Moderate Indonesian Muslim Rejection of the US Attack on Iraq

Nong Darol Mahmada

In this essay, I reflect on how moderate Muslims in Indonesia came to terms, in late 2002, with George W. Bush’s zealous preparations to attack Iraq. The topic is quite important, as Indonesia is well known to have the world’s largest Muslim population, and the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims are moderate and tolerant in their religious views. At the time, there were “pro” and “contra” views of the planned attack. The fundamentalist camp saw it as ammunition – proof that the United States of America was indeed the Great Satan. The fundamentalists could not differentiate between U.S. citizenship and U.S. government policy. Consequently, they pursued U.S. citizens on the streets in what are known locally as “sweepings,” although no major or violent incident ensued.

Meanwhile, the moderate Muslim camp saw the U.S. plan as having the potential to destroy the image and future of Islam, which it had worked extremely hard to develop as part of a mature civil society. For some time, Muslim organizations like Nahdhatul Ulama (NU, the nation’s largest), Muhamadiyah (the second largest), and my own Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal, JIL) have launched numerous and various activities to create an Islamic community that is tolerant, moderate, pluralist, and emancipative. These are activities that have received American support through USAID. In bringing the danger posed by U.S. war plans to the attention of the Indonesian public, Muhamadiyah leader Dr. Syafi’I Maarif carefully focused his harsh criticism on Bush administration policy.

In early October 2002, in my capacity as JIL representative, I contacted friends representing “moderate” Islamic organizations. These included elements from the NU – Lakpesdam, Muslimat, Fatayat, and others; from Muhammadiyah – Pemuda Muhamadiyah (its youth wing), Mahasiswa Muhamadiyah (students), Aisyiyah (women), and others; and campus-based groups such as those from the State Islamic University (Universitas Islam Negeri) and Paramadina Mulya Universitas in Jakarta. I felt the need to survey their attitudes towards the planned attack on Iraq, and to my surprise, they all expressed the same opinion, rejecting this U.S. policy. JIL itself, long before these inquiries were made, had condemned and rejected the planned attack through interviews on our weekly radio talk shows and articles published on our website and syndicated media.

However, JIL’s serious objections conveyed through media were deemed insufficient. A more tangible action was needed so that all parties would see this condemnation in concrete form. We finally decided upon October 8 as the date to express our objections through a mass demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. At that time, not one organization or institution had demonstrated at the Embassy against the planned attack. If we may so claim, “moderate” Islamic organizations pioneered these demonstrations

Many were were surprised, never expecting such an action plan from us. The U.S. Embassy called me the day before the action. There was concern that the planned demonstration would provide justification for violent acts by fundamentalist groups that had long despised the United States. I replied that the demonstration would prove positive for the moderate Muslim community, because the insane U.S. plan had to be rejected outright, and that this matter had no connection whatsoever to the actions of fundamentalist groups. Indeed, if the moderate Muslim camp remained quiet and did not react to the planned attack, its lack of action would boomerang and set a bad precedent in the ongoing development of Islam in Indonesia. Further, our demonstration aimed to underline to fundamentalist groups that the planned attack was the policy of the Bush administration, which should not be equated with the American people, most of whom rejected this policy of their own government. We chose to see the planned attack on Iraq in terms of humanitarian concerns, as such an attack would represent a threat to world peace and cause unnecessary civilian deaths.

Fundamentalist groups were also surprised about our planned demonstration. They primarily believed that no such action could issue from and be coordinated by JIL. Their reason: JIL and its like-minded friends were considered very pro-American because we agree with and campaign for what they call the “western ideas” of tolerance, pluralism, and democracy; and furthermore the U.S. government had funded some of our activities. Naturally, we viewed this as a feeble argument. Just because JIL, the NU, and Muhamadiyah had received funds from the United States did not mean we could shut our eyes to the arbitrary policy of its government. What we rejected and despised was the policy of the Bush administration to attack Iraq, not Americans per se. Accordingly, we condemned the “sweeping” actions launched against U.S. citizens by fundamentalist organizations at the time.

