First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Life of a diplomat in Muslim paradise, circa Iranian ho...

Defend Truth


Life of a diplomat in Muslim paradise, circa Iranian hostage crisis

As the diplomatic world continues to be rocked by the barrage of WikiLeaks and other revelations, terrorism, wars and conflicts of all flavours, J BROOKS SPECTOR remembers the days of another big crisis - the Iranian hostage drama and how it impacted on lives of US diplomats in another country, Indonesia.

This year 20 January marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the 52 American diplomats from their 15-month captivity in the US embassy in Tehran. Soon after the abdication and exile of the Shah, Iranian student demonstrators seized the US embassy, took most of the American employees hostage, and then, ironically, virtually guaranteed president Jimmy Carter would be defeated by the verbally much tougher Ronald Reagan in the November 1980 election.

The collapse of the Shah’s regime, the students’ rebellion, then the takeover of the revolution by Shia religious leaders all sent tremors through Washington’s corridors of power. Until then, it could be argued America’s relationship with Islam had been something of a two-sided specialists’ affair. The people, businesses and governmental organisations (such as the state and defence departments, congressional committee staffers, aides and the relevant lobbyists) dealing with petroleum comprised a nearly closed circle of “oil people”. The other main focus was on those who spent their lives dealing with the endless Arab-Israeli snarl – military hardware and strategic specialists, foreign aid specialists, professional “Arabists” and the people who populated the “pro-Israel lobby”. There was little cross-fertilisation between these.

But after Tehran, it seemed to click that Islam and Arabs were not always the same things and that perhaps what had happened in Tehran (after all, itself a non-Arab society) might well happen somewhere else in a nation like Indonesia, Turkey or Pakistan. All this was years before embassies and consulates were relocated to sites beyond the congested downtowns so as to get them beyond the easy reach of a truck bomber. Most such facilities were still centrally located in major cities as highly visible symbols of American influence, but also as perfect targets for angry demonstrators.

During the hostage crisis, I was serving at the American consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia. Surabaya was a big, jostling port and industrial city that had already become the 19th century ‘Big Apple’ of the East Indies back when  Joseph Conrad was an up-and-coming young writer. By the late 1970s, Surabaya was slightly down at heels, but it remained a fascinating place to live and work and we found it to be thoroughly congenial.

Indonesia was – then and now – the world’s largest Muslim society, even if the country was officially a non-sectarian nation. Still, about 90% of its population professed Islam – at least in an official sense. It has oil, natural gas, tin, rubber and other strategic resources and it sits on a key spot along major world shipping lanes. However, it also had a history of political instability that included the violent suppression of Communist Party supporters in the late 1960s by the army  with the willing acquiescence of organised Islamic political formations. Some knowledgeable analysts predicted trouble with a capital ‘T’ after Tehran.

Our office in Surabaya was near a main, downtown thoroughfare. Moreover, the cultural centre I also supervised was even more open to the street. That’s much better if you wanted students and others to have access to the library and classes, but not if it made you stay up nights worrying about those “rampaging hordes”. After all, a student group closely aligned with a then-highly visible Communist Party had sacked the US cultural centre in Jakarta in 1964, so there was a bit of history as well to keep in the back of one’s mind. In fact, I knew someone who kept a fist-sized rock that had crashed through the window of the cultural centre that day and landed on his desk, becoming a souvenir paper weight.

Anyway, some bright spark back in Washington, putting these pieces together, decided we had to do something dramatic to take care of our local “footprint”. They decreed we should prepare for a siege, a takeover, the last days of the Alamo. Some furious shredding and burning of a couple of file cabinets’ worth of documents already available in Washington or Jakarta quickly took place. Then for the irreducible remainder, a demolitions specialist converted two 44-litre oil drums into destruction ovens and put them on the roof of the consulate building. They guaranteed these oil drums would burn everything inside them within five minutes. (Apparently nobody had thought much about the public effect of two fiercely burning oil barrels on the roof of a highly visible office building under siege.)

The final instructions were to explain how the staff would depart through a trapdoor at the back wall of the consulate as the barrels were on fire, and then how we should slide down a rope ladder into a street-side drainage canal, teeming with the kind of vicious microscopic organisms guaranteed to turn you into an unplanned tropical medicine experiment gone bad.

