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A Paradise Lost to War on Terror

October 16, 2002|W. Scott Thompson | W. Scott Thompson is an adjunct professor on Southeast Asia at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

BALI, Indonesia — The news was the bombing in the Kuta region of Bali, but the target had nothing to do with this paradise. The target was first Indonesia and its self-absorbed elite and second, but ultimately more important, the white West.

Bali is a symbol of globalization from the point of view of international terrorism, despite the persistence of the local Hindu culture. To fundamentalist Muslims it is already an excrescence: Not only is it full of rich Western tourists, it is not even Muslim like the rest of Indonesia. If you wanted to strike the sharpest blow against Western influence here, you would hit Kuta and kill very few Muslims in the process.

The only good news is that the Indonesia government must now take its problem of terrorism seriously because the cost of the attack will be measured in billions of dollars. It is not just the CIA that has been preaching to Jakarta that terrorism should be a far higher priority. A number of Western scholars have been pointing out the dense networks existing among radicalized Indonesian Muslim organizations and less respectable ones in the Middle East.

Just after Sept. 11, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri pledged full cooperation with the "war on terrorism." No one should have been optimistic about her ability to deliver, assuming she actually wanted to. The reason that Indonesia is caught in a bind, and is unlikely to completely escape it, is that although Islam is vastly less potent in the sprawling archipelago than in Middle East countries, it is still the overwhelming majority religion.

If 1% of the population are potential recruits for terrorism, that equals 2 million potential terrorists. And there are about 29 million unemployed or underemployed young men, suitable targets for recruitment.

There are other reasons for pessimism about Jakarta's ability to solve its problem. First, voting in Indonesia confirms a majority tendency toward secular government, but Islamic fundamentalism is growing.

The second reason is that President Megawati has little ability to lead. She has legitimacy -- her father led the revolution and was the nation's first president -- but she plays a balancing act. Corruption is as endemic as ever.

But the third reason is most important. Indonesian elites don't buy the U.S. war on terrorism, no matter what they say publicly. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," one told me recently. "Your obsession with Saddam Hussein while you let Ariel Sharon dictate your Middle East policy makes it impossible for us to work with you fruitfully. You don't get it."

This sentiment is echoed widely in every Islamic country, so Jakarta's elites hardly consider themselves odd man out. "Your 'war on terrorism' would collapse -- because it wouldn't be needed -- the very moment you had a balanced policy on Palestine and Israel," a senior official said. He added that they go along with the U.S. war only because of their great need for investment and for International Monetary Fund approval.

Still, the bomb in Kuta is a big incident. The Indonesian elites were in a state of shock. They were coming to accept that their American counterparts weren't bluffing in telling them of intercepts revealing the intent to bomb Westerners, embassies, even Megawati.

The price is going to be enormous. Jakarta's claim to the IMF that it could eliminate its deficit rested on assumptions, including the restoration of tourism after Sept. 11. But Bali represents more than half of that.

Meanwhile, despite what they say, the Americans and the Indonesians still aren't doing what needs to be done.

"Americans sincerely think they can go on their course of siding with Israel at every real turning point ... without any problem in Islamic capitals like ours," an Indonesian official said.

The Indonesians, caught in their bind of secularism and growing Islamic fundamentalism, thought they could continue to ignore the growing links between outside terrorists and the homegrown ones. They can't now, but it is not obvious that they will find the strength to do what is necessary.

Terrorists changed the whole game. The ceremonial life of Bali will go on, but it will be a long time before the paradise lost is regained.

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