May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Bush, Osama and the planet

These two scholars of Indonesia exchanged emails early November 2001 about the terrorist attack in New York on September 11. The exchange began with a draft article Liddle wrote for a newspaper. Extracts:

Liddle: 'Talking With Indonesian Muslims' (draft article for New York Times)

Indonesian Muslims, like Muslims elsewhere, are struggling with the meaning of September 11 and its aftermath for themselves, their faith, their country, and the world. After the bombing of Afghanistan began, some militants demanded that the government of Megawati Soekarnoputri break relations with the United States. A demonstrator publicly threatened the life of the American ambassador. The majority, who are normally moderate in their views about both international and domestic affairs, have been silent in public but concerned in private.

To some extent their concern reflects a lack of knowledge or wishful thinking, as in the still widespread belief that no Muslim could be guilty of such terrible acts. But many well-educated and sincere people believe that President Bush has not provided evidence of bin Laden and al Qaeda's guilt, that even if bin Laden is guilty the Taliban government of Afghanistan should not be targeted for destruction, that the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is not an ahistoric act of evil but instead the latest in a series of attacks and counter-attacks in the continuing struggle for power in the Middle East....

Feith: Rather an imaginative new twist in the historic struggle against foreign domination of the Middle East

My responses to this are mixed. I think it is good that you should write in these terms to the NYT, but I also disagree with several of your emphases. Above all, I am sorry for Americans like yourself, and wonder whether I am right to be so angry with the mainstream America to which you need to relate. As I see it, Bush and Bushism are more of a problem for the species and the planet than Osama and Osamaism. My preoccupation, for which I found quite a bit of sympathy in Indonesia - I got back from there on Friday after four weeks of UGM teaching and a week in Jakarta - is with fashioning mendayung antara dua karang [steering between two rocks] strategies.

Liddle: I'm not sure why you should feel sorry for 'Americans like myself,' on the assumption that I'm not mainstream America.

Feith: When I say I am sorry for you I suppose I see myself as fortunate not to be in your shoes. It is hard to be an Australian these days, but to be an American would, I think, be even harder. Anyway I am delighted that you feel you can associate yourself with a mendayung antara dua karang formulation. I read somewhere recently that people are peaceminded who prefer thinking in threes to thinking in twos. Interesting isn't it?

Whether you are or aren't mainstream America is semantics. What is clear to me is that your long-term political practice is mainstream, as indeed is mine, though more hesitantly.

Liddle: I'm genuinely torn. Sometimes late at night I turn on CNN and see a live picture of the World Trade Centre, still smoking, and I feel both terrible anger and a conviction that the perpetrators must be caught and punished. I don't know how to do that other than to invade Afghanistan and chase down bin Laden cs.

Feith: The perpetrators are Mohamad Atta and co and they are dead.

Another kind of American president could, i think, have appealed to American pride, saying that we will see to it that justice is done while refusing to lower ourselves to answering terror with terror. A Republican president could have talked that language more easily than a Democratic one. I guess Powell could have taken that tack if he were president.

Liddle: It may be that I am reacting this way because I am American, but I resist that conclusion. In theatres and other public events now, we are often asked to stand and sing the national anthem. Most people do, with their hand over their heart as we used to do in elementary school when saying the pledge of allegiance. I stand, but without singing or putting my hand over my heart. .... I think (with Bush? - although I am less certain about his sincerity than about my own) that it is humankind who were attacked that day, and it is humankind who should respond.

Having said all this, at the same time I recognise the force of your comment that the attack was 'an imaginative new twist in the historic struggle against foreign domination of the Middle East.' I guess that's what I mean when I say I'm torn.

Your comment on Bush and Bushism. I'm afraid that what Bush is doing is very popular.

Feith: So was what Hitler did, so is what Sharon is doing, and probably Saddam as well. I feel quite strongly that the popularity of a leader in his state is an inappropriate criterion for actions taken in a global arena.

Prof Bill Liddle ( teaches at Ohio State University and has written widely on Indonesian politics. 'Inside Indonesia' thanks him for allowing us to publish these extracts of his correspondence with Herb Feith, who died a few days later.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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