Fundamental misconceptions

Is Indonesia an Islamic hotbed that threatens the West? Mischa Moselle reports from Java, home of the Bali bombers.

Mischa Moselle

Topics Politics

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There is a widespread perception that the West is under threat from the massed ranks of Islam. Yet if some in the West were to visit Indonesia, they might think a little differently.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Returning to my wife’s village for the first time in two years, I found many things that don’t match with the Western perception of a country of 220million angry Muslims hell-bent on destroying the infidel – or the sort of image an acquaintance of mine has: ‘They would cut your head off and spit down the hole….’

Perhaps it was the fact that the national airline Garuda no longer tucks a prayer card into the flight safety leaflet – or the book on how men can achieve multiple orgasm propping up a book on Muslim theology in Jakarta airport – that jettisoned the notion that Indonesia is a Muslim country in the strict meaning of the word.

That Indonesia is not an austere Talibanesque state is confirmed by the ongoing controversy around the Dangdut (Indonesian pop) singer Inul Daratista. She may be racy, in the sense that she wiggles her bum, but recently she has even been endorsed by former president Abdurrahman Wahid – a Muslim cleric known as Gus Dur, in memory of his grandfather who founded Nahdatul Ulama, the most prestigious Muslim organisation in Indonesia.

The poor old man may have had several strokes and be blind in one eye – but considering his status, his comments about Inul Daratista make it difficult to take seriously the idea that Indonesia is a hotbed of extremist Islam.

Yet the response to the Bali bombing of October 2002 has done little to dispel the image of Indonesia as a backward breeding-ground for Islamic terrorists. There is clearly a terrorist problem in Indonesia, but it is not the mass movement imagined by many in the West.

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) – meaning Islamic Community in Bahasa Indonesia – is the radical Islamist group held responsible for the Bali bombing, the bombing of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta and other attacks. JI appears to be centred around a boarding school at Ngruki near Solo in Central Java, and has an estimated membership of somewhere between several hundred and several thousand.

Most members seem to be recruited from villages across Java and a substantial number have been trained in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda (which itself was trained by the West). According to one think tank, JI was initially funded by Saudi money, and is presumably Wahhabi-inspired. Today, the group is self-funding (1).

Even if not actually related to al-Qaeda, JI shares the same traits of trying to achieve nebulous political aims through acts of nihilism committed by members recruited from largely well-to-do parts of society – though it would be easy to exaggerate the latter comparison. Apparently spread across much of south-east Asia, JI has so far succeeded only in pulling off attacks inside Indonesia (2).

It is difficult to see how the organisation responsible for the Bali bombing fits into Indonesian society. Perhaps it is the fact that it doesn’t fit that makes it ‘radical’. But JI is so hugely at odds with its surroundings that it is worth pointing out and investigating the differences between this group and Indonesian society.

The differences are not on some kind of metaphorical level. It is notable that less than a year after Bali, most of the previously obscure individuals responsible are in custody or have been tried and imprisoned. This is in a country where the very high-profile former president’s son, Tommy Suharto, remained on the run from murder charges for over a year. JI members clearly find it difficult to hide in or receive succour from the community, because the community finds them repugnant.

A Christian Chinese-Indonesian businessman from Jakarta told me: ‘You can do anything you want in Indonesia…if you’ve got enough money.’ A whole new identity can be bought for about £50 to £100, including ID card, birth certificate and passport. Although the Bali bombers used many different aliases, they did it so half-heartedly you could be forgiven for thinking they wanted to get caught.

They also tried to hide in the countryside. Anyone seeking to hide in an Indonesian village would need the support of the villagers. New arrivals wanting to stay must gain the approval of eight village elders. These elders are chosen by open meetings and are the most important bureaucrats in any Indonesian’s life, as their signature is required for all official documents. Any JI member hoping to lie low in a village would need the elders’ approval.

Then they would have to convince everyone else of the worthiness of their cause, as staying behind closed doors in an Indonesian village is impossible. When a household wakes up, the front door is opened and remains so until everyone goes to bed. Whoever happens to be passing can put their head round your door and see what you are up to. Privacy is impossible – which is why a government that only recently admitted that the country had some 5000 more islands than previously realised, was able to find one of the JI suspects on one of the more remote islands.

Why have JI members failed to convince Indonesian communities to hide them?

JI’s major goal is to set up an Islamic Caliphate across Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. In all of these areas, there is already no impediment to being a practising Muslim. But the 10 per cent of the Indonesian population that is not even nominally Muslim might have some objections.

