An Open Letter to Abu Bakar Bashir
Dear Abu Bakar Bashir,
I read a news article that you recently urged Indonesia’s Muslims to attack the US Embassy in Jakarta, because of a contemptible, provocative anti-Islamic film made by a filmmaker in the United States. “What happened in Libya can be imitated,” you announced. “If it is defaming God and the Prophet [Muhammad], the punishment should be death.” As a born and raised American residing in Jakarta, I received a text message from our embassy on Thursday, warning me and fellow US citizens that US Embassy in Jakarta and consular offices in Surabaya, Medan and Bali would be closed on Friday for safety concerns.
You issued your call for attacking the US Embassy from your jail cell. Apparently, you think this is a good idea, even though you’ve been imprisoned because of your role in organizing the 2002 Bali suicide bombings, which murdered 202 people. But since you believe the US Embassy staff in Jakarta also deserve death, allow me to first describe who exactly your followers would be attacking, if they decide to follow through with your request:
Your followers would be attacking your many fellow Indonesian Muslims who also work side-by-side with Americans in the embassy, in the areas of advancing Indonesia’s science and technology, economic growth, education, environmental conservation, and most recently, anti-human trafficking. I have personally met many of them, and I can assure you that they are by and large friends of Islam.
Your followers would be attacking the office of the US Ambassador to Indonesia, Scot Marciel. Like his counterpart the late US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens who was killed by Islamists in Benghazi on September 11th, Ambassador Marciel is one of the greatest advocates and allies whom Muslims could ever have. He has logged hundreds of miles of travel throughout the archipelago, visited mosques, madrassas and Islamic organizations, promoted interfaith harmony between Indonesian Muslims and non-Muslims, opened constructive dialogue with Muslim leaders and imams like yourself, championed bilateral trade and foreign direct investment in Indonesia, overseen millions of dollars in American humanitarian aid directed to Indonesian communities, and personally worked hard to strengthen Indonesia’s economy and its role in the international system.
Your followers would be attacking the staff of the US Agency for International Development, which is housed in the embassy. USAID staff and contractors have improved thousands of Indonesian Muslims’ lives by tirelessly laboring through dozens of projects in the areas of educational advancement, healthcare, disaster relief, poverty reduction, youth development, biodiversity protection, and humanitarian assistance from Sumatra to Jakarta to the Maluku islands to Papua. USAID staff have also championed inter-faith cooperation and peace-building activities between Muslims and non-Muslims, by focusing on super-ordinate goals and common ground — not on the petty differences that divide us.
Your followers would be attacking the embassy staff who collaborate with the US-Indonesia Society, the American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation (AMINEF), the Joint US-Indonesia Council for Higher Education, the @america cultural center, the US Mission to ASEAN, the government of Indonesia, the ASEAN Secretariat, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Peace Corps, and numerous Indonesian NGOs, universities, charitable foundations, companies, multi-laterals and civil-society organizations that have been striving to make Indonesia a better place to live — for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Our President, Barack Obama, who lived here in Jakarta as a child, recently made the following comments about the hateful YouTube video that spurred you to issue your call for violence: “I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths. We stand for religious freedom. And we reject the denigration of any religion – including Islam.” Like him, most fellow Americans and I feel the same way. This is why the federal police in California are currently interrogating the misguided creator of that repulsive, deliberately provocative video. Both the United States and the international Muslim community are quite well-aware of the long history of incidents that have caused mistrust and tensions between our two communities, but America has never been at war with Islam — only violent extremism in all forms. I hope you see that America’s friendship with the global Muslim community has been growing.
In a changing international system where all actors are increasingly inter-dependent, when I see Americans and Indonesians working together, I’m inspired to advance our bilateral relationship as well. In all of my years of traveling the Americas, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, some of the Indonesian Muslims whom I’ve met are a few of kindest, most hospitable and authentic people I have ever encountered on this planet. The national motto of Indonesia is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” which is parallel to our own motto: “E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One.” I can confidently rest assured that the vast majority of Indonesian Muslims believe in inter-faith cooperation, peace-building and cross-cultural respect, and that they don’t think or feel the same way you do.
I urge you to call off your followers and lead them away from extremism. Our responsibility as human beings is to reduce suffering, not increase it, and I hope you change your mind about the feasibility of violence.
Niruban Balachandran is an author, international speaker and foreign policy expert from Los Angeles, California.