MADRAS, India — The bomb explosions that killed more than 180 people in Bali last Saturday night affirmed what Indonesia has long denied — that terrorists are active in the country. For many months now, Indonesia’s neighbors and Washington have urged Jakarata to get tough with extremists, particularly Abu Bakar Bashir, a Muslim cleric whose organization, Jemaah Islamiyah, wants to create an Islamic state. This group is said to have clear links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, one of whose members was arrested weeks ago in Indonesia.
The vast archipelago is one of a very few nations in which people practice an enlightened and moderate form of Islam. Admittedly, in the past few years there has been separatist violence, but foreigners have rarely been targeted.
Bali is a center of Hindu culture. The city has been named after a monkey god who appears as a character in the Indian Hindu epic of “Ramayana.” Until the latest blasts, Bali’s ties with the Muslim population have been almost cordial. In any case, such warmth has not been difficult to nurture and sustain.
Indonesia’s Islamic population has been very different from what we’ve see elsewhere. The country has the largest single concentration of Muslims in the world: 184 million, or 87 percent of Indonesia’s population. And they have been extremely tolerant and moderate, a fact vouched for by scholars. Most Islamic political parties endorse the nation’s “neutral philosophy of Pancasila,” and have consistently turned down pleas by a few to try to convert Indonesia into a Muslim state.
There has always been a small band of Islamic extremists perpetrating murder and mayhem, but incidents have usually affected society’s outer fringes. Such activities date back to 1948, when the Darul Islam Movement rebelled against the republic and established a Muslim state. During the next 14 years, about 40,000 people perished and a million were driven away from their homes. But in 1962, this jihad, or holy war, was crushed by the military, and the leader of the movement, Kartosuwiryo, was hanged.
From 1966 to 1968, Suharto’s regime tried to suppress hardline Islamic groups amid reports that the nation’s intelligence agencies sought to manipulate Darul Islam elements to lay the blame on them for subversive acts.
After Suharto stepped down in 1998, Muslim groups emerged with greater strength. Their role was largely to protect their own religious community vis-a-vis Hindus and Christians, and none of them, except one, could be labeled militant or extremist. That was Jemaah Islamiyah, whose head, Bashir, had clear links with Darul Islam.
It is not yet clear whether Jemaah Islamiyah or Darul Islam was responsible for the Bali tragedy, but there is little doubt that terrorists have opened a new front in Indonesia. The choice of Bali was to create the maximum international outrage and attention; if many Australians died, the connection would be apparent. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has been a staunch supporter of U.S. President George W. Bush’s war against terrorism, and had even sent soldiers to Afghanistan to fight along with the American forces.
What further strengthens this argument is that the Indonesian political and social atmosphere has, for some time, included the right ingredients to fuel radical Islam. The 1997 economic crisis, which led to millions losing their jobs, and the fall of Suharto the following year enabled hawkish Muslims to gain the sympathy of poor, unemployed young men. They became willing tools in the hands of ruthless leaders, whose goals were often inimical to the nation’s welfare and prosperity.
When the United States began bombing Afghanistan, many Indonesians saw this as an attack on Islam because most causalities on the ground were Muslims. Impoverished men saw the radical elements as a passport not only to the acquisition of authority and weapons but also to financial support.
One international think tank warned last year: “Involvement in questionable organizations may become more widespread if grievances against the American strikes combine with the perceived benefits of joining . . . and coercion on the part of the organizations.”
A larger issue is Washington’s role on the world stage. Nobody denies that what happened in New York was horrific. But Bush’s continuous bombing of Afghanistan and his war cries against Iraq have the potential to convert even friends into foes.
It remains to be seen how the largely moderate and peace-loving Islamic majority in Indonesia will look at the American battle to flush out terror. Will Muslims remain mute spectators to the bloodshed and gore in their midst? Or, will they fight against it?
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