Religion in Indonesia

One aspect of life in Indonesia that has taken some getting used to, at least for me, is the relationship that people have with religion. From my experience, religion plays a much stronger role in peoples’ lives than it does in my community back in Minnesota.

Perhaps Islam, which is of course the religion of the vast majority of people here, is simply manifested more openly than the Christianity of many people back home. However, even the Christians here seem to manifest their faith in a much stronger way. This could be a characteristic taken on by people when they perceive themselves to be a small minority, a defense against a perceived threat even.

Even many of my classmates, other bule, foreigners, at the University of Indonesia studying language, seem to be more religious. There are a few Americans in my program besides myself; however, I am the only college student. The rest of them are members of a Christian missionary organization, studying the language so that they can be sent sent throughout Indonesia to do their good work…

What is going on here?

It is so difficult to get an unambiguous feeling for the way that the majority of Indonesians feel and what the trends really are. While living here in Depok, associating myself mostly with people from the University or that make their lives in the city of Jakarta (which is definitely not synonomous with the rest of Indonesia), it’s easy to think that Indonesia is going through a thoughtful process of negotiating modernity and democracy in its complex social construction. However, it’s also not all that hard to get the impression that there is a rising anger and fundamentalism, even extremism, that is threatening to swallow everything up into tension and sparks of violence, along with the downfall of whatever harmony I may wish to imagine exists within the world.

This is a pretty interesting article that was in Newsweek recently: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15898227/site/newsweek/. you ought to check it out.

I see what could be called an inbalance in the relations of Indonesia and the United States. There is the all too obvious and all too one-sided, from the perspective of any Indonesian that pays enough enough attention to notice, inbalance in the economic relationship. Although it has lost ground recently, America is still the number one trading partner of Indonesia. A great deal of the investment in Indonesia’s infrastructure, especially the extraction of natural resources which provides so much of the country’s income, is owned by American companies. This also indicates the amount of influence these foreign companies have on the lives of Indonesians, and, as observed by many here (perhaps not incorrectly), the power to exploit Indonesia, its resources and its people.

There is also a great inbalance in the social flows between Indonesia and the United States. While Indonesia often seems to do all it can to gain the attention of the U.S., such as the massive protests and demonstrations for a whole week straight in reaction to President Bush’s arrival here, a majority of my friends back in Minnesota could not have pointed Indonesia out on a map or said what language is spoken here.

Translating and Feeding the Masses

This was a really good exercise, but was quite a challenge. One of my friends that works with the Pestacide Action Network, Asia Pacific (www.panap.org) asked me if I would translate the notes of a meeting between food sovereignty and farmer activists that was held in Indonesian. Take a look, if you’re interested. I wouldn’t trust everything I write in English… might be a few misunderstandings.

Ted’s translation of Indonesian meeting minutes

Original NGO meeting minutes

Bush to Indonesia: Next in the Series

I’m continuing to try and take advantage of being here in Indonesia at this crucial time.

Power to Listen – US in Indonesia

 

“The Power to Listen” “Indonesian Discontent with America”

Ted Meinhover

The United States is a global superpower – the ball is most definitely in President Bush’s court as he visits several Asian countries this week, including Indonesia on Monday. Whether the average American is aware of it or not, strong and friendly ties between their country and Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world, with its young democracy and high-potential economy, can be nothing but beneficial. Indonesians, however, are much less sure about their country’s relationship with the United States. President Bush’s meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is being greeted on the one hand by political optimism and on the other hand massive and frequent protests demanding that Bush “not be allowed to set foot on our soil.”

America has the power and the will to engage in whatever foreign policy it deems fit, whether other countries agree with it or not. It is apparent, when I ask Indonesians here in Jakarta why George Bush and the United States are unpopular at the moment, the most common answer is that American policies tend to ignore the human consequences on people around the world. Bush, when he meets with the Indonesian President, is in the fortunate position to be able to listen to what Indonesia has to say and to see what policies and policy changes will best help his administration and America mend and strengthen relations with Indonesia. Indonesia is a crucial ally of the United States, and an increasingly important player on the world scene. The frequency of protests and strength of words here in Indonesia that oppose Bush’s visit are sure signs that Indonesians are unhappy with the U.S. There is a chance that growing discontent with the U.S. could threaten the interests of peaceful and mutually beneficial diplomacy. Friendship with Indonesia is essential if America wants to maintain its position of prominence in the world, especially considering the growing global power of China and its tenuous relationship with the Islamic world.

Indonesia is an extremely important country and is vital to the interests of America. Recently elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, for example, Indonesia plays an ever more important role in global politics. This role is all the more significant because Indonesia is not only an energetic democracy and is dedicated to global diplomatic dialogue, it is also the most populous Islamic country in the world. Indonesia is a cultural and political crossroads and plays a mediator between the worlds of Asia, South East Asia, the West, and the Islamic world. The two countries are important trading partners, and the U.S. and the Indonesian government has followed the Bush administration’s lead in the war against terrorism.

However, despite strong diplomatic and economic ties, it is obvious that relations between the United States and Indonesia and the entire Islamic world are strained. The agenda of the meeting on November 20th initially included a list of non-controversial, “soft” issues; the Indonesian government, however, has demanded that the Presidents address the Bush Administration’s policies toward Islam, especially in Palestine and the Middle East. I asked several Indonesians here about the roots of this dissatisfaction and sometimes hatred towards President Bush and America. While answers varied, all seem to agree that American policies pursue unilateral interests at the expense of other countries. What is clear is that, while some of the fundamentalist Islamic groups may be shouting with the loudest voices, the causes of anti-American sentiments in Indonesia are much deeper than simply religion.

According to an Indonesian government researcher, the groups of protesters include a few groups and individuals that are “radical Muslims,” though people fitting that description are