Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Indonesia's radical in chief

Third time's a charm

INDONESIAN prosecutors and anti-terrorism officials spent nearly a decade trying to put away Abu Bakar Basyir, so they didn’t much mind waiting an additional four hours and 45 minutes on Thursday. That’s how long it took a panel of judges at the South Jakarta District Court to read the guilty verdict against Mr Basyir, on charges of terrorism, and to sentence him to 15 years in prison. The old firebrand is now 72 years old, and ailing. Several hundred of Mr Basyir’s supporters who had gathered outside the courthouse since the early morning—most of them angry young men in white—dispersed without incident after the verdict was announced. Widespread fears that they would ransack the courthouse and local churches, or target the judges with bombs (as had been threatened via Twitter and SMS messages) proved unfounded.

Whether due to fatigue from their long wait, or the fact that they were outnumbered better than 3-to-1 by 3,000 armed police and soldiers, Mr Basyir’s young followers didn’t muster for a fight. The same might be said about Mr Basyir’s entire movement at present. It had drawn widespread attention and even some admiration within Indonesia in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, but since then it has slowly and steadily deflated, like a hot-air balloon after touching down. The Indonesian public tuned in to catch the news of Mr Basyir’s guilty verdict, in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, most citizens have long since tuned out his call for an anti-Western Islamic state. As they showed with their indifference to his trial since it opened on February 14th, they prefer watching “American Idol” and local reality shows copied from Hollywood, or updating their Facebook accounts (which as of this week stood at 38.1 million—the second-most in the world).

Mr Basyir emerged from self-exile in Malaysia amid Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement in the late 1990s, and used the country’s newfound freedoms to praise Osama bin Laden and lambast Indonesia’s secular government and its friendship with America. The frail-looking cleric, constantly wearing a toothy grin and a bristly white beard, became the poster child for Indonesia’s radical Islamists. Even then they were tiny in number, amid a country of 237m, but they dominated the headlines with their rhetoric and intimidation tactics. After the Bali bombings in 2002, which killed 202 tourists and Indonesian citizens, Mr Basyir claimed that the American CIA was behind it—just as the CIA and Israel’s Mossad took down the World Trade Centre in New York the year before. The fact that Mr Basyir didn’t back his wild claims with a shred of evidence didn’t matter: he found listeners among some Indonesian politicians and intellectuals, and on university campuses.

Local and international media were always ready to publish Mr Basyir’s most outrageous rants: he once declared that the naked female form was more immoral than the Bali bombings. His statements infuriated America, Australia and Britain, all of whom lost citizens in the 2002 Bali attacks. But they were perhaps angrier with Indonesia’s judicial system, for its inability to lock him up and throw away the key—or put him before a firing squad. America and Australia have long accused Mr Basyir of being the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the South-East Asian offshoot of al-Qaeda, which carried out a string of terrorist bombings in Indonesia dating back to 2000, including the Bali bombings, which altogether have killed more than 240 people.

Mr Basyir’s arrest in West Java on August 9th 2010 was his third on terrorism-related charges: he was first arrested after the Bali bombings, but then prosecutors botched the case and he ended up serving only 18 months, on a dubious immigration-violation charge. He was immediately re-arrested upon his release from prison, this time in connection with the bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003, but then he did only 30 months, because he hadn’t been an active participant in the plot; he was, after all, in prison at the time. So Mr Basyir was released again.

But even then the Indonesian cleric had begun to lose his public appeal. Shocked and repulsed by the suicide-bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004, and by a second set of attacks on Bali in 2005, and then again by the (second) bombing of the Marriott and another upscale hotel in 2009, the silent majority of Indonesia’s 190m Muslims began to murmur that enough was enough. Nearly all the victims in those later attacks were Indonesian Muslims. Indonesian voters also continued their pattern of choosing secular candidates in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2009, further cementing the country’s democracy and leaving Mr Basyir nothing beyond small clusters of followers in rural villages across Java.

As al-Qaeda’s attempt to trigger an Islamic revolution in the Arab world failed, so did Mr Basyir’s movement to create an Islamic state in Indonesia. Like Osama bin Laden, all the Indonesian cleric had left was terrorism, an ugly tactic. Despite his public renunciation of violence in 2006, Mr Basyir’s conviction on Thursday was for organising and funding a terrorist-training camp in the Indonesian province of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra. The 100 or so militants who had trained there were allegedly plotting to assassinate the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and carry out Mumbai-style attacks on Western hotels and embassies in Jakarta.

While the judges who sentenced Mr Basyir to 15 years in prison—prosecutors asked for life—have been accused of taking the easy road to avoid further alienating Indonesia’s few thousand hard-line radicals, Mr Basyir faces additional charges in connection with the suicide-bombing of a mosque inside a police compound in Central Java on April 15th. He is all but certain to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Police say they have linked the bomber and the attack’s arrested planners to Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, or JAT, a legally-recognised group that was founded by Mr Basyir.

But this hardly marks the end of Indonesia’s struggle with violence in the name of religion. Despite the curtains falling on Mr Basyir’s one-man sideshow, surveys taken over the past 10 years show that religious intolerance in Indonesia has been growing at an alarming pace—in both rural and urban areas. Mass organisations such as JAT and the infamous Islamic Defenders Front have in recent years attacked churches and blocked the construction of new ones, usually claiming that they failed to win the approval of local Muslims. Cowed local officials and police have done nothing to stop them. Last year, a Christian pastor was stabbed in the stomach by a local radical leader as he led a congregation to a Sunday service. Christian Solidarity Worldwide recently called on Mr Yudhoyono’s government to tackle Islamic extremism as attacks on Christians and their houses of worship proliferated. The head of a Christian group in Jakarta has said there were 14 attacks on churches in the first five months of 2011, and 46 last year.

Radical groups have also been involved in lynchings, including numerous attacks against the minority Ahmadiyah sect. On February 6th, a mob of hundreds of people in rural West Java, incited by local radical religious figures, attacked the homes of local Ahmadiyah leaders, killing four people. Graphic footage of Ahmadiyah members being beaten and hacked to death were seen everywhere on YouTube. Analysts say Indonesian radical groups are using exploiting push-button issues such as the Ahmadiyah (who don’t believe that Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam) because they resonate with rural villagers. Mr Yudhoyono’s government seemed paralysed, standing back and doing nothing as attacks continue and church close their doors.

The president, a retired Army general who might fear being painted as un-Islamic by his political opponents, has since made vague statements calling radicalism a threat to the nation. He has called for expanding the study of pancasila, the Indonesian state ideology which regards the country’s six recognised religions as equals. But he’s also spoken of a “middle way” in which radical groups might be tolerated as a proper part of the country’s democracy. This despite the fact that some of them have openly stated their intention to overthrow Mr Yudhoyono’s government and form an Islamic state, using violence if necessary.

Terrorism remains a grave threat to Indonesia. The now-defunct Jemaah Islamiyah has many splinter cells actively plotting attacks, as well as “lone wolf” terrorists such as Muhammad Syarif, the bomber of the mosque in Central Java. He was among the protesters who gathered outside the South Jakarta District Court when Mr Basyir’s trial opened four months ago. Police are still searching for 15 suicide vests that are supposed to be in circulation, as well as remaining co-conspirators in the attack. On Tuesday police arrested 16 people for plotting to poison officers’ food with cyanide, as well as kill them with pen guns. Mr Basyir’s conviction will remove a venomous voice from Indonesia’s internal debate on the place of Islam, but in everyday terms it will not make the country any safer.
By Banyan for The Economist

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