National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

The lessons of the Bali bombing

The two terrorist bombs that ripped through a tourist section on the Indonesian island of Bali last October killed 193 people and shocked the world. Yet many suggest the response of the mostly Hindu residents of Bali offers an alternative to how societies can confront modern terror.

Rob Watson, a South African peace-building specialist who recently finished a stint with Catholic Relief Services in Southeast Asia, was sleeping in a hotel just 300 meters from where the bombs exploded. Although the windows of his room were blown in, Watson was uninjured. What he witnessed as he wandered through the rubble has nonetheless marked his life.

“After the blast there was an incredible stillness in the air,” Watson told NCR. “The electricity had gone off, and all the birds stopped singing. Then I saw the massive firestorm two blocks away. People began to emerge with flashlights. People ran by, some screaming or asking for transport, one woman whose clothes had been burned off. A few people showed up and began looting the shops. Near the massive crater I found Muslims who were starting to wrap the bodies of the dead, even before the emergency services arrived. I don’t know how to wrap bodies, and my experience in South Africa is that the emergency services people can attend to the crisis better. So when the ambulances started showing up, I went and did the responsible thing. I had a beer.

“In the days that followed, I was amazed and impressed by the reaction of the island’s religious leaders. They confronted the issue. Although it was obviously going to have a big impact on Bali, because most people there live directly or indirectly from tourism, they didn’t start blaming anyone. They sent a clear message that what had happened was not the work of any particular group of people. They didn’t blame Muslims just because the people who did it happened to be Muslims. It also helped that from the first moment the local Muslims were involved in wrapping bodies. The island’s religious leaders invited the families of the victims, most of whom were Australians, to come to Bali for interfaith ceremonies. That provided a good healing process for the families.

“The politicians came and said nothing of any value. But the Hindu religious leaders on the island showed genuine leadership in embracing the problem, embracing their sisters and brothers from other religions, and working together to try and reunite the community. The potential for anti-Muslim violence on Bali was very high, because Muslim migrants have flooded the island in recent years, taking away jobs and buying up businesses. The bombings could have set off an even greater violence, but the courage and creativity of the religious leaders prevented that from happening.

“The lesson of the Bali for all of Indonesia is that wherever you go there are always undercurrents of resentment that can fuel a conflict. And along comes a flashpoint -- a rise in bus fares, a bar brawl -- and sets it off. Yet what happened in Bali was different, and provides us with a case study of good religious leadership.”

-- Paul Jeffrey

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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