Despite desperate attempts by the police to convince a sceptical public by broadcasting suspects’ confessions on television, most Indonesians still disbelieve allegations of local Muslim groups’ involvement in the Bali carnage of October 12. The Indonesian public, instead of swallowing propaganda, prefer to retain some scepticism of official findings. Even government leaders have echoed public sentiment that there is a conspiracy to paint the archipelago as a terrorist haven.
On November 18 Indonesian vice president Hamzah Haz warned the police “not to treat madrasas as gambling dens and brothels” in the search for terrorist suspects. Some boarding schools in the central Java island have been targeted in the search for ‘masterminds’ since the arrest of Amrozi and Imam Samudra, two suspects whose ‘confessions’ were broadcast on television but doubted by many, including Amien Rais, the Indonesian assembly speaker.
But even if it later turns out that both these suspects were indeed involved in the Bali incident, the US will still be disappointed. In spite of the confessions, the Indonesian police are finding it difficult to link any act of terrorism to Ustaz Abu Bakar Basyir, who is accused of leading a group called Jema’ah Islamiah, which the UN calls a ‘terrorist’ organisation. This was announced by the Indonesian national police chief on November 23. The announcement obviously frustrates the vigorous bully tactics of Uncle Sam and its regional allies, Singapore and Australia. This is because any ‘link’ established between the Bali bombing and the so-called JI would be the only pretext needed to implicate Abu Bakar Basyir, who maintains that the charges against him have been contrived by the US and Israel in order to gain a foothold in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
A recent survey by Tempo, Indonesia’s largest current-affairs magazine, which regularly conducts public opinion polls, found that more than sixty percent of Indonesia’s population believe that the Bali bombings were not the work of the ‘local’ groups that are repeatedly accused by Washington. Asked why they think so, nearly 70 percent said that it was part of a conspiracy to depict Indonesia as a terrorist nest, while more than 30 percent cited the pre-emptive ‘warnings’ of a terrorist attack by ‘foreigners’, obviously referring to the US state department’s warning a few hours before the bombs went off.
With all this going on, the US has decided to do what it has always been best at: disregard public opinion. Since the Bali bang, Washington has been fixing its eye on Malaysia, whose regime has cooperated with the US government, leading many to think that all reasons for US interference might have been exhausted. But Washington twisted Kuala Lumpur’s arm, flying in FBI agents to interrogate Yazid Sufaat, who is detained under the Internal Security Act for alleged links to so-called Islamic militants.
The Malaysians now realise that they over-reacted. Prime minister Mahathir Mohamad thought that by fighting invisible Islamic ‘militants’ in his backyard, the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) could be put in its place. Now the strongest condemnation so far of Bush’s campaign has come from Mahathir himself, who is disgusted with the way Australia is cooperating with Washington in the ‘war on terror’, at the same time sticking its nose into its Asian neighbours’ affairs. In an interview with the Australian on November 23, Mahathir criticised Canberra for copying Washington’s approach to fighting terror. Mahathir also said that the US lost its political sense 14 months ago and is now losing its ‘war’, alienating Muslims and creating new enemies, while Australia is only ensuring its permanent isolation from southeast Asia by its closeness to Washington.
Mahathir’s anger is understandable: Canberra has been leading the US-led campaign in the region by creating an atmosphere of Islamophobia, arresting Muslim citizens and raiding their houses, while accusing Jakarta of “lack of action”. On November 24 Canberra even announced plans to launch an advertising campaign telling people how to spot ‘terrorists’: a move that will almost certainly whip up public hysteria and encourage racial stereotyping.
Mahathir’s views are shared not only by Indonesia but also by Thailand, whose government is frustrated with endless ‘travel warnings’ issued by western governments, which affect its tourism industry badly. It also denies that its southern Muslim-majority areas are a hotbed of terrorism, and insists that the intermittent strife there is an internal matter.
Despite these public expressions of anger, the US has the bad habit of being rude to its allies. To add insult to injury, the US issued another ‘warning’, this time predicting that “terrorist attacks” would be carried out in Malaysia. Mahathir immediately described the warning as ‘economic sabotage’, adding that Washington had no right to pass judgement on other countries “when the US itself was a dangerous place to live in.”
Try as it may to convince the 200 million Muslims here that it is a ‘friend of Islam’, the fact is that the US is like the proverbial wolf dressed up in grandma’s clothes, having first gobbled grandma.