Indonesia’s Promise

by Sadanand Dhume

Originally published in the The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2006

When President Bush arrives in Indonesia today, he’ll find perhaps the most dramatic reversal of fortunes in recent times. Barely a decade ago, the country was a poster child of the East Asian miracle, lauded by the World Bank for having pulled tens of millions out of poverty and increasingly mentioned in the same breath as Korea and Taiwan. Today, to the extent that Indonesia occupies any space in the popular imagination, it is viewed as a sort of Southeast Asian Bangladesh: a cesspool of corruption, buffeted alternately by terrorist violence and natural disasters.

Yet, for all its exceptional problems, the world’s most populous Muslim country also presents an exceptional opportunity. Apart from Turkey, it is the only major Muslim country where modernity stands a fighting chance, or to put it starkly, where the options are not between bad and worse, but between good and bad.

To be sure, as in other parts of the Muslim world, both orthodox practice and Islamist politics have metastasized over the past three decades. But Indonesia boasts advantages that others lack: an innate tolerance bequeathed to its people by nearly a millennium and a half of Hindu-Buddhism that predated Islam’s arrival in the 1400s, and a non- sectarian national ideology, Pancasila, that departs from the Islamic norm of treating non-Muslims as second-class citizens. In practical terms this means that the cornerstones of modernity — women’s rights, respect for minorities, room for a skeptical view of faith — have not been entirely eroded. Building upon these to create a beacon of moderation on Islam’s eastern flank, a twin for Kemalist Turkey in the West, remains an achievable goal. It won’t be easy. Homegrown Islamists and their wealthy Arab patrons have invested decades of effort in triple-distilling the gentle folk Islam of Java into an approximation of its desert variant.

The simple certitudes of Islamism, encapsulated in the slogan “Islam is the solution,” deeply appeal to many who have found themselves propelled from the rice paddy to the office tower in the space of a generation. Add to this the peculiar subculture of Western academia and NGOs, whose efforts to inoculate themselves against that mysterious new ailment, Islamophobia, often lead to an embrace of the absurd, the irrelevant and the downright dangerous: headscarved feminists, Kant-spouting mullahs confined to the diplomatic cocktail circuit, and assorted “moderates” who mouth the occasional homily against terrorism while remaining wedded to an Islamist worldview. It’s little wonder then that Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of al Qaeda’s local franchise, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the alleged mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, is back on the streets preaching jihad after a slap-on-the-wrist 26-month jail term. Or that some regional and local governments have begun experimenting with shariah, complete with public floggings and Taliban-inspired vice squads. Or that physical intimidation and assaults on their churches and mosques have become facts of life for Christians and “heretical” Ahmadiyya Muslims.

But all is not lost. Miniskirts in the malls and booze on restaurant menus show that the Islamist dream is only partially fulfilled. They have yet to banish Jakarta’s secular elites behind high bungalow walls so an alternative message, however muted, still lives. Amplifying it requires the help of the U.S., like-minded allies such as Australia and Singapore, the still largely non-sectarian Indonesian army and genuine Muslim moderates such as former president Abdurrahman Wahid. Their success or failure will determine whether Indonesians fulfill their East Asian promise or go down the path of political mayhem and economic stagnation of their co-religionists in Nigeria, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Dhume, a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, has recently finished a book on radical Islam in Indonesia.