by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
October 16, 2002
Indonesian Terror Comes Of Age
JAKARTA, Oct. 15, 2002 -- In Jakarta on Monday everybody talked about the Bali bombing, from nice-looking television anchors in their studios to street vendors in the crowded streets of Jakarta. But what surprised me was that many of them subscribed to the conspiracy theory that the bombing was done by "American agents."
A Muslim preacher said on the radio, "We don't have such a powerful bomb. Why no Americans among the victims? Remember the 4,000 Jews who were absent when the World Trade Centers were attacked? The U.S. embassy on Friday asked American citizens not to visit nightclubs and bars in Indonesia. It was obviously a warning that CIA agents were going to hit Bali."
Others said it was a "great design" to break Indonesia apart and to pit the majority Muslims against the minority non-Muslims. The word "rekayasa," which in Bahasa Indonesia literally means "engineering," is widely used in those comments, on the streets and on the air.
Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, but Bali is a predominantly Hindu enclave. Although many parts of Indonesia were wrecked by ethnic and religious violence since the fall of Suharto in May 1998, Bali remained untroubled and a major tourist attraction.
Others frown when al-Qaida 's name is mentioned as a potential suspect. "Blaming al-Qaida is like blaming Islam," said one journalist. Maybe she is right; it is too early to conclude who the bomber is, and the bombing is still too emotional to many Indonesians to admit that an Islamic group might organize such a brutal and inhumane act.
But isn't it fair to suspect that an underground Muslim group, namely Jemaah Islamiyah, with its spiritual leader Abubakar Ba'asyir, might exist and be involved in terrorist activities?
Here are some facts. Fathur Rohman al Ghozi, a Ba'asyir student, was arrested in Manila in January with one ton of TNT. His code name was "Mike the Bomber," and his expertise is producing bombs. Agus Dwikarna, another Indonesian Muslim activist, with whom Ba'asyir works with in the shariah (Islamic law) campaign, was arrested in March with two C-4 bombs, also in Manila.
Taufik Abdul Halim, a Malaysian citizen close to Ba'asyir's colleague Hambali, who is still on the run, was arrested in August last year for planning to bomb a busload of Christians in Jakarta. And that's not to mention dozens of Singaporean and Malaysian nationals arrested by their governments for their alleged role in the Jemaah Islamiyah campaign. Most of them are connected to Ba'asyir.
Much of the Indonesian media do not link those arrests to Ba'asyir, nor to the Bali bombing. For them, the CIA is a more interesting subject. Responding to the carnage, American ambassador Ralph L. Boyce said only, "It was completely outrageous." He said American intelligence had been warning Indonesia since last December that al-Qaida terrorists, driven out of Afghanistan, would spread out across Southeast Asia. The U.S. embassy was also closed in September and the travel warning was issued last week exactly because of the warning.
[According to Tuesday's New York Times Website, American officials were urging Indonesians to move against an imminent terror attack, and Indonesians had been studying redacted intelligence data for two days when the bombing occurred.]
There are some reasons for this public self-denial. Suharto's fall drove Indonesia to enter a complex and difficult period of democratization. Law enforcement officials lost their credibility. Rebellions broke out in several provinces. Instability appeared at many levels of government. New media appeared in the streets.
Many radical Islamic groups freely propagate their views and sow hatred against minority Christians and Westerners. Other groups have set up militias and used violence to achieve their goals, i.e., closing down nightclubs. Many new books are also published to reveal the involvement of American agents in Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s as oart of the bloody covert campaigns to oust the nationalist President Sukarno.
It is easy now to relate the Cold War experience to the current "clash of civilizations." Muslim preachers like Ba'asyir like to cite Harvard University Prof. Samuel Huntington's theory of the post-Cold War conflict between Western civilization and Islam.
Both left-leaning and right-wing activists are also well aware of the injustices that the U.S. government has done in many Third World countries on many issues, ranging from the Middle East to the Kyoto protocol. There is also a crisis of leadership. President Megawati Sukarnoputri is seen to be a passive leader.
Ironically, many other Indonesian leaders have aired odd statements. Vice President Hamzah Haz made headlines in May saying, "There are no terrorists in Indonesia. If they [terrorists] exist, don't arrest any Muslim clerics, arrest me."
Now the trend is more complicated and the self-denial is growing. People believe what they want to believe, just as Walter Lippmann argued in his 1923 book, "Public Opinion," about the power of the "pictures in our heads."
People believe what they want to believe, and the pictures in our heads can be more powerful than reality itself, even when that reality is staring us in the face.
This whole situation makes me feel so terribly sad. People who alleged that the bombing was done by al-Qaida, like Defense Minister Matori Abdul Jalil, himself a Muslim leader, risk losing their popularity.
Maybe it is true that it is easier to be in the community that stands against an overwhelming power like Suharto than to stand alone against the community consensus. Whether Indonesia's fledgling democracy can survive this period of darkness is still a question mark. Whether Indonesia's newly-freed media can help put a vision and end this period of self-denial also is in question.
Andreas Harsono is the managing editor of the Jakarta-based Pantau monthly magazine on media and journalism, and a 1999-2000 Nieman International Fellow.