May 11, 2000, 7 P.M.
The moon was shining over the harbor at Makassar, the storied old spice port nine hundred miles east of Jakarta, when Norman and I stood in the steamy night, staring up at the huge steel flanks of the interisland passenger liner the M.V. Bukit Siguntang. With its upper decks wrapped around a large single funnel, and bathed in a garish yellow light from intertwining floodlights, the vessel resembled a giant wedding cake from hell. Dozens of embarking passengers, shoving and yelling, and using their luggage as battering rams, fought for a foothold on the rickety gangway. Every now and then, pairs of gimlet-eyed cops in maroon berets and camouflage would yank some poor devil out of the mob, probe his deteriorating cardboard box with the snout of a machine gun, and haul him off into the shadows.
Alarmed by the chaos, I grabbed Norman by the arm, and said, "Remember, pal, we're here for a look -- but that is all. If anything, and I mean anything, seems dangerously out of whack, we're off the ship immediately. Comprendo?"
Norman nodded in agreement, but from the way his eyes dilated with excitement I could tell he wasn't really listening. In the next instant he raced ahead to the base of the gangway, waved for me to join him, and then suddenly disappeared into the levitating mob like a man being sucked up into the bowels of an alien spacecraft.
I froze. Without Norman I was absolutely and forever sunk -- just a confused, ignorant bule, or "white face," stranded on a dock in the middle of nowhere. And so I took a deep breath, walked forward on legs of concrete, and burrowed into the scrum. Halfway up the ramp a blunt object struck me square in the forehead -- thunk! -- and my skull rang like a brass bowl. When the ringing stopped, I was inside the belly of the ship.
It was dark and strange in there, the underpowered fluorescent tubes casting everything in a sickly greenish hue -- the long rows of wooden bunks, the surging crowd, the sea of oily bobbing heads. But when I finally managed to locate Norman in the mob and we reached the broad lobby outside the first-class cabins, there was something far more sinister to worry about. All around us now, hunkered down on dirty strips of cardboard or old pieces of straw matting, were large numbers of very unhappy-looking young men.
Mostly in their late teens or early twenties, and eerily silent to a man, they had the look of shipwreck survivors clinging to the wreckage. Those not rocking on their haunches, mumbling noiselessly over dog-eared copies of the Koran, stared fixedly into the middle distance. And unless I very badly missed my guess, I knew that we were staring into the face of a shadowy new Islamic terror brigade calling itself the Laskar Jihad, or Holy War Army.
I can't say we hadn't been forewarned. The Jihad's founder and spiritual leader, a man named Jaffar Umar Thalib, had vowed for weeks now to hurl his holy warriors at eastern Indonesia's far Molucca Islands, which happened to be our destination, too. Jaffar held the view, shared by many local Islamists, that a United Nationssponsored independence referendum in predominantly Christian East Timor in 1999 had been part of an evil scheme hatched by then-president Bill Clinton (who was identified in militant propaganda as head of something called the "American Church") and his fellow capitalist cronies to break up Indonesia by creating a Christian republic in its distant watery gut.
It was to thwart that alleged plot that Jaffar had publicly proclaimed the establishment of the Jihad in January 2000 from his base in Central Java. And now, four months later, he boasted a strike force of ten thousand fighters, the largest of a small but dangerous constellation of radical Islamic organizations using reformasi freedoms jujitsu-style to undermine democratic society by raising private armies. Jaffar's call to adventure in defense of Islam was particularly popular with the alienated young men from Java's impoverished tobacco- and coffee-farming belts, and delicious paranoia made the glory of dying shahid -- a martyr for Islam -- all the sweeter.
From Allahs Torch by Tracy Dahlby. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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