Indonesia recently witnessed a pair of dramatic releases: one a radical Muslim cleric from prison, the other a saucy men’s magazine from its editors. Both Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Playboy are now out on the streets and in the public eye, but neither is as significant as its opponents claim. Their releases and the public debate to which they have contributed, however, cut straight to the heart of the ongoing struggle for Indonesia’s self-identity – a struggle which has taken a dramatic turn of late.
Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is a radical Muslim cleric who was convicted of blessing the original 2002 Bali bombing, and suspected by some of providing much more. His name is on a UN list of terrorists, and undoubtedly Indonesia and the rest of the world would be safer if he were still in prison.
But his release in itself is not, as some charge, evidence that Indonesia is becoming more radicalized. Ba’asyir was released for the simple reason that the law required it: he had completed his 30-month sentence.
Indonesia’s government would undoubtedly prefer to see Ba’asyir languish in jail, but without any legal measure to justify continued detention, it had little option but to release him. Having done so, the government has been quick to impose a travel ban, freeze his bank accounts, and make clear that it will monitor his activities closely. Ba’asyir’s release is undeniably unfortunate and possibly dangerous – but it is the consequence of legal proceedings, not any sudden radicalization of Indonesia.