A delicate balancing act

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am

Following the latest Bali carnage, Indonesia's record in the 'war on terror' is on trial. Yet, before reaching a verdict, the jury should consider the difficulties of fighting Islamic radicals in a country with 196 million Muslims and a democracy in its infancy.

Most analysts have advised President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to ban Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and introduce tougher laws. But this misses two important points: Indonesia is a complicated country, and terrorism cannot be fought in a standardised manner worldwide.

In short, its war on terror needs to be a balancing act. If, on the one side, Jakarta has to face the growing threat of evil radicalism, on the other it has to be mindful of people's feelings and remember the recent past, tainted with dictatorship.

JI is accused of the latest Bali bombings and a string of other attacks that have killed and maimed mostly Indonesians, since 2000. It is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and various other countries, but not by Indonesia - where it counts a small following in private Islamic schools in central Java. However, banning JI would not solve the problem. Instead, it could give the group a special aura that would attract a larger following, and drive followers underground.

On the political front, banning JI could lay the government open to accusations of being anti-Islamic and a tool for the western war on terror. The price for the president could be loss of various Islamic parties' support - no small matter.

Indonesia needs to improve its intelligence and anti-terrorism laws, but Dr Susilo would face major problems if he decided to introduce an American-style Internal Security Act (ISA), as has been suggested.

Indonesians earned their civil rights with the blood spilled in the last days of the Suharto regime. Now, the scent of any legislation that limits these rights has students, civil society and most of the media up in arms and on the streets.

Another worry is that an ISA would grant larger powers to the only partly accountable Indonesian security apparatus (the police, intelligence agency and military), which in turn would jeopardise the reform process started in 1998. Preventing attacks on soft targets, such as those carried out last Saturday, is a tough job for any country. The mission is virtually impossible for Indonesia, which spreads over 17,000 islands. The vast majority of Indonesia's Muslims have a moderate view of Islam and abhor violence. Those who blew themselves up in the restaurants in Kuta and Jimbaran were not cold-blooded murderers. Most likely they were poor, uneducated and impressionable young men - ideal prey for groups like JI. Mainstream Islamic leaders have tried to fill the knowledge gap.

If soft power is the long-term approach, then in the short term Indonesia should improve its intelligence service and set up a dedicated force to fight terrorism.

But Saturday's bombings should not blind the world to the merits of Indonesia. Since Kuta was first set ablaze on October 12, 2002, Indonesia has been active in pursuing, arresting, bringing to an open court and condemning dozens of terrorists.

The arrests were facilitated by increased co-operation and co-ordination between Indonesian police and their Australian, Malaysian, Singaporean and American counterparts.

The action has crippled the terrorist network, and many believe it is only a matter of time before officials arrest Azahari Husin and Noordin Mohammed Top, the two Malaysian terrorists who head the JI splinter group that has made a habit of painting Indonesia with blood. It can only be hoped that they get to them before it happens again.

Fabio Scarpello is a journalist and political analyst based in Indonesia for Adnkronos International, an Italian press agency that focuses on the Islamic world and terrorism