"Academic-turned-militant", "bomb expert", "terrorist", "Bali-bomb brain": these are just some of the abusive remarks that the media in Indonesia and Malaysia have borrowed from western news agencies to libel Dr Azahari Husin, who died on November 9 after what the Indonesian police claim was a shoot-out. A former lecturer who was described by friends and former students as highly dedicated, Azahari is said to have left his family in Malaysia in 2001 because he feared that he would be one of the targets that the governments of south-east Asia intended to include in their post-911 anti-terrorism report-cards, to be presented to the US at international conferences. Azahari was not a passive academic; he was said to be concerned with US dominance and had tried to work with Muslims in neighbouring Indonesia since the fall of Suharto.
Character-assassination is easiest when the victim is dead. This explains why many writers in mainstream papers in both Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the new breed of scientists called ‘terror experts' in Australia, scrambled to shed more ‘light' on Azahari, although much of what they wrote might be better described as "darkness visible". The truth is that much of what has been written about Azahari lacks any basis in research into his activities, and relies only on Australian- and western-based non-governmental organisations' ‘findings' by people who call themselves experts on ‘terrorism'.
Jakarta had hoped that once Dr Husin was dead pressure on it from Canberra and Washington would ease, and that it would be able to convince its staunchly anti-American population that cooperation with the US had gone as far as it would, and would go no further. One of the main things feared by people in south-east Asia is their governments' cooperating with the US's policies. Many of al-Qa'ida's videotaped warnings have confirmed that this is the case, with governments like Malaysia and Indonesia in a cleft stick, trying both to please Washington and thus inviting attack on cities, and to keep away from the US and risk American pressure from abroad and domestic reaction at home.
In the Azahari episode, which has been more like a media-orchestrated drama, the Malaysian government's response has shown a lack of conviction about the accusations against Azahari, particularly because most Muslims in southeast Asia regard whatever anti-terror evidences are presented by their governments as yet another attempt to please Washington. Such lack of trust is fuelled by the fact that there was no solid evidence from Jakarta or Canberra (which is spearheading efforts to undermine Muslim organisations across the region), about Azahari's involvement in the attacks in Bali. Even the so-called confessions by the plotters of the attack on Bali in October 2002 did not implicate Azahari or Abu Bakar Basyir, a popular alim. His involvement in the so-called Jema'ah Islamiyah, a regional group said to be led by Abu Bakar Basyir, could, despite all the noise, turn out to be as mythical as JI itself may still turn out to be.
So what is the victory which governments in this region, particularly Canberra, were celebrating after Azahari's death, if he had nothing to do with terrorism, as seems likely? One achievement was to be able to create a criminal and ‘terrorist' persona around Azahari and a few persons who were said to be "connected" to him. This had gone on for some months, so that whenever Azahari was caught or killed, the occasion could be celebrated as significant progress against terrorism. This has been achieved, at least at the media and public level, judging by the many defensive articles and statements from Muslims themselves, usually concentrating on the stale and now all-too-familiar "Islam rejects terrorism" argument.
The governments in the region had no choice but to rely on less-than-convincing ‘evidence', ‘investigations' and ‘reports' by NGOs (funded by Western sources) on the roles played by local Muslims and their links to al-Qa'ida in various bombings that have hit Indonesia since 2001. These are the very same NGOs that had been at the forefront of accusations against individuals like Abu Bakar Basyir and Muslim civil-action groups that have mushroomed in Indonesia as a result of Jakarta's de-Islamization policy. The regional governments would find it difficult (perhaps impossible) to conduct a genuine investigation into such bombings should they reject ‘findings' by western agencies. They know too well that the culprits were as efficient as the attacks they had planned. When even the FBI and CIA, with all their technological paraphernalia, apparently could not forecast the September 2001 attacks or avert them, nor solve the mystery after, there was nothing that these governments could do but accept the ‘evidence' of the West-backed NGOs.
But more important is Washington's long-term plan to engage Muslim leaders (the so-called ‘radical-moderate' ulama of Indonesia) to join the ‘war on terror'. In the middle of the publicity surrounding Azahari Husin's killing and the reports about ‘terrorism' said to be committed by Muslims, came the idea of setting up a special committee to "counter the dissemination of militant ideas by terrorist groups acting in the name of Islam". Although one agrees in principle that the image of Islam should be protected, the fact is that this is being done by tarnishing the image of fellow Muslims whose ‘terror' activities have not been proven.
Muslims' reactions to the events surrounding Azahari Husin have been disappointing. Instead of taking the higher moral ground by demanding proof of Azahari's involvement in terrorism, most mainstream Muslim organisations and leaders have accepted the western mantra of his ‘mass killings'. The Muslim on the street, however, knows well that there was a plot to vilify Azahari, which will later serve to vilify other Muslims – first, to show that the bomb-attacks in Indonesia were the work of ‘overzealous' Muslims, and second to show that a supposedly ‘moderate', educated and academically-inclined Muslim (as Azahari was) is also to be taken as a threat to ‘peace'. But whether or not Azahari was a ‘terrorist', and whether or not he had in fact bombed places frequented by westerners, has now become irrelevant. Yet many Muslims indicated their disbelief on November 17, when a large crowd of about 2,000 people braved heavy rain to attend Azahari's funeral and burial in his hometown in Malacca.
Another major development in the region is that while Indonesia is moving towards more transparency and more open debate (traits of the very same democracy espoused by the US for a select few Muslim countries), Australia seems to be going the other way. This can be seen in Canberra's new anti-terror bill: it may effectively outlaw criticism of government policies, such as its decision to send troops thousands of miles away to help Washington to fight ‘terrorism'. Activists are concerned that proposed extensions to sedition laws will focus the legislation to what people say, rather than the actual outcome of their action, a change that could radically alter the nature of legitimate public debate. But although the bill has not yet been passed, a recent swoop on 18 Muslims by the Australian police, for allegedly planning terrorist acts within Australia, seems to be an indication of just what is in store – religious and racial profiling, for instance – once the anti-terror bill is finally passed.
Many Muslims know that US and Australian allegations against Muslims like Azahari do not hold water, yet they fear that by seeming to not believe them they risk being branded terrorist themselves, because of the notorious Bush dichotomy. To be fair, one protest did come from Abdul Hadi Awang, the president of PAS (Malaysia's Islamic party), who demanded that Azahari's involvement in ‘terrorism' be proven by the authorities in Indonesia.
"I fear the allegation against Azahari is like the allegations made against Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. Until today there is no proof [of his involvement]. We want a fair investigation. We should not be cowed by the US, which is carrying out its global agenda of imperialism," said Hadi on November 13.
Azahari's death has been hailed by regional governments, particularly Canberra, as a great success in the war against ‘terror'. The same was said when religious teacher Abu Bakar Basyir was turned into a ‘terror' leader by the media, before being dragged to court, only for the police to find that it would be an arduous task to prove the ridiculous charges against him. Still, bombings and acts of terrorism continued unabated even when these so-called ‘terror' ringleaders were either killed or put behind bars. When the diabetic and blind Shaikh Umar Abdul Rahman was jailed in 1996 after being accused of plotting to bomb the then World Trade Centre, many Americans accepted the official version and thought they were now safe because the guilty party had been caught.
For now, however, Washington and its allies are not sure how to deal with videos of hooded ‘terrorists' warning them of "reprisals" for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this time in a new (non-Arab) accent and language.