October 5, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Why Bali?

The latest suicide-bombings in Bali should make us stop and think: What did the people of Bali do to so anger Militant Islamists?

Balinese troops are not battling Baathist insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq. Bali was not involved in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bali hasn't sided with India over disputed Kashmir or with Israel over the disputed West Bank.

Indeed, Bali's foreign policy can hardly be regarded as objectionable by anyone – because Bali has no foreign policy. The predominately Hindu island is not independent. It is part of Indonesia which happens to be the largest Muslim nation in the world.

Yet Bali has now been struck twice by terrorists, the first time three years ago. There also have been two attacks in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, one outside the Australian Embassy last year, the other at a hotel in 2003.

What do the Islamists want? The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize – to frighten, to intimidate. The Islamists want relatively liberal democratic Indonesia to knuckle under. 

Like the Nazis and Communists, Militant Islamists are totalitarians – they despise democratic societies. The difference is that where Nazis saw democracy as decadent, and Communists viewed democracy as bourgeois, Militant Islamists regard democracy as blasphemous: It awards to citizens powers that belong to God — as interpreted by them, of course.

Islamists also are offended by Indonesia's traditional tolerance of its religious minorities. In the militants' view, Hindus, Christians, Jews and other groups living in “Muslim lands” can aspire only to be dhimmis — second-class citizens who are grudgingly endured and whose faiths are aggressively discouraged.

And, of course, Bali hosts Australians, Americans and other infidels who sit on beaches wearing skimpy clothing, drinking alcohol and engaging in additional behaviors of which Islamists disapprove. The Indonesian journalist Sadanand Dhume wrote last week that “Saudi and Gulf petrodollars” have been used in recent years to undermine the country's “easy-going” Islamic traditions while indoctrinating young Muslim men to react with violence to “the sight of a beer bottle, a church steeple or a woman's bare head.”

Indonesia is not the only Muslim country the Islamists are targeting. In August, scores of bombs rocked Bangladesh. Only a few people were killed and the international community shrugged. But Bangladeshis got the message loud and clear: “Become more like us, more Muslim – as we define the term — or we will make you suffer. No one can protect you. No one will even try.”

Similarly, and again with little attention from the U.N., the media or just about anyone else, southern Thailand has become the bloodiest killing ground for Muslims after Iraq. Although most Thais are Buddhists, Muslims predominate in three southern provinces. There, bombings, beheadings and drive-by shootings have killed more than 1,000 people, including moderate Muslims and Buddhist monks and teachers.

One conclusion should be obvious: If nations such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand can not make themselves inoffensive to Militant Islamism there is no way that the United States could perform such a feat, no matter which policies we changed or how much our public diplomacy improved.

Americans received no credit in the eyes of Islamists for their assistance to Muslims rebelling against Soviet domination of Afghanistan, their rescue of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's clutches, their intervention on behalf of Muslim communities in Kosovo and Bosnia.

But, as Vice President Cheney pointed out in a speech to Marines in North Carolina this week, the militants did take note when Hezbollah suicide bombers chased American forces out of Lebanon in 1983, and when terrorists caused U.S. forces to flee Somalia ten years later. In these and many other instances, Cheney said, “the terrorists hit America and America did not hit back hard enough.”

The Islamists believe they now have a real chance to drive America out of Iraq, thereby demonstrating that Lebanon and Somalia were not isolated events but the unfolding of a historical pattern of American defeat and retreat under fire. 

Combine that with the pressure the Islamists are exerting in such places as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand and you begin to see how a new geo-political reality could take shape.

In time, Islamists believe, they will become the dominant force throughout Southeast Asia, across the Middle East, into Africa and beyond. They intend to create – they would say re-create – an empire, a caliphate, that will challenge the Great Satan, the “Crusaders,” the “unbelievers,” the Zionists, and the Muslim “apostates” as well.

The Islamists are convinced that the stronger they become, the less they will be resisted and the more they will be appeased. Who can say for certain that they are wrong?

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Read the Spanish translation.