By Sidney Jones
13 November 2003
Far Eastern Economic Review
Indonesians are not happy with the war against terrorism, despite the success of their police in fighting it, primarily because they don't trust the United States government and don't want to be part of a U.S.-led campaign.
The distrust of the U.S. is not just a result of the Bush administration's foreign policy in the Middle East, though that is part of it. "The U.S. has demonstrated a double standard in responding to terrorism in the Israel-Palestine conflict," said an October 22 editorial in Kompas, Jakarta's leading newspaper, "and there's no question that it generally associates terror with Islam." But many Indonesians also think that for all the talk about partnership and cooperation in the "war," the U.S. just takes without giving anything back. Its refusal thus far to grant Indonesian police access to detained Jemaah Islamiah leader Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, is one example. (During his fleeting visit to Bali, President George W. Bush promised access at some indeterminate future date, but that is not good enough.)
There's also the perception that Indonesians can't win -- no matter how many terrorists they arrest, the U.S. is still going to punish them for human-rights violations of the past or find some other excuse for not giving them credit. "In terms of respect for human rights and respect for national sovereignty," the Kompas editorial asked, "isn't the attitude of the U.S. towards Iraq worse than Indonesian policy towards East Timor?"
Many Indonesians believe that the U.S. focus on terrorism is pushing everything else off the agenda. Another leading Jakarta newspaper, Koran Tempo, carried an editorial on the eve of Bush's visit, urging Indonesian religious leaders who were going to meet the president to tell him that the country had other pressing needs: "We have a whole warehouse of problems: poverty, corruption, foreign debt, the credibility of our legal system and a difficult transition to democracy. These problems aren't getting enough attention because so much of our energy is being diverted to terrorism, and terrorism in the end is being encouraged by the arrogant attitude of America itself."
These strongly negative attitudes toward the U.S. colour how Indonesians in general, and politicians in particular, see Jemaah Islamiah. The home-grown terrorist organization believed responsible for the Bali and Marriott bombings, and perhaps the recent shootings in Poso in central Sulawesi as well, has not been banned, and many members of the political elite remain unwilling to acknowledge its existence.
One public reason is that the term jemaah islamiah is a generic term meaning "Islamic community," and that applying it to a terrorist organization is offensive to many Muslims. There is also a concern across the Muslim community that one consequence of banning JI could be an assault on pesantrens, Indonesia's Muslim boarding schools, simply because of the role a tiny handful of these have played in JI recruitment.
But another key reason why mainstream Muslim leaders and politicians have difficulty admitting in public that JI is a terrorist organization is because of a widespread view that the U.S. is the real terrorist, and nothing JI has done compares with the devastation that "America and its lackeys" have inflicted on the Muslim world. Many moderates don't condone the indiscriminate killing of civilians, but they explain it, with some sympathy, as the tactic of groups that see themselves as fighting terror, not perpetrating it. Suicide bombs, whether in Tel Aviv or Jakarta, are the weapon of the weak, they say, against an infinitely stronger foe.
No amount of U.S. public diplomacy or new assistance is going to change the deep antipathy in Indonesia towards American policies in the Middle East. Stepping up aid for Indonesian education, for example, is a desirable aim in itself, but it will not reduce unease about U.S. motives. Indeed, to the extent that new assistance is linked to the war on terrorism, that unease is likely to grow.
What to do? The U.S. should ensure quick access to Hambali and assist Indonesian police as necessary with the gathering of evidence that will allow him to be tried in an Indonesian court. However weak the legal system, the trials of terror suspects thus far have been speedy, fair and transparent, which is more than can be said of the U.S. But Indonesia also needs a few courageous politicians willing to say that whatever people think of the war on terrorism and U.S. policies, there's a serious problem at home that needs more attention -- and the name of that problem is Jemaah Islamiah. Despite the efforts of the police, the public still needs convincing, and Indonesians, not Americans, are the only ones who can make the case.
The writer is based in Jakarta as Southeast Asia Director for the International crisis Group