Agam's Gecko
Thursday, December 01, 2005

n weekends, if I'm around home or the office, I usually like to monitor the C-SPAN feed off the satellite dish. Weekends are the only time this is available, more or less consistently from late Saturday morning until 7am on Monday (with some evening cut-aways for news programs in Uzbek, Russian, Mandarin etc.). One can see good, absolutely neutral coverage of some very interesting events -- something greatly appreciated when one lives on the other side of the planet from where they are taking place. Last weekend for example, they showed two hours of the Canadian House of Commons debate on a no confidence motion against Paul Martin's Liberano government (rebroadcasting the recording made by our Canadian immitation C-SPAN, known as CPAC). On Monday of course, the Liberanos were soundly defeated when the actual voting was carried out, and Canadians are bracing themselves for a rare mid-winter campaign.

But sticking with C-SPAN through the weekend means that I'm not keeping an eye on the Indonesian news channel MetroTV. And while I'm glad to have had the chance to see that nice young Stephen Harper deliver his blistering indictment of the Liberanos' record of corruption and culture of entitlement, I did miss an important sign of the Indonesian government's commitment in a struggle for hearts and minds against our common enemy. On Saturday evening prime-time, MetroTV aired a one hour documentary (wai to Glenn) which contrasted the world-views of unrepentant terrorists, with those of their victims and other normal people.

As I've written many times before, the level of support for violent jihadist actions is very low in Indonesia (in my own experience). Never mind the atrocities in Bali, beheadings of Christian schoolgirls in Poso, or the Christmas wave of bombings of churches in 2000 -- I couldn't even find anyone that would say something positive about the Islamic Defenders' Front annual trashing of bars and pool halls during Ramadan. Of course such people exist, but they seem very few at the present time. But that's no reason for complacency, as radical Islamist teachers and polemicists continue their efforts to widen their appeal. So this "government-backed" documentary is an important sign that the Yudhoyono government is taking the threat seriously enough to engage itself on the battleground of ideas.

I looked up the schedule for that night, and see the title of the program was "Diantara Hitam dan Putih" -- "Between Black and White". Several of the 2002 Bali bombing terrorists were given the chance to state their case for violent jihad, and then respected Muslim figures rejected these views as un-Islamic. Ali Gufron, awaiting his death sentence, said, "Jihad is the best way to receive blessing in Islam." He claimed to be "truly proud to be called a terrorist". Imam Samudra, one of the leading members of the gang that killed over 200 innocent people in Kuta - Legian, said, "In any struggle, there are victims," and that the atrocity was a "balanced" response to the situation Muslims find themselves in. The only one of the gang to show remorse, Ali Imron was sentenced to life imprisonment. He is quoted in that brief news story as saying, "What I did in Bali was wrong. Don't follow in my footsteps. Believe me I know, because I have experienced it." Surviving victims of the bombing were also interviewed in the program. Drat, I wish I'd seen it so I could report a bit more fully on this, but I'll keep an eye out in case it's rebroadcast.

Another very good signal from Pak Susilo was his swift correction this week in the matter of Southeast Asia terror specialist Sydney Jones, of the International Crisis Group. Ms. Jones had been banned from the country during the last months of Megawati's government last year, apparently due to some articles she had written which either embarrassed or offended the government in some way. She had returned in July, apparently without problem (as I recall, the banning order had been for a period of one year). However after a brief trip to Taiwan, she was refused re-entry again last week, and had to divert once again to Singapore. This situation was certainly more embarrassing for the government than any of her research on terrorist networks, and when the president got wind of it, he quickly rescinded the order. It was later stated that the old order of the previous government was "no longer relevant," and that the immigration department had not been updated. I don't know if this might indicate some disagreements among ministers, or simply a case of bureaucratic disorganisation -- she was, after all, allowed to return just a few months ago. But these quotes don't exactly sound like there's complete unity on this:
No explanation had been given to her for the ban, but Home Affairs minister Hamid Awaluddin reportedly said Monday that she was deemed capable of swaying public opinion on terrorism and thus was a security threat.

Top security minister Adisucipto Widodo said that she was denied entry because of her "attitude", the Koran Tempo reported Tuesday.
I don't believe there is any other person with her depth of understanding of the terrorist networks operating in Indonesia. I have no idea just what "attitude" it might be that would offend Mr. Widodo, or in what way the sharing of her extensive research into these networks might "sway public opinion" so as to make Mr. Awaluddin unhappy. Unless he prefers this opinion to sway more in favour of terrorism, which seems incongruous to imagine coming from a Home Affairs minister.

Last month I referred to some analysis of her work on Winds of Change, here and here. And especially, anyone interested in this subject should try to view her presentation to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore a few months ago. It's not only an excellent talk, but the web presentation of her charts and maps in an easy to view format alongside the video is great. If there's any "attitude" driving Sydney Jones, it's one of deep commitment to constantly improving our knowledge and understanding of these networks. Read some of her reports on the Indonesia page of the International Crisis Group site (linked above). She should be returning to Jakarta today or tomorrow.

The shootout with Dr. Azahari and some of his gang last month led to further uncovering of disturbing information. Recovered computers and other materials from a "safe house" revealed pre-attack videos made by the latest batch of Bali bombers. While seeming to mimic the propaganda antics of Zarqawi's boys in Iraq or Palestinian terrorists' self-eulogies, this was a first for Indonesia. Also revealed was the original plan for the three year anniversary of the first Bali atrocity: they intended to send suicide bombers into the memorial event which was planned there. Surviving victims, families of victims, national and foreign government officials (including Australian foreign minister Downer) were targeted for death. The plan was revised due to heavy security precautions, and they went once again for the soft targets -- people having dinner in a restaurant and at beach-side cafes. This stuff has got to be a shocking wake-up call for Indonesian society.

It's possible I guess that I'm way off base with this, but I feel that the famously moderate Muslims of Indonesia will prove to be an important key to the necessary eventual reformation within Islam. A lot of the strident religious chauvinism that has unfortunately been increasingly seen as synonymous with Islam itself, is rooted in the Arab cultures of the region that Muslims look to as their holy land. It seems to me that if there is to be an answer to those few (but highly motivated) Islamists who strive to return to the glorious 8th century, that answer is likely to reside with those Muslims who already live in the 21st century, and want to keep it that way. By that I don't mean necessarily having all the latest modern inconveniences, for there are millions upon millions of Indonesians living without any of that. My dear friend Uddin and I used to ride through towns at night, where the only lights on were kerosene lanterns. Yet even while being that remote from technological "modernity," the people always struck me as very much aware of the world, and intensely interested to know more. Culturally (and this is just my opinion, natch), Indonesians on the whole seem to face forward, not backward.

I got to thinking about this after reading about the theories of a reformist thinker from the Arab world, in an article partially translated by the Middle East Research Institute (wai TigerHawk). The writer / researcher Sa'ad Al-Sowayan, who had his piece published in a Saudi newspaper last month, posits that the sexual repressions and hangups within Arab cultures are the prime nutrients for violent jihadist propaganda to take root. This propaganda is widely available in Saudi Arabia in the form of religious cassettes which are sold in ubiquitous specialty shops which are "outnumbered only by groceries." These motivational tapes are targeted specifically at teenagers, aimed at preparing them to accept jihad for its own sake, where jihad is a state of mind and a mode of living. "They want you to give up this foul and mean earthly life, renounce worldly pleasures, devote your life to Jihad, and seek to die in the Jihad battlefield so as to win martyrdom."

But the martyrdom is not a spiritual one -- its goal is pure lust. The promise of unfathomable pleasures in the afterlife with the Hoor Al-Een -- the virgins of heaven "with wide, lovely eyes" is a stark contrast with what is unattainable for these young men in the real world in their repressed Arab societies.
In their call for giving up this world in preparation for the hereafter, and through their description of the martyr's reward - they are trying to program the mind to accept as principle the idea of committing suicide by blowing up oneself. Whoever is convinced of the reward of lust awaiting him will not hesitate to commit suicide: He will seek death with no fear, focused on the pleasures of the hereafter as compensation for the worldly pleasures abandoned.

The sweetest thing for a teenager, especially in a conservative society like ours, is sex, and the discourse of the religious cassettes is directed toward these very youngsters in their sexual peak of life. They access these youth through the Hoor Al-Een, just as how the youth of our time were drawn to slide pictures of actresses and female singers. So should we not consider sexual suppression in conservative societies as one of the factors leading to such deviation?


Listen carefully to what these religious cassettes convey and you will find that the mythical supersedes the religious intent. They have converted this world to a filthy and mythical place and the Hereafter into a fabled utopia... They first divide the world into two parts: one belonging to God, which you are for, and the other to Satan, which you are against. The next step is to step up the value of the myth and draw the recipient into a world of mythical thinking in which rational thinking stops and the mind becomes receptive to suggestions and irrationalism.

Then again, maybe the phenomenon of Jihadists seeking martyrdom in order to win the Hoor Al-Een is just a symptom of a vein-deep disease within society, which is ravaging the cultural system. The disease I mean is the sexual phobia that Arab culture is suffering from. Before the Arabs solve their problems with their governments or before their governments solve their problems with terrorism, they must first solve their problem with the other sex.
Of course, these issues will have to be worked out within these Arab societies themselves. It's a very good thing to see that even in the relatively rigid Saudi society, the issue can be brought out into the open for discussion. I think it shows that the enabling pathology at work here, being driven forward by those with ulterior motives, doesn't originate with the religion but with the cultural baggage in some Arab societies. How many young men could be convinced to blow themselves up solely for the promise of sex in the afterlife, if they are able to have it anyway in the present one?

Islam came to Indonesia many centuries ago. It was adopted in a way that blended the new traditions with already existing ones, and it grew in accordance with the local environment. In a similar way that Mayan society, for example, adopted Catholicism by adapting it to their existing spiritual world-view and creating a new syncretism, the myriad traditional cultures in Indonesia did the same with Islam. The Javanese are mostly Muslims now of course, but most would be horrified if some radical cleric were to issue a fatwa against wayang performances (the Javanese shadow-puppet plays which tell the stories from Java's pre-Islamic Hindu civilisation, derived from the Indian Mahabarata epic). Or against gamelan music, or any other of their traditional performance arts. Under a Taliban-style sharia regime, these would be haram -- forbidden -- along with television, recorded music, photographs and anything else that brings people enjoyment. The very idea of Indonesians living this way is unthinkable.

But there are those who are trying to make it thinkable, and they are patient. They work relentlessly, indoctrinating children in certain pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) with the intolerant, chauvinist version of Islam. They prey on the impressionable, claiming one heart or one mind at a time. It's an uphill battle for them in a naturally tolerant society, but they take the long view. It's good to see that Pak Susilo - President Yudhoyono, if you prefer -- recognises the problem and is taking steps to prevent those hearts and minds from being tempted away from civilisation, and even hopefully, winning some back. Maybe it's time for some reverse evangelism too, in which some Indonesian modern Muslims could perhaps do some teaching to their Arab brothers.

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