It could not have happened at a better place. Choosing a predominantly Hindu island full of Western tourists in the world’s largest Muslim country for a series of horrific blasts shows a kind of ingenuity that is becoming recognizable in recent times. At least 187 people are dead and more than 300 seriously injured in the explosions at Kuta beach, a holiday resort in Indonesia’s hitherto peaceful island, Bali. The features are recognizable, but there is the usual, and dangerous, obscurity shrouding this terrible incident. No terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for the blast, sparking off all sorts of speculative connections and inferences in the absence of nothing much to go by, by way of concrete evidence. This creates the sense of a nebulous and unlocalized map of terror, bringing in clusters of nations, and drawing them into uneasy relations with one another. The spectre of al Qaida hovers over this episode too. This time, the finger of suspicion points to al Qaida’s southeast Asian counterpart, the Jemaah Islamiya. The goal of this extremist group is to create an Islamic state comprising Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Of course, it is said to have links with al Qaida, some of its men having been trained in Afghanistan.
These Asian countries are now part of the map of terror, having to negotiate their relations with one another and with the “West” — that is, with the United States of America and its allies in the “war against terrorism”. The West, in this instance, is not monolithic. It would include Australia, for example, whose citizens have been worst hit by the Bali blasts. It will now have to redefine its security alignments. Australia is already helping the US in Afghanistan and did not have a very happy role to play in East Timor. Indonesia’s president is also being pressured by Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines (itself fighting Islamic insurgency in the south) to take a tougher stand. She is having to walk the razor’s edge between the radical Islamist elements in her ruling coalition and the army, nurtured in a dictatorship for long enough to still assume certain unwritten prerogatives for itself, even when it is now part of a fledgling democracy. In the background to all this is Afghanistan — the disturbing, but unavoidable, question of the extent to which the dispersal of terrorism is actually the consequence of what was done to combat it in Afghanistan. And whether shifting focus to Iraq would actually prove to be counter-productive, fostering nothing other than the displacement of terror to another region and to another web of fundamentalist forces.