We arrived at the police complex at about ten on an unusually cool and cloudy June morning. The low, dun-coloured police buildings were spaced across a sprawling lot in the heart of the city and ringed by malls and office towers. In honour of the occasion Herry wore a tunic with a gold button and grey embroidery down the front; with the beard and the dark skin it gave him an almost Middle Eastern look.
My worries had less to do with Jemaah Islamiyah’s history of violence than with my dodgy visa status. To help me stay on in Indonesia, a friend in New York had appointed me Southeast Asia correspondent of a small Indian–American magazine. I had no salary record—there was none to record—and only one clip, about a travelling Punjabi girl-band that did Madonna and Kylie Minogue covers. Though I had taken care to employ the fixer who handled documentation—fingerprinting, police booklet, entry and exit permits and so on—for virtually the entire foreign press corps this would do me little good if the government got its back up about my poking into sensitive matters. I could no longer count on the heft of an influential magazine and newspaper, and behind them a massive corporation. An Indian passport alone afforded little protection.
Herry pointed towards a shabbily clad throng shuffling across the lot ahead of us, a couple of women in shapeless robes and about a dozen nondescript skullcapped men. ‘They are from Indonesian Mujahidin Council,’ said Herry. The council, headed by Bashir, agitated for the implementation of sharia. As we followed the group towards Bashir’s cellblock a plainclothes policewoman flanked by two uniformed subordinates raised a hand to stop us.
Where were we going?
We told her.
‘May we please see your Kitas?’ she asked me. A Kitas was official identification, in my case a laminated yellow card that I kept stapled in my passport for safekeeping.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said in my politest Indonesian. ‘I forgot to bring it.’
They took down my name, address and phone number. When we resumed our way across the lot I was struck by the number of policewomen we passed—in pants, in knee-length skirts, with cropped hair. They carried themselves with square-shouldered confidence; for Bashir they were a vision of hell. The government had already shifted him from another prison because proximity to female inmates (and to Christians) caused him anxiety. After a few minutes we arrived at a dirty yellow building ringed by a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire. Waiting there was an assistant carrying a thin plastic bag stuffed with coffee, oranges and two kinds of instant noodles. Herry immediately spotted an opening. ‘Have you brought your camera?’ he asked. ‘Maybe we can take it inside this bag.’ I had played it safe and left the camera and tape-recorder at home, but in any case the assistant didn’t sound too enthused. We were being allowed in as visitors, he reminded us, as family and well-wishers.
A policeman unlocked the chainlink gate with a clink. ‘Identity cards out,’ he barked. We crossed a short passageway, entered a shallow anteroom and approached a desk at one end where I surrendered my bag and phone and the only piece of identification on me, a Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club card. A cleanshaven policeman, most likely a plainclothes intelligence operative, examined it for a few seconds before looking up at me.
‘Journalist?’ he asked.
I could hardly deny it. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But I’m not here as one.’
He must have been new on the job. He examined my card carefully and wrote something in a register. Then I followed Herry to the other end of the room where Bashir sat waiting. He wore a green sarong with a white tunic, and a white scarf tossed over a shoulder. A pair of large wire-rimmed glasses sat above a thick tuft of white beard. A beaten steel watch circled his wrist. He exuded an avuncular air; to my surprise, after all the press reports that described a foaming madman, his eyes reflected intelligence and calm.
Herry introduced me with a slight bow. ‘He’s from India, ustad.’ ‘Ustad’ was a term of respect, Arabic for ‘teacher’.
‘Does he speak Indonesian?’ asked Bashir. I couldn’t help notice the teeth, yellowed and prominent as a camel’s.
Bashir signalled his approval with a slight nod.
He sat with his back to a wall, beside a barred iron door. We took places on a bench across from him, our backs against the opposite wall. A faded lace cloth covered a low glass-topped table between us. On it sat a plastic jar with sugar-dusted biscuits, a fried peanut snack and small bottles of water. The Mujahidin Council crew we had seen earlier began making its way from the police desks to our end of the room. The skullcapped men—wispy beards, prayer calluses, a few in Mujahidin Council T-shirts—filed past Bashir with
great deference, each pausing to embrace his gaunt hand in a two-handed clasp. Then they shook hands with Herry and with me. Their hands were limp, a concession of sorts to Java, where a handshake too firm was considered impolite.
The jilbabs on the shapeless-robed women spilled across their chests like giant bibs. Not one revealed a wisp of hair. A mother settled down on a bench and dandled an infant, in powder blue and a white jilbab, on her knee. Another jilbabed girl, maybe four or five years old, played with the infant’s leg. Even in Iran they didn’t cover up girls this young. Nonetheless the women gave the scene a touch of domesticity. If you took away the iron bars and the police on the other side of the room it might have been a picnic—the children, the sugar-dusted cookies, the plastic bag with oranges and noodles.
Nobody interrupted Bashir while he spoke, evenly, and with the practised ease of a preacher. He spoke about the enemies of Islam, about America, about how some Muslim leaders supported the kafirs, supported America, the enemy of Islam. But they would all lose in the end because God had said that Islam would triumph over the kafirs, and that there would be a caliphate for all Muslims.
Bashir said he didn’t want to expound upon Megawati’s re-election effort; the first vote was now three weeks away. The Prophet had declared that no country under a woman could progress and that was enough, there was no need to debate the matter further. Some people thought they could discuss everything. They said
Indonesia was too plural a society to implement sharia, as though they were cleverer than Allah! Iblis had also argued with Allah. Iblis was created out of fire and humans out of earth, so Iblis thought he was better than they were. (This, I later learned, was a famous story from the Koran. Iblis, a djinn made of fire, was banished from paradise after he refused to obey Allah’s order to bow before Adam, who was made of clay.)
Our encounter with the cops in the courtyard had already smeared the morning with worry; all this talk about kafirs wasn’t making things any better. I felt glad for my goatee: along with Herry’s company, it made my kafirness less apparent. My intention was to listen quietly and write things down later, away from the
prying eyes of the police, but then Herry started asking for paper. One of the women ripped a few sheets out of a diary. Herry thrust them in my hands along with a ballpoint pen. By force of habit I began to scribble, as unobtrusively as possible, my back pressed hard against the wall.
Bashir returned to America. ‘Bush said that if you’re not with us you’re against us. I’m against them. It’s a choice—like between water and fire, or between carrots and steak. I’m a Muslim. I’m a leader of Hezbollah (the party of God); he is the leader of the kafirs. He is the leader of Hizbut—’
‘Setan.’ The woman with the baby completed the sentence with the Indonesian for ‘Satan’.
Bashir looked at me, his gaze level. ‘Osama bin Laden is a soldier of Allah, he said. His bombings are not action, but reaction.’ He paused, but continued to look at me. His followers turned to stare too. It seemed like I was expected to come up with a question.
‘Do you think you will be released from prison?’ I asked softly.
He responded matter-of-factly, without anger or melodrama. He had been held for a year and a half already. This was not about the law; it was about politics. He didn’t know his fate. It all depended on whether or not the new president was scared of America.
The lecture must have carried to the other end of the room for the next thing I knew the aide who had met us outside was standing beside me. ‘The police want to talk to you,’ he whispered. I got up and approached the desk at the other end of the room. A plainclothes man reached out and took my notes without a word. Another handed me my phone, my ID and my bag. His face was tight with anger. ‘Please get out,’ he hissed in English. A policeman guided me outside. As I emerged from the cellblock, I heard the metal gate slam shut.