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why is amrozi smiling? Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006


Why is Amrozi Smiling?: 'Misrecognition' and the Politics of Terror

Arthur Saniotis

The University of Adelaide


Unpacking Amrozi's Smile

1. The image of the smiling Indonesian terrorist Amrozi bin Nurhasyim was routinely showed to Australian audiences during 2003. His cheerful demeanour not only belied the sombreness of his predicament, but flummoxed and angered many Australians. Amrozi's smile became a privileged target for media perusal. Dubbed by the media as "the smiling assassin" Amrozi's lack of contrition was a chilling reminder of the phantasmagoric world of jihadists.[1]

2. The significance of Amrozi's 'infamous' smile came to its grand finale on August 7 2003. Having been sentenced to death by an Indonesian court, Amrozi raised his thumbs to his world-wide audience with elation. It was a gesture of confirmation that his desire for martyrdom had been realised.

3. Amrozi's trial was the first time in Australian history that an alleged terrorist had become the centre of national television attention. Amrozi's trial was an 'ocular' experience, embellished with all the moral trappings of public outrage (Gole 2002: 9). To heighten the national significance of Amrozi's trail Channel Seven televised its initial stages in 'real time'. Amrozi was compelled to sit for over six hours as a panel of five judges painstakingly read out over two hundred pages of the key details of the three month long trial.

4. An implicit feature of the 'grand finale' was to reassure the world (and in particular the Australian audience) that justice would be meted out to the perpetrators of the Bali bombings that killed 202 people. Here was a clear rebuff of the 'faceless, imperceptible terrorist' who had eluded international intelligence agencies for years. Small in stature and almost innocuous in appearance, Amrozi hardly conveyed an aura of invincibility which many people ascribed to apocalypts. Nor is it important. What is more telling is Amrozi's manichean worldview which reaffirms his Chimeran status. A day after Amrozi's death sentence had been passed he was reported to have said that, "If they kill me, one million more Amrozis will emerge to continue the jihad" (The Guardian August 8 2003). His dissent was a chilling reminder of the illusio which he and other apocalypts have invested in the pursuit of a pan Islamic order .

5. A significant element of Amrozi's trial was the apparent "misrecognition" of Indonesian social behaviour. A characteristic element underlying mutual recognition was Amrozi's smile. Oblivious of the cultural elements which probably informed Amrozi's infamous smiling conduct, as well as, the police officers surrounding him, the Australian media failed to understand that in Indonesian society the smile is polysemic, and is often used to indicate anxiety, shyness, shame, anger, embarrassment, fear and being polite. Just like the dozen or more varieties of smiles among their South East Asian relatives, the Thais (Holmes & Tantongtavy 2003: 23), Indonesians are also taught to smile in critical situations. To the unaware western observer such behaviour seems morally reprehensible. As I watched this television event unfurl I began to link how Amrozi's smile was a metaphor for various levels of misrecognition between the West and the Muslim world in their ongoing ideological struggle. In this paper I will examine the dynamics of "misrecognition" and how it is constituted post-September 11 2001, in relation to Australia's involvement in the 'war on terror'. Amrozi's smile provides an apt trajectory for unpacking Australia's relationship with the Islamist group Jama Islamiyya (J.I.).

6. Like September 11, Indonesia had been caught unaware by the maniacal fervour of jihadists. To be more precise, by the jihadist group J. I. Like its middle-eastern counterpart, Al-Qaeda, J. I. has shown to be adroit in long range planning and in guerrilla-like deployment of individuals who adhere to an apocalyptic vision of the world. The hallmark of this "new terrorism" according to Mark Juergensmeyer is hyperbolic - a "vicious form of political expression" that is intended to impress and mesmerise (2000: 122).

7. A concomitant feature of the 'new' terrorism has been the dramaturgy of misrecognition between the West and jihadist groups. For instance, Al-Qaeda, Jama Islamiyyah and western leaders have made repeated claims that they are both vanguards of superior morality and instruments of the Divine. For thinkers such as Mahmoud Mamdani the 'rhetoric of Divine sanction' characterises the extent to which enemies are unaware of each other's similarities, and the ways in which each shapes the other (2005). In Said's terms, orientalism personifies the mutual misrecognition between Islam and the West (1978). For centuries western colonial powers viewed Muslim societies as intellectually and morally inferior.

