|The simmering threat of Indonesian
By Bill Guerin
Watching from the relative security of downtown
Jakarta we were acutely aware that the terror unleashed
by the September 11 attacks would engender profound
change in the world. Soon after, there was concern in
Indonesia and across the Muslim world that the ensuing
US-led war on terrorism would become a prelude to a
worldwide assault on Islam and the Muslim world itself.
The subsequent US attacks on Afghanistan and its
war on global terrorism have indeed had a major impact
on the relationship between Islam and the West. Islam is
now being focused upon more than ever, amid a deep
concern within the Islamic community that the West would
use this opportunity to subjugate the Muslim world, and
force it into some sort of inferior class of Western
On the anniversary of one of the
blackest days in the history of mankind, world focus
remains firmly on the main hot spots - the Middle East
and the South Asian subcontinent - but Indonesia, the
largest nominally Islamic country in the world, is never
far away from the limelight.
Sukarnoputri went to the United States a few days after
the attacks last September and, sitting in the Oval
Office with a beaming George W Bush, expressed her
unqualified support for his administration (in return
for a considerable amount of aid). The US saw her visit
as the chance to elicit an endorsement for the coming
campaign of attrition against an enemy who is here,
there and everywhere at the same time.
storm clouds were gathering even before Megawati touched
down in Jakarta. Widespread demonstrations were being
organized by Islamic radicals, mainly the Islam
Defenders Front (FPI), who since Suharto's downfall have
risen like an evil specter in white, raiding nightclubs,
bars and restaurants, attacking other religious groups
and, of course, "sweeping" for Americans.
year later, the US has once again closed its Jakarta
embassy until further notice after receiving what the
State Department in Washington described as a "credible"
terrorist threat. Anti-US sentiment is on the rise on
the streets and Vice President Hamzah Haz has publicly
condemned the coming "war" on Iraq.
Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), a militant Islamic
group with alleged links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda,
has threatened to conduct "sweeps" against foreigners.
The last "sweeps" kicked off on September 23, 2001, when
radical militant Muslim youth gangs in Solo vowed to
round up US and European citizens over the impending
US-led strikes on Afghanistan.
MMI is led by
Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Basyir, who has been named by
Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines as the spiritual
leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah radical group, which
wants to create a pan-Islamic state in parts of
Southeast Asia and is allegedly connected to al-Qaeda.
The United States' recent assertive leadership
in the Asia-Pacific region encouraged Singapore to be
more active in fighting terrorism and in aligning itself
closely with the US in fighting global terrorism.
As well as Singapore, the Philippines and
Malaysia have also taken action to crack down on
terrorism, but Indonesia has made no arrests in
connection with the alleged network. Malaysia, on the
other hand, came down hard on Muslim militants from the
start, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sensing the
threat to his rule and the stability of his country. He
ordered the rounding up and jailing of suspected
Mahathir has played his cards like
the veteran he is. Megawati leads some 210 million
people, Mahathir a mere 23 million. But Malaysia's
leader for 21 years saw his country dubbed a "beacon of
stability" in Southeast Asia after its detention of
dozens of militants, some suspected of links to a
regional network allied to al-Qaeda.
unlike Mahathir, walks a thin tightrope, and has been
unable to juggle and balance the needs of her country,
in terms of a secure and safe environment for
investment, and the excruciatingly subtle threats posed
to Indonesia's vast majority of peace-loving Muslims by
the radicalized few.
Since September 11, 2001,
there has been much concern in Indonesia, not only in
the media but by governments themselves, that Islamic
fundamentalism, still slow to surface in Indonesia, is
confused with all Islamic movements, political and
social, non-violent and violent.
Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz this week drew the
short straw and was forced to concede that a "dangerous
gap" had now opened between the West and the Islamic
world, one that was now putting at risk the war on
terrorism. He said the movement of Muslim nations such
as Afghanistan, Turkey and Indonesia to incorporate
ideals of democracy and freedom would help the United
States win "the larger war of ideas".
have before us today is less a clash of civilizations,
as some have theorized, than a collision of
misunderstanding between the Muslim and Western world,"
Muslim grievances vary in level of
severity but prime among these are the effects of the US
sanctions on Iraq, and their impact on more than a
half-million Iraqi children, the blind US sponsorship of
Israeli occupation of, and attacks on, Palestine, and
the presence of US troops on the holy soil of Saudi
Indonesian Muslim grievances tend more
toward a brotherly despair at the pain caused to Muslims
wherever they may be. And now here is George W Bush, who
says the single most important thing is to put an end to
terrorism, about to wage a war on US public enemy No 1,
Saddam Hussein and his people, to bring about a "regime
change", which if it goes ahead will cause widespread
death and injuries to innocent Muslim men, women and
Well, there was no regime change in
Indonesia. Megawati did not succumb to the potent forces
of militant Muslim elements, ultra-nationalists and
anti-US forces seeking to topple her. Indonesia has not
been taken over by militant fundamentalists.
Wolfowitz said this week, "In Indonesia and Malaysia you
have majority Muslim populations, and you have the
challenge of distinguishing between genuine extremists
and people who just oppose the administration. I feel
some real progress has been made. The fact [the country
is] functioning as well as it is is a tribute to the
common sense of the Indonesian people."
