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JULY 3, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 26

THE MUSLIM FACTOR
Wahid's Army of Loyal Believers
By ZAMIRA LOEBIS Jombang


Rully Kesuma/Tempo.
Supporters gather at an NU celebration.

Mess 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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It's 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 the press."

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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