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Inside Indonesia : the world's largest Muslim nation is not in the Middle East. Its tropical islands hold vast potential--and equally vast challenges.

Jakarta, Indonesia--In a crowded classroom at an Islamic boarding school, an American visitor interrupts a session on Islamic thought. The teenage boys, dressed in traditional white shirts and sarongs, with Islamic caps perched on their black hair, are welcoming. What do they think of the United States? the visitor asks. "I admire American science and technology, but I think American foreign policy is wrong," says Syamsul, 19, to a general murmur of approval from his friends.

His comment represents the attitude of many people in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. Most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam, yet skepticism about U.S. policies abounds at all levels of society. Put simply, many Indonesians believe that the United States lumps terrorism and Islam in the same category.

"There are many different interpretations of what it is to be a good Muslim in Indonesia," says Douglas Ramage, director of the Asia Foundation in Indonesia, who has lived in Jakarta, the capital, on and off for 11 years. "Indonesians don't believe being a good Muslim defines their identity. They are more likely to define themselves as Indonesians first."

Indonesia is a country with great potential and great challenges. It has the fourth-largest population in the world (behind only China, India, and the U.S.), with 220 million people scattered across about 13,000 tropical islands. It holds rich deposits of oil, natural gas, and gold, along with large supplies of rubber and timber, and its location in Southeast Asia makes it strategically important. As a colony of the Netherlands from the 1600s to 1945, it was called the Dutch East Indies.

Indonesia's position as the most populous Muslim country is of special interest to the United States. Some officials in Washington would like to see Indonesia become the model for a moderate Islamic country that can enjoy good relations with the U.S. Paul Wolfowitz, now the deputy secretary of defense, was the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia in the late 1980s, and is a proponent of strong ties between the U.S. and Indonesia.

"What makes Indonesia so important is not just its size, but that it represents a Muslim tradition that epitomizes tolerance, respect for women, and a very open attitude to the world--and it is in marked contrast to that view that the extremists who carried out the World Trade Center attack are trying to present as Muslim," Wolfowitz recently told the Brown Journal of World Affairs at Brown University.


But all this potential could be in jeopardy. Relations between Indonesia and the U.S. have been strained since a terrorist attack last October in Bali, an Indonesian island where the dominant religion is Hindu. More than 190 people, most of them Western tourists who loved Bali for its relaxed ambience, were killed in the Saturday night bombing of a nightclub.

Nearly 20 Indonesians, members of the militant Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, have been arrested in connection with the attack. But Indonesians find it hard to believe that their countrymen alone carried out the attack. A prevailing theory among Indonesians is that the Central Intelligence Agency may have been responsible--an accusation American officials say they find absurd and offensive.

The skepticism about America is also seen in other ways. Abdullah Gymnastiar is a popular Islamic leader with a weekly television show. Though he has adopted some of the manners of a chatty American talk-show host, Gymnastiar declined a recent invitation to travel to the U.S. He was curious about America, he said, but, "I didn't want my followers to think I was embracing America."


By its geography--an archipelago stretching 3,000 miles along the equator--Indonesia is a difficult country to govern. The anchor of Indonesia is the heavily populated island of Java. Indonesia's lively capital city, Jakarta, which competes with New York and Tokyo for 24-hour noise and activity, sits on Java's northwest tip. To the north lie the major islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, with their vast mineral and forest resources. Farther east lies Irian Jaya, a province rich with gold and copper.

In 1998, General Suharto, the country's military dictator for more than three decades, was forced to resign amid street demonstrations. Ever since, Indonesia has been weathering a turbulent transition to democracy. The economy, shattered by the Asian banking crisis of 1997, has been slow to repair. More than 40 million Indonesians are unemployed. But a rich and corrupt elite remains entrenched.

Transparency International, a group that monitors corruption worldwide, rated Indonesia the seventh most corrupt of 102 countries it surveyed last year. Corruption taints every level of life: a young man wanting to join the police force must pay a bribe of about $100 (the average monthly salary is about $80) to enter the police academy. Students often bribe teachers to pass exams, Indonesia's education system persists as one of the weakest in Asia. The state-run schools are riddled with corruption and neglect; many of the Islamic boarding schools offer minimal instruction in secular subjects.


The current President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is the third leader of Indonesia since Suharto left the stage. Like a number of other leaders in Asia who are women, Megawati ascended with the help of a political pedigree. Her father, former President Sukarno, was the founder of independent Indonesia. But the 56-year-old Megawati has little experience in politics, and she prides herself on her housewifely skills rather than her leadership prowess. Foreign diplomats report that Megawati, who likes to see visitors over afternoon tea, often sidesteps a difficult question by saying: "Have another cookie."

