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Geography in the News: Bali, Past Trouble in Paradise

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Bali: Past Trouble in Paradise

In August 2009, an elite Indonesian police squad killed a man believed to be the most wanted Islamic terrorist in Southeast Asia. Noordin Mohammad Top, a Malaysian born militant, was linked to bombings in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the 2002 bombings on the island of Bali, a tourist destination island.

The attack in Bali was the deadliest act of terrorism in Indonesian history, killing 202 people including 152 foreign nationals and 38 Indonesian citizens. This event focused intense international news on Bali. Three members of a violent Islamist group, Jemaah Islamiyah, were convicted and executed for the bombings. More recent extremist attacks  that followed appeared to be retribution for those executions.

gitn_1008 Bali
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National
Geographic Society. Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com

Bali is located at the westernmost section of the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia. To Bali’s west lies the island of Java and to its east is Lombok. From east to west, Bali is only about 95 miles (153 km) wide and 69 miles (112 km) long with a land area of approximately 2,175 square miles (5,632 sq. km).

Coral reefs surround the island of Bali, creating an idyllic vacation area for tourists seeking scuba diving and snorkeling. Bali is a veritable paradise with white sand beaches in the southern part of the island and black sand beaches in the north, drawing tourist from around the world.

One of Bali’s striking characteristics is the major religion of the island. Approximately 93 percent of its three million people practice Balinese Hinduism. This fact is extremely relevant because Indonesia, with a population of 237 million, has the largest Muslim population in the world.

Anthropologists believe the island of Bali has been populated since prehistoric times. The first people on the island likely migrated from Taiwan through Maritime Southeast Asia (Malay Archipelago).  Scientists have found human-made stone tools and earthenware vessels on the island dating more than 3,000 years old.

The earliest written records of the island’s history are stone inscriptions from the 9th century. Though little is known about Bali in particular around this time, it is believed that seafaring traders from India brought Hinduism to the Indonesian archipelago.

From 1293 to around 1500, an archipelagic empire called the Majapahit (mah-JAP-ah-hit) based on the island of Java ruled much of the Malay Archipelago. Even as the Majapahit Empire began to collapse into disputing sultanates, the dynasty in Bali maintained control on the island.

For this reason, many of the intellectuals of the Majapahit relocated to Bali, including Niratha, a priest credited with introducing many of the complexities of Balinese religion to the island. Also around this time, many artists, dancers, musicians and actors fled to Bali, thus generating an explosion of culture there. Today, Bali is renowned for its varied and highly developed art forms.

Most Indonesian islands increasingly embraced Islam and it became the dominant religion in Java and Sumatra by the end of the 16th century. Bali, on the other hand, retained its Hindu roots.

Balinese Hinduism permeates nearly every aspect of traditional life in Bali. The religion is a combination of Hindu influences from mainland Southeast Asia and South Asia and existing local beliefs. Rooted in Indian Hinduism and Buddhism, Balinese Hinduism also incorporates many animistic and magical traditions of Bali’s indigenous people.

The religion of Bali is deeply connected with art and ritual, while the Islam of Indonesia is embedded with scripture, law and belief. The followers of Balinese Hinduism are particularly known for their graceful and gentle behavior.

Bali is the largest tourist destination in Indonesia. The tourism boom began in the 1970s and helped bring marked improvements to roads, health, education and telecommunications. Tourism is Bali’s largest industry, making it one of Indonesia’s wealthiest areas.

Despite its perceived remoteness, Bali has been impacted by the same Islamic extremism that affects other areas of the world. When militants bombed popular Bali nightclub area in 2002 and tried again in a shopping area in 2005, the tourism industry initially suffered each time, but tourists’ visits quickly rebounded.

Some Islamic extremists apparently view Bali as a decadent non-Muslim society in the midst of a predominantly Muslim region. The very fact is, however, that Bali is beautiful, modern, sophisticated, wealthy, exciting and recently relatively safe, making it a desired tourist destination of world renown.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 1008, “Bali: Trouble in Paradise,” Maps.com, Sept. 25, 2009; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6788699.ece ; and http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/bali/history

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.