The Basis of our Rejection

For us, all the statements and official documents issued by the U.S. government about the planned attack on Iraq were illogical and full of contradictions, displayed a pervasive hatred and a lust for war, and failed to make any connection to the September 11 tragedy, “Al Qaida,” or even the “war on terror.”

Moreover, the plan contravened the United Nations Charter, whose Preamble pledges nations to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and which was established to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace” (Article 1 section 1).

We believe that the reasons put forth in the official document outlining the “preemptive attack” (the “Bush Doctrine”) violate international law. The UN Charter prohibits unilateral cross-border military actions without the justification of self defense, yet there was not a single reason for the U.S. government to need to defend itself against Iraq. UN Security Council Resolution 678 also prohibits any country from invading another without that body’s consent.

Finally, this attack would be undertaken after Iraq had endured more than ten years of economic sanctions that caused suffering to millions of Iraqi civilians, particularly women and children, because the sanctions had destroyed access to clean water. Such economic sanctions themselves stand in direct contradiction to the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention of 1977, which prohibits the use of economic blockades against civilians as a method of war. Economic sanctions are perhaps responsible for more deaths in Iraq than the murders committed throughout history with the use of what are known as weapons of mass destruction (John and Karl Muller, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999).

President George Bush, surrounded by leaders of the House and Senate, announces the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq, 2 October 2002.
President George Bush, surrounded by leaders of the House and Senate, announces the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq, 2 October 2002.

 The Weakness of Bush’s Position

The reason the U.S. government gave for the attack was that the Iraqi regime was developing weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons – that threatened international security. This reason was proffered repeatedly, although, in fact, these weapons were in evidence only in the past, during the Iran-Iraq war, when their development received the full support of the United States government itself in the form of raw materials, storage facilities, and technical expertise. These facts have been underlined by agencies of the United Nations, international NGOs, and even sources within the U.S. Congress.

Now the so-called weapons of mass destruction claimed to be in Iraq’s possession have failed to surface. Indeed, even if Iraq had possessed such weapons, the United States would have had no right to attack, just as Iraq has no right to attack the U.S., despite the latter’s possession of weapons of mass destruction in far larger number and scale.

In our view, this war was perpetrated for no other reason than to fulfill American hegemonic and imperialistic ambitions, and this is clearly indicated by the “Bush Doctrine.” The war was waged to make all other nations vassals to the American Empire, parties to an eventual Pax Americana. Considered from the perspective of “threat,” it is the U.S. ambition to become a global empire that represents the true “clear and present danger” to peace, welfare, and humanity on earth.

With our demonstration, we took the following stance:

  1. We opposed the planned devastation of the Iraqi state and people – we opposed it in the highest and most steadfast terms. This in no way implies that we supported the dictatorship of then-president Saddam Hussein in all its manifestations, which had for almost a quarter century caused great suffering to the vast majority of Iraq’s people.
  2. We appealed to U.S. and world leaders to heed a very clear lesson from history – that war leads only to disaster and misery; that it would serve no purpose but to increase suffering in the world in this time of heightening tension. War causes deep wounds in our civilization because it not only causes suffering for the victims, but also betrays the spirituality and humanity of the perpetrators.

 I am convinced that war, in the sense of one country attacking another, will surely never produce a clear winner and that the combatants will reap only failure – failure as human beings and the failure of cultural backwardness. War is not the way to ring in the twenty-first century. After the experience of the previous twenty, this century should be devoted to perfecting the humanity of all people; it should bring us greater consciousness that we are all bound together in one great humanity; and it should demonstrate the logic of cooperation, not confrontation, between the inhabitants of our earth.

 Such are my reflections, subjective though they may be, on the U.S. attack on Iraq. As one member of one organization working toward a better future for the millions of Indonesia’s Muslims, I hope to see no further attacks by one country on another in the name of world peace or the democratization of the other.

Nong Darol Mahmada
Nong Darol Mahmada works for the Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal).
Learn about Indonesian religious debates on their English-language website
For more on the author, see “Is There a Rainbow in Islam?”

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 5 (March 2004). Islam in Southeast Asia