Bali's message of dialogue

About the author
Jan McGirk is an investigative journalist based in Jerusalem, where she now conducts research on conflict resolution.

The last time I visited Bali, a defiant slogan was omnipresent on tourist T-shirts and even appeared on some memorial wreaths for the 202 victims of the October 2002 nightclub suicide-bombers. “Osama don’t surf”, it read, the ultimate surfer-dude put-down.

The catchphrase signals that terrorists had nothing to gain by attacking a lush island where Buddhist and Hindu rites are intertwined with animist beliefs and fresh flowers adorn household shrines every morning. Westerners continue to jet in for honeymoons or adventure holidays in this paradise, where a dawn chorus of tropical birds competes with the calls to prayer from minarets.

The problem is that the shadowy emir of al-Qaida does surf – on the world wide web – and so do angry zealots who see Osama bin Laden as an emblem of their fury against the decadent west. Bloggers can goad bombers, and the speed of internet communications and text messaging about current events effectively shortens the terrorists’ fuses.

Also in openDemocracy:

Tani Bhargava, “Travelling by sun-bird: Bali in Indian sight” (October 2002)

Pere Vilanova, “Indonesian democracy: lessons for the west” (September 2004)

If mishandled, an intellectual assault on extremism could incite even more hatred as a reaction. Intelligence agents are trying to close down threatening websites, and the (London) Times reports that al-Qaida-affiliated websites are indeed disappearing daily; only a handful remains active. The internet has been the principal way Islamists have attracted new recruits and transmitted information to their farflung cells, but the “cyberjihad” lines of communication appear to have been cut. This is presumed to be the handiwork of MI6 cyber-spies, playing catch-up after the midsummer attacks in London.

A Pakistani site, www.mojihedun.com, used to instruct “How to Strike a European City” (it has now been disabled); similar radical webpages featured step-by-step recipes for biochemical attacks and dirty bombs. Many have been terminated, although even more detailed instructions on improvised weapons are available on American survivalist websites in English. But it will not take long before webmasters relaunch these Islamist websites under new names. Authorities are desperate to locate those who plant the seeds of hatred in young Muslim men. Religious leaders are calling for faith to be used for peacemaking and not to justify violence.

Bali’s answer

The “clash of civilisations” was already reverberating around the world when Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, banged a gong in Nusa Dua, Bali on 21 July to open an interfaith conference – the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) Bali Interfaith Dialogue – where 150 religious scholars, clerics and diplomats from thirty-nine countries and five faiths (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism) gathered. Together, they spent two days seeking practical ways to promote shared values and repudiate the use of violence in the name of religion.

Terrorism was bound to dominate discussions at the conference, which was co-sponsored by Indonesia and Britain and planned months before the first wave of London underground bombs exploded on 7 July. By the time the meeting ended, the second string of homegrown bombers were fleeing from their botched 21 July attack, while car bombs at the Egyptian beach resort, Sharm al-Sheikh, were a nasty echo of Bali’s own nightclub carnage.

Several delegates – Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Dilwar Hussain of the Islamic Foundation and David Gillett, the Bishop of Bolton – rushed back from Bali to a multi-ethnic Britain in a crisis compounded by the police shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician on his way to work. Amid such renewed fear and grief, finding a means to banish dogma-fuelled hatred and prejudice gave extra urgency to the Bali dialogue.

Bali, and Indonesia, was an appropriate place for such a conference. Nearly 85% of the country’s 220 million people are Muslims. Many have come to view Washington’s war on terrorism, now in its fourth year, as legitimising an international crackdown against Islam. There is also a burgeoning hardline minority, including radicals who laud attacks on western targets; the al-Qaida-linked group Jemaah Islamiah bombed Jakarta’s Marriott hotel in August 2003 and the Australian embassy there in September 2004, killing twenty-four people and wounding hundreds.

The overall theme of the discussions – “building interfaith harmony within the international community” – was applied to a very practical question: how to empower the voice of moderates against extremists who have hijacked the world’s great faiths.

Any strategy to tame Islam's militant fringe elements brings pressure on moderate Muslim leaders around the world. President Yudhoyono, a former general who has been tough on terrorism, had a dual message for Muslim clerics:

"Muslims often feel unjustly treated. We are very disappointed with parties that identify Muslims with violence and terrorism … History has taught us that injustices and oppression can push a group of people to conduct violence. Muslims should face all of this with patience and faith and keep struggling through peaceful and dignified ways".

