A'an Suryana – An Islamic boarding school and its principal are embroiled once again in controversy. This time, maybe the public's complaints will bite – but for how long?
The Al-Zaytun Islamic boarding school (pesantren) in the rural part of Indramayu regency (West Java) is again under the media spotlight. Recently, its principal Panji Gumilang remarked that the Quran was not Allah's revelation but instead "a creation" of the Prophet Muhammad. This prompted public uproar. The school's public prayer arrangement, which does not follow the usual requirement of gender segregation in most pesantren, has also angered the public. In late June 2023, two organisations reported Panji Gumilang to the police for blasphemy. The police finally named him a suspect on 1 August 2023 on the charge of blaspheming Islam.
Will the pesantren survive this latest controversy?
For context, Panji was one of Al-Zaytun's founders in 1996 and a former chief of the Islamic State of Indonesia (Negara Islam Indonesia, NII) Regional Army overseeing West Java and its neighbouring provinces, Jakarta and Banten. Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosoewirjo started this separatist movement in 1949 but was captured and executed by Sukarno's government in 1962. The movement's sympathisers, which include Kartosoewirjo's men and descendants of NII members, continue to uphold Kartosoewirjo's aspiration to establish an Indonesian Islamic state. Some have even joined terrorist organisations still active today, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).
The school, whose current enrolment stands at over 5,000 students from elementary through university levels, has had a high profile given its alleged links with NII but also its size and apparent wealth. Located on some 1,200 hectares of land, of which 1,000 hectares are used for agriculture and farming, the school's buildings, mosques, dorms and sports stadium are well above the standard of a typical pesantren.
This is not the first time that Al-Zaytun and its principal have been the subjects of public scrutiny. In 2011, Panji was imprisoned for ten months for forging documents pertaining to Al-Zaytun's leadership transition. He was found guilty of ordering his staff to forge the signature of another school's executive as if that executive, Imam Supriyanto, agreed to resign from his position. Imam proved that he did not sign the document. In the same year, due to national security concerns, the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) investigated the school for its alleged links to NII but there was no definite conclusion to the case.
The school has been unscathed possibly due to political reasons. In earlier administrations, especially post-September 11, 2001, security officials keen on tackling extremism and terrorism built strategic ties with Al-Zaytun to challenge underground extremist movements.
There are clear examples of past leaders and officials courting the school or co-opting it as a possible foil against suspected NII activity. In 1999, then president B.J. Habibie opened the school. In 2001, then BIN Chief General A.M. Hendropriyono invited several former NII executives, including Panji Gumilang, to BIN headquarters to persuade them to help to oppose NII members.
Separately, some politicians became interested in using their ties with Al-Zaytun to secure votes for themselves in local and national elections. That the school's leadership is politically well-connected makes it a useful resource for prominent individuals. Links between the school's top executives and the Indonesian security apparatus and politicians were arguably enhanced following the commencement of direct elections in Indonesia in 2004. A good number of politicians, including former army commanders Gen (ret.) Wiranto and Gen (ret.) R. Hartono, visited Al-Zaytun to raise electoral support. This strategy reportedly attracted about 24,000 votes in the 2004 regional and national parliamentary elections for legislative candidates representing Indramayu regency. (Depending on the constituency, between 25 and 50 per cent of the total votes cast are needed to win a seat in the national parliament.)
In return, the powers that be may have provided Al-Zaytun with social and political protection when the school was under public pressure. For example, following rumours that the school still had links with the NII, Hendropriyono, as chief of BIN, publicly stated in 2003 that he "would beat up" anybody who harassed or threatened Al-Zaytun. He argued that Al-Zaytun had discarded NII's ideas and struggle for an Islamic state and had chosen to conform to the values of the Indonesian state, including supporting Pancasila.
The delay of several weeks between the public's initial complaints to the police about Panji Gumilang and his naming as a suspect demonstrates a possible political tug-of-war between the security apparatus and government officials. However, even if the charges hold and a court sentences Panji to jail, these actions will not end the controversy surrounding Al-Zaytun. Panji is likely to return to the school once he finishes his jail term. In the eyes of mainstream Muslim organisations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, he has a penchant for making incorrect religious innovations (bid'ah). The Al Zaytun saga is likely to continue.
[A'an Suryana is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.]