8. Bolstered by their political and military dominance western colonialists enframed the Muslim Other as premoderns, without realising to the degree to which Islamic science had influenced the western intellectual tradition before, during and after the European renaissance (1450-1550). In contrast, during the golden age of Islam (8 th -12 th centuries) Muslims viewed their society as an intellectually superior civilisation which was based on western Hellenic philosophic and scientific traditions. The historic irony is that Islam and the West have shared an overlapping history at various levels during a period of fourteen hundred years (Davies 2002). However, it is the various levels of misrecognition which has probably contoured their relationship during the last three centuries.

Misrecognition and Australia's Place in Jama Islamiyyah's Social Imaginary

9. Amrozi's capture, and the process leading up to his inevitable conviction, was a looking glass into apocalyptic ideology and practice. Amrozi is proto-typical of south-east Asian apocalypts; a religious zealot who views his mission as part of a grand plan sanctioned by the Divine. The main objective of J. I. is to establish a pan-Islamic state ( Daula Islamiyyah ) in South-East Asia comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the South Phillipines (Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs 2003: 6). J. I's ideology is historically rooted to the organisation Darul Islam, which emerged in the 1940's and fought for independence against Dutch colonial rule. In 1949 Darul Islam continued its armed struggle for an Islamic state. After facing persecution from the Suharto government, several members of Darul Islam fled to Malaysia in 1985 and renamed themselves J. I.

10. The fall of the Suharto government in May 1998 heralded the way for J. I. to impose its ideology onto a disenfranchised and impoverished Indonesian majority. For years Suharto's regime was able to repress the objectives of J. I. It is conceivable that in a post-Suharto Indonesia J. I. has found an opportune moment in the political vacuum to spread its ideology beyond its Muslim boarding schools (pesantrens) and onto the social imaginary. The community based work which assuages J. I's violent doctrine has been ambiguous. Even the name Jama Islamiyyah "meaning 'Islamic community'" evokes misrecognition (Symonds 2005). In this logic, an assault by J. I. can be viewed as an "attack on the majority of the Indonesian population" (Symonds 2005). "This is why, according to International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst Sidney Jones "Less than half of the Indonesian population is willing to believe that JI even exists" (Symonds 2005).

11. However, the rise of J. I. has been concomitant with the new mapping of the "Muslim collective imaginary" which has been taking place over the last twenty years in the Muslim world (Gole 2002: 12), and the advent of apocalyptic violence. While Al-Qaeda and J. I. endorse a remapping of the world in which the geographical and ideological are superimposed for explaining their new world order, J. I. is focussed on transforming south-east Asia into a pan-Islamic state (Daula Islamiyyah) as mentioned earlier. Secondly, the kind of violence advocated by J. I. as evinced in the Bali and Marriott bombings, imitates Al-Qaeda's penchant for inflicting mass social trauma.

12. At this point I would like to introduce Ghassan Hage's notion of desirability as it acutely represents the layers of misrecognition between J. I. and Australian society. According to Hage, Australian society is informed by a management of national space which explains who is desirable and who is undesirable. As Saniotis (2005) states "concepts of undesirability demands a space" where "the undesirable is defined as such" (Hage 1998: 37). The attacks of the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, and the Bali bombings on October 12 2002 prompted a wave of racist based hate crimes against Australian Muslims. A notable addition to this projected national paranoia came via the Christian Democrat Reverend Nile's comments calling for a ban of Muslim women "from wearing the chador in public as they could be used to conceal weapons" ( The Age 21 November 2002:1). The practice of national managers of space were not confined to public figures but was evinced in the unprecedented race riots at Cronulla beach on December 11 2005. A number of the 5000 strong crowd " wore clothing bearing racially-divisive slogans such as "We Grew Here, You Flew Here", " Wog Free Zone", "Aussie Pride", "Fuck Allah - Save 'Nulla ", and " Ethnic Cleansing Unit". Chants of " Lebs out", "Lebs go home" and other expressions" (Wikipedia 2005). The public melee a ttracted various far right political and fringe organisations including Australia First Party, Patriotic Youth league, Blood and Honour, and the "German-based skinhead group Volksfront " (Wikipedia 2005). The Sydney Morning Herald had linked the Patriotic Youth League to "to racially motivated attacks at the University of Newcastle " (Wikipedia 2005).

