"Jihad jive" in Jakarta -- or the real thing?

As Islamic militants protest the American attacks, Indonesia's new president must decide how hard to crack down on the latest threat to her complex, fragile, far-flung nation.

Published October 13, 2001 7:11PM (EDT)

On Sunday, as the United States began raining bombs and missiles on Afghanistan, the Indonesian military put on a show of its own: A column of 40 armored personnel carriers massed around the U.S. embassy, then fanned out strategically toward the city's nearby soccer stadium.

Early in the week of bombing, Muslim militants had staged loud, sometimes violent protests in front of the razor wire-fortified American diplomatic compound, while government snipers looked on from nearby.

But Friday, after radical Islamic groups called for massive street protests, fewer than 1,000 demonstrators showed at the U.S. Embassy. Small protests were also held in several other cities.

The anti-American protests and threats that have wracked the world's largest Muslim nation in recent weeks pose a significant challenge to the young, untested presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri -- a presidency already buffeted by a debt-strangled economy and violent sectarian strife. After securing $540 million in aid and loan guarantees, Megawati, the first foreign head of state to meet with President Bush since last month's terror attacks, offered her support to Washington's fight against terrorism. As the U.S. seeks to bring together Muslim support for its campaign, Indonesia -- 90 percent of whose 213 million people consider themselves followers of Islam -- is an essential ally.

But this relationship, barely 10 weeks into Megawati's presidency, puts her in a very delicate, perhaps dangerous, position. Megawati, like the heads of several other Islamic states, finds herself caught between the need to preserve good relations with the U.S. -- which is also Indonesia's largest trading partner -- and the equally urgent need to avoid enraging her people, many of whom are angry that the United States attacked a Muslim nation.

It is impossible to predict how a sustained American attack on Afghanistan will affect Indonesia. But one local analyst, Mochtar Buchori, a professor of political development at Mohammadiyah-Hamka University in Jakarta, says that in the coming weeks, Megawati must assert control over the situation or be ousted. "If she doesn't do anything," he said, "within a month she will be toppled. What we will or will not do for this problem will determine the future of our nation."

Mochtar believes that Megawati has no choice but to use a firm hand against the militants. Social disruptions strong enough to drive out Americans and disrupt Indonesia's commercial ties with the U.S. would be catastrophic for the archipelago's economy. "If no tourists come to Indonesia and there is capital flight, what will happen?" he asked. "The economy will collapse. The protesters will push further -- and what is needed is the voice of rational Islam."

In an ominous sign, tourist officials on the world-famous island of Bali have reported that 6,000 people have canceled visits there. (This despite the fact that the Balinese are not Muslims. They practice an animist-tinged form of Hinduism.)

Mochtar says the military hasn't moved against the militants because of internal divisions within it. One faction is reluctant to clamp down; another wants to use force.

Megawati has so far opted for restraint. But last Friday, during the 56th anniversary commemoration of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), she warned of "ideological fanaticism" harbored by religious groups "at the expense of the law."

"Our unity as a nation is threatened with disintegration by violence and this ideological fanaticism -- our energy has been exhausted on handling these problems, instead of tackling other, pressing issues," she said.

"Disintegration by violence" referred to the separatist insurrections, currently being opposed by the TNI, on the islands of Aceh and Iriyan Jaya. That fighting has no direct connection with the religious rage directed at America. But the "ideological fanaticism" of the radical Islamic groups poses an equally dangerous challenge.

The seriousness, and numbers, of these extremist groups is hard to gauge, although their members clearly number in the thousands. The total number of active groups is equally elusive. They range from the benign, like the United Action of Indonesian Muslim Students, to the hardcore, like the Indonesian Committee for Solidarity of the Islamic World, to more mysterious, combative ones like Darul Islam, and Hizbullah Front.

Though viewed as fairly harmless fringe elements by most Indonesians, some do have a troubling reputation -- perhaps most notably Laskar Jihad, or the Islamic Defenders' Front. This group is known to have trained fighters to attack Christians in the Moluccan Islands, where 9,000 Christians and Muslims have perished in sectarian violence since 1999. News reports have tied Laskar Jihad to Osama bin Laden, although members have denied this.

To calm jittery foreigners and bolster a collapsing rupiah, the government has announced new restrictions against anti-U.S. protests, and is vowing to turn back would-be fighters attempting to join Afghanistan's ruling Taliban in a jihad against American forces there.

