have made it clear they will take Wahid to task when he delivers
his progress report in August. The Banser will be watching. As Gus Dur's
youngest brother Hasyim Wahid recently warned: "If they bring him down,
don't ask me what will happen."
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