In the next day or so, Indonesia’s Abu Bakar Bashir, the so-called ‘spiritual head’ of Jema’ah Islamiya which launched the 2002 Bali bombing which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, will be released from prison. He will be released under a presidential pardon by President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo.
Unsurprisingly, Bashir’s impending release has generate much anger and hurt, especially among survivors and families of the Bali bombing. Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called on President Jokowi to ‘show respect’ to Australians’ feelings on this issue.
The problem is, as mad or as evil as many might reasonably believe Bashir to be, he was actually released from prison in 2006 for his role in the Bali bombing, and also that of Jakarta’s Marriott Hotel and the Australian Embassy. He was released after serving less than two years, and was later cleared of the conviction.
Bashir’s role in the Bali bombing was as ‘godfather’ (in the mafia sense) to the process, but he did not plan it – although he approved of such attacks – and is believed to have not known about it in other than the most sketchy details. This conviction was subsequently overturned on appeal in 2006.
What Bashir is now being released from prison for, in acknowledgment of his personal frailty at 81 years of age, is his role in the organization and actions off the post-Jema’ah Islamiya group Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT). JAT was formed in 2008 out of the ‘bombing faction’ of JI, after a heavy police and military crackdown on the organization in which numerous members were killed and others jailed.
Many surviving JI members eschewed bombings and other forms of violence as primarily hurting Indonesian Muslims, and because they thought the method counter-productive to their goal of creating an Islamic caliphate in the archipelago. The surviving ‘bombing faction’, however, drew in new recruits and established a new training base in the jungles of Aceh, hoping the heavily observant Muslim province would provide them with cover.
In fact, their presence was reported to former Free Aceh Movement guerrilla officer and then elected provincial governor, Irwandi Yusuf, who helped organize the raid on the JAT training camp. Bashir was subsequently convicted of helping organize numerous JAT attacks and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. It from those charges that he is now being released.
Two questions therefore arise: why is Morrison calling for Indonesian government ‘respect’ on this matter, and why is Bashir being released early in any case? The answer to the first question is that, assuming the prime minister is not so abysmally advised that he does not know the difference, he is still obliged to pander to generally poorly informed public sentiment given the race to the Australian elections has, in effect, started.
The second question has a not dissimilar answer. President Jokowi goes to the presidential elections in April and, while currently favored to win against his opponent, ‘hard man’ Prabowo Subianto, the race will be tight, not least because Jokowi has been a lack-lustre president.
Islamism in Indonesia is on the rise, and Jokowi’s running mate for the Jakarta 2014 governorship, ethnic Chinese Basuki Tjahaja ‘Ahok’ Purnama, was pushed from office in 2017 on the back of an Islamist-inspired campaign, from which he was eventually charged with blasphemy. That campaign against Ahok was supported by Prabowo, and Jokowi was at pains from 2017 on to distance himself from Ahok and to shore up his own Islamic credentials.
Indeed, for a politician modelled as a moderate and a reformer, Jokowi’s running mate for the April presidential elections is deeply conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin. Among other things, Amin testified against Ahok in his ‘blasphemy’ trial, for which Ahok was convicted and jailed.
Jokowi came to the presidency on a wave of populist but somewhat ephemeral support. His lead in the last campaign fell by over 40 per cent and he won wit 53%, then also against Prabowo. This time Jokowi is pulling out as many populist stops as he can find.
Releasing an old Muslim preacher from prison – despite his history over overseeing horrendous crimes – is but the most recent. In this calculous, apart from its irrelevance to the reason why Bashir was in jail this time, ‘respect’ for Australia just doesn’t count.