Any Indonesians who fight a war in a foreign country will be stripped of their citizenship, said Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a recent press conference. The burning of foreign flags, or effigies of heads of state, he added, has likewise been banned.

Indonesian radicals have taken part in international jihads before. In the 1980s, many joined the faithful from across the Muslim world to fight against the USSR in Afghanistan. More recently, Indonesian militants participated in the Bosnian war of 1992-1995.

During the iron-fisted Suharto era that preceded Megawati's ascension, religious activism was a constant concern. Intelligence agents trained by the Israeli Mossad kept track of those who fought in such conflicts. These days, though, there is greater political freedom, and internal control has lapsed. Despite the heavy police and military presence, there have been no serious casualties. During Suharto's time, if such protests took place at all, they would likely have been crushed mercilessly.

Incendiary words in the media have stoked anti-U.S. feelings. One popular newspaper, Rakyat Merdeka, for instance, recently ran a feature called "Friends of Osama bin Laden in Indonesia," which praised militant groups threatening Americans.

Top religious leaders, on the other hand, have opposed the threats. A statement signed by 24 of Indonesia's most important religious leaders called on public figures "not to use the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy to create a situation where it appears that there is confrontation between the particular religions."

And Tempo, a more mainstream newspaper, ran a glibly titled story, "Jihad Jive," containing interviews with several militant groups. It dismissed the militants' talk as "empty threats" containing "little substance."

Anti-U.S. demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy started weeks before Washington launched its attacks Sunday. Threats of violence against American citizens and diplomats rattled many here, prompting a number of foreign tourists and expats -- and not just Americans -- to leave. The threats -- including ones directed against British and other foreign nationals -- grew louder after the bombing began.

The threats to foreigners have little, if any, precedent in Indonesia. And so far, no foreign national has been attacked or kidnapped, although there was one reported incident in which Muslim militants entered a resort hotel 280 miles east of the capital, searching for Americans. (They left empty-handed.)

Nevertheless, many foreigners are taking no chances. They've purchased open-ended tickets to nearby Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok and packed their bags, ready to leave at the first sign of trouble -- or quit the country altogether, often on the advice of the companies that employ them.

About 5,000 police, meanwhile, are on standby for possible evacuation of American citizens. Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard, who has personally received death threats, has criticized Indonesian authorities for allowing Islamic zeal to fester.

In the wake of the American and British attack, some radical groups have demanded that Jakarta sever ties with the U.S., and others urged a boycott of all American products.

On Wednesday, students placed mock barricades around a McDonald's outside Jakarta; not far away, an equally lively scene unfolded as others staged a play about starving Afghans, as they sat outside a Pizza Hut begging patrons for leftovers. New demonstrations, potentially more violent, are planned.

Ground zero for protest is the U.S. Embassy. Outside the building, which has been closed all week, a phalanx of armed, baton-wielding security personnel, wearing bulletproof vests and black helmets that give them a passing resemblance to the storm troopers from "Star Wars," has clashed daily with the protesters, who include groups of students, the unemployed and workers, all incensed and energized by the attacks on fellow Muslims in Afghanistan.

They chant, shout and make fiery speeches about religious solidarity in the face of U.S. military imperialism; confrontations are common. At such times, the demonstrators -- most wearing colorful robes, headbands and Osama bin Laden T-shirts; some with signs bearing an array of anti-U.S. and anti-Bush slogans and others with Palestinian flags -- pick up wire cutters, gather their nerves and march up against the formidable-looking soldiers in a rough, rugby-style scrum in a bid to surge over the embassy walls.

They have yet to succeed. Sometimes, a water cannon opens up; its overpowering force, followed by stinging clouds of tear gas, is enough to send the demonstrators running for cover. Other times, security personnel fire live rounds over the protesters' heads, causing an equally hasty retreat.

Most often, however, blows from police truncheons are sufficient to scatter them across the street toward a shady, grassy knoll filled with onlookers -- less courageous, or possibly smarter, militants and curious eyewitnesses alike.

In recent days, many of the police and soldiers, with little to do besides chat with reporters and each other, squatted impassively, surveying the scene, staring vaguely in the direction of the protesters -- coming to their feet only occasionally when a Muslim group, usually led by someone holding a bullhorn, struts proudly past.

