In tackling terrorism, Indonesia has something in common with Saudi Arabia.
Post-9/11, the Saudi rulers and the ruled remained in denial that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Reality set in only when terrorists bombed targets at home.
In this nation, too, official and populist indifference greeted early American warnings of homegrown terrorism. That didn't change until after the bombings in Bali (2002) and two in Jakarta (at the Marriott Hotel in 2003 and the Australian embassy in 2004).
Shocked mainstream Muslim groups condemned the violence. The government arrested dozens belonging to an Al Qaeda-related terror network. Several were sentenced to long jail terms and three to death.
The verdicts were widely welcomed.
But the most high-profile, terrorism-related case has floundered — twice — in the courts.
Abu Bakar Bashir, a cleric, was recently cleared of seven charges and convicted only on one. He was sentenced to 30 months, of which he has already served 10.
America and Australia were outraged. So were many Indonesians — for the exact opposite belief that he was being scapegoated, having been cleared of similar charges two years ago.
The case shows the political and cultural clash at the heart of George W. Bush's war on terror.
Bashir embodies what the West abhors but many Muslims instinctively like: a soft-spoken kaffiyeh-wearing bearded Islamic cleric who berates America but praises Osama bin Laden, not for terrorism but for voicing Muslim grievances.
Bashir was once a marginal figure. Now he's a martyr. Even moderate Muslim leaders speak up for him.
And human rights activists note that while Bush has ignored the rule of law in dealing with terrorism suspects, Indonesia has let the law take its course — and is getting attacked for it by the Bush administration.
For decades, Bashir had campaigned in obscurity for Islamic rule. That was "treason" under the authoritarian secular rule of Gen. Suharto.
Jailed in 1978, Bashir was sentenced in 1982 to nine years, later reduced on appeal to four.
He moved to Malaysia.
There he was said to have established Jemaah Islamiyah and worked with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines and Laskar Jihad in Indonesia, which recruited hundreds from his former religious school.
He returned home in 1998 at the dawn of democracy here. In 2002 he was charged in connection with the Bali bombing and also several attacks on Christian churches.
But the prosecution's witnesses did not materialize. Only one linked him to terrorism.
Other evidence came from an Arab arrested here but whisked off to a secret location by the Central Intelligence Agency, which refused to provide access to him, let alone have him return as a witness.
In September 2003, a panel of five judges found Bashir not guilty, except on the recycled charge of treason and on a minor immigration infraction. It sentenced him to four years.
He appealed. The supreme court cut his term to 18 months. No sooner was he released last year than he was jailed, under what was widely seen as American pressure.
Tom Ridge, then U.S. secretary of homeland security, said Bashir had "intense and deep" involvement with terrorism and should be "brought to justice in a different way."
Jakarta obliged, charging him under its more sweeping Anti-Terrorism Act.
It was this new trial, presided over by yet another five-judge panel, that ended last month in his acquittal, including the added charge of involvement in the Marriott Hotel bombing.
He was convicted on one count of failing to prevent the Bali bombing.
Washington and Canberra accused Jakarta of botching the trial, lacking "political will" and letting the courts get in the way of fighting terrorism.
But the view here is different, not only among most Indonesians but foreign observers.
"In the post-Suharto era, people demand evidence," says Sidney Jones, who works here for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and is an acknowledged authority on local terrorism.
"You can't simply arrest people on suspicion or hearsay, or what many Indonesians believe is pressure from the U.S."
I asked Roderick Brazier, an Australian working here for the Asia Foundation, if he thought the Bashir trial was fair. "Absolutely," he said.
The legacy of the Bashir saga is this:
America withholds evidence but demands a guilty verdict. It advocates democracy but seems to pine for Indonesia's old authoritarian ways. It needs Muslim moderates but alienates them, including those who, in last year's elections, voted against Islamists and for secularists.
The chasm widens, while the best-known terrorism suspect in the world's largest Muslim nation mocks the "infidel" in the White House — and wins accolades for doing it.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
© 2005 Toronto Star