I’m Back in Bali: Islam Persists–So Get Used to It

KUTA,INDONESIA-The Northern Europeans haven’t left Bali. Swedes, Germans and Dutch dot Kuta beach. Two couples are in matching thongs-the women’s pastel, the men’s dark green or black. The women put their tops back on to walk up to the flat, to the shade of flowering ficus trees, and get a beer. They seem to be riding out Muslim extremism just fine.

The Indonesians themselves are determined to move on. To a New Yorker, it’s shocking. The Sari Club is now a construction site. The bombing happened Oct. 12. On Dec. 6, men on a truck were moving cinderblocks onto the crime scene to rebuild, just a few feet from a refrigerator peeled open like a banana by the bomb and a couple of fading wreaths. At the Paddy’s Bar site across the way, where the first bomb went off-a suicide bomb that sent partygoers into the street that night to be killed by the car bomb-there was an arrangement of flowers, and nothing else.

The media center a block from the Sari Club was locked the morning I visited, though someone lay asleep on a mat on the floor. Apart from the T-shirts in the Kuta market that say “Fuck Terrorist,” it’s hard to know that the bombing even happened here. The Indonesians staged a cleansing ceremony at the Sari Club a month after the bombing and slaughtered some turtles and cows, but with that, the mourning of 190 victims was over. The cover of the Garuda in-flight magazine says boldly, “Back to Bali.” Five weeks after.

Indonesia may be in denial, but then we often seemed to wallow in it back home. Sept. 11 has generated endless cleansing ceremonies. The Times did its series of portraits on the victims; the memorials to the missing were still up in Grand Central when I left the city a month ago. In Oklahoma City, 160 died-fewer than in Bali-and more than seven years later, they are archiving the mementos that people leave on the fence.

There is an innocence about the American response to such events-why would anyone ever want to do this to the U.S.?-a refusal to believe that we are still in history.

Indonesia is very much in history, and terror is too familiar here. Since becoming a democracy in 1998, Indonesia has been plagued by sectarian violence. More than 10,000 have died since 1976. Of course, no one in the First World paid much attention till the Bali bombing. Oct. 12 has become Australia’s Sept. 11, and the Western press is filled with sinister reports about doings in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country.

I share the conventional prejudice against Islam, so when I got here I was prepared for the medieval, the absence of free speech and women’s rights. The conservatives instruct us that we are in a religious war. Andrew Sullivan wrote in the Sunday London Times lately that the Miss World riots in Nigeria must prove at last to cultural relativists that Muslim culture is dangerous, that there is a war on between civilizations.

A week in Indonesia, and that kind of formulation seems simplistic and foolish. This is a fairly permissive society. There are scantily clad women on television; you can buy The New York Review of Books (for $10) at bookstores in Jakarta. Muslims here are gearing up to celebrate Christmas. Like Nigeria, Indonesia is a big place with many angry divides along ethnic, religious and economic lines.

Of course, if you want to have a war between civilizations, there are plenty of extremists here who will play. But even moderate Indonesians fear that the world’s one superpower is planning some fresh crusade.

“Tell me what country runs the United Nations-answer me honestly,” an irritable Javanese man said to me on my Sydney-Jakarta flight, before supplying the predictable answer.

We arrived to news that extremists had bombed a McDonald’s in the province of South Sulawesi. There are constant alerts. The American Embassy in Jakarta was evacuated. They are building a blast wall at the international school in Jakarta, so that a car bomb won’t do too much damage.

The American government is trying to defuse Muslims’ fears about Western aims. Not long ago, the United States launched an expensive campaign to air television infomercials here about happy Muslim families in the United States. But the press wrote the commercials off as propaganda. Indonesians are too sophisticated for that kind of thing. People here know how hard it is for Muslim students to get visas into the United States, and they see the U.S. as being one-sided in the Middle East.

Anyone who thinks that the Palestinian issue has nothing to do with 9/11, or with the tolerance of terrorist networks in Islamic countries, should spend some time here. American policy in the Mideast is simply a constant in mainstream rhetoric about the United States, and though it may be a distraction from troubles here, the critics certainly have a point.

The biggest problem with the religious war is that Islam is not going away. This won’t be like the last war between civilizations, when Communism actually crumbled. Islam won’t do that. It’s not clear what Mr. Sullivan intends to do about all the backward-thinking people in Nigeria or Indonesia. Are we supposed to run those nations, too, along with Afghanistan and Iraq? What about the surprising number of women in djellabas you see walking along the streets in the western suburbs of Sydney? Invading Iraq will only make those people more fearful, make Indonesians more hospitable to the sort of idiots who bomb McDonald’s.

There are hopeful things happening in Indonesia that don’t get much notice back home. Lately, the American government has helped to broker a historic peace deal in the breakaway province of Aceh. It could end decades of violence. The Bali bombing brought about great cooperation between the Indonesians and the Australians. To begin with, Aussies took over the Denpasar Hospital in Bali, running sightseers and reporters out of the corridors.

After that, the Australian and Indonesian police worked well together. The arrests the Indonesians have made seem genuine. The papers in Sydney have questioned the spirit of the police actions-the fact that Amrozi, a leading suspect, was shown on television joking with the chief of police during an interrogation.

Here, that moment had a different significance. It said, Look, the police are not beating Amrozi up; they are not guilty of human-rights abuses. By such small steps, freedom may actually take hold here.

And bombing or not, Kuta beach feels more Western than Indonesian. It belongs to world culture, and most everyone seems to like it that way. Sex and marijuana are for sale on Legian Road under the Kelly Slater billboard. Quiksilver and Rip Curl shops charge more for a surfer T-shirt than a farmer makes in a week (the minimum wage in Jakarta is $65 a month). German women walk through the market in bikini tops.

The bombing and travel advisories have made the Balinese desperate-twice, a woman pursued me down the street offering to clip my fingernails-but Bali is too lovely a place to ever be abandoned by tourists. At my bungalow in the morning, a plate of papaya arrives cut in neat florette shapes. The serving girl is fine-boned, poised and full of preemptive apology for the fact that they don’t have avocado juice today.

Back at the Sari Club that afternoon, the media center was open but empty. Inside were two computers, both shut off, and a cold cup of coffee on a table, as well as a copy of the Jakarta Post .

Outside, Indonesian and Japanese tourists were taking photographs of one another at the crime scene as a policeman directed traffic. I opened the note atop one of the wreaths, then put it back when I saw I was prying:

“Will you forgive me for not being myself the last time I saw you?” Katie had written. “I will miss you heaps.”

Just then, there was rock played loud, and a truckful of young men drove by. Six or seven hung out the windows with surfboards strewn among them like pickup sticks. None had a shirt on, just Billabong shorts. The one at the wheel was swollen by beer and sun, and smeared with sunblock that made his burn look scorchier. The back gate was open so that a skinny guy could pan the site with a video camera, ignoring the wreaths, holding the camera on a pretty German girl. Ah yes, the Aussies are back.