During Tuesday's rally, however, there was one thing that did catch the uniformed men's attention. It had nothing to do with the protesters, their taunts or their jeers: It was a small minivan filled with young nurses on their way to work at a local hospital.

Rising to their feet one by one -- resembling the "wave" American sports fans make during games -- the soldiers smiled and cheered the women as they, in turn, waved, smiled and blew kisses their way. Quietly, and surely enviously, the conservative male protesters looked on with impassive stares.

The incident, in many ways, typifies Indonesia's people, who are easily among the friendliest in all Asia. Despite dire predictions from the U.S. media and the State Department, many people in this vast archipelago nation are decidedly liberal, relaxed and pro-Western -- which makes the recent anti-American sentiment here all the more peculiar.

Another reason to doubt that militant Islamic groups will succeed in stirring up deep outrage is the relatively laid-back nature of religious life in Indonesia. Calls to prayer from Jakarta's mosques carry far less urgency than they do in much of the rest of the Muslim world, where traffic, and much else, frequently screeches to a halt in recognition of the repeated intonation of "Allahu Akhbar." ("God is great.")

Culturally, too, Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia are far from hidebound. Nightclubs where alcohol flows freely pulsate throughout the city until the early morning hours. And attitudes toward premarital relationships and sex have far more in common with the rest of Asia than with other, more conservative, Muslim societies in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Still, Islamic passions play a significant role in the nation's politics. As he plowed slowly through teeming central Jakarta the other day, Fatah Surya, a taxi driver since 1997, opined that the students are not so much opposed to the attacks against Afghanistan, as they are to Megawati herself. The protesters, he said, think that Megawati is too secular.

Megawati's uneasy relationship with the U.S. is not the first such relationship in Indonesian history. Her father, Sukarno, was the first leader of post-independence Indonesia. In 1966, just over two decades after it began, Sukarno's reign ended in a coup d'état some say was covertly engineered by Washington, owing to his ties with the Soviet Union. In the bloody anti-communist purges that followed in this former Dutch colony, as many as a million people may have died.

Suharto, Sukarno's authoritarian successor, went on to rule until 1998, when a regional financial crisis, along with student protests and dissent among the military's officer corps, forced his resignation.

Even today, the shadow of Sukarno's relationship with Moscow can still be seen in the grand, almost quaint-seeming, Soviet-style statues and government buildings of central Jakarta.

One such symbol, the National Monument, which resembles a Washington Monument with metallic flames welded to its top, soars into the city skyline near the U.S. Embassy. A few blocks away, Johnny Wullur sighed one afternoon this week as he watched a brewing standoff between protesters and the police.

"It doesn't make any sense," said the unemployed 53-year-old, sporting a baseball cap and straddling his aging ten-speed as the crowd chanted: "People stand together against America!"

"The Americans are using their brains to attack Afghanistan," Wullur said.

Wullur's religious affiliation and past work history may be partially responsible for his political views: He is a Catholic and a former offshore drilling worker for an American oil company.

Should the radicals drive out U.S. investors, "many, many people will lose their jobs," Wullur said. "But, of course, they're not thinking about that," he continued. "They're the victims of propaganda."

Wullur said the situation could easily grow out of control if the government does not address the situation more firmly. "If the government ignores this, maybe these people will grow more angry," he said. "In Indonesia, religion is a very sensitive matter. Still, it's childish."

Six marchers of Hizbullah Front, clad in black shirts and pants with white headbands, strode past the soldiers with banners proclaiming: "America is the Big Terrorist!" and "Anti-Humanism!" Another placard, in an apparent jab at widespread American fears of a biological attack, read "There is a Virus Spreading: Terrorism!"

Asked about the protests, one mustachioed man who declined to identify himself said, "The police can handle it." He dragged on a sweet-smelling clove cigarette before disappearing behind a group of food vendors.

Haji Tubagus Muhammed Sidiq, a leader of a group called the Defenders of Islam (FPI), didn't seem intimidated by the government's presence or shows of force. Secretly, by checking hotels and other places, "we are collecting information about American people so we can clear them out of Indonesia," he said, as a crowd of FPI members, resplendent in white gowns, listened in.

"After that," he added, "we may go to fight in Afghanistan."