If this was not enough, the same people who would have had us silhouetted by a raging fire against the tropical sky on the roof of the consulate building, now decreed we should have arms training at an Indonesian police shooting range. So on one warm sunny day, six American diplomats serving in Surabaya drove to the firing range to learn how to re-enact a cinematic last stand, presumably after diplomacy had undergone a seriously bad hair day. Arrayed before us on a table were pistols, submachine guns and a shotgun that could fire tear gas cylinders. And live ammunition.

For the rest of the day we shot at targets, fired tear gas and practiced loading and reloading these weapons. It was clear the folks who arranged this party were serious. You don’t fool around with live ammo. Perhaps they were following the logic of an intellectually lazy syllogism: Indonesia was a Muslim society like Iran; Muslim societies were inherently unstable; therefore, Indonesia was already tottering on the brink. We were in a Southeast Asian, tooth and claw, Hobbesian universe – not a place with a rich, complex interweaving of Hindu-Buddhist traditions layered over with Islam, Christianity, the legacy of Dutch colonialism, the impact of World War II, the global economy – and more.

After this, maybe it was the time to reconnoitre the territory for some reality testing. Together with a colleague, we set off for a week among the towns and smaller cities of East Java meeting community leaders and stopping in for a chat over some diabetes-inducing sweet tea to talk with the heads of local religious schools, the “pesantren” (a place for the religiously enlightened). Part religious training centre, part normal school, part community centre, the “pesantren” were often the cornerstones of their respective communities.

In his book, “Among the Believers”, describing the world of these pesantren, sometime third-world voyager, voyeur and novelist, VS Naipaul, had written:

“Islam was part of the composite religion…. What did the new missionary Islam, the Islam of the ‘pesantren’, have to offer these villages? What new ideas of land tenure, what kind of debate did it offer to these villages which were not as enchanted as they looked, where the balance was broken?”

And so off we went to check this world out, staying in local farmhouses that had not yet been attached to the electric power grid and visiting a school a day for a week. In truth, some of these “pesantren” were scarcely different from nearby government schools. Others had the mystical-religious feeling of an Eastern European “shetl” school from out of “Fiddler on the Roof”. Others were imbued with the Indonesian version of going back to the fundamentals of clarifying reformist religious movements.

In fact, after a few days, we realised we were in a near-lockstep dance with Naipaul, even if we never physically met up with him on this trip. As we signed the guest book at each school, we learnt we were following the same circuit he was, school by school, but two days behind him. When we returned to Surabaya, we too had reached our own variant of Naipaul’s conclusion:

“It was the late 20th  century that had made Islam revolutionary, given new meaning to old Islamic ideas of equality and union, shaken up static or retarded societies. It was the late 20th  century – and not the faith – that could supply the answers – in institutions, legislation, economic systems. And, paradoxically, out of the Islamic revival, Islamic fundamentalism, that appeared to look backward, there would remain in many Muslim countries, with all the emotional charge derived from the Prophet’s faith, the idea of modern revolution.”

For us as well, it had become increasingly clear the people in Washington, transfixed by the Cold War, were seeing Iran through the same lens and were looking for the same signs and portents in places like Indonesia.

Long-time print and electronic journalist Ted Koppel, reflecting upon his own and others’ coverage of the Tehran hostage drama 30 years ago, pointed out how the media increasingly had a tendency to obsess on one crisis, one theme, at a time. But governments can end up doing the same thing too. The problem is there is more than one force, one movement, and one animating idea loose in the world at any given time. The constant challenge for diplomats, analysts and journalists is to try to understand and interpret the world’s booming, buzzing confusion. If anything, the task has become even more urgent and difficult than it was during those simplifying Cold War times. However, there is simply no easy way – now – to point to a single defining feature of our world at work like the aligning power of the poles of a magnet. DM

For a review/commentary by Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami on Naipaul’s book when it came out, see The New York Times. For the chapter on Tehran in Naipaul’s book, see The Atlantic magazine. For Ted Koppel’s column, see The Washington Post. For some additional historical commentary on the Tehran hostage drama and ongoing US-Iran relations, see Wikipedia, US government sources, Britannica, The New York Times and PBS.

Photo: Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java August 31, 2008. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted