Indonesia at the crossroads

The terror attack in the world's most populous Muslim nation could stir up rage against Islamic extremists, says an expert. But if the U.S. invades Iraq, all bets are off.

By Eric Boehlert

Published October 16, 2002 10:35PM (EDT)

Last weekend's deadly terrorist attack on the island of Bali thrust Indonesia to the forefront of the war on terrorism. Officials suspect al-Qaida played a role in the car bombing that leveled a popular tourist nightclub and killed nearly 200. It was the deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001.

The most populous Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia for decades has been known for its moderate population, often standing in stark contrast to Muslim countries in the Middle East. But with the ouster of longtime dictator Suharto and a succession of weak elected presidents, radical conservative Muslims led by Abu Bakar Baasyir have been crusading in recent years to establish Islamic law in Indonesia.

Repressed under Suharto's rule, the Islamists have used Indonesia's economic misery -- and some al-Qaida-inspired terrorism -- to galvanize public support. They have had scant success: Though 88 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, 1999 election returns showed radical Muslims enjoyed very little support. Still, before last weekend's terrorist attack, Indonesia's rulers had been reluctant to criticize the radicals for fear of stirring up resentment among the masses.

In an interview Monday, Robert Hefner, a Boston University professor, Indonesia expert and author of "Civil Islam," dissected the Bali terrorist attack -- its effect on the struggle for Indonesia, and the larger impact on the war on terrorism.

Was it an opening blast in a bloody fight for an Islamic state in Indonesia, and yet another front for al-Qaida? Or was it a miscalculation that will shock Indonesian moderates, including public officials, into action and mark the end of the Islamists' crusade?

Hefner argues that moderate Muslims would never allow Indonesia to become an Islamic state, and that Abu Bakar Baasyir may soon be under house arrest. But he cites one complicating factor that could give Indonesian radicals political cover in coming months: likely U.S. plans to invade Iraq and the backlash it would create among Muslims in the Southeast Asian country.

What's the significance of the weekend's events in Bali, other than the obvious massive loss of life? How important is this as a marker in what's unfolding in Indonesia?

It's significant as an index of a very bitter struggle between the forces of political moderation in the Muslim community, which is very large, vs. forces of a conservative, hard-line Islamism, which has skillfully used the political and economic crisis that's shaken Indonesia since 1998 to press its case to its advantage. This event in Bali is I think going to crystallize this intramural contest in Indonesia and force many fence-sitters in the Muslim community to decide which side they're on. Not the side as far as U.S. international policy goes. But the more critical question in Indonesia itself is the struggle between the moderate majority and the much smaller but very effectively organized radical Islamist wing.

Wouldn't the Bali attack create a backlash against what the radicals are trying to accomplish?

It all depends on who is revealed to be behind it. Many people -- and myself as well -- suspect it is al-Qaida linked to some domestic group.

Who are the likely domestic contenders?

The most likely contender by far would be some faction of the Jamaah Islamiyyah. But Jamaah Islamiyyah itself, just like al-Qaida, must be thought of as more of a coalition, and a kind of fractious coalition at that. It could well be a faction in the Jamaah Islamiyyah that has taken responsibility for this action on their own. Or it could be a like-minded group, in agreement with its broad goals, but a group decided to take initiative on its own without compromising the position of the Jamaah Islamiyyah in general.

Does Jamaah Islamiyyah want to be a viable political player in Indonesia -- meaning it would want a certain amount of deniability -- or are they a radical group and they don't care if they're tied publicly to a terrorist attack?

Certainly there are figures within the Jamaah Islamiyyah who are sufficiently extremist that they really are intent on destabilizing the country. And that includes doing great damage to the Indonesian economy on the assumption that that will eventually accelerate the pace of radical, indeed revolutionary, change. There are others who are certainly radical, but their radicalism lies in their dedication to this utopian ideal of realizing Islamic law on earth. Some of them would have misgivings about the kinds of things we've seen over the last few days.

It's important to emphasize there are aboveground groups, one of which goes by the name MMI, the Council of Islamic Fighters. And some of its leaders do aspire to political office and want to form a political party. Abu Bakar Baasyir is the head of the MMI and the accused head, and I think that accusation is right, of the Jamaah Islamiyyah. A very interesting and complex man. Somebody who has a good deal of charisma and very savvy politically.

The U.S. had wanted him arrested months ago, correct?

Yes, but it's not just the U.S., and I think that's very important from an Asian perspective. Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines wanted him arrested too.

Was he ever close to being arrested? Was there a crystallizing event where everyone said, 'My God, you have to arrest him for doing X and Y'? Or was it a general feeling that he was mounting something dangerous?

He has not been close to being arrested. But when you look back to December 2001, you'll see the Indonesian minister of defense at that time had already made a number of statements that there were international terrorists in Indonesia, and that they had ties to domestic groups, and that it was time for Indonesia to take action against these domestic terrorists. What was interesting is that he failed miserably because he in effect was tarred and feathered as a stooge for the United States. And out of that incident Abu Bakar Baasyir began to rise in prominence by skillfully playing the nationalist card by arguing that the minster of defense was compromising the national integrity of Indonesia.

What was the lesson there?

There have been many people in the government who wanted to take action against terrorism in Indonesia, but have been unable to because of the weak nature of President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government, and the vulnerability, in particular, to the accusation that it's selling Indonesia for the interest of the United States.

Establishing Islamic law seems to be, at least symbolically, a centerpiece of the revolution, and Indonesia wrestled with that in the 1950s, right?

The debate over the role of Islamic law in Indonesia politics actually goes back to the very founding of the republic of Indonesia and the circumstance of the independence war [from the Dutch] between 1945 and 1949, which was a very bitter and costly war. It left a great legacy and sense of nationalist pride. It was an independence struggle that was divided from the start over the question of what the foundation of the nation should be. Should it be a more or less secular, nationalist republic or one in which Islam was given a central place? Ultimately it was the former, a more or less secular form of government agreed upon largely because the many Muslims were themselves deeply committed to the idea of nationhood and independence and didn't want to compromise that.

Obviously the violence in the Bali attack was off the scale. Was everything about it different?

Yes -- there had been no attacks on Westerners before it. And that's why I think Indonesians are very shocked by this.

Who do you think was behind the bombing?

It's either one of three groups. The first group would be Jamaah Islamiyyah. The second group, and this would be the one I give the edge, would be a like-minded group that in effect operates according to the same principle and decided it would take the initiative so as to not compromise Abu Bakar Baasyir.

To give him deniability?

Right, deniability. And then the third possibility, and this cannot be ruled out, is that this was one of those free-floating terror groups with links to al-Qaida that's been operating across Southeast Asia. It's not unthinkable to suggest it's agents from outside Indonesia entirely.

Do you think anyone will claim responsibility?


Why not?

My sense is that they may have gotten more than they intended. That their goal was not quite that degree of carnage. I could be wrong. And if it's the third group, if it is a free-floating group much more directly tied to al-Qaida, then carnage was their interest and they got it.

But if it was a domestic group?

This is a prediction, but I think they're going to see over the next few days that if they hoped to influence domestic opinion in Indonesia into a firmer anti-American stance, it was a significant mistake.

What will be the effect for Abu Bakar Baasyir?

I think he might be arrested. But he also might be subjected to a kind of political quarantine. For the Indonesian government to move effectively will depend on great international cooperation and the effect of an Iraqi invasion on the whole Muslim world. If the United States invades Iraq there will be great pressure in the Muslim world for demonstrations of solidarity. Not for physical attacks on Americans. But in effect through acts of noncooperation in the campaign on terror.

So there will be pressure on the Indonesia government to let Abu Bakar Baasyir go?


You mentioned before Muslim fence-sitters in Indonesia. How, in theory, if you're a conservative fence-sitter, how would the Bali attack spur you to a more conservative camp?

It won't. It will spur you because, if I'm right and the wave of the reaction we're seeing right now is already moving very decisively as a repugnant act of violence and an attack on Indonesia, then the fence-sitters will bolt and denounce this and in effect, at the very least, be a little less virulent in their opposition to a crackdown on terrorism.

What will happen to that internal Islamic debate you were talking about?

Unfortunately, it's not going to be decisively resolved one way or another because politics in Indonesia is so complex and because everything is going to be complicated if and when the United States invades Iraq. If it were just al-Qaida and the U.S. war against terrorism, the bombing in Bali would have benefited the anti-al-Qaida and anti-radical camp in the Muslim community enormously, as it would have benefited those who want closer relations with the United States. But the United States administration's continuing commitment to link the al-Qaida war with the invasion of Iraq is not selling anywhere in the Muslim world, including Indonesia. And I don't say that with any opinion about invasion. I think if we didn't have Iraq to consider, this would be a turning point in the Indonesian Muslim community.

Was the terrorist attack an attempt to torpedo Indonesia's economy and create an even larger power vacuum?

That's the biggest unknown. I think politically, from the hard-liners' perspectives, yes, this bombing was a failure in both the short and medium term. However, the long-term situation in Indonesia is the economy still has not recovered from the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis. And this attack is gong to deal an enormous blow. It's going to swell the ranks of the unemployed and the embittered.

How would radicals try to capitalize on that?

They recognize the mosque is one of the few havens of sociability, and places where people can go, especially young men, when you're poor in the city. That's part of their hope. But the other part of the hope is they feel ideologically they can use the economic decline as proof that the world order is dominated by the U.S., and globalization is a fraud and really just Americanization and American dominance.

Could the bombing cause economic collapse and eventually usher radicals into power?

I think that's the dream of the radical right. But even if the economy collapses, I don't think Indonesia is gong to become a radical Islamic state. I think the chances of that are almost nil. However, it could become an almost ungovernable state, and that is a great danger.

Why are the chances nil?

Because if a radical Islamic government were shoved down the population's throat, it would be resisted with such enormous fury the government would collapse overnight. The elections of 1999 showed there was very little support for radical Islamists and that the majority of Muslims wanted a nationalist government.

What about the idea that the Bali bombing could be the beginning of the end of a radical movement in Indonesia simply because they have overplayed their hand, the government will clamp down, the U.S. will get involved with intelligence, and moderates in Indonesia will have nothing to do with them?

I don't think it takes much to maintain radical movement of this sort. It takes a little bit of finance and a few people who are willing to give their lives.

But before last weekend, my sense was there was a certain willingness in Indonesia to look the other way at terrorist groups. If that was erased overnight, it would be much harder for these radical groups to continue with some of their rhetoric, wouldn't it?

It would, but we're dealing with a USSR-scale country [in size] but with an even weaker state, so it's very easy for a few troublemakers to move around. But in terms of moral authority for these groups to sell their arguments to a small fringe of the Muslim community, [the bombing] has been a serious setback.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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