Why Indonesia Matters
Indonesia deserves just that. Obama’s trip is crucial for introducing Americans to a country that may not evoke much beyond earthquakes and tsunamis but is nevertheless key to U.S. interests. A 17,000-island archipelago, Indonesia boasts the world’s biggest Muslim population. It is also the world’s third largest democracy (after India and the U.S.), proving that Islam need not be the enemy of political freedom. Back when Obama lived in Jakarta, where his American mother was an anthropologist and aid worker, Indonesia was ruled by a dictator and mired in poverty. Today, it is a proud member of the G-20 club of wealthiest economies. While much of Indonesia is still poor (18% live under the poverty line), the country is finally using the profits from its plentiful natural resources, such as natural gas and a horde of minerals, to lift up its citizens. “Foreigners used to think of Indonesia as a place of natural disasters,” says Gita Wirjawan, the head of the nation’s investment board, who earlier this year traveled to the U.S. to drum up interest in his homeland. “But now they realize that this is a $550 billion economy that’s on an upward trajectory.” That’s partly because Indonesia has done well fighting terrorism. Most Indonesians practice a syncretic, moderate form of Islam. Yet a small band of homegrown extremists is waging a bloody jihad. A string of bombing campaigns, striking everywhere from Jakarta to the holiday isle of Bali, has claimed hundreds of foreign and local lives over the past eight years. Just weeks before Obama was due in Indonesia, police shot dead at an Internet cafÉ outside Jakarta a man believed to have orchestrated the 2002 bombings of two Bali nightclubs. Indonesia’s efforts to counter its terror threat – so far it has had impressive success in netting hundreds of suspected extremists and re-educating youths susceptible to the call of militant clerics – can provide the world lessons on how to excise the cancer of religiously inspired violence from the Islamic faith. There’s no question that orthodox dogma is gaining sway in Indonesia, like elsewhere in the Muslim world. In Jakarta, for instance, the number of women wearing headscarves has increased dramatically compared to a decade ago. As local governments have gained more autonomy, some have implemented a variety of Islamic-based legislation – ranging from enforced Koran literacy for Muslim children to the as-yet-unenforced stoning to death for adultery – despite the fact that Indonesia is officially a secular nation. At Menteng Elementary School where Obama once studied, the principal and many teachers wear veils. The Muslim prayer room in the public school is much larger than it was when Obama attended classes there.
Nevertheless, just around the corner from the school is a Protestant church, as well as a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts. For all its recent conservative leanings, Indonesia is hardly in danger of turning into a theocratic state, and the nation’s pluralistic underpinnings are something Obama will doubtless celebrate during his visit. Predictably, some hard-line Islamic groups have already gathered across the nation to thrust their fists in the air and chant anti-American slogans. But their numbers, so far, have been limited. What reigns in Indonesia, instead, is waning optimism for Obama’s efforts to re-engage with the global Islamic community, something he has managed to do with some success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, a local Muslim organization called Muhammadiyah urged its 29 million members to study Obama’s Cairo speech when he called for a new beginning with followers of Islam. But since that historic address, Muhammadiyah’s chairman Din Syamsuddin has felt his hopes deflate. “Obama indicated in his speech that there would be mutual understanding and mutual respect between America and the Muslim world,” he says. “But one year later, we have not seen those dreams realized and tensions still continue.”