Asked what he thought about threats by the government against any Indonesian Islamic soldiers of fortune, Haji waved his hand scornfully. "The Muslim people, wherever they are, are brothers in this world," he said, reflecting remarks by Osama bin Laden, who has repeatedly urged people across the Islamic world to join together against America. "The government cannot forbid the people from going."

But Haji backed away from supporting the terror attacks themselves. "If Osama was behind the attack," he said, "the Americans can catch him, if they want, and bring him to justice."

Some demonstrators were more virulent. "America created this tragedy at the World Trade Center just as an excuse to attack the Muslim people!" bellowed a student, masked by a bandana. He declined to give his name as he walked off.

As the week wore on some of the protesters grew more bellicose. At one point, as a reporter approached a student toting a sign that read "Bush = Satan = Chicken," another frenzied, bespectacled marcher pointed at him and yelled, "America!" Angry eyes darted in his direction moments before an Indonesian friend intervened, taking his elbow and escorting him to the relative safety of a sidewalk.

Many of the students and other demonstrators said that while bin Laden might well be guilty, the U.S. was rushing to judgment -- and thus symbolically attacking Islam as a religion. To back this up, Haji noted that Bush's use of the words "crusade" and "infinite justice" were very offensive to Muslims.

Others saw in bin Laden an antidote to America's vast commercial empire, and the all-conquering clothing, music and movies that accompanied it. By standing up to the U.S., bin Laden represented, to them, a time long disappeared from Indonesia and other nations in the Muslim world: a forgotten era when tradition and local culture was unpolluted by Levis, Coca-Cola and MTV. Though few could articulate it, some seemed to forgive him for this reason alone.

At one recent rally that drew 3,500 people to a business district in central Jakarta, a 22-year-old student, Alawnie Izyan, spoke of a need to check U.S. aggression.

"We are peaceful Muslims," insisted Alawanie, a fourth-year student of Islamic law, wearing the traditional jilbab, or headscarf, designating religious devotion for women throughout the Muslim world.

She, too, opposed last month's terror attacks -- but voiced equal anger at Washington's threats against Afghanistan. Alwanie also denounced U.S. aid to Israel, and especially Israeli attacks against Palestinians.

Another, more outspoken student was Ansori Taslim, 20, a member of the Islamic Youth Movement (GPI) -- the one that threatened Ambassador Gelbard. "Why does America attack Afghanistan when only bin Laden is the problem?" he asked indignantly.

Ansori and his friends spoke with swaggering bravado about a fight against U.S. forces in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. "If America attacks, we will go," declared Ansori, a student of Arabic at the University of Jakarta.

Asked if any of the GPI's members, reportedly in the hundreds, have combat experience, he paused. "If we go to Afghanistan, there, we can train and learn how to attack," he said.

One GPI member, likely beyond his student years, carried a photo of bin Laden with the words, "The U.S. is a Paper Tiger." He claimed to have fought with the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviet army. But when pressed for details, he fell silent and walked away.

Although there have been reports of some Indonesians preparing to fight in Afghanistan, their numbers do not seem significant. Efforts this week by a reporter to ask questions at a registration location for Indonesians to sign up for the newest holy war were frustrating. The "center," which appeared to be a black all-terrain vehicle shrouded in a white blanket with anti-U.S. slogans on it, sped off down an alleyway as a foreigner came into view. A gaggle of teenagers wearing green headbands politely declined to answer questions, saying they feared they were being spied on by a foreign intelligence agent.

For most Indonesians, however, the problems of surviving far outweigh questions about holy wars in Afghanistan. Unemployment in this nation of 17,000 islands surpassed 37 percent last year.

Edi Purwanto is a 25-year-old taxi driver who has been navigating Jakarta's hectic streets for three years. When asked what he thought about the protests the other week, he at first offered some crude leaflets to a passenger, shrugging that they were given to him as he passed the U.S. Embassy.

His listless demeanor hinted that if he identified with the protesters, it was in principle, rather than action. "Why attack Afghanistan, and not Osama bin Laden?" he asked blithely. With that, he smiled, collected his fare, and veered his pink taxi to melt back into Jakarta's punishing midday traffic. Just two hours into one of his 15 hour shifts, Purwanto, like most Indonesians, works a six-day week. At home, there were three mouths to feed.

By Joseph Kirschke

Joseph Kirschke is a freelance writer in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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