Jokowi’s Big Blunder

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – President Joko Widodo’s decision last Friday to announce that Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, would be released early from his fifteen year prison term for his involvement in terrorist-related activities, sparked a intense debate in Indonesia, not to mention a furor in foreign capitals.   Equally disconcerting was a statement by Yusril Mahendra, a legal advisor to Jokowi, who declared Bashir would be given unconditional release. Then, in an attempt to tame the president’s critics, Indonesia’s security minister, Wiranto, hastily put together a press conference the following Monday, intimating that Bashir’s release was not a certainty and his case would be subject to ‘other aspects’.

Regardless, the damage has been done.  Bashir, who was considered to be the mastermind behind the gruesome 2002 terrorist attack in Bali that caused the deaths of over two hundred tourists and locals, many of whom were Australian, is an infamous name in the annals of terrorism.  For an Indonesian president to even suggest he could be released early is sufficient cause for outrage.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made it clear that his country would protest if Bashir were released.  One Australian, who lost several close friends in the 2002 bombing, was quoted in the press, saying “it is truly devastating news as effectively he [Bashir] gets on with his life whilst everyone else suffers.”

Others too, have good reason to be upset with the president’s announcement.  Not only Australian families, but Indonesian families of loved ones who were lost in the country’s worst terrorist attack in its history have had old wounds reopened.

Jokowi, who said ‘this release was decided because of humanitarian considerations and also related to his health care”, is being disingenuous.  Why, his critics are asking, must he show mercy for somebody like Bashir, and how does it relate to the upcoming elections?  The president’s men have sworn the plan to release Bashir was free of political motivation, yet even the most simple-minded of voters could surmise Jokowi calculated his ploy could boost his popularity with conservative Muslims.

If, in fact, Jokowi were banking on the hopes a release for Bashir would win over conservative hearts and minds, this only shows he is ignorant about Islam and the realities of terrorism.  Being a conservative Muslim, such as paying strict adherence to religious rituals and beliefs, is an entirely different matter from being supportive of figures such as Bashir and his organization’s acts of terror.

On the contrary, an overwhelming majority of Indonesians understand Islam teaches tolerance and peace.  Muslims, both in Indonesia and abroad, dislike terrorist networks such as JI and the Islamic State because they know how little their practices have in common with their faith and how terrorists’ slaughtering of innocent people has caused tremendous damage to the reputation of Islam in the West.

This is backed by numerous studies profiling terrorists, which have found they typically have a poor understanding of their own religion.  This also explains why they are vulnerable and prone to clerics who preach the virtues of violence.  Ignorance, in other words, is an essential ingredient in the makeup of a terrorist.

After seeing the backlash caused by championing Bashir’s release, Jokowi and his men have been trying frantically to backpedal and hide behind the legal issues.  There is a proper legal process for early release of convicts for sure—before Bashir can be freed, he must first pledge loyalty to the state and its secular ideology, Pancasila.  Numerous talk shows, mostly hosting guests who are part of the Jokowi camp, are filling airtime with arguments that if Bashir meets those legal requirements, then there is nothing wrong with letting such an old and frail man spend the rest of his days at home with his family.

What Jokowi fails to understand is the law is not the real issue.   Even if the Jokowi administration follows proper procedures before releasing Bashir, the president has made a huge blunder.  Most people don’t care if Bashir disclaims his dream of Indonesia becoming part of a greater Islamic caliphate and he swears allegiance to secularism.  Neither do they care about his age or state of health.  What they care about is justice.

We can’t say we are surprised.  Jokowi has consistently used legal mechanisms to criminalize his political opponents and critics while showing leniency towards high-profile convicts involved in heinous crimes and corruption.  He has also shown he is unwilling to use his powers to order investigations into serious human rights cases of the past that could implicate people inside his cabinet and inner circle.   How, then, are we to react when the president argues his decision to consider the release of Bashir is based on humanitarian grounds?

There are reports that politicians inside the Jokowi coalition are concerned that the blowup of the Bashir case will cost the president votes in April’s elections.  They should be concerned.   In the final analysis, voters are a lot smarter than Jokowi realizes.