Slide show at a pro-bin Laden rally in inner-city Jakarta last night.

Three days after the world learnt of Osama bin Laden’s death, tensions last night were running high at the office of the fundamentalist Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam) in Central Jakarta.

More than a thousand observant Muslims gathered to vent their frustration at the United States, condemning President Barack Obama as a terrorist and declaring bin Laden a hero.

The gathering joined in frequent pantomime-like chants condemning Obama, the US and Israel that had all the hallmarks of a true-believers socialist rally in other parts of the world.

The group, consisting mostly of young and middle-aged men donning peci, the hat traditionally worn by Muslims in south-east Asia, spilled out of the study centre of the FPI, a religious and political organisation that has reached out to Indonesian Islamists dismayed at the softer form of the religion practised by their countryfolk.

But the rally also exposed a contradiction that has emerged in the seething anger of bin Laden’s fellow travellers. While on one hand condemning America’s treatment of bin Laden, they also challenged the evidence that he was dead.

One speaker presented a slide show that demonstrated — correctly — that the supposed photo of bin Laden that circulated rapidly after his death was the product of computer trickery. A flyer on the issue circulating at the rally falsely claimed the photo was circulated by the US government. It went on to sprout conspiracy theories of electoral imperatives and political propaganda to bolster its case.

This was a crowd upset not just at the death (deep in their bones, I suspect they believe this to be the truth) of bin Laden, but also at the celebratory response of Americans. One speaker drew a comparison between those celebrating and Amrozi, the “smiling assassin” executed over his involvement in the 2002 Bali bombing.

In an oddly endearing footnote to last night’s gathering, the key speakers invited journalists to the front of the room to ask questions. But stared down by several hundred pairs of eyes, their owners worked into an angry stupour, only correspondents from Bloomberg and Al Jazeera were game to speak up.

While the FPI centre was festooned with imagery celebrating bin Laden and condemning Obama, so far these images and their message appears limited to Indonesia’s fringes, physically and psychologically.

As a secular democracy with a majority Muslim population, Indonesia and its leaders need to undertake a careful balancing act, signalling its commitment to liberal values but avoiding antagonising the country’s powerful Muslim activist groups.

Applied to the death of bin Laden, the formula involved public statements condemning terrorism and renewing Indonesia’s commitment to fighting acts of extremism, but steering clear of any direct mention of bin Laden.

Indeed, in the days since bin Laden’s death many world leaders have taken the chance to publicly welcome his demise, but Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instead offered up a spokesman to meekly declare: “It will be good for the nation, people and government of Indonesia  to work together to free ourselves from terrorism.”

Bin Laden’s death also has another dimension for Indonesia. Abbottabad, the town of bin Laden’s last hurrah, was the site of the arrest earlier this year of suspected terrorist Umar Patek. Just yesterday, the Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro revealed that Patek had been in Abbottabad to seek a meeting with bin Laden.

It’s little wonder that Indonesia watchers and government security figures have warned that the capture of bin Laden increases the chances of a terror attack on Indonesian soil.  If such an attack does eventuate, rallies of incitement such as that last night in inner-city Jakarta will doubtless be a major factor.

Peter Fray

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