View from Jakarta

In Muslim capital, Osama bin Laden’s death was no big deal

In the middle of a street bazaar in Jakarta on May 1, my sister nudged me and held up her cellphone. “Osama Bin Laden has been killed” the text message from her husband’s employer read. “Demonstrations by hardliners can be expected in the following days.” The message also recommended individuals stay away from crowded areas. Right.

This would be a little hard to do, since we were in the middle of a city of 22 million that was also the capital of a nation, Indonesia, with more Muslims than any other country in the world.

But we continued with business as usual—taking my sister’s children to school, going to malls (a major pastime in Jakarta) and sightseeing. Indonesians continued business as usual as well, with little noticeable indications a major figure in the Muslim world had been killed.

To be sure, there was reason for concern. Just before Easter this year, officials had uncovered a plan to pipe-bomb a local church as part of a series of attacks on Western institutions. Indonesia is also home to the leader of the Southeast Asia jihadi movement, Abu Bakar Bashir. Bashir has been linked to Al Qaeda, and his followers helped plan several terror attacks, including one in Bali that killed more than 200.

As part of this extremism, during the week of bin Laden’s death, his supporters held a memorial service in Jakarta. According to news reports, the rally included several chants of “Destroy America.”

Although the event took place in the middle of the city, as far as the hearts and minds of most locals, it seemed to be more on the extreme edge of things. Islam is certainly prevalent in Jakarta—frequent daily calls to prayer in the streets; the commonly worn head covering for women, the hijab; the minarets poking into the sky along with high-rises, shopping malls and hotels. But not so prevalent is the type of Islam that preaches violent hatred of Americans—though the U.S. Embassy has had protesters waving pictures of bin Laden.

Instead, Indonesians constantly greeted us warmly and with genuine interest and curiosity. On my last day in the city, my sister and I walked through the narrow back streets of the old port neighborhood, trailed by an endless succession of laughing children. Many asked us to stop and take their picture. At one point we came across a madrassa—an Islamic school—and again the children popped up from their outdoor lesson with wide smiles and many questions. About the only time we encountered hard looks was when stumbled across a mosque just as people were arriving to pray, but I’m guessing it is because we were in the way.

And away from individual encounters, Western-style consumerism and culture for better or worse is also thriving. Just before I arrived, Justin Bieber performed in Jakarta. For the privileged, high-end malls are filled with Jaguar dealers, Starbucks and Louis Vuitton. For the less privileged, pirated DVDs and 80 cent knock-off T-shirts for “Indonesian Gap” are also abundant, though not exactly cheap in a place where it is not uncommon to make $2 a day.

Destroy America? In Indonesia, a few pockets of radical Muslims may embrace this cause, but as for the rest, such hostility just gets in the way of Justin Bieber and pirated Glee DVDs.