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Indonesian cleric fights for a Muslim state

Bashir's recent lawsuit against Singapore seeks $100 million for slanderous remarks.

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Abu Bakar Bashir is a schoolteacher. He has white hair, a reedy voice, gold-rimmed glasses – and a growing number of close colleagues in foreign jails.

Those colleagues, say officials in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, are part of a sprawling international terrorist conspiracy with links to Al Qaeda led by Mr. Bashir. Bashir, however, remains free to run his Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school because Indonesia officials say they have insufficient evidence to arrest him.

"All of these claims of terrorism are fabrications by America and the Jews," says Bashir at his school, a noisy jumble of low buildings in the central Java city of Solo. "They are attacking me, because they hate it when Muslims stand up for themselves."

The anti-American, anti-semitic Bashir is a living symbol of what the US fears for Indonesia. His apparent political clout has led the government to resist calls for his arrest. He also runs a growing organization, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), which is lobbying to convert Indonesia into an Islamic state.

Foreign officials worry that this sends a message to Al Qaeda that Indonesia is a good place to hide. "If they were locking up local radicals, then I think an Al Qaeda fugitive would think twice about coming here,'' says a Western diplomat. "But there's this feeling that the climate is friendly to them."

Though Indonesia is one of the Islamic world's most religiously tolerant countries, Islamic militancy has had a renaissance since the fall of Suharto in 1998. The more open political climate has allowed men such as Bashir, who lived in exile in Malaysia for 15 years, to return home.

The Islamic movement here is running on parallel tracks – political and militant. It has funded paramilitary groups that have ignited sectarian conflicts, conducted vigilante raids on bars and brothels, and burned churches. Bashir has ties to most of these groups through the MMI.

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