Rocking With Bin Laden in Jakarta

On the wall of this squatter's cafe in the Indonesian capital hangs an oil painting of Osama bin Laden. But this is no haven for fundamentalist Islam, as I will soon find out.

Street musicians have squatted in the buildings of the government's youth center in Bulungan, South Jakarta, for some 17 years. They have the blessings of the authorities because they help keep the area clean and safe. They had just opened a cafe with live music -- but no alcohol -- and invited me to check it out.

Electric guitars scream and singers belt out the lyrics of reggae, rap and rock 'n' roll.

Outside, and up and down this chain of islands that is home to Indonesia's 200 million Muslims, people have erected banners welcoming the month of fasting and prayer. During Ramahan, which ends on Dec. 6, many fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran rise to the surface.

In Jakarta, a curfew on nightlife has been imposed for Ramadan. Clubs and bars must shut by 1 a.m. Vigilante groups dressed in robes and turbans, armed with staves and swords and mounted on motorbikes, patrol the city to enforce the curfew.

By 1 a.m., the musicians are at the peak of their performance. Suddenly, the rock 'n' roll is interrupted by screaming whistles, sirens, shouting and the thundering of hundreds of motorbikes. The vigilantes have arrived to close us down.

These fundamentalist thugs are used to intimidating prostitutes and frightening club owners. But the squatters are tougher. The street musicians crank up their sound systems and shout back. 

From the cafe stage, a man with a theatrical voice wails a lunatic laugh into the microphone: "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" he booms, over and over. 

The motorbike riders seem baffled. They shout some more, but with a little less heart. Eventually they move out, revving their muffler-less engines, roaring away into the night in search of meeker victims.

These small-time thugs are not the only ones pushing their own interpretation of Islam. Real terrorists are waging a battle for the minds of lay Muslims. Indonesian authorities intent on capturing al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists must tread carefully. 

Abu Bakar Ba'asyir is the cleric accused by the West of being the spiritual leader of Jema'ah Islamiyah, the shady terrorist organization in Southeast Asia. While being held by police, who accuse him of involvement in separate bomb attacks and a plot to assassinate President Megawati Sukarnoputri, he writes a column in a Jakarta paper. 

In a recent article, he argued that the proof of faith is upholding Islamic law. He urges his readers to follow the path of the prophet Abraham, who blindly followed God's order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. His choice of subject might indicate that he wants to sharpen the differences between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In the Bible, the son to be sacrificed is Isaac, not Ishmael, as the Quran states. 

When the Indonesian police moved Imam Samudra -- the most important terrorist yet arrested in connection to the Bali bombs -- here for further interrogation, he managed to get a few words to the press: "Patience. Patience. God willing, this is not a dishonorable struggle. It is a Holy quest."

Police have linked Samudra to a series of other terrorist attacks and an armed robbery of a jeweler's shop. Samudra explained to his interrogators that taking the wealth of unbelievers is lawful in Islam. As for the many Muslims killed in the Bali nightclub blasts, he said: "It was their own fault to be in a sinful environment. But, God willing, (they) will enter Paradise." 

Another alleged terrorist had a poem to his wife published by a Jakarta daily. "Don't be sad that I have to leave you," he wrote. "One day you will be proud to have known me." 

It is obvious that the terror suspects know how to play the media and paint themselves as humane fighters of "real Islam." They refer to scripture with such certainty that many doubt their guilt. After all, it is indeed lawful to take an enemy's wealth in an Islamic war (though it is unlawful to harm women, children, the elderly, religious leaders, buildings, plants or animals). It is unlawful to engage in sinful activities. A jihad is truly a Holy War every Muslim must fight. 

The terrorists never mention that the greatest jihad is the war waged against the evil in one's self. 

Whenever the war against terrorism is presented as the United States' war against Islam, the terrorists' views become more widely accepted. There might be only a small core of hardened fanatics who resort to large-scale killing, but there are thousands and thousands of "petty terrorists" who enjoy intimidating and collecting protection money from "sinful businesses." 

Here at the squatters' cafe, Osama bin Laden earns a spot on the wall for standing up to U.S. imperialism -- not for his religious views or for his role in the atrocities of 9/11. 

A small number of Muslim intellectuals here do speak out against fundamentalism -- namely the loose group around Dr. Nurcholis Madjid, known as the propagandists for "Liberal Islam" -- but they are an elite few. America should empower moderate Muslims by supporting moderate ulamas -- respected religious scholars who often give advice to Muslim leaders. 

The confrontation with the motorbike gang showed that there is another way to fight fundamentalism. As Otig Pakis, an actor and performance artist at the cafe tells me with a grin: "You've got to be crazy when you face the fundamentalists. Crazy people do not have to follow Islamic law."

Bramantyo Prijosusilo ( is a freelance writer and artist living in Jogja, Java, Indonesia.


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