JI would have to convince a great many people outside of Indonesia. They might object that the plan does not incorporate the Muslims of southern Thailand. There are a large number of Christians in the Muslim-majority southern Philippines, who one assumes would be unwilling to leave Asia’s only Catholic country to acquiesce to JI’s plans. And who could seriously believe that the non-Muslim majority of ultra-modern Singapore would willingly become part of a theocracy run on 1400-year-old rules? Indeed, would people in Indonesia, who want to see their country develop economically, agree to such a system? And would Indonesian nationalists, attached to the ideology of pancasila that guarantees a secular state, agree to JI’s vision?

The immediate absurdities of JI’s aims aside, a central point about its members is that they are Javanese. Much like being born English for some Englishmen, the Javanese see being born Javanese akin to winning the first prize in the lottery of life. ‘Java means power’, as my Javanese wife says.

At first glance it might seem absurd to compare the kind of individuals who carried out the Bali bombing – probably village mechanics earning about £40 a month – with Osama bin Laden, supposedly a billionaire, or the 9/11 hijackers who were wealthy and well-educated. But within Indonesia, it is the Javanese who, relatively speaking, have the most opportunities and who dominate the politics of the archipelago, the Javanese who have spread out and claimed land on those other islands.

An outsider might think that someone working as a day labourer in a paddy field in Java for £2 a day, plus three meals (of rice) and a packet of cigarettes, would have nothing to lose and be ripe recruiting material for an organisation like JI. But the Javanese working man working is well aware that his counterpart in Kalimantan may earn the same but will be pay higher prices for everything – a fact of Javanese-dominated government development policy. The Javanese man will be aware that every Indonesian president has come from his island, and be proud of it. At the risk of offending the in-laws, the peasant mentality that boasts ‘I’ve got one more cow than you’ is very strong in Java.

So a further objection to JI’s aims would be to ask why the 100-million strong population of Java would want to be subsumed into a super-state and lose their superior status? The Javanese are very attached to the symbols of their nation, with flags flying everywhere and village gateposts painted to celebrate the recent Independence Day.

One of Indonesia’s most important symbol of national unity – the lingua franca Bahasa Indonesia – is often looked down upon by the Javanese. When I was introduced to a village headman, his wife was cross that I was talking to them in the national language rather than the local language, Jawa. As Adi, a Catholic from the nearby city of Yogyakarta told me, the Javanese like to say they are Javanese first and Indonesian second.

This argument might seem to be skating on the thin ice of identity politics, where feelings count over objective circumstance – but there are two important points here. Firstly, the difference in disposable income of 20 pence a day that a Javanese might have over someone from, for example, Flores will be keenly felt by both of them. Secondly, if JI hopes to recruit from Java, it will have come up against a strong parochialism, where support for a supranational state would be rare.

If a Caliphate is a non-starter, are the Muslims of Java interested in the severe kind of Islam promoted by JI and al-Qaeda? The two man-made glories of Central Java are the ancient Hindu temple complex at Prambanan and the Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur. The Javanese speak of both with pride. Driving around the province and
neighbouring Special Area of Yogyakarta, there are also many active Christian churches.

The tolerance for various religious beliefs is evident in village life, where the women of one family will wear modest Islamic clothing (a headscarf and long-sleeved dress rather than the full black veil or the Afghan burqa), while neighbouring women will sport jeans and a t-shirt – and there is very little rancour between these different people.

In villages and small towns, but not so much in the cities, daily life is broken up by the five calls to prayer from the mosque. But the choice of whether to respond to the call is largely left to individuals. There are no religious police here – even, as far as I could
tell, in the form of local gossips.

There is also a forbearance of the unique versions of Islam practised on different parts of Java. If the boarders at JI’s Ngruki school felt inclined to go to the beach, one of the nearest seaside resorts would be that at Parangtritis. It is a beautiful place but no swimming is allowed, and only partly because of the strong riptides. It is down to the influence of the ghost of the Queen of the South Seas, Nyai Loro Kidul, who drowns those who make her jealous. Curiously, wearing green, one of the colours most associated with Islam, is likely to provoke her wrath.

What about the other traditional taboos of Islam? The Koran circumscribes the consumption of pork and alcohol. Yet my mother-in-law was delighted to find that she had accidentally been eating pork when we took her to a Chinese-run Rumah Makan, or Indonesian greasy spoon. Her personal preferences aside, I found pork in several other places – and not only was it not under the counter, sometimes it was well advertised. Beer also is widely available, as is rice wine. Public drunkenness may be frowned upon, but there seems to be little legal or cultural problem with the act of drinking.

