TOPICS > World

In Indonesia, Mixed Views of Osama Bin Laden

BY Daniel Sagalyn  May 23, 2011 at 1:23 PM EST

Street vendor in Jakarta. All photos by Daniel Sagalyn

JAKARTA, Indonesia | In a nation with whom American officials would like to improve relations — and regard as a model for how countries should transition from authoritarian rule to democracy — the legacy of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is viewed with mixed emotions.

Leaders from two moderate Islamic organizations in Indonesia recently praised bin Laden, saying he symbolized a fight against injustice and the people of this country had no problem with him. The leader of a third major Islamic organization offered a more neutral assessment of bin Laden’s legacy.

“We do not consider him as a terrorist,” said Abdul Mu’ti, the secretary of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest mass Islamic organization. It has an estimated 30 million members and runs boarding schools throughout the country, in addition to providing other social services.

Speaking to a group of visiting American journalists this month in Jakarta, Mu’ti said “anyone who struggles to protect their country, their land, their dignity, in Islam is considered a mujahid,” a term that refers to those who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

When asked by reporters if bin Laden’s death was a positive development, A. Hasyim Muzadi, the secretary general of the International Conference of Islamic Scholars, said through a translator that “what is circulating now is information. Some information is that bin Laden was killed” in the past. At the same time, “some people believe that he didn’t die,” he said. Muzadi is also the former leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization with an estimated 40 million people.

Like Muhammadiyah, Nahdlatul Ulama is considered a moderate organization that provides social services and is committed to pluralism. In 2004, Muzadi ran for vice president on the same ticket as Megawati Sukarnoputri. Megawati was president of Indonesia from 2001 to 2004, and is the daughter of Sukarno, the first Indonesian leader after independence from the Dutch.

TotongThroughout a two-week trip to Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and the largest Muslim-majority democracy, this reporter encountered a number of Indonesians, from leaders of moderate Islamic organizations to artisans and journalists, who had sympathetic views toward bin Laden.

This benevolent view of bin Laden “doesn’t mean they support terrorism,” according to Sidney Jones, senior adviser at the International Crisis group and an expert on Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. “But it does underscore the power of the image that Osama bin Laden has here, and many other places as [a] selfless man who used the ‘weapons of the weak’ against a superpower,” Jones told the PBS NewsHour in an email, referring to terrorism and other forms of violence that do not require huge financial resources to carry out.

Unlike some countries in the Middle East, the form of Islam practiced in Indonesia is relatively tolerant, open and pluralistic. Many women wear a headscarf or “hijab” and dress modestly, but a large number of women do not cover their hair and are in Western garb. Some men wear religious head coverings, but the vast majority do not.

One major factor fostering dislike of the U.S. government and a positive view of bin Laden is America’s support for Israel, which is seen as highly repressive of Palestinians, according to William Liddle, an Indonesia expert who teaches political science at Ohio State University. “Whatever bin Laden did,” many Indonesians believe “he did it as a Muslim in a world in which Islam is threatened. Maybe terror is not the right way, but it’s understandable” in their view, he said.

U.S. government officials, speaking on background, also said American support for Israel was one of the biggest impediments to improving U.S.-Indonesian relations and Washington’s standing in the country.

University students and artisans interviewed in Jakarta widely criticized U.S. support for Israel, although some students said they were glad bin Laden had been killed. A number of students said bin Laden was largely irrelevant to their lives.

A man restoring a 20-year-old chandelier strung from a tree on Jakarta’s antique-filled Surabaya Street said in broken English that he didn’t like “Obama for killing Osama.” Totong, who goes by one name, asked why bin Laden was killed. When told that bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people and was responsible for additional terrorist attacks against Americans, Totong asked how many people had the United States and Israel killed.

One college student said she was “personally happy” bin Laden was killed because he was the “one guy” responsible for making “people see Islam in a bad way.”

Habib Rizieq SyihabU.S. journalists also interviewed the Indonesian leader of an Islamic group considered to be a radical extremist fringe group with a small following. Habib Rizieq Syihab, head of Islamic Defenders’ Front, questioned whether the leader of al-Qaida was truly guilty of committing crimes and acts of terrorism.

“If Osama bin Laden is proven guilty through [a] court trial that he committed terrorism, [then] we reject it,” he said. Still, “the problem is that it was never taken to the court. The prosecution has never been processed in a trial. We are not very sure Osama bin Laden was capable of committing terrorism.”

The Islamic Defenders’ Front holds little credibility in the eyes of the Indonesian public, according to Ohio State’s William Liddle.

“They are a direct-action organization, breaking up bars, closing restaurants during fasting month, shutting down rock-musician performances,” he said. The group “has a reputation as much for racketeering — sparing dens of iniquity whose owner pays them off — as for upholding and promoting Islamic law.”

Nonetheless, the notion that bin Laden should have been tried in court to determine his guilt is not confined to fringe groups. Muhlis Suhaeri, a journalist in Pontianak in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, questioned America’s right to violate Pakistani sovereignty during the raid against bin Laden, and echoed the view that the leader of al-Qaida should have been tried instead of killed. That way, people could truly weigh the evidence against him, he said.

A survey conducted by Gilang Reffi Hernanda, a 20-year-old student studying communications in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the Universitas Indonesia, found that eight out of 10 students in his department believed that “terrorism action is acceptable action.”

However, Gilang said that he and his own friends did not support political violence, and bin Laden was “not relevant” to their daily concerns.

Domestic debate over bin Laden’s legacy reflects the nation’s nascent democracy, according to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Jakarta skyline“In the reform era, because freedom is everywhere,” it’s possible “that sometime[s] there are movements in our society that in essence could endanger our social harmony, and tolerance, and unity,” the president told the group of visiting American reporters. “We cannot control the mind of the people. And in [a] democratic era, we do not try to go back again to the authoritarian regime [in which] we have to have one single perception on a particular issue,” said Yudhoyono, referring to the three decades of strongman rule under Suharto.

The president said he disagreed with the moderate and radical religious leaders’ view of bin Laden.

“The position of the government is quite clear,” Yudhoyono said. “Osama bin Laden is the head of al-Qaida, and this is a terrorist group. … And we have to combat all terrorist groups and organizations. Not only in Indonesia, but in the world.”