Yudhoyono called for spirituality to be strengthened and for the devout to look outward and engage with a globalised world: “We can pour love over hatred, we can open up ignorant minds, and we can turn bigots into sensible persons”.

Kim Howells, British minister of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, echoed Tony Blair’s recommendation to “defeat (terrorism) by the force of reason”. “Our great faiths have nothing to fear from tolerance and intellectual debate”, said Howells. “We must be ready to explain our beliefs to those who may be suspicious, frightened, hostile, or patronizing ... so we can rip away the mystery that nourishes misconception and resentment.”

Radical Islamists possess their own logic and perspectives which reject what they see as flaws in modern Islam. Some shun anyone perceived as an opponent of "pure" Islam because they have been "corrupted" by the west. They find potential pools of support among young people who “have drifted away either because they were banned to discuss controversial issues in the mosque or found nothing inspiring on offer there", said Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the London-based coordinator of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. Now mullahs and teachers are expected to be community watchdogs and assist authorities in a way that could bring reprisals.

The fruit of the conference was a Bali Declaration, which warned that religious education institutes must be integrated into national education systems rather than marginalised. It also called for freedom of expression as the cornerstone of interfaith harmony.


The Bali Declaration

At the close of the two-day meeting of the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) Bali Interfaith Dialogue Interfaith Dialogue in Bali on 21-22 July 2005, the participants passed the "Bali Declaration on Building Interfaith Harmony". The declaration:

  • Expressed sympathy for victims of the London terror attack on 7 July 2005 and all earlier such attacks, including the Bali bombing of 12 October 2002
  • Reaffirmed the importance of religious freedom in an international atmosphere of peace, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect
  • Acknowledged the wisdom of the world's faiths and religions
  • Acknowledged the various international initiatives promoting dialogue and cooperation among different religions
  • Proclaimed that all the religions represented at the conference commonly advocate peace, compassion, and tolerance among mankind
  • Proclaimed that the right of individual to choose religion or faith can contribute to upholding respect for the diversity of faiths and religions, which is essential in combating ideologies based on extremism, intolerance, hatred, and the use of violence
  • Proclaimed the need for people of different religions and faiths to stand united against the use of violence to divide mankind; calling on all people to speak up against those who use religion to rationalise terrorism and murder
  • Proclaimed that peace, justice, compassion, and tolerance need to be cultivated and nurtured to help create an environment conducive to building harmony within the international community and people
  • Called on their governments to continue to promote interfaith dialogue
  • Encouraged governments to incorporate interfaith studies in curricula at the post-elementary level to promote understanding and respect for the various faiths and religions, giving due consideration to the specific circumstances of the respective countries
  • Encouraged research through seminars/workshops and other activities to define educational curricula that promote and strengthen interfaith dialogue
  • Called to strengthen cooperation on enhancing the capacity of human resources through exchanges of students, teachers and youth
  • Called for educating society to accept and deal with diversity and to prevent the emergence of extremism and prejudice through activities at the grassroots, national and regional levels
  • Called to prevent the marginalisation of religion-based education institutions by integrating them into national education systems and goals
  • Acknowledged the linkages between religions and cultures, to promote shared values to strengthen harmony and understanding in society
  • Called to promote exchanges for better understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultures, religions and faiths at all levels in Asia and Europe
  • Called to promote cross cultural awareness and understanding at all levels of society, particularly among the young
  • Called to strengthen and encourage freedom of expression as the cornerstone of the participation of the media in promoting interfaith harmony
  • Called to ensure the upholding of ethics in journalism in reporting interfaith issues as well as conscious distinction between news reports and commentaries
  • Called for the upholding media professionalism and social responsibility by overcoming tendencies towards negativism and avoiding news labelling which lead to stereotyping religion and believers
  • Called to encourage religious/community groups to be more proactive in engaging the media to promote balanced coverage as a means of fostering greater understanding of religions and cultures
  • Called to urge the media to provide more time and space to cover issues and developments relating to intra-faith and interfaith dialogue and cooperation
  • Called for the promotion of exchange programs and scholarships to create networks among media personnel in Asia and Europe to share best practice and generate a greater pool of resources by involving media organisations, religious communities as well as governments
  • Called to define and promote common values, such as the respect for human rights and the protection of environment
  • Called on everyone to combat corruption in all its forms
  • Encouraged and supports the establishment of mechanisms within respective religious communities to strengthen ethical behaviour and commonly-shared moral values.
  • Called to make use of existing interfaith organisations and institutions.

During the Bali conference, Cyprus offered to host the 2nd Asem Interfaith Dialogue in 2006.