by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13 2003-10, Sha'ban, 1424)
Muslim regimes have developed ingenious ways to convince the Bush administration of their commitment to the ‘war on terrorism’ . The latest is the ‘numbers game’ of arrested Muslim activists – the more people hauled in, the more unlikely it is that one will suffer the Saddam fate (or so they hope). This is strictly followed in countries whose Muslim leaders were once typically anti-‘Western values’ and spoke out for Islamic unity, but who are not secure enough in their seat without Uncle Sam’s blessing. Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, have been known to oppose Anglo-American attempts at warmongering; the strong words emanating from the Malaysian prime minister’s office and that of Indonesian vice president leave them at least not so greatly hated during the peaks of popular anger.
So many of these governments appear to have decided that it is wise to arrest as many ‘terrorists’ as possible . Malaysia has arrested more than 70 (according to the official version) of these home-grown ‘terrorists’ – lawyers, lecturers and businessmen among others – earning praise from western leaders who are willing to forgive its leader’s loud mouth at various summits in return for such gestures.
Indonesia, not to be outdone, has arrested almost 100 people on charges of terrorism. Its foreign minister did not hesitate to make this known: "Unlike in many countries, we are not only proud that we are able to arrest right now almost 100 perpetrators in the case of bombings, but also we are able to bring the perpetrators to justice," Hassan Wirajuda told the BBC on September 22. He was, of course, referring to the trial of the suspects in the Bali bomb October last year. Their death sentences were a foregone conclusion, given that they have readily admitted – both to their interrogators and to the media – their role in the bombings. But the US allies’ main concern was not individuals like Imam Samudra and Amrozi, but any link they have to Abu Bakar Baasyir, the Muslim alim who was prosecuted by Suharto during his pagan-based pancasila campaign in Indonesia, will be a real cause for jubilation. In their trials, prosecutors have not been able to incriminate Abu Bakar or link him with the suspects.
Some days later, the court sentenced Abu Bakar to four years in jail, after finding him guilty of subversion. He was acquitted of the more serious charge of treason and a plot to murder president Megawati Sukarnoputri. The court had no choice but admit that there was not enough evidence to prove he was the head of the "militant Islamic group" Jemaah Islamiah (JI). What the prosecutors and judges would not want to admit – at least at this juncture – is the fact that there is still no evidence whatsoever of even the existence of JI, other than clumsy ‘investigative reports’ by an Australia-based NGO activist and a special report on Indonesia published by Time magazine last year.
Australia and Singapore were among the most vocal in expressing disappointment about the verdict on Abu Bakar. Australian prime minister John Howard had an honest explanation of why he was disappointed about the finding that Abu Bakar was not the leader of the so-called JI: "Because many of us here in Australia believe that he was at least the spiritual leader of JI and therefore at least knew about the attack in Bali, we are disappointed that he wasn’t convicted on that and didn’t get a longer sentence," he told ABC radio. In other words, Howard believes the Indonesian judiciary should gauge his country’s public opinion before reaching any verdict.
Singapore premier Goh Chok Tong, while admitting that the ‘evidence’ against Abu Bakar was based on ‘intelligence’ gathered from people his government detained, on September 23 said: "In Singapore, based on the evidence that we have, we will believe that he is the head of JI". In a city-state where even the mildest criticism of government is avoided because of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows indefinite detention of anybody without trial, nobody expects anything more of such ‘intelligence’. For Jakarta, the trials of the Bali bomb suspects are also an opportunity to distract attention from its current atrocities in Aceh, not to mention the embarrassment of not being able to meet the six-month deadline to wipe out the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) before the presidential elections.
The ‘light’ sentence on Abu Bakar will be used by Muslim politicians within the government at presidential elections next year, as evidence of their court’s independence. Vice-president Hamzah Haz is one such person. A day after the verdict on Abu Bakar, Hamzah told a gathering of heads of Muslim boarding schools in Java that the US is the ‘terrorist king’: "Actually, who is the terrorist, who is against human rights? The answer is the United States because they attacked Iraq. Moreover, it is the terrorist king, waging war," he said on September 3. Another presidential aspirant has also suddenly found his voice: "The verdict of Basyir is proof that JI does not exist," said Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of Nahdatul Ulama, the ‘moderate’ Muslim organisation whose Indonesian brand of Islam and cordial ties with some deposed GOLKAR leaders during Suharto’s rule have led many other Indonesian Islamic groups to emerge as alternatives. Muzadi went even to the extent of saying that the so-called JI is something made up by the Americans to corner the Muslims.
Abu Bakar Ba’syir, who is widely respected and popular in Indonesia because of his educational activities, is the kind of stumbling-block that Indonesian Muslims need to prevent Indonesian society from going back to the pancasila era. Concluding his defence, he said: "I have been brought to court not for corruption, killing or other criminal acts, but in connection with my activity demanding... the enforcement of the Islamic sharia in this country."
Singapore, America’s strongest ally in south-east Asia, together with Australia, which has huge political, economic and religious interests in the Indonesian archipelago, has been baying for Abu Bakar’s blood since the Bali bombing. Both governments have come up with various kinds of ‘investigative’ reports since then, alleging Abu Bakar’s ‘terror’ activities and the existence of Jemaah Islamiah as an offshoot of al-Qa’ida, none of which has been proven except through evidences procured from suspects jailed without trial by the Malaysian and Singaporean regimes . This explains why both Australia and Singapore publicly expressed disappointment with Abu Bakar’s four-year imprisonment, instead of a life sentence. Their barkings have reached pitch high in the aftermath of the JW Marriot hotel bombing in August, with an Australian MP having the audacity to call for a reform or restructure of Indonesia’s traditional Islamic education system.
Kevin Rudd, a foreign affairs spokesman for the Australian opposition party, did not mince his words when he called on his government to help fund Indonesia’s public school system in order to undercut the attraction of the religious boarding schools. Saying that a new generation of terrorists was coming up through Islamic boarding schools, he urged "a large scale donor assistance programme, based on Indonesian needs, to act as an antidote to the drift towards radical Islam."
In order to create hysteria, the kind we have grown familiar with since the beginning of the ‘war on terror’, the Western media create images of ‘dangerous terrorists’ on the run. Hambali, considered so important a person that George had to mention him in a radio address immediately after his arrest in Thailand, is one such person. So are other "dangerous terrorists" such as Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, arrested by Manila, Azahari Husin (a Malaysian university lecturer-cum-bomb maker), who is now apparently on the run, and many other individuals hitherto unknown. How and why the CIA has named them as some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world remains a mystery.
On September 7, the US government’s foreign asset controls official website announced the names of ten Malaysians as "dangerous terrorists" on a Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ notification list and ordered a freeze of their financial assets. Note that no mention is made of the possibility that these people may not even have any assets that are worth freezing.
When a country is far away, making it too difficult to attack as Iraq and Afghanistan were attacked, the tactic used by Washington is to brand it a ‘terrorist haven’, with the objective of driving its government into a panic. This explains why every time Uncle Sam announces that any citizen of southeast Asia is a dangerous terrorist, regimes such as Malaysia and Indonesia immediately arrest a group of bearded men who have the ‘terrorist mastermind’ look.
Perhaps some comments by a Malaysian political observer describe accurately the ‘war on terror’ in southeast Asia: "How are you known for terrorist activities? Easy. You need no proof; only a belief that a man is a terrorist. You build a fanciful background, none of which is based on proof but on intelligence suspicion, have it aired on CNN, the BBC and other networks. Bring in an instant ‘expert’ on terrorism, and hey presto you have a hard boiled terrorist..." So that is what governments are doing in order the deflect the Americans’ wrath.