Opinion & Analysis

Bali: 20 Years On

Twenty years ago terrorism came to Bali, with bombs placed in night clubs killing more than 200 people, most of them Australians, but also two New Zealanders and a wide group of other nationalities, including 38 Indonesians. Graeme Acton takes a look back at the impact, and how Indonesia has changed. 

The spread of global Jihadist terrorism was brutally announced by the 2002 Bali bombings exactly 20 years ago. The attacks marked a significant moment in the relationship between Australia and Indonesia, and New Zealand was impacted of course, but the loss of 88 Australians cut deep in the wake of 9/11 where it seemed radical Islam was in some ways on the front foot against its perceived Western enemies. Australians couldn’t quite believe terrorism had come to strike them in such a blatant way, and for many it confirmed the worst - Australia was now an enemy.  

Australia's initial commemoration of the bombing was through a filter of profound grief, combined with a large dose of nationalism and national pride that was felt across the region. It lauded he victims and their country and pushed the view that the bombers were motivated by a desire not merely to destroy Australians, but the very basis of the  nation itself – freedom, democracy, justice and history.

The Bali Bombing Memorial in Kuta / photo Twitter

As such the bombings in Bali represented the absolute nadir of the Australia-Indonesia relationship, already extremely strained following the fallout from the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1999, and the subsequent Australian-led military nsertion of INTERFET into the country.

The last twenty years has seen much to applaud in attitudes on both sides of the relationship, but the issue of radical Islam in Indonesia is still one that takes many dimensions, and variations on a theme.

Of course there was a time in Indonesia where the iron fist of General Suharto kept radical elements in society at the margins, or buried deep in the Javanese heartland or on the distant Maluku Islands - almost invisible to the authorities.

But it had always been there of course, since the days of the Darul Islam organisation some seventy years ago.  Back then it came from a belief that Indonesian people needed to take strength from their numbers and rise up against a colonial oppressor to establish an Islamic state across the archipelago. 

The incarnation of that older movement that became Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)  arrived largely unheralded, and given the scant attention paid to the issue of Islamic radicalism across Indonesia at the time, the bombing in Bali in 2002 was probably always going to happen at some point. Some twenty years on, what if anything has changed in Indonesia, and what is the current trajectory for the new organisations that have sprung up to fill the void left by JI ?

Members of Indonesia's Densus 88 Police group have killed or arrested hundreds of JI suspects in the last two decades. / photo VOI

One constant in Indonesia is the overwhelming presence of the country’s huge mainstream Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama(NU) and Muhammadiyah, with their combined membership of over 100 million people. Both organisations provide a degree of stability as Indonesia continues its rise to becoming a significant regional power, with an increasing engagement with the west including New Zealand and Australia. Both of the major organisations are more effective in rural communities and have begun to struggle with urban Indonesian muslims looking for a different kind of community. 

But some Islamist groups are well involved in politics, leading Indonesian president Jokowi to not only crack down on a law and order agenda, but also to integrate more centrist Islamist figures and ideas into his government. with a conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin becoming Jokowi’s vice president in 2019. Pak Amin was formerly supreme leader of NU. Jokowi has also moved to silence the most radical Islamist leaders, banning the hardline Islamic Defenders Front in  2020 and putting its high-profile leader in jail. He remains incarcerated, but his latest offence was a breach of Indonesia's Covid regulations in 2021.

While Jokowi's critics were vocal in their condemnation over the loss of freedoms, the current government has made it significantly more difficult for radical Islamists to operate, while at the same time pushing on with economic and social reforms.  

In this climate radical Islam has little room to really take root, although as we saw in Bali, it takes just a handful of committed people to create significant carnage. Indonesia may now be a liberal and more relaxed form of Islam in action, but it’s not immune to the forces and ideas that have sparked militant Islam all over the Muslim world in the last decade – most notably in Syria and Afghanistan.

In villages and mosques across Indonesia the more radical arguments of those promoting direct action under the name of Islam can be debated alongside more peaceful ideas about the faith and how it best be practiced. The debate waxes and wanes as it always has, and on the sidelines remain issues like poverty, and a rising xenophobia directed at foreign workers in the country. 

But the major factor absent twenty years ago is the myriad of social media platforms allowing groups and individuals to connect with each other across the country. Over the last couple of years Indonesian police have arrested hundreds of people associated with JI and its offshoots, many of them were apprehended through hacking social media accounts, and many more used those accounts to avoid arrest.

As well as increasingly chasing and detaining those with a radical agenda, Indonesia is also now pushing to produce its own “moderate Muslims”. 

The Widodo government is currently heavily focused on the spread and acceptance of Pancasila, the five principles developed by former Indonesian President Sukarno as a state philosophy. At its heart, Pancasila advocates for strength through diversity.

The country’s new “International Islamic University” south of Jakarta was recently established under a national strategic project led by President Widodo, designed to provide the highest quality of Islamic education in the world and to win the battle of ideas with those on the fringe of Indonesian Islam who continue their attempts to “save the country” through violent action. .

Efforts like Indonesia's to make Islam workable in a liberal democracy are outside the usual norms of the Islamic world, where many nations remain under authoritarian control by religious leaders, business elites, or even royal families.

Both inside Indonesia and in the wider region lies the core issue of perception and understanding. Indonesian is no longer taught in any New Zealand Universities, and rarely mentioned in school settings. International field trips are almost always to another part of the Asia-Pacific, if not the UK and Europe. In this year's Perceptions of Asia  survey report conducted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, only 30 percent of respondents said they saw Indonesia as a "friend" to New Zealand . 

Ignorance of Islam is perhaps a major part of the issue and in 2022 we need to be able to grasp the multi-dimensional character of a religion that takes in more than a billion people in countries across the world. This process has started in New Zealand following the Christchurch Mosque shootings.

The best way to engage with radical Islam is to increase engagement with moderate Islam, by building as many connections as possible between New Zealand and Indonesia, be they in education, policing, diplomacy, trade or the arts - not to mention the promotion of tourism.

While the violence of Bali twenty years ago should not be forgotten, the issue of engaging productively with Indonesia as a nation should be being actively promoted an every way possible.   

* The opinions expressed are those of the author 


-Asia Media Centre