The Curious Lack of Indonesians at Gitmo

The Washington Times reported on a special joint House-Senate hearing December 7 on terrorist infiltration of our military.  Paul N. Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, told lawmakers, "I don't believe it's helpful to frame our adversary as 'Islamic' with any set of qualifiers that we might add, because we are not at war with Islam."

We may not be at war with Islam, but Islam is at war with us and has been since at least the 1920s.  Authors Robert Spencer and Andrew Bostom have written volumes about Islam's war against non-Muslims. They may not agree with Stockton's view that our adversary isn't representative of true Islam, but they do agree that qualifiers aren't helpful.  Spencer has written that "Islamism" and "Islamist" are uniquely Western, artificial, and politically correct efforts to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims.  Bostom similarly uses history to support that Islam's "ism" is simply a neutral suffix no different from "Catholicism," "Judaism," "Protestantism," and any other "ism" that imparts nothing about temperament or degree of Islam-ness.  

Then there's their friend Andrew McCarthy, who understands that Islam is at war with not just us, but also many Muslims as well.  He believes that "Islamist" is a perfectly suitable qualifier to distinguish friends from foes, and I'm certain that Spencer and Bostom don't consider him an uninformed apologist or Obama administration lackey.  In fact, Bostom's next book will include a foreword by the former federal prosecutor responsible for putting "The Blind Sheikh," who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, behind bars for life.  McCarthy has authored the books Willful Blindness about the trial and 2010's The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.  In his National Review Online column on October 29, he wrote, "... because how we answer the 'Islam or Islamist?' question critically affects how we respond to the profound threat posed by supremacist Muslims, we must answer it correctly."  Spencer's rebuttal was published in NRO three days later.

I side with McCarthy.  The alternatives -- either limiting the enemy to al-Qaeda and other proper nouns exclusive of variations on "Islam" or considering the whole of Islam to be the enemy -- are equally antithetical to our security interests.  However, this debate isn't really about terminology.  At its root are two questions.  First, are there sizable Muslim societies that would rather be our allies than our adversaries?  Second, is there an objective test we can use to answer the first question?

I've written that an answer to the first question can be found in Indonesia, as can an authentic moderate partner in the 50-million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).  I cited McCarthy from The Grand Jihad, and he reiterated the point in October, writing:

Whether one finds NU's theology persuasive is beside the point.  These people are Muslims, and they sincerely believe Islam does not require a political dimension - indeed, they say politics disserves the spirituality they see as Islam's core.  I don't believe it is our place to tell them they are wrong.

Bostom blogged a stern rebuttal to each of my two earlier articles: his first countered with examples of the NU's typical Islam-ness, while his second accused me of mischaracterizing his "evidence-based ideas" and calling on me to "rapidly cease and desist" in my dangerous armchair-policymaking and my quixotic search for Moderate Islam.

Bostom's criticisms don't bother me, because I found an answer to the second question that supports my answer to the first.  If Indonesia's Islamic society, and the NU in particular, are authentically moderate, with no hostility toward the West, then we shouldn't expect to find any more militant jihadis from Indonesia in detention at Guantánamo Bay than we would from, say, Sweden.  In May 2006, responding to an Associated Press Freedom of Information Act action, the Department of Defense released a complete list of all 759 detainees held in U.S. military custody.  A sampling by country reveals:


No. Detainees

Country's Muslim Pop'n

(Pew Research Center 2010 Est.)



29  million

Saudi Arabia


25  million



24  million



178  million



35  million



23  million



3  million



31  million



6  million



31  million



21  million



16  million



6  million

United Kingdom


3  million



5  million



80  million



75  million



75  million



1  million



0.45 million (451 thousand)



149  million



177  million



205 million

Sure enough, zero Muslims from the world's largest Muslim society were lured by the siren call of 72 virgins to the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq to wage glorious jihad against invading infidels.  That is, unless they were either extraordinarily cunning or extraordinarily easy targets.  Coincidentally, that's the same number of Indonesians caught trying to hijack our planes or blow them up with bombs in their Reeboks or underwear.  By contrast, our closest Muslim "ally" (#2 on the list) fails this test.

Indonesia has more than seven times the Muslim population of Afghanistan, more than eight times the populations of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and 15% more Muslims than Pakistan, yet its citizens seem to have a curious aversion to taking up arms against the West.

So what could be keeping Indonesians out of Gitmo?  My article, which touched off Bostom's first blog, reported on Libforall Foundation's The Illusion of an Islamic State.  At the Heritage Foundation lecture that launched the book in May, Libforall's Holland Taylor described the two years of research that went into the project and the common narrative, "Foreigners are coming with vast amounts of dollars to destroy Islam," that Islamist leaders use to recruit followers.  The NU's Mustofa Bisri explained, "We do not understand Islam as an ideology.  If we had, it would play into the ideological narrative of assault on Islam.  But we do not have that ideological understanding."  Illusion represents a sincere effort by Muslim moderates to counter that narrative and theologically rebut Islamic violence and supremacist ideology.

Bisri attributed the narrative to Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood ideology, which he claimed is being exported to Indonesia and other parts of the world through Saudi-financed proselytization and well-funded political organizations like Indonesia's MB-affiliated PKS ("Justice and Prosperity") political party.

Lending credence to Bisri's claim is Hambali, the "Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia" behind the 2002 Bali bombings, who was captured in Thailand and transferred to Gitmo shortly after the DoD list was released.  He remains the only Indonesian enjoying a view of Guantánamo Bay.  When I raised the Gitmo list with Libforall's Taylor by e-mail, he replied:

[T]errorists who belong to other organizations that do not generally attack the U.S., or whose governments are capable of tracking them down and dealing with them effectively, are usually not apprehended by the U.S. (and thus do not end up in Gitmo)."

Indonesia has been plagued by Islamist violence, perpetrated to varying degrees of severity by different groups including Jemaah Islamiyah, which was responsible for the Bali bombings and attacks on the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta, the Jakarta Stock Exchange, the Australian embassy and Philippines ambassador, numerous churches, etc., etc.

Only Hambali (the former JI head of operations) is in Gitmo, because he was also a member of al-Qaeda's inner circle (the only non-Arab ever to belong).

According to the Washington Times, "[a]sked repeatedly by Rep. Daniel Lungren, California Republican, about his refusal to use the word 'Islamic' or 'Islamist' when describing al-Qaeda, Mr. Stockton said branding terrorists as Muslims plays into their narrative that the United States is at war with Islam."

Taking McCarthy's advice, substituting a qualifier changes the narrative to "the United States is at war with Islamists."  I think we can find good Muslim partners like the NU who have no problem with that distinction, and since it's looking like nothing but Islamist states are bubbling up from the Arab Spring, we're going to need them.  U.S. non-Muslims are outnumbered by the world's Muslims nearly five to one.  It simply doesn't make sense to let Indonesia -- or, for that matter, Bangladesh (a very similar predominately Sufi Muslim country) -- fall to global Islamism.  Instead, we should be working vigorously to enhance their standings in the Islamic world instead of taking advice from countries farther up the list.  These two countries plus India (another neglected natural ally) account for a third of the world's Muslim population.  They don't export extremism, and none have any more citizens at Gitmo than Sweden does.

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