HONG KONG — It would seem curious if an Indonesian president made an official visit to the United States with the object of engaging with the Christian world rather than with a superpower that separates God and government. So do not expect President Obama to use his visit to the predominantly Muslim land of his boyhood to engage with the wider Muslim community. Southeast Asia’s largest country is important for many reasons other than religion, not least as the heartland of the Malay world.
Indonesia may be the most populous Muslim-majority nation — just as the United States is the most populous predominantly Christian one — but like the United States it has an avowedly non-sectarian Constitution. It also has a higher percentage of adherents to minority religions than does the United States. Islamic practices in Indonesia vary almost as widely as do Christian ones in America, and anecdotal evidence suggests regular mosque attendance is at best no higher than church attendance in the United States.
Indeed, Obama himself wrote in his autobiography “Dreams from My Father” of his Indonesian stepfather: “Like many Indonesians [he] followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths.” As a consequence, the size of its Muslim population gives it little influence in the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see themselves as the heartlands of Islamic orthodoxy.
This huge country can only hold together if it continues to celebrate its diversity and sustain the high level of social tolerance that has existed even at times of authoritarian government. Indeed, the Indonesia of Obama’s boyhood was poor and politically unstable, but it was in a local school that he learned early lessons in tolerance and diversity. Today Indonesia is a middle-income country with a democratically elected government. That makes it more like India than China and unlikely to be a model of authoritarian, one-party government or double-digit economic growth.
There is much to praise about its decentralized democracy that thus far has surpassed expectations. Although the region of West Irian remains a black mark on Indonesia’s reputation, the nation is now largely free of the intercommunal violence that flared a decade ago. Decentralization and local democracy have not led to chaos. Despite corruption and inefficiencies, national income is now better distributed. But there is the danger of Indonesia falling into the mix of corruption and weak government characteristic of the democratic Philippines, or of majority rule resulting in the decline of tolerance of minorities.
Liberal democracy has popular support. But its success will lie in whether pluralism, secularism and economic progress are sustained. If democracy leads to incompetent government that undermines the economy, or to serious tensions between religious or ethnic groups, it will likely be replaced by an authoritarian system.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won a landslide election last year, finds reform constantly frustrated by the power of self-serving politicians to thwart the public interest and by political parties more interested in jobs than principles.
Indonesia is not only important as a hoped-for exemplar of liberal democracy in a diverse and still quite poor country. Because of its size and strategic position commanding several key straits, Indonesia has acquired greater importance for the United States as Washington looks to counter Chinese economic power and territorial ambitions.
Indonesia’s international influence has also grown through its membership in the G-20. Given its natural resources and rising population, it is likely that its economy will continue to grow steadily and will remain a profitable location for U.S. investment.
But the abiding importance of Indonesia, whatever its government, is its place at the heart of the Malay world — 350 million people linked by linguistic and cultural similarities that often transcend political and religious boundaries. Joining Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia into the unified state of “Maphilindo” was never more than a pipe-dream of the immediate post-independence era. Nevertheless, these islands remain a world apart from China and mainland Southeast Asia.
Obama must recognize Indonesia not only in its totality — of which Islam is just one part — but in the broader context of U.S. interests in Asia.