Page 37 - Foreign Service Journal - September 2013

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many Americans who “believe in God Almighty,” as it is deli-
cately phrased in Indonesia’s ecumenical national ideology,
Despite several recent violent attacks in Indonesia on reli-
gious minorities, including Shia and Ahmadi communities, the
vast majority of Indonesians abhor religious violence. Signif-
cant Christian and Hindu minorities, for example, generally live
peacefully alongside the Muslimmajority. Tis peaceful majority
of religious believers is not monolithic, however. Tough roughly
88 percent of Indonesians are Muslims, their beliefs range from
modern liberalism to Javanese mysticism to deep conservatism,
with many other shades in between, as well.
The Role of Indonesian Intellectuals
Within this mosaic of Islamic belief, intellectuals associated
with traditional mainstream groups have played a prominent
role in Indonesia. Te nation’s late president, Abdurrahman
Wahid, is a perfect example of these moderate intellectuals.
Steeped in Javanese religious tradition and wielding enormous
moral authority, Wahid spoke eloquently for tolerance and
Following in his footsteps, mainstream religious scholars
pepper Indonesian religious institutions today. Because many of
these intellectuals are Western-educated and fuent in English,
and have an easy manner with foreigners, they quickly became
the foci of international seminars, exchanges and interfaith dia-
logues, including some hosted by the United States.
For that reason, it was easy to forget that these fgures do
not necessarily represent the majority of Muslims in Indonesia.
Indeed, “liberal” has become a word that many Indonesian con-
servatives use to reject interpretations of Islam they feel do not
refect traditional values.
Engaging members of these groups is inherently more
difcult than reaching out to Western-educated elite fgures.
Because Indonesian conservatives generally do not speak Eng-
lish, come from a purely Quranic educational tradition and have
a rural background, it can be a struggle to fnd common ground.
Moreover, with strong views on Israel and the Middle East, and
little international experience, conservatives are often suspicious
of U.S. motives.
Yet, at least in Indonesia, religious conservatives do not
have closed minds. Tey often thirst for U.S. engagement and
are eager to learn more about our foreign policy and life in the
United States. It is precisely this segment of the population that
most profts from our engagement, and has the most to tell us
about Islam in Indonesia.
The Importance of Systematic Engagement
Without recounting everything about Embassy Jakarta’s strat-
egy here, I will note that we pursued systematic engagement—a
sustained efort to include conservative representatives in all
embassy activities, outreach and exchanges. Here are two small
Earlier this year, after an Israeli action infamed Indonesian
public opinion, a conservative Muslim student leader sent me
a virulently anti-Semitic text message. Furious, I was tempted
to delete him frommy address book and block his messages.
Instead, I sent a polite but strong rebuttal. After a long exchange
about the hatefulness of anti-Semitism, he replied: “I think you
are right. I shouldn’t have written something like that. I won’t
In another case, we invited a conservative youth group to a
discussion at @america, the embassy’s new, high-tech public
diplomacy venue. Tis particular group is often at odds with U.S.
policy and sometimes demonstrates in front of the embassy to
protest U.S. policies in the Middle East. Our initial discussion
was candid but friendly.
Afterward, some in the local Muslim press excoriated the
group for attending a U.S.-hosted activity. Undaunted, the
students have returned for more embassy-sponsored events,
where opinions are expressed with more tempered language and
refect greater understanding of U.S. policy. Encouragingly, other
conservative groups have followed in their footsteps.
Lessons Learned
Ties between the United States and Indonesia, two of the
world’s largest democracies, are of key importance to U.S.
national interest as we enter America’s Pacifc Century. Main-
taining friendly relations will require continued, sustained efort,
and people-to-people ties to overcome suspicion about U.S.
In deeply religious Indonesia, engaging Muslim leaders will
be important to people-to-people ties. But to be efective, we
must be sure to engage a wide swath of religious leaders—not
just a select group of like-minded Indonesians.
Polling suggests that our approach has reduced suspicion
of Americans among a key sector of Indonesian society, but
it is hard to ascribe the improvement to a specific factor or
to assess its staying power. Our experience also suggests that
systematic engagement could be similarly beneficial else-
where in the Muslim world, particularly if posts break out
of the usual, well-worked circles of local contacts to engage