The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Responses to Indonesian bombing mature Duncan Graham

‘Where, after all, is the Muslim outrage at these events, as their ancient, deeply civilized culture of love, art and philosophical reflection is hijacked by paranoiacs, racists, liars, male supremacists, tyrants, fanatics and violence junkies? Why are they not screaming?’

That outburst came from British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. It followed the 2001 World Trade Centre destruction and the 2002 Bali bombing which destroyed the lives of 202 people, including 88 Australians.
His words were appropriate then, but not in 2009 with the Jakarta hotel bombs which killed nine. That’s because the genuine fury and concern that followed the latest blasts came from within Indonesia and across the religious landscape.
The conservative Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah did not qualify its anger. The Indonesian media even reported that cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged spiritual leader of the fundamentalist group Jemaah Islamiyah, disapproved of the bombings.
Past reaction tended to follow the ‘wayward lad’ excuse: ‘Well of course this is wrong and shouldn’t happen, but we can understand their anger and after all they are Brother Muslims …’
In 2002 the president was Megawati Soekarnoputri. She took a floppy position fearing firmness might alienate Muslim support. She also rejected US requests to interdict Bashir.
Her vice president Hamzah Haz refused to accept that radical Islam was linked to terrorism until the evidence became overwhelming. At the time Indonesia wanted no part in George Bush’s ‘war on terror’; many believed the JI was a phantom invoked by the CIA, which was why the organization was never proscribed.
But this time president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) pulled no punches, vowing to pursue and prosecute.
Sure, it’s good hairy-chested stuff, but the Indonesian security forces haven’t found the JI hardliner and master bomb-maker Noordin Mohammed Top who was probably behind the Bali and Jakarta bombings. This despite his photo being widely posted in public buildings around the country for the past five years.
He and other fundamentalists yearning for an Islamic republic may not be getting support from the public outside the extremist pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), but plenty have been prepared to turn a blind eye to their activities.
Indonesia is a country with few secrets. There’s an extensive community watch system introduced during the Japanese occupation, and which reaches right into the smallest street. Coupled with people’s natural nosiness means that no one escapes the neighbours’ scrutiny.
Unfortunately there’s little trust in the police, so unusual comings and goings may arouse comment, but are unlikely to get formally reported. Although reform continues since the police force was split from the military after Soeharto lost power, the public still believes the men in khaki are corrupt and untrustworthy, more interested in pocketing traffic fines than investigating crime.
Western culture has long included a respectable print and screen tradition of clever cops solving complex crimes. It is totally absent in Indonesia.
SBY’s instant and unequivocal response does indicate a welcome rejection of past equivocation. That included tolerating outlandish theories to brush away the idea of homegrown Islamic terrorism.
The looniest explanation had a micro nuclear weapon being fired by a US warship into the Bali nightclubs in 2002 to provoke hatred against Muslims.
The world has moved on. A new man with links to Islam and Indonesia is in the White House. The US is pulling out of Iraq. There are still plenty of reasons for disliking Western imperialism, but the easiest excuses have gone.
The JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta has been marketing itself as a safe venue following the 2003 bombing and a major upgrade in security. It has just been tested and failed dreadfully.
Security in Indonesia has always been porous and reports that this year’s bombers got into the hotel despite triggering screening alarms sounds right.
Like most Westerners I can rattle off a list of examples at many venues where security guards (known as satpam) have gone off duty leaving doors open, guards being posted on one entrance but not another, and bored officials waving through people in a hurry without making baggage checks.
Security gets tightened after every bombing so expect to see heavily armed soldiers in the streets. These will vanish as time passes, creating the opportunities for anyone with evil intent. They just need to bide their time.
Satpam are badly paid – few get more than AUD 100 a month – and many are understandably open to bribes. Some embassies reportedly replace their guards after six months in the belief that by then they’re likely to have been corrupted.
Satpam are also employed in the suburbs, closing streets between 11pm and 5 am, but if your house gets burgled, they’re the first people under suspicion.
Travel warnings may help the Australian government avoid litigation should wounded travelers who don’t read, watch or listen to the news claim they should have been told of the risks. However the alerts tend to do more harm than good. They certainly damage neighbourly relations.
Academics, students, businesspeople and others genuinely interested in Indonesia will be denied the opportunity to visit by nervous bosses and restrictive insurance polices.
Bad things and evil people exist everywhere; wise travelers will not go to the obvious targets like the up-market hotels (where you’ll never experience the real Indonesia) and maintain a low profile.
Most Indonesians are tolerant pluralists, genuinely friendly, proud of their country, and keen to meet and help visitors. Proportionally there are probably no more fanatics in Indonesia than Australia and the chance of meeting one ready to do serious harm is rare – there and here.

(First published in On Line Opinion 20 July; a similar version was also published on Scoop (NZ) the same day.)