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Abdurrahman Wahid, who was president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2000, has long headed the largest Muslim organization in that country, the 30 million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). From his home in Jakarta, he spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Oct. 17.

Do you believe -- as Singapore, Malaysia and the United States have charged -- that the Bali bombing was the work of Jeemah Islamiah, which in turn is linked to Al Qaeda? What is their motive? What do they want?

I don't know who the people are specifically, but there is certainly an organization behind the bombing whose aim is to pressure the government to be more Islamic. But this is a lost cause from the get-go: The majority of Muslims in Indonesia not only do not like violence, but they agree that Indonesia should be a non-religious state, as it has been since independence in 1945.

GARDELS: The present government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has declared emergency laws to deal with what it finally has concluded is a ''terrorist threat.'' Is this appropriate?

WAHID: Actually, if the government is at last keen on beating the terrorists, it can do so without emergency measures. People who make bombs and plot violence are violating the law. They should have been rounded up and investigated long ago, but they weren't because some members of the government found them politically useful in promoting the idea that, somehow, a return to ''pure Islam'' is the answer to Indonesia's economic and social problems.

Why, for example, did the vice president meet with members of Jeemah Islamiah instead of investigating them? He wanted to use them to consolidate and hold on to power.

GARDELS: As the spiritual leader of Jeemah Islamiah, should Abu Bakar Bashir be arrested or left free to proselytize his intolerant brand of Islam, which calls for the adoption of Sharia, the strict Islamic code of behavior?

WAHID: In my opinion, he should be investigated for all the many roles he has taken. Is he a spiritual or operational leader of Jeemah Islamiah? What does he know? He must explain to the police his actions and his ideas. If he is found to be connected to violence and refuses to denounce the use of violence in his campaign to Islamicize the Indonesian state, then he should be arrested, yes.

GARDELS: Some have worried about a backlash against the government, as in Pakistan, if there is a crackdown on radical Islamic groups -- particularly if the government is seen to be doing U.S. bidding. Do you see that at all?

WAHID: No. No. No. These radical groups are nothing. A small bunch of people. Not more than 50,000 in a sea of more than 200 million Muslims. They only have an impact because they receive financing from outside the country and are useful to the agenda of various ambitious politicians.

I know Abu Bakar Bashir has said that the attacks in Bali were the work of the Americans trying to invent an excuse to bring their anti-terror war to Indonesia. I don't believe in this kind of conspiracy thinking. It is crazy. The Americans are trying to eradicate terrorism, not foment it. Bashir and some politicians are cynically playing to the ignorant constituencies when they say this kind of thing.

GARDELS: The U.S. buildup for war in Iraq has caused anti-American sentiment to grow among many Muslims. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested the Bali bombers were angry about that. Do you think that is true?

WAHID: Not in Indonesia, no. The majority is not against America.

GARDELS: As one of Indonesia's most prominent clerics, you have been preaching against the Islamicization of government and for a non-religious state for decades. How do you fight this new surge of Islamist terror?

WAHID: These narrow-minded Islamic groups will not flourish if the government does not give them any political opportunity or hope of influence. One of the reasons this government has not cracked down on terrorism before is because some elements, including in the military, felt the Islamic radicals would help them keep their corrupt hold on power by agitating for a more Islamic, nationalistic state.

As I said before, why did the vice president invite these people into his office when they are suspected terrorists instead of sending them to the police to be investigated? In a clean society, a society free of nepotism and corruption, such people would be thrown out.

This government has no courage to face the terrorists. If it did, it would already have detained many thousands of people from these radical Islamic groups and put them on trial under the already extant laws. Invoking emergency laws now is a show of weakness.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/18/02)