Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Indonesia’s Terrorism: Seduction By Promises of the Afterlife

Last week Indonesia was shocked once again by terrorism, this time when seven men under the age of 20 were detained in Central Java for their alleged role in recent bombings. Looking at their age, many of us asked: Why? What led them to follow their leaders so obediently?

Sadly, teenagers who are ready to take their own lives are probably not as uncommon as we might think. Like most people, they have dreams and are striving to better their lives.

Maybe they don’t hate the world. Perhaps they hope for much from it, but see their hopes slowly disappearing when faced with insurmountable inequality.

Likely, many believe they have been betrayed by life and are angry. Many feel a strong sense of injustice.

This sense of injustice can be easily manipulated by charismatic leaders who are experts in identifying frustrated teenagers.

For in the name of religion, even mediocre speakers can charm people with their “holy” characteristics and promises of the afterlife.

If this life is frustrating, they say, then don’t hope for too much from it, hope for more from the next life. This way, the frustrations of teenagers can be twisted by these leaders for their own purposes.

But note that after so many lives are sacrificed “for the cause,” these leaders usually go on with their own lives.

Safely away from harm, they may be busy preparing new strategies and ambitions that will ultimately sacrifice more lives. And this is definitely not new.

The manipulation of young people by leaders with worldly ambitions is as old as the age of the first empires.

Religion is not the only excuse — it might be ethnicity or nationalism, whatever cause that can be used as a rallying point to persuade people to give up their own lives.

Similar strategies were used by Japanese emperors. During World War II, for example, young soldiers known as kamikaze were willing to sacrifice their lives for their nation.

The promise? In death, their souls would all meet again at the sacred Yasukuni temple and they would become gods themselves. Essentialism of identity and promises of the afterlife can make for a potent elixir for brainwashing young people.

Of course, we can never know whether the departed see these promises fulfilled. But what is clear is that they die to further the ambitions of their leaders.

After these young people in Japan died, their emperor did not do the same. It is not because he did not want to be a god in the sacred temple, but because he did not have the same conviction and faith as his young charges.

This is the irony that only the most naive will miss seeing: leaders who can persuade others to sacrifice things — including their lives — are often the ones who are not willing to sacrifice themselves.

Leaders who are considered holy and claim to know the afterlife are usually suspicious and refuse to be questioned. Fundamentalism is often born out of the worldly ambitions of this kind of leader.

So it was with the Crusades, which began with the desire of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to control new territories.

The emperor worked with Pope Urban II, who made promises to his people to make them go to war.

He said that if his people dared fight the Muslim armies in Jerusalem, they would go to heaven. Of course, the pope himself wanted to go to paradise, but not in the same way.

Because leaders are not willing to get their hands dirty, they use others to do these jobs. For what? Definitely not for the benefit of the people.

Heaven and promises of the afterlife have long been used as bait by different leaders at different times from a variety of religions and convictions.

The afterlife can come in different shapes, forms and packages depending on the creativity of these so-called religious leaders — leaders who try to manipulate young people into surrendering their lives in the name of religion, nationalism, paradise or anything that seems essential and sacred.

Beware of any leader or politician who asks you to ignore humanity for a higher aim. This aim may not exist at all, and perhaps will not be among the beliefs of its very creator.

Soe Tjen Marching is the author of the novel ‘Mati, Bertahun Yang Lalu.’ Jakarta Globe

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