restricted access Chapter 4. Whisper Campaigns: State-Sponsored Rumors and the Post Mortem (De)Construction of an Indonesian Terrorist
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4 + Whisper Campaigns State-Sponsored Rumors and the Post-Mortem (De)Construction of an Indonesian Terrorist The idea that simply hearing a rumor repeatedly might raise one’s level of belief in it is slightly unsettling. And yet this appears to be the case. —Nicholas DiFonzo, The Watercooler Effect Death is better than life in humiliation! Some scandals and shames will never be otherwise eradicated. —Osama bin Laden Noordin Mohammed Top, a notorious Islamist extremist working in Southeast Asia, had successfully evaded police for years while simultaneously directing deadly and large-scale attacks against Indonesian and Western targets . He is believed to be one of the masterminds of the 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta, the 2004 Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta, the 2005 Bali bombings, and the 2009 Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotel bombings in Jakarta. Noordin’s ability to evade capture despite being one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, let alone Southeast Asia, was the subject of numerous rumors emanating from various sources.1 These rumors increased with each act of terror or with police activity aimed at killing or capturing him. Sightings of Noordin were rumored through face-to-face communication , by official media, and even on YouTube. Some rumors cast him as a satanic figure, others as an Islamic savior. Like Mas Selamat, Noordin became narrative landmines 102 a kind of celebrity. And as with today’s Hollywood stars, his celebrity status was partly due to the Indonesian rumor mill. When Indonesia’s antiterrorism police force Densus 88 surrounded the house of suspected terrorists on Friday, 8 August 2009, and killed the inhabitants , reporters for Televisindo stated that police were 80 percent certain they had killed Noordin. This assertion set off more rounds of rumor and speculation, as well as several YouTube videos, which announced the “last moments of Noordin Top.”2 Some comments on these YouTube videos advanced the idea that he had actually escaped, others that he was martyred; some comments supported the work of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and other terrorists , but most condemned them. How the police arrived at “80 percent likelihood” that he was killed is unknown, although there was speculation that the man killed in the action yelled to police that he was Noordin.3 The corpse in question was taken to Jakarta for a forensic exam and DNA testing, and over the weekend many Indonesians believed that Noordin was dead. It was not until the following week that an official announcement admitted that the body was not that of Noordin. The government was embarrassed. Noordin eventually did meet his demise at the hands of the government in an antiterrorism assault in Central Java a little over a month later. Although his death ended some rumors, it spurred new ones. In fact, a particularly salacious rumor about his sexual proclivities originated from official sources: first, a police spokesman, Nanan Sukarna, at a press conference; second , a University of Indonesia forensics expert, Mun’im Idris, during a quick interview after Nanan’s press conference. These state officials revealed that forensic evidence pointed to years of repeated sodomy, indicating that Noordin was gay or bisexual. The charge of sodomy and the implication of homosexuality were printed in national papers, reported in news broadcasts, and circulated by online media. In Indonesia’s heteronormative culture, which regards gender identity and roles as innately aligned with biological sex, the rumors associated with the slain terrorist implicitly cast him as a sexual deviant. Although homosexuality is tolerated in Indonesia (there are no laws outlawing it in this predominantly Muslim country, for example), it is considered by JI and other extremist groups operating in the region to be an abomination. In this light, the sodomy rumors ended up supporting the government’s information war against Islamist extremism. Indeed, the post-mortem sexual construction was particularly damning to groups like JI, which Noordin represented, that espouse a virulently homophobic version of Islam. The story of Noordin’s homosexual deviance cast doubt among Islamist extremists and potential converts about his piety and suitability as an Islamic martyr. Owing to Noordin’s Malaysian heritage, the rumor also became a weapon used by Indonesian nationalists. Indonesians often find themselves at odds with their neighbor over perceived slights or attempts by Malaysians to appropriate Indonesian cultural artifacts and territory. This anger manifests itself in several ways described later, including a rumor that cast Malaysians as deviant by leveraging national and regional stereotypes in a way that exacerbated geopolitical tensions. As...


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Subject Headings

  • Rumor in mass media.
  • Rumor -- Political aspects.
  • Rumor -- Social aspects.
  • Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Terrorism -- Religious aspects -- Islam.
  • Terrorism and mass media.
  • Mass media -- Influence.
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