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A Bell Rings in Indonesia

Bali bombing shows that Megawati must confront the extremist threat.

October 23, 2002

Mass murder has a way of rousing a nation from denial. Since the ouster of President Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has struggled toward democracy and labored to decide the role of Islam in the world's most populous Muslim nation. Moderate Islamic political parties that want to maintain the nation as a secular state push from one side; radical groups that hope to institute rule by Islamic law push from the other. Islamic extremists, some linked to Al Qaeda, lurk in cities and villages.

Neighboring nations such as Malaysia and Singapore have echoed the United States in warning that this mix is explosive, but since taking office 15 months ago President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been timid about confronting the extremist threat.

Then, 11 days ago on the Indonesian island of Bali, bombs killed nearly 200, at least seven of the dead believed to be Americans, along with many more Australian tourists. Finally the government is awake.

Last weekend, police arrested the man who experts say incites the most religious violence in Indonesia. Abu Bakar Bashir was in a hospital, admitted a day earlier for treatment of "exhaustion." Apparently, Bashir's delivery of a Friday sermon and prayer for the good health of Osama bin Laden had tired him out.

Bashir has not been directly tied to the Bali bombing, but he could have much to say about the workings of the Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiah (though first he would have to reverse previous statements and admit that the group exists). Jemaah Islamiah, suspected in the Oct. 12 blasts, is accused of numerous acts of violence. For now, authorities are investigating Bashir in the bombings of Christian churches on Christmas Eve 2000 that killed 19.

Terrorist experts blame a different Muslim group, Laskar Jihad, for many deaths of Christians on Sulawesi and the Molucca islands, where fighting between Muslims and Christians has killed at least 1,000 people in three years. After the Bali bombing, Laskar Jihad announced it was disbanding, a welcome development. Indonesian officials will have to ensure that the group, many of whose members fought alongside the moujahedeen in Afghanistan, really does cease operations.

Megawati late last week also signed two emergency decrees to put more steel in the country's anti-terrorism laws and to allow the detention of suspected terrorists for up to six months without trial.

Megawati's father, Sukarno, was a leader of the post-World War II independence movement and as president struggled to make Islam one of the pillars of Indonesia without letting it take over the government. The majority of Muslims in the archipelago have agreed and support secular rule. Megawati should be more active in seeking support from these moderates in a campaign against terrorism. The Bali nightclub bombing was an attack on her and her government, not just foreign tourists.

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