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Why Ask Why? By: Christopher Hitchens
Slate | Wednesday, October 05, 2005


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The return of murderous nihilism to Bali is highly instructive. It shows, first, that the fanatics of Islamism don't know how to stop. And it also shows that they never learn. How can Jemaah Islamiyah, which almost ruined Indonesia's economy by its filthy attack three years ago, possibly have tried to repeat the same crime in the same place? If we look for answers to this question, we shall find answers that completely discredit the current half-baked apologies for terrorism.

I remember going to Bali from Jakarta in the summer of 2003. I had already toured the wreckage of the Marriott Hotel in the capital city, which was blown up by a suicide team just as I arrived, slaying several Muslim cab drivers who were waiting in line outside. The rage of the local population was something to be seen: The widows of the dead men were calling for the perpetrators to be tortured before they were executed. In Bali, which is a more mild and temperate place, a huge candlelit march had followed the bombings that had devastated the tourist hangouts in Kuta. I made a point of going to Legian Street, which had been the "ground zero" of this fiery atrocity, and of attending the opening of Paddy's Bar Reloaded, where so many genial Australians had been foully incinerated. The prevailing view was that JI had isolated itself and that the trial of the perpetrators would expose them to popular contempt—which indeed it did.

But if JI were rational, it wouldn't have attacked the bars and clubs and beaches of Kuta and Jimbaran in the first place. Indonesia is a mainly Muslim society, whose government takes a stern line against the war in Iraq and even Afghanistan. Its people, who are astonishingly hospitable to all foreigners, depend in millions of cases on tourism to make the difference between indigence and the minimum wage. Its elections feature Muslim political parties, many of them quite austere in their propaganda. Why on earth, then, would a fundamentalist group wish to bring discredit upon itself and ruin upon its neighbors by resorting to random slaughter?

Never make the mistake of asking for rationality here. And never underestimate the power of theocratic propaganda. The fanatics look at the population of Bali and its foreign visitors and they see a load of Hindus selling drinks—often involving the presence of unchaperoned girls—to a load of Christians. That in itself is excuse enough for mayhem. They also see local Muslims following syncretic and tolerant forms of Islam, and they yearn to redeem them from this heresy and persuade them of the pure, desert-based truths of Salafism and Wahhabism. (One of the men on trial in Bali had been in trouble before, in his home village, for desecrating local Muslim shrines that he regarded as idolatrous.) And then, of course, Australians must die. Why would that be? Well, is it not the case that Australia sent troops to help safeguard the independence of East Timor and the elections that followed it? A neighboring country that assists the self-determination of an Indonesian Christian minority must expect to have the lives of its holidaymakers taken.

Do not forget that on Aug. 19, 2003, a gigantic explosion leveled the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, which then served as the Iraq headquarters of the United Nations. The materials used to do this were of a high military grade not available to any random "insurgent" and certainly came from the arsenals of the fallen regime. The main target—and principal victim—was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the dashing Brazilian who had been sent by Kofi Annan to reanimate the U.N. presence in Iraq. De Mello had been the most devoted and humane of the world body's civil servants and had won himself golden opinions in Cambodia, Lebanon, Sudan, and the Balkans. But it was his role as U.N. supervisor of the transition in East Timor that marked him for death. A communiqué from al-Qaida gloated over the end of "the personal representative of America's criminal slave, Kofi Annan, the diseased Sergio de Mello, criminal Bush's friend." It went on to ask, "Why cry over a heretic? Sergio Vieira de Mello is the one who tried to embellish the image of America, the crusaders and the Jews in Lebanon and Kosovo, and now in Iraq. He is America's first man where he was nominated by Bush to be in charge of the UN after Kofi Annan, the criminal and slave of America, and he is the crusader that extracted a part of the Islamic land [East Timor]."

Consider this, look again at the awful carnage in Bali, and shudder if you ever said, or thought, that the bombs in London in July, or the bombs in Baghdad every day, or the bombs in Bali last Friday, are caused by any "policy" but that of the bombers themselves. Note the following:

1) East Timor was for many years, and quite rightly, a signature cause of the Noam Chomsky "left." The near-genocide of its people is an eternal stain on Indonesia and on the Western states that were complicit or silent. Yet Bin Ladenism wants not less of this killing and repression but more. Its demand to re-establish the caliphate is a pro-imperialist demand, not an anti-imperialist one.

2) Random bombings are not a protest against poverty and unemployment. They are a cause of poverty and unemployment and of wider economic dislocation.

3) Hinduism is considered by Bin Ladenists to be a worse heresy even than Christianity or Judaism or Shiism, and its adherents, whether in Bali or Kashmir, are fit only for the edge of the sword. So, it is absurd to think of jihadism—which murders the poor and the brown without compunction—as a movement against the rich and the "white."

So, what did Indonesia do to deserve this, or bring it on itself? How will the slaughter in Bali improve the lot of the Palestinians? Those who look for the connection will be doomed to ask increasingly stupid questions and to be content with increasingly wicked answers.

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Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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