Megawati is not a particularly devout Muslim, and one of her grandmothers was a Hindu from Bali. In a mark of the Indonesian style of tolerance, nobody makes a fuss about her lack of piety. But as President, she has moved carefully on Islamic issues. She has not spoken out harshly against the perpetrators of the Bali terrorist attack. She has made it very clear, though, that she wants Indonesia to remain a secular state, and has rejected calls from radicals for an Islamic state.

At the Islamic boarding school in Langitan where Syamsul said he disapproved of American foreign policy, the female students, who come from poor rural areas, are surprisingly vocal in their opposition to Megawati. Asked whether they like their President, a group of girls responds in unison: "No. No." Why? "She is not interested in reform," they reply.

Next year, Megawati will be up for re-election. Her popularity has plummeted, not least because the economy continues to teeter and the lives of the poor have not improved. Whether negative feelings of the girls at the boarding school will be reflected by voters at the polls remains to be seen.

U.S. Wants Good Ties With a Fledgling Democracy in the Most Populous Muslim Country


* How would you answer an Indonesian who said the U.S. lumps Islam and terrorism in the same category?

* Suppose Gymnastiar does visit the U.S. What should he see or experience to better understand American values?


To help students understand Indonesia, specifically how the country is controlled by a small corrupt elite, how it is struggling toward democracy, and why the U.S. wants good relations with this most populous Muslim nation.


MAP STUDY: Have students examine the map of Indonesia. What does Indonesia's geography--13,000 islands Scattered across 3,000 miles of ocean--suggest about diversity of culture and political and economic interests? Tell students that East Timor split off and became independent last year, and that there are separatist movements in northwest Sumatra and Irian Jaya.

CRITICAL THINKING/DISCUSSION: Discuss the apparent contradiction in Indonesians' views of the world. On the one hand, Indonesians are described as tolerant, respectful of women--note the female President--and having an open attitude toward the world. Yet, there is widespread skepticism about the U.S., with many people believing the U.S. lumps terrorism and Islam together. Have Indonesians been reading news from the U.S.? Ask students if they believe Americans have a negative attitude toward--or at least a suspicion of--Muslims since 9/11? Could the war in Afghanistan be perceived as a war against Islam, as many Muslims claim?

CIA Link: Discuss the theory among Indonesians that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency may have been responsible for the bombing in Bali that killed 190 Western tourists. Ask two questions: (1) Why would the CIA do this? (To focus attention on Muslims as terrorists?) (2) How would the world react if such a plot were uncovered? (The result would be a catastrophe for U.S. credibility on virtually any issue.)

POLITICAL STRATEGY: Some American officials say they would like to see Indonesia become a "model" Islamic country that enjoys good relations with the U.S. What might this U.S. strategy entail? Is the U.S. goal to demonstrate to Muslims in other countries that Islam need not be synonymous with radical ideology? How might the U.S. use its relationship with Indonesia to promote that view?

Upfront QUIZ 3 MULTIPLE CHOICE DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the best answer.

1. Many Indonesians believe that the United States lumps Islam with

a foreign religions.

b mistaken beliefs.

c Indonesian nationalism.

d terrorism.

2. Like most underdeveloped countries, Indonesia was once a colony of a Western power. In Indonesia's case, the colonial power was

a France.

b the U.S.

c the Netherlands.

d Germany.

3. Indonesia represents a Muslim tradition that epitomizes

a neutrality.

b tolerance and an open attitude toward the world.

c a negative view of other religions.

d a conservative view of women's rights.

4. With a population of more than 220 million, Indonesia is the world's fourth most-populous country, behind China, India, and

a Britain.

b. the U.S.

c Brazil.

d Mexico.

5. Many Indonesians believe those responsible for a terrorist bombing in October may have included

a Christian missionaries.

b members of a Chinese minority group.

c extremists from neighboring Australia.

d the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

6. President Megawati wants Indonesia to remain

a an Islamic state.

b a state governed half by Muslims and half by Hindus.

c a secular state.

d neutral in world affairs.

ANSWER KEY Upfront Quiz 3, page 6

1. (d) terrorism.

2. (c) the Netherlands.

3. (b) tolerance and an open attitude toward the world.

4. (b) the U.S.

5. (d) the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

6. (c) a secular state.
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Article Details
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Author:Perlez, Jane
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Feb 21, 2003
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