Global antiterrorism effort contributing to Bashir’s rising “celebrity status”?

Updated On: Jul 07, 2006

The global antiterrorism effort appears to be backfiring, drawing a greater divide between Muslims and what radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir terms “others” [Westerners, Christians, and Jews]; propelling previously little-known hardliners like Bashir to celebrity status and expanding his support base.

Following his release from prison, militant cleric Bashir has steadily expanded his political clout, attaining celebrity status in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.  On his release, hundreds of supporters from various hard-line Islamic groups gave him a hero's welcome. 

Given the current climate in which Australia and US’ leaders have explicitly expressed their dismay at the threat posed by Bashir’s release, it is increasingly difficult to recall that in the world before September 11, 2001, Bashir was actually an unknown.  Unlike more moderate Muslim groups like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, Bashir does not have millions of supporters.  His attainment of “celebrity status”, which inaccurately made him out to be an important Islamic leader in Indonesia, came only after he was associated with the 2002 Bali bombings.  Thereafter, his “celebrity status” grew, with the international media labelling him the spiritual leader of Jamaah Islamiyah (JI).  He became seen to be very dangerous man who could pose a considerable threat to the United StatesEnglandAustralia,SingaporeThailand and the Philippines.

Nevertheless, Bashir’s unique personality has been a magnet for a small conservative group of Muslims who have found in Bashir a means of self identification and expression.  It is understandable, therefore, that some western mass media and governments were alarmed at the release of the cleric.  Worried that Bashir would enjoy a personality cult because of his fight against the “infidels”, they argued he would provide a major boost to the jihadist movement and more terror attacks would occur.  Sometimes, they also used Bashir as a means to stigmatise Islam as a threat to democracy and peace.

Not surprisingly, with the global antiterrorism effort targeting JI increasingly being perceived as an attack on the entire Islamic community, even moderate Muslims, who strongly disagree with the hardliners, are unhappy with the antiterrorism drive spearheaded by Western nations.  By bowing to domestic pressure to demonstrate his displeasure at Bashir's release, Australian Prime Minister Howard fanned the wrath of both the hard-line and moderate Muslims.  This type of international perception is what Bashir has very ingeniously capitalised on to gather more support from Muslims in Indonesia, including amongst moderate Muslims. 

Indonesian analysts say that had the international mass media and western leaders not explicitly and publicly shown their anxiety over Bashir, he might have lost his case against a western conspiracy and support for him might not have not been as wide as it is today.  Instead, Bashir was able to use their public anxiety over his release to convince the entire Islamic community, particularly his supporters, that his arrest was a conspiracy of the “others” -- and that the Indonesian government had bowed to the “others”.

For now, it’s hard to say how Bashir’s increasing celebrity status will impact defence cooperation between Indonesia and Australia, and the greater fight against terrorism.  Officials have said talks on bilateral defence cooperation will begin this month and are expected to conclude by end 2006.  What is clear is that after the strain in bilateral ties sparked by Papuan asylum-seekers and the release of Bashir, officials from both countries have often stated their understanding that while the two countries may not share the same point of view, bilateral cooperation could still continue in shared interests, objectives and collaborations.


RI, Australia to start talks on defense coop (ANTARA, 5 July 2006)

Ba'asyir expands his clout (The Jakarta Post, 4 July 2006)

Terrorism and Ba'asyir's celebrity status (The Jakarta Post, 4 July 2006)