Understanding Australian Anger with Indonesia

Sometimes a news story reveals as much about the news source as it does about the events it is reporting.

Such is the case with the coverage of 28-year-old Schapelle Corby. An Australian former beauty school student, Corby was arrested last October in Indonesia after customs agents found nine pounds of marijuana in her boogie board bag. Corby proclaimed her innocence, alleging that a baggage handler had planted the drugs in her unlocked bag in Australia. An Indonesian court handed Corby a 20-year jail sentence.

Corby’s seemingly flimsy defense was lent some credibility by the recent arrest of several Sydney airport baggage handlers for drug smuggling, as well as an internal customs investigation of Sydney airport that found that airport workers were engaging in drug smuggling, theft from passengers, and “large-scale pillage.”

Corby’s sentencing met with widespread indignation in Australia, where opinion polls show that a majority of people believe Corby is innocent. (There was also a strong reaction in Indonesia, where good-natured citizens staged a demonstration demanding that she receive the death penalty.) Her plight has received nonstop coverage on Australian TV news programs and throughout the mainstream and tabloid press. Radio personalities have called for boycotts of Indonesia and the withdrawal of Australia’s tsunami aid to the country. Several ugly incidents took place that are believed to be connected to the case, such as the mailing of fake anthrax to the Indonesian Embassy and the mailing of threatening letters to the Indonesian consulate-general in Perth.

Even more intriguing than the story itself is the coverage it has received in the international press. The Spectator called Australians’ reaction to the Corby saga “deeply unhinged,” attributing Aussies’ anger to their racist view of the rest of Asia as “a threatening, teeming hellhole of unscrupulous religious zealots.” The New York Times had a similar take, commenting that “Australian antipathy and fears of Asia are deep-seated and longstanding,” then quoting experts and officials testifying that the Australian reaction is a “fundamentally racist” response that reveals “the dark underbelly of Australia.” The BBC described the Australians’ “frenzy” and “hysteria” in an article entitled “Corby stirs Australia’s ‘dark side.’”

The international press is genuinely mystified by the Australians’ anger. “The quick explanation for the country’s fixation on the Corby case appears to be that she is young, attractive, stylish, female and white,” wrote the New York Times. Likewise, the BBC quoted a radio DJ who ascribed Australian umbrage to Corby’s image as a “[d]oe-eyed, pretty, white, Australian, female with big boobs.” Thus, a toxic mixture of racism and cup size is cited to explain Australians’ incomprehensible emotionalism.

But in its rush to indict Australians as hysterical xenophobes, the international media is ignoring some significant details that help explain Australian anger.

Over 200 people, nearly half of whom were Australians, were killed in the 2002 bombing attack on the Indonesian island of Bali by the Islamic terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah. Indonesia sentenced over 30 suspects in the bombing, but these convictions were thrown into uncertainty when one suspect’s conviction was overturned on a technicality.

Moreover, the head of Jemaah Islamiah, Abu Bakar Bashir, was sentenced to 30 months in jail for approving the Bali bombing. That is, Indonesian courts issued a 30-month sentence to the native head of a terror group who authorized a bombing that killed over 200 people, and 20 years to an Australian accused of smuggling marijuana. The pattern continued earlier this month, when an Indonesian court sentenced a native Islamic preacher to just three and a half years in jail for being an accessory to last year’s bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, which resulted in nine deaths. The international press, however, finds greater explanatory value in Corby’s bra than it does in the lenient terror bombing sentences.

When Islamic terrorists commit atrocities in which scores of civilians are massacred, and these attacks are openly supported throughout the world by Islamic preachers, cultural leaders, and in the Arab media, the international press inevitably invokes its rote explanation that the perpetrators are a tiny minority of misguided extremists whose beliefs are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. But when a couple of Australian hotheads send some threats in the mail that actually hurt no one, we’re told that these actions reflect an inveterate racism that pervades an entire country of 20 million people.

Thus we see the biased, permanent presumption of Western guilt underlying the multiculturalist worldview of the mainstream press.

Where, one might ask, are the anguished editorials calling on Indonesians to look at their own policies and ask themselves “Why do they hate us?” Perhaps Australians are looking at the international press and asking themselves this very question.