by Sadanand Dhume
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2009
Friday’s bombings of the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, underscore the emergence of a new terrorist target of choice: the international luxury hotel. In the 19 months leading up to the Jakarta attacks, Islamic terrorists have brought their holy war to upscale properties in Kabul, Afghanistan; Islamabad, Pakistan; Mumbai, India; and Peshawar, Pakistan. The casualties thus far number about 116 people killed and hundreds more injured.
More often than not, the terrorist predilection for five-star mayhem is explained in purely practical terms. Compared to fortified and heavily guarded embassies, hotels, welcoming to strangers by design, make relatively soft targets. Their international clientele, as well as the visual impact of a mangled façade of a familiar building, guarantee terrorists publicity. When the hotel brand in question is American, such as the Marriott or the Ritz-Carlton, the terrorist faithful gain the added benefit of hurting their foremost foe.
From a radical Islamic perspective, however, an international hotel is much more than merely a convenient target of opportunity. It also represents, in microcosm, the antithesis of the world that radical Islamists, both violent and nonviolent, seek to create. In a modern hotel, for example, men and women are treated equally. More effort is expended on segregating smokers from nonsmokers than on segregating the sexes. The bar, the gym and the swimming pool are gender-neutral spaces. Nobody seeks to enforce special dress codes on women.
Nor would any international hotel dream of privileging one faith over another. By contrast, under the radical Islamic worldview Muslims are entitled to special privileges. This worldview provides the underlying principle for such things as Pakistan’s harsh antiblasphemy laws and Malaysia’s lopsided affirmative action program for its Malay-Muslim majority. True, a hotel in, say, Jakarta, may place a Koran by the bedside table, and mark the direction of prayer to Mecca on the ceiling. But these are innocent gestures, designed to convenience Muslim guests rather than to inconvenience, much less to actively discriminate against, those of different backgrounds.
For Islamic radicals, who seek to order all aspects of 21st century life—from banking to burqas—by the medieval precepts enshrined in Shariah law, the secular nature of a hotel is galling enough. But perhaps this would not matter as much if it weren’t appealing to local elites. In a place like Peshawar or Kabul, and to a large degree even in Jakarta or Mumbai, a five-star hotel represents an island of order and prosperity in a sea of squalor. It hints at the prosperity promised by free markets and a culture of individual liberty. It is living proof that the worldly can successfully be split from the divine. It also acts as a bridge to the West. For example, star players of Manchester United, the British soccer club, were scheduled to stay at the Ritz-Carlton before the attacks forced them to cancel their visit to Indonesia.
What, then, does the chasm between Marriott values and Shariah values portend? For the foreseeable future, leading hotels in Asia will continue to evolve in the direction of marble-floored bunkers. Metal detectors, sniffer dogs, undercarriage mirrors and armed guards in lobbies—all unimaginable barely a decade ago—will increasingly become part of the standard luxury hotel experience. If, as appears likely, the Jakarta attacks were carried out by hotel guests, then more intrusive background checks may also become necessary.
In the long term, however, the only way to return hotels to their natural function of openly connecting visitors to a local area will require a recognition by elites in Muslim-majority countries that a law and order approach to fighting radical Islam is necessary but insufficient. Going after individual perpetrators of terrorist violence, or even dismantling networks such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, earns only a temporary reprieve. As long as a vocal and influential minority of Muslims remains fundamentally opposed to what a hotel like the Marriott or the Ritz-Carlton stands for, the odds of terrorists seeking to stoke their sympathy and shore up public support (however foolish and misguided) will not disappear entirely.
Sadanand Dhume is an Asia Society Fellow and the author of “My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).