For Indonesian youth, America used to be the role model when it came to culture and lifestyle and its politicians looked to Washington for guidance.
But today that support has grown thin.
According to a policy paper distributed to US embassies last October, only 15% of Indonesians view the US favourably, compared to 61% in early 2002.
“America is cruel! They have been really mean to us Muslims throughout the world. So, I think we have every reason to hate them,” Bambang, a security guard in one of Indonesia’s sprawling malls, said.
And he could be speaking on behalf of many Indonesians.
‘War on terror’
Just a year ago, however, the same question would have drawn the opposite response.
“The turning point was Bush’s war on terror,” said Andi Malarangeng, a noted scholar and political analyst in Indonesia.
The US‘s stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict topped the list of US policies that alienated Indonesian Muslims, while the unilateral war in Iraq ranked a close second.
Indonesian Muslims were furious
“The situation in Iraq bears momentous implications for the global war against terrorism,” Indonesia’s foreign minister, Hasan Wirajuda warned during an international conference on security earlier this year.
“The arbitrary pre-emptive war against Iraq has set a precedent for other nations.”
In fact, political and religious tension between the two nations had begun to surface soon after the September 11 attacks.
Moreover, with President George Bush announcing his war on terror and putting Indonesia on the infamous list of “terrorism exporting countries”, US popularity throughout the vast archipelago nose-dived.
Then came the new US visa rules, which made it extremely difficult for Indonesians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to enter the United States.
Hundreds of Indonesian students were forced to abandon or postpone their studies in the US for the simple reason that they were Indonesians.
Today, anti-US demonstrations have become a regular feature in many big cities.
Several Muslim organisations have even started encouraging people to stop buying US products such as Coca Cola and Nike.
“Bush’s war on terror is seen by Indonesians as a war against Islam”
Muhammadiyah Islamic group
Moreover, fast food chains, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, have faced threats and bomb attacks in several places.
‘War against Islam’
“Bush’s war on terror is seen by Indonesians as a war against Islam,” said Din Syamsuddin of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organisation in the country.
Washington has mounted a massive global campaign in its attempt to convince the world that its war on terror is not a war on Islam.
Obviously, it has not yielded the desired result.
“I laugh every time I watch their propaganda on TV,” says Indra, a banker in Jakarta. “It is such a big joke!” he said, referring to a 40-second TV advert showing Muslims living happily in a religiously tolerant America.
Meanwhile, izal Malarangeng, head of the Freedom Institute, a private think tank in Jakarta, said the media campaign would not succeed.
“It might seem nice,” he said. “But it won’t work, because it can easily be seen as something the US government orchestrated.”
Sydney Jones, who is heading a project to trace so-called Indonesian terrorism and its roots, said: “Indonesians are not happy with the war on terrorism, primarily because they don’t trust the US government.”
Jones also pointed out that although the “terrorist threat” in Indonesia was real, many Indonesians still did not believe that Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was responsible for the various attacks throughout the island nation.
“Indonesians are not happy with the war on terrorism, primarily because they don’t trust the US government”
International Crisis Group in Indonesia
“We, Indonesian Muslims, condemned all forms of terrorism,” Din Syamsuddin, who is also the secretary general of the Indonesian Ulemas Council, said.
But when it comes to identifying the groups or people who may be responsible for such atrocities, few inside Indonesia wish to speculate.
“They don’t want to be part of a US-led campaign or seen as that,” said Ms Jones.
On this issue, there is virtually no difference between moderate Muslims, radicals and politicians.
Top government officials have condemned JI in speeches abroad, but have yet to repeat those accusations in their own country.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri, too, has shied away from banning JI, or even publicly condemning the organisation.
With the 2004 election coming up, Andi Malarangeng said many politicians and parties were exploiting the anti-US sentiments in order to get more votes
“And it seems to be working quite well”, she added.