13. Concomitant with national management practices was the tendency to view Muslims in a monolithic way, without regard to their ethnicity or geography." [2] As Brasted (1997) argues, 'Muslimness' is based according to an 'identikit' or what Saniotis (2005) refers to as 'Muslimstein' which encourages Australian society to ascribe all Muslims with ambiguity. Hage offers us further insights into how national misrecognition is constituted in Australian society in the wake of September 11 2001. In his argument Hage (2003) proposes that Arab Australians (I would also include here Australian Muslims) are essentially racialised as bin Laden like figures and international schemers: manipulative, inferior, exploitable, inimical, and conspirational. Let us further unpack the notion of the ambiguous Muslim other in relation to Australia and Indonesia.

14. Australia's presence as a white European bastion in a predominant Asian region has been an historic oddity. For decades Australia and Indonesia have wrestled with this paradox. While the Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating attempted to make inroads between Australia and Asia, cultural differences continue to stymie his vision. On December 2 2002, John Howard's comments that Australia was prepared to take military action against south-east Asian countries in response to a 'terrorist threat', further strained Australia's relationship with Asia. [3] Howard's comments were viewed critically by both Indonesian and Malaysian governments. By September 2004 Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer discounted comments of pre-emptive strikes as an "absurd proposition" (The Age September 22 2004). The apparent contradictory remarks between Howard and Downer is indicative of political misrecognition. Unlike Howard, Downer has a more informed knowledge of Indonesian politics whereas Howard still essentialises 'Australianess' to mean 'anglo-saxon Australian' and expresses a concern for the protection of 'Australian values' (Hage 2003). However, it is the fostering of essentialism which can foment a national anxiety of boundary crossing by terrorist cells.

15. For instance, Australian intelligence has reported that Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the alleged spiritual leader of J. I., had made eleven visits to Australia during the 1990's to foster support from Australian Muslims. An alleged audio recording of the hardline cleric obtained by the Herald endorses Australian Muslims to struggle for an Islamic state in Australia (Morris 2002:1). Speaking to ABC's Four Corners, the Philippines' national security advisor, Roilo Golez reported that Ba'asyir planned to include northern Australia into Daula Islamiyyah (Morris 2002: 1).

16. Ba'asyir 's forays into Australia found their militant homologue in the form of alleged terrorists training on properties in Western Australia and the Blue Mountains. [4] Once again it showed 'the potential monstrosity of the Other' in Hodge's words, in penetrating a borderless world (2002).

17. An examination of J. I.'s ideology tells us how it is patterned on a distorted picture of the Western other as a chief promoter of panIslamic oppression. The simplistic portrayal of the West as arch opponent is, however, potent. "The power of anti-western critique" (Martinez 2003:8), was evident in the recent Gulf War where Saddam Hussein's proclamations of jihad received wide support from various ideological Muslim groups and moderate Muslims alike (Martinez 2003:8). [5]

18. Unlike Hussein, Ba'asyir is a master of the anti-western appraisal. Consider his following diatribe:

Allah has divided humanity into two segments, namely the followers of Allah and those who follow Satan. God's group [Hizbullah], and Satan's group... We [i.e., Hizbullah] would rather die than follow that which you [infidels] worship. We reject all your beliefs and all your teachings...Between you and us there will forever be a ravine of hate and we will be enemies until you follow Allah's law. [6]

An analysis of Ba'asyir's diatribe reveals the gamut of the J. I.'s teleology and its concern with sin. His correlation of the West with sin, mirrors aspects of Sayyid Abu al-A'la Mawdudi (1903-1979), Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei (1902-1989). [7] All three authors constructed the West as a monolith, which was morally anti-thetical to Islam. Sayyid Qutb went further by describing the non-Muslim world as jahiliyyah - the "realm of apostasy" which was to influence future jihadists' repulsion of any nation that did not follow sharia (Islamic canon) rule. The term jahilliyah refers to the pre-Islamic period in Arabia. However, as Jansen (1986) claims, the present day usage by jahilliyah by Islamist [8] groups also denotes apostasy, whereby its ascription may be used as a means to foment public condemnation against specific regimes.

19. Qutb's comments especially misrecognised the mutual parallels between neo-conservative governments and jihadists, as Mamdani (2005) has pointed out. Both are global players and have arrogated themselves as spokespeople for their communities (Mamdani 2005). In critique of Kepel, Mamdani notes that both sides lack awareness of the complexity of the Muslim diaspora and its ability to establish new citizenships in their host communities. Furthermore, both are "unable to understand Muslims as fully historical and global" (Mamdani 2005). In Australia, the federal government has been unable to historically locate Australian Muslims other than to view them as adherents to a linear Islamic ideology. In this scheme, the North Indian and 'Afghan' camel drivers of outback Australia in the 1880's correlate with Lakemba's Lebanese Muslim entrepreneurs in 2006.

20. A key mutual misrecognition between jihadists and neo-conservatives is the definition of jihad and its various meanings. Riaz Hassan's thesis on the historic definitions of jihad proves insightful here. Hassan (2005) claims that throughout Islamic history, there have been competing meanings of jihad, each one vying for public legitimacy. According to this theory, there have been at least four definitions which have been promulgated. In the first instance during the nascent period of Islam jihad was defined as a spiritual striving towards personal piety, and coincided with the prophet Muhammad's saying "I have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad". (From the seventh to tenth centuries a second definition of jihad was forged in response to Islam becoming a cosmopolitan civilisation. Jihad was redefined to legitimate Muslim conquests and to protect Muslims and their allies against aggressive parties. It was during this period that some Muslim thinkers had divided the known world into two camps: dar-ul-Islam (abode of Islam) and dar-ul-harb (abode of war).

21. A third reworking of jihad was in response to "European colonialism of Muslim territories" and became an "ideology of resistance" (Hassan 2005). The Mahdi movement in Sudan and the Sanusiyyah revolt in North Africa during the nineteenth century are of this genre, as is the intellectual revival in Aligarh, India which sought to re-educate Muslims (The World of Islam 2006). Also during the late nineteenth century, Jalaluddin al-Afghani developed Salafism as a reform movement in order to equip Muslims against European domination (Escobar 2005). The present formulation of jihad is in Hassan's words an ideology of resistance against oppressive apostate regimes and their 'infidel' supporting countries (Hassan 2005).

22. A counterpoint to J. I.'s and al-Qaeda's "global jihad against Jews and Christians" [9] is the apparent renaissance of an intellectual Islam which is blossoming in the West which adheres more closely to the definition of jihad in Islam's initial period. This should not be misrecognised as a transient movement but rather representative of a generation of Muslim modernisers which began in the nineteenth century (Tamini 2003:54). For Tamini Arab writers and western intellectuals like Samuel Huntington (1993) have "failed to recognize that Islam is a religion that continues to shape and influence the lives of its adherents" (2003:57). The intellectual Islamic efflorescence is conjoined with demographic changes in the Muslim diaspora where new kinds of Muslim societies are forming. In Giddens terms these societies are being impacted by global forces which can lead to "dialogic mechanisms and to the possibility" of a "global cosmopolitan dialogue" (Held 1993:301).

23. Alternately, globalisation can lead to weakened political and traditional authority structures without establishing "new systems of regulation" (Held 1993:301). Australia's Muslim diaspora embodies a heterogeneity which shows little movement towards viewing itself as a unity. Differences based on nationalistic, ethnic, political and religious lines ensure various obstacles ranging from community leadership issues, internecine disputes and controlling Muslim youth gangs. It is the widely perceived view that Australian Muslims have somehow failed to 'assimilate' with 'Australian' values or as Hage (1998) puts it, as being non-compliant to the national will, which renders them potential sympathisers of jihadist doctrines. It is the high level of disunity and seething dissatisfaction shared by some Australian Muslims which may have prompted Abu Bakar Ba'asyir to come to Australia.

Concluding Remarks

24. This paper has attempted to explore various kinds of misrecognition in relation to Australia's involvement in the 'war on terror.' An underlying implication of misrecognition is the inability to critically unpack the subtle layers of cultural processes and knowledge. Equally, "the advocacy of democracy" is insufficient in confronting the crises of modern day jihadism (Held 1993: 302). The spread of modern jihadism as Mamdani (2005) tells us was spurred on by the Cold War and the Reaganist doctrine to win at all costs. J.I. was born out of the Afghan battlefields and nurtured by Salafism as a 'genuine' reformist doctrine. It was inevitable that Australia would enter J. I.'s sights. Having supported East Timor's secessionism from Indonesia, and committed troops to Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003, Australia was perceived by many Indonesian Muslims as being 'anti-Muslim'. Given that t he Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salem Zaeef, declared holy war against Australia on October 31st 2001, it is perhaps not surprising that J. I. has avowed to take up the Taliban's declaration (Harley 2001). [10]

25. Australia is presently caught amidst an ideological polemics in understanding its relationship with Muslims inside and outside Australia. The recent discourses by Australian leaders indicate levels of misrecognition of Muslim social processes and an absence of cultural awareness which reaffirm the notion of the 'ugly Australian.' A major problem lies in the mutual misrecognition by both hegemons and aspiring political players in the western and Muslim worlds, which is based on a series of false assumptions about the other. Merryl Wyn Davies poignantly encapsulates the nature of western and Muslim mutual misrecognition by contending that the West makes,

Muslim civilization is the dark alter ego of European civilization. Muslim Occidentalism makes the West the dark, despoiling nemesis of its contemporary existence. Both leave out an essential detail. There would be no Europe as we know it without Islam, without the constant interconnection with Muslim civilization. And there is no Muslim existence today or in the future that can be conceived without interconnection with the West (2002).

26. We merely need to observe how J. I., for example, represents a hybrid between western technological know how and Salafist based ideals. J. I. is a product of globalisation; its activities have penetrated the "transnational public sphere" (Gole 2002: 17). The nature of the bombings in Riyadh, Morocco, Jakarta and Istanbul in 2003 share a homogeneity in method; small groups of men deploying automobiles packed with high explosives. Ironically, J.I.'s predations against non-Muslim and Muslim civilians find their basis in twentieth century non state terror. Mamdani would agree.


Arthur Saniotis is a Visiting Research Fellow in Anthropology in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide.


[1] In this essay I use the term jihadists to denote Islamists who use political violence with the purpose of establishing a pan Islamic caliphate.

[2] H. V. Brasted, 'The Politics of Stereotyping: Western Images of Islam', Issue no 98, January-February, 1997, p 1-13.

[3] ABC News Radio 21 December 2002. Linda Mottram reporting.

[4] Barrass, T 'JI training camps held in Blue Mountains ASIO told', November 30 2002.

[5] Similar to the Ishmaeli Nizari, Jama Islamiyah and other jihadist groups view themselves as consecrated warriors ( fidayeen ), intent on purging Muslim societies of all forms of apostasy. In order to countermand the Islamic ruling against the killing of civilians, Al-Qaeda's 2002 document alleges the Muslim diaspora as being active participants alongside the United States and coalition nations. The conditions defining 'active participants' outlined in the document are so broad that hardly any American or non-American is exempt from jihadists' reprisals ( Wiktorowicz & Kaltner 2002:14).

[6] Fealy, Greg, "Hating Americans: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Bali Bombings".

[7] Qutb's notion of jahilliyah as well as Mawdaudi's vision of a comprehensive Islamic state (iqamat-i-deen ; literally, "the establishment of religion") (Appleby 2000:92), found their convergence in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei (1902-1989). Khomenei ideologically crafted his revolution as a bulwark to both western and secularist Muslim nations in terms of governance and moral prescriptions. Khomenei's public condemnation of the United States, in particular, as shaytan bozurgh ('the great Satan') epitomised his anti-West diatribe.

[8] My use of the term Islamist concurs with a dictionary definition of it as being "An Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life"

[9] Atran, Scott. "In Indonesia, Democracy Isn't Enough". New York Times . October 5, 2005.

[10] See also "Jihad Declared on Australia". Sydney, Australia, Nov. 01st 2001 2001:1


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