May 1998, when 32 years of benign dictatorship came to
an end, Indonesians dreamed of a true leader surfacing,
one who would stand on the front line and lead them out
of recession, give them back a belief in the sanctity of
their country's law and encourage the return of the
multi-ethnic, multi-religious state that Megawati's
father, Sukarno, gave them in 1945 when the independent
Republic of Indonesia was founded.
mosaic of cultural factors, combined with a real fear of
the potency of Islamic fundamentalism, help explain why
the president, her government and the police steadily
lose ground against the Islamist radicals and have never
taken seriously the charges that part of any al-Qaeda
network operated on their sovereign territory.
Balancing the need for security on the one hand
and the high expectations of democracy on the other
means, as Defense Minister Abjul Matori has said, makes
combating terrorism only one priority, at a time when
maintaining territorial integrity, recovering the
economy and resolving communal-ethnic and religious
conflicts have to be given a higher priority on the
The minister cited many
examples of what Indonesia has done to combat terrorism
and said the country signed an agreement with Australia
on fighting terrorism and developed concrete ways to
work with Malaysia and the Philippines in the
anti-terrorism effort beyond traditional
intelligence-sharing. He believes regional and
international cooperation should include law enforcement
and efforts to freeze terrorists' financial sources and
to track down their weapons, arms supplies and networks.
Megawati leads a coalition government that has a
number of conservative Muslim politicians and parties
who would see any crackdown on hardline Muslim groups as
proof that she was siding with the West against Islam.
This is no small point given the
quasi-religious-political resistance to her presidential
bid in 1999, when despite winning a majority she was
maneuvered aside for Abdurrahman Wahid to step in.
Extremist groups that are no strangers to
violence, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)
and Laskar Jihad, the group that kicked off a bloody
jihad against Christians in the Eastern Spice Islands
(Maluku) three years ago, are at the forefront of
aggressive protests and demonstrations against any issue
they see as offending Islam or Muslims in any way.
This may well be all theory and rhetoric and
certainly none of those so ready to take to the streets
have had the torment and grief of knowing their loved
ones had been smashed to smithereens by aircraft
impacting on buildings, jumping from skyscrapers to
instant death, or taken from them in so many other awful
ways that were revealed after September 11, 2001.
The threats may be often be hollow but there can
be little doubting the fear and intimidation felt by
those close to the protests. Jafar Umar Thalib, leader
of the Laskar Jihad, and Al Habib Muhammad Riziq Syihab,
boss of the FPI, appear to command great loyalty from
their storm troopers.
Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's 40-million-strong moderate
Muslim organization, points out: "I don't think Jafar or
Riziq are a threat to Americans but they are threat to
the Indonesian people by raising the doctrine of jihad,
of armed struggle against people."
patently still in a minority, without steadfast and
resolute handling of the anti-US manifestations, these
radicals have great potential to cause chaos, even more
so if backed by wealthy political opportunists and
ambitious generals intent on destabilizing Megawati's
The wisdom of letting noisy protests
run their course has a lot to commend it, but paranoia
and false accusations trumpeted in public create a
dangerous climate of fear and anger, ripe for those
intent on creating chaos.
Although the hardline
Islamic groups have the podium for the time being, they
do not enjoy widespread public support. The average
Indonesian Muslim, judging by mass-media coverage of the
issue, does not see the issue as demanding his or her
attention. For the time being those calling for violence
and aggression in Indonesia are preaching in a
Jihads have rarely been spoken of in
Indonesia until the past few years, and the danger now
is that the extremist interpretations from radicals will
strike a chord with the dispossessed, the disfranchised
and the disenchanted masses. The obvious manipulation of
views based on culture and political expedience, using a
religious viewpoint as an afterthought to lend greater
credence to their actions, may not be too obvious to
many adherents of the Indonesian version of Islam.
The Osama bin Laden strategy of justifying
aggression through a religious angle is mirrored in
Indonesia. Why else would FPI leader Muhammad Riziq
threaten, "If the US carries out its threat in the form
of military aggression against any Muslim states, then
the FPI will perceive it as an act of terrorism."
This is the crux of the extremists' message and
its Taliban-style spin drives home a message that
somehow Islam is a religion that sees everything in
terms of a struggle, not against one's self, but against
a perceived threat.
A year after Osama bin Laden
took on civilization as we know it, Indonesians are even
further out of the loop on issues that are more and more
critical to their future as a nation.
Muslims need their government to address the fears and
worries of those who need convincing that the clash of
cultures is between the civilized world and global
terrorism and not, as the Muslim radicals everywhere
say, between Islam and the West.
Hamzah Haz was to open an international seminar in
Jakarta this Wednesday, September 11. Titled "Islam and
the West One Year after 11 September 2001: Obstacles and
Solutions in Search of a New World Civilization", the
event is aimed at identifying problems and finding
solutions to build a better understanding between the
Western and Muslim worlds.
This is timely indeed
in the world's most populous Islamic country where
minority militants regularly claim the moral high ground
as the president, her ministers and leading politicians
have so far failed dismally to engage their fellow
citizens over the issues of Indonesian relationships
with a changing West.
But with Bush, who for a
long time did his best to convince a billion Muslims
that "we don't view this as a war of religion in any
way, shape or form" apparently set on engaging with
Iraq, there is precious little cause for optimism in
Indonesia this September.
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