by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
October 2, 2001
IN JAKARTA, THE SMALL TALK IS OF JIHAD
JAKARTA, Oct. 2, 2001 -- It was a warm evening in Jakarta last Monday and I cooled myself down in a cozy garden restaurant, a place where Indonesian journalists, artists, and sometimes its fiery student leaders, spend many of their evenings.
I took a chair and joined a table where four men in t= heir 20s and 30s were discussing the September 11 attack in the United States. Indeed, it was the hottest topic in town since Indonesian activists toppled President Suharto with a dramatic occupation of the parliament building in May 1998.
People now can read newspaper headlines on anything related to the attack or the speculated American counter-attack against Afghanistan, which reportedly harbors Osama bin Laden, who allegedlly masterminded the attacks.
From taxi drivers to tukang bakso (meatball sellers), from activists to intellectuals, from generals to ministers, they like to talk about the issues on the streets, in a warung (food stall) and on television talk shows. Most of the talk, both on the streets and on television, is based on rumors or analysis and is nothing but pure nonsense. Examples: Israel's spy agency, the Mossad must be behind the attack; no Arabian names were on the hijacked airliners; no Jews were working in the buildings during the attack; yet, the rumors also say, it was an attack against Jewish supremacy.
In Jakarta's Muslim circles, the four young men I saw are known as liberal Muslim thinkers associated closely with an Internet-based network from which they publish weekly syndicated columns about Islam in 40-something newspapers throughout Indonesia.
They welcomed me to join their chat.
"Isn't it immoral to describe the whole failure of American foreign policy when the American people are mourning?" Ulil Ashar-Abdalla asked his colleagues around the table.
"I am really disturbed if I'm asked to express the problems that the U.S. had created in many countries when they were just brutally attacked. Is it polite? How would you react if some Acehnese bombed Jakarta's shopping mall and people said, 'Look at what you have done, your injustices in Aceh," said Ulil, who heads a think tank closely associated with the Nahdlatul Ulama, whose 30 million members make it Indonesia's largest Muslim group.
His colleague, Luthfi Assyaukanie, a lecturer at Paramadina University in Jakarta, argued that the social context and the psychology of the very many people in Islamic countries who suffer because of American foreign policy, however, should also be understood.
Assyaukanie added it is inappropriate as well to see several Muslim groups in Indonesia issued an anti-American threat or even a jihad order. "This is a difficult position. Unfortunately, not many groups come out with a clear statement," he said, adding that he had already put a statement on their Website, airing their concern over the attacks.
Our chat was just small talk, but it represents the difficult questions that face many Muslim activists in this, the world's largest Muslim country, over the attack on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.
The Indonesian Muslim Council had issued a fatwa, saying that they condemned the terror but will not tolerate an attack against Afghanistan. Other Muslim organizations like Ulil's Nahdlatul Ulama as well as the 25-million strong Muhammadiyah issued similar statements.
Din Syamsuddin of the Council referred to Harvard University's Samuel Huntington's 1998 book, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," that predicts the next conflict after the end of the communist world in 1989 will be between Western civilization and the civilization of the Muslim world and the Confucian countries.
Political commentator Dewi Fortuna Anwar of the Habibie Center was intervewed by the Jakarta Post and said, "The attack should give the U.S. a reason to reflect on why such attacks have been perpetrated, which may lead to recognition that maybe some U.S. policies have resulted in a lot of enemies for the U.S., not because people are jealous of U.S. power but because many feel the U.S. has been unfair."
Anwar went farther by saying that the World Trade Center was "the symbol of the American financial market. It is also the symbol of Jewish financial influence in the U.S."
American Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbart immediately wrote to the newspaper, saying that many comments published by the Post could create "an atmosphere of misunderstanding and hatred, rather than one of compassion and healing."
Gelbart added, "Even more disturbing were the anti-Semitic and misinformed comments of Dewi Fortuna Anwar. Her comments suggest that the terrible acts against Americans and even acts of terrorism within Indonesia may be justified."
On the Internet, I read at least three seriously damaging e-mails. One was written by Brazilian student Marcio A. V. de Carvalho, who said that an image aired by CNN showing Palestinians celebrating the attack out on the street was "shot back in 1991" during the Gulf War.
De Carvalho said his teacher has videotapes with the same image recorded in 1991. "This kind of broadcast has very high possibility of causing waves of anger and rage against Palestinians. It's simply irresponsible to show images such as those," he wrote.
Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, replied a few days later that a Reuters TV camera crew shot the videotape in question in East Jerusalem on September 11 and said Reuters TV can provide confirmation. A statement from the university where de Carvalho studies, Universidad Estatal de Campinas-Brasil, denied that the student was referring to its lecturer. The teacher comes from another college and the allegation turned out to be false.
Unfortunately, Kompas, Indonesia's largest newspaper, used De Carvalho's information without checking and without mentioning the source. Its senior reporter, Budiarto Shambazy, wrote a half-page article about the possibility of World War III and mentioning CNN's "biased coverage" in airing that particular footage. Shambazy did not mention the e-mail. Kompas only published a correction a week after the story was published.
But many mailing lists and some Indonesian newspapers including Kompas have already amplified the first damage.
The second e-mail originated from the Beirut-based Al Manar television. It said in "an investigation" story that 4,000 Israeli employees in the World Trade Center were absent on the day of the attack. It is still a question whether one could even count employees based on their ethnic backgrounds in public companies like those operating in the World Trade Center.
The third originated from the London-based Guardian daily, which published a "partial list" of the passengers of the four airliners. I received a similar list originating from The New York Times that quoted The Associated Press -- again, a "partial list."
But in the comments that were made by the sender above the list, Indonesian users questioned why no Arab names were mentioned on it. They believed that reports that several Arabic-looking men had allegedlly hijacked the planes and slammed them into the buildings was "only FBI fabrication," just as the U.S. law enforcement agency alleged, they said, in the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.
I received several copies of these three e-mails. On some tv talk shows, on the radio and on the streets, Jakarta media amplified these rumors. It did not surprise me that many Indonesian journalists failed to verify their information.
If even a senior reporter like Shambazy didn't check, why should anyone expect less experienced reporters to meet such standards? Even as some people began to realize the reports were erroneous, hundreds and sometimes thousands of others started to organize anti-American protests in Jakarta and other big cities in Indonesia; some also burned American flags outside the U.S. Embassy and consulates' gates.
Ambassador Gelbart, who has not been shy himself over the last three years about making strong statements concerning Indonesia's fledging democracy, went to Indonesia's police headquarters to ask the police to protect American citizens and companies operating in Indonesia.
But emotions were already running high. Some political figures joined the vilification of the United States. Vice President Hamzah Haz suggested that the terror attacks could help America "cleanse its sins." Former president Abdurrahman Wahid said America itself is a "terrorist nation."
Others went farther by registering volunteers to conduct jihadin Afghanistan. Those groups represent a small minority in this country of 210 million, where the practice of Islam is largely tolerant and moderate. But they have made their presence felt in recent years with their alleged involvement in bombings, vandalism and threats.
Those protests and the typically slow reactions of the local police had prompted the U.S. State Department to authorize the departure of all American government personnel in non-emergency positions and their family members from Indonesia. All American citizens in Indonesia were also urged to consider their personal security and to take those measures they deem appropriate to ensure their well-being, including consideration of leaving Indonesia.
Back at the table where Ulil, Luthfi and the two other guys were talking, I reminded then that it is very likely that some Arab-Americans were killed or wounded in the blasts. Many New Yorkers are of Arab descent. Also, I suggested, remember the Vietnam War. If it is a matter of religion, many non-Muslim countries in the world, which include Vietnam as well as Catholic countries such as those in Latin America and the Philippines, do not benefit from American foreign policy.
Ulil thought for a while and said they should make a statement, or even organize a big conference to remind the Muslim activists that it is not a crusade-vs.-jihad condition. It is about terror, and it is happening almost weekly in Jakarta, where bombings over the last two years have taken place nearly 1.5 times per week on average. The others reminded him how small their group is, while the giant organizations have already aired their statements.
They were still deeply involved in the discussion late at night when I left for home. Jakarta weather is warm, but I know it is burning deep inside.
Veteran AR Correspondent Andreas Harsono has covered the regionfor us since 1995. His work was honored with a Neiman International Fellowship in 1999.