Friday, 12 October 2012

Sloppy thinking on Bali impedes mutual understanding

Bali bombing "mastermind", Imam Samudra,
executed by firing squad in 2008 in Indonesia.
Dumb, soppy copy from the Sydney Morning Herald today to mark the ten-year anniversary of the Bali terrorist bombings where 88 Australians tragically died. The broadsheet's headline is bad enough: 'Ten years on it is clear the human spirit vanquished darkness.' But there's more misguided thinking within the story, which is unworthy of a quality newspaper that otherwise claims to be objective and balanced. It's hard to know where the editorial writer acquired the cognates he uses in the piece, but maybe we can blame the government's concerted effort to turn the Bali bombings into a kind of new Anzac Day, an unthinking, xenophobic, wilfully blind "celebration" that aims to flatter lumpenproles throughout the nation. If the SMH is doing this kind of thing, I can only imagine what the tabloids are spewing out onto the screens of their dull-witted readers. It's hardly surprising that people who live in Asia - our region of the world, we're told time and time again - think Australia is, well, pretty much out of touch, inward looking, ignorant and not to be trusted.

The SMH has basically sucked up and regurgitated the stale propaganda that is still produced by hawkish entities like the US government. Other governments employ the same propaganda for their own ends. In Australia, ASIO's annual report gives prominence to the idea of what it calls "violent jihad ideology" to justify its continued existence. And encouraging popular sentiment serves the ends of such organisations because it shows that Australians unthinkingly, reflexively accept the official line produced by Western hawks. These are the same hawks who have kept international troops in Afghanistan - doing what exactly? - while the Islamists have regrouped and moved on to other places. And the same hawks actively promoted the invasion of Iraq, a country that had precisely nothing to do with 9/11, and kept international forces there for years while they worked out a way to exit with dignity. The "exit with dignity" strategy is also at work in Afghanistan. That more people are dying in this conflict is of no importance to Australia's leaders. Their primary aim is to bolster the historic US alliance because this serves Australia's national interests, as understood currently by both the Coalition and the Labor Party.

The SMH's editorial also serves out praise to the Indonesian government for having worked to locate, prosecute and punish the people who planned and executed the terrible attacks in the two nightclubs in Bali. But questions must be asked about why the terrorists felt the need to act as they did, and how Indonesia's government could have operated differently in order to cut them off beforehand. Imam Samudra and his co-conspirators are products of Indonesia's Islamic education system and cannot legitimately be merely demonised either by the Australian government or the Indonesian government without giving observers time to understand the context within which these men developed the cognitive apparatus necessary to enable them to spend such a long time devising a way to carry out a crime against humanity. The people involved did not just pop out of the head of some strange deity like magical figures out of classic myth, but grew up within a society that included certain narratives and specific markers of identity that encouraged them to take the path that led them to the streets of Bali, ten years ago today. These narratives and markers belong to the process of identity politics, which in Indonesia is clearly aligned closely with the religion of the majority of its people, Islam. Indonesia's government is ostensibly secular in nature, as are its powerful armed forces, but Islamic values are present not just within the Islamic schools such as the one Imam Samudra attended, but also within the texture of its laws and of its administrative apparatus.

With 200 million people Indonesia must have many different social forces operating on government and the law. It is certain that many Indonesians admire people like Imam Samudra. But what is the relationship between such people and the Indonesian government? It is worth asking why the terrorists took the path they did when other avenues might have existed by which they might have achieved the agency they so obviously desired, within the existing structures of governance, and within the broad framework of democracy. It is crystal clear that Islamic identity politics, which operates across the Muslim world, frequently involves the notion of the Caliphate, a "just" state where Muslims can live in peace and equality with their brothers and sisters. But how does this kind of thinking play out in the media in Indonesia, for example, and is it perceived by the Indonesian government as a threat?

When editorials like the one the SMH produced today merely demonise the Indonesian terrorists, creating that comforting "other" that national governments so eagerly strive to produce when faced with the task of coopting the support of their electorates, they close the door to the kinds of thinking that I outline in this blog post. This is not productive. It merely serves to emphasise the gap that separates Australians from the people living in its largest neighbour, and more problematically it operates to widen that gap. Tears for the fallen shed here at home and at the Bali bombing commemoration site fall on the wasteland of misunderstanding and suspicion that has always existed between our two nations. Shedding them might make us feel better, it might bestow support on the Australian government in its more hawkish moments, and it might justify who-knows-what oppressive measures by the Indonesian government as it works to promote its blueprint for society in that country. But you wonder how such an outpouring of sentiment actually, positively contributes to a deeper understanding between the people of Indonesia and those of Australia.

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