It leaves one wondering how JI imagines it will persuade the Javanese to accept its austere view of the world. If JI member hope to convert others through the purity of their Islam, this makes the Bali bombing doubly intriguing. The attack involved both a suicide bomber and Western-learnt techniques. Suicide is an anathema to Muslims, as the historian Bernard Lewis points out: ‘The traditions of the Prophet make the point clearly. The Prophet said: “Whoever kills himself with a blade will be tormented with that blade in the fires of Hell.”’ (3)

The Western-style technique used at Bali was the detonation of a smaller device to draw a crowd towards the larger explosion, hence causing greater casualties. Again, this deliberate slaughter of the innocents and the killing of unbelievers without giving them a chance to convert would be an abomination to any pious Muslim (4).

Where is the logic in trying to promote anti-Western ideas through the use of devices learned from the west? Orientalists such as Lewis make much of Muslims learning Western military techniques in order to defeat the west – but surely JI’s enemies are the states that currently rule the area of JI’s intended Caliphate?

In fact, Laskah Jihad, the other small Java-based group that gave the island an ill-deserved reputation for fanaticism, was shocked into renouncing its militant activities on hearing of the Bali bombing. One of Laskah Jihad’s former activities was visiting bars and duffing up any Westerner drinking alcohol. JI members said in court that they were disgusted by the consumption of alcohol in the Bali bars they blew up. Why not blow up a dangdut disco bar in Yogyakarta or Jakarta, where Indonesian Muslims can regularly be seen drinking alcohol and singing karaoke?

Does the appeal of a similar anti-Westernism, particularly anti-Americanism, have any mileage for JI? It would be easy to assume that Indonesians are anti-American. JI chose the JW Marriott hotel as a target because of its American connections. Several of the Bali bombers shouted vehement anti-American slogans during their trials.

I found it difficult to gauge the depth of anti-Western feeling in Central Java. The only direct experience I had was being given a hard stare by a man wearing an Osama bin Laden t-shirt – hardly a threat to the foundations of Western society. And this happened in Klaten, a town that gave up some of the Bali suspects. My brother-in-law Suragi told me: ‘I don’t like Americans. They are too arrogant about their country and always attack Muslims.’ But however deeply he holds these Guardian reader convictions he has never done anything about them.

Adi from Yogyakarta is more typical in his attitude to the West. He is the eldest of five Catholic brothers and a Muslim sister. ‘Indonesia and America get on fine. It’s just a few fanatics who cause the problems. Islam and Catholicism – they both have fanatics.’

Businesses associated with the West, such as McDonald’s or KFC, have been bombed, sometimes with deadly consequences. Some McDonald’s branches in Indonesia have a small prayer room called a Mushollah – with the letter ‘M’ represented by the famous golden arches, the kind of cultural imperialism some Westerners assume Indonesians would find offensive. Yet McDonald’s restaurants seem no less busy than elsewhere in the world.

Given the relative rarity of the bombings and the busyness of the restaurants, you could conclude that attacks on McDonald’s are about as representative of Indonesian mainstream thought as the anarchists taking part in the traditional May Day trashing of a McDonald’s in central London are of British politics.

The Indonesians I have spoken to seem to reserve their antipathies for the traditional targets of their former colonial rulers – the Dutch and the Japanese and the supposedly dominant business class of ethnic Chinese Indonesians. What weight these antipathies carry is also difficult to gauge, given the number of Dutch and Japanese consumer goods that are bought and used by Indonesians. Also, in recent times there have been relatively few incidents of anti-Chinese violence.

The point is that Javanese Islam is not the monolithic entity that it would need to be to fulfil JI’s ambitions and the fears of many in the West. JI has goals that it would take a mass movement to achieve, but it does not want to create such a movement. Its organisation is military in style, based on small cells and emphatically not the structure of a mass party (5). The message doesn’t seem designed to win mass support.

Even if the call for a purer Islam in an Islamic state and a rejection of the West had an appeal for the Javanese, it is difficult to understand how using un-Islamic methods of terrorism will have added any weight to such arguments. Given the strangeness of JI’s ambitions and the clumsiness of their execution, it is surprising that JI has managed to achieve even the minimal feat of attracting several thousand recruits from a group of countries with a combined population of roughly 340million people.

No doubt, in a country where a handful of men armed with US$35,500 can carry out something like the Bali bombing, there will be further terrorist attacks. While relying on such bombings is a sign of JI’s weakness rather than strength, it is difficult to see how its members really believe such outrages will further their cause.

Mischa Moselle is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) See the International Crisis Group report Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous for information cited.

(2) See Government of Singapore White Paper The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and the Threat of Terrorism

(3) The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis, p118-119

(4) The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis, p30

(5) See the International Crisis Group report Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous

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