Losing Friends in Indonesia: Even Moderates Who Have Denounced Terrorism Fear Being Seen as U.S. Puppets

By Charle, Suzanne | The Nation, December 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Losing Friends in Indonesia: Even Moderates Who Have Denounced Terrorism Fear Being Seen as U.S. Puppets


Charle, Suzanne, The Nation


This is the second article in a series examining how the Bush Administration's war on terror has transformed politics, reshuffled alliances and altered the dynamics of local conflicts around the world.--The Editors

A major casualty in President Bush's "war on terrorism" has been the good will of moderate Muslims toward the United States. Nowhere is this more evident than in Indonesia. "The bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States," note the American authors of "Changing Minds, Winning Peace," a policy paper distributed to US embassies in October. "In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, only 15 percent view the US favorably, compared with 61 percent in early 2002."

This precipitous drop--the largest in the world, as one US diplomat in Jakarta points out with sadness--is twisting policies and politics in Indonesia, a fledgling democracy already struggling with a shaky economy, rampant corruption and internal separatist movements. "The genius of the radicals is that their aims have been augmented by Bush's policies," said Nurcholish Madjid, a highly respected Muslim scholar and a presidential hopeful. "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 US government," said Sidney Jones, southeast Asia project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG). "They don't want to be a part of a US-led campaign. On this, there's virtually no difference between the moderates and the fringe radicals."

Indonesians criticize Bush's conflation of Arab terrorism with Islam, and complain that his policies demonstrate a double standard, chief among the examples being the US failure to respond to human rights abuses against Palestinians by Israel and visa policies that make it extremely difficult for Indonesians, no matter what their religion, to enter the United States. They condemn his disregard for the United Nations and worry about his unilateral war in Iraq. "The situation in Iraq today bears momentous implications on the global war against terrorism," Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda warned at an international conference on security this month, adding that the "arbitrary pre-emptive war" against Iraq has set a precedent for other nations.

Words like arrogant, bullying, imperial, neocolonial and a new pharaoh sprinkle elite Indonesians' comments about President Bush; more vehement adjectives pepper tabloids, Muslim websites and some clerics' sermons. There is a sense that America, now the world's only superpower, is a superbully, lacking respect for other nations' opinions or even their right to have opinions. "Right now, if you believe Bush, Indonesia is known only as an exporter of terrorism," said Rizal Ramli, a former minister of finance under President Abdurrahman Wahid (better known as Gus Dur). "That's now our only famous export."

Ramli and other political analysts worry about the negative impact of Bush's war on terrorism on the political landscape in Indonesia. "The US foreign policy is now focused on terrorism--but the fact is, here and elsewhere, economic progress and recovery is much more important," said Ramli. "Poverty is equated with radicalism, whether it's religious or other forms of extremism. If we don't see economic recovery--and for that to happen, we'll need US help--in the long term, there will definitely be more extremists."

Buddhists and Christians here are equally dismayed. Ignas Kleden, a sociologist with the Center for East Indonesian Affairs in Jakarta, says that Islamist hard-liners have come to the fore by playing on animosity against Bush. "They make use of the momentum, call for a demo--give out some money to students and others to show up--and they appear to the public, here and abroad, as speakers for Indonesia. They want to consolidate their position as an important wing in the country's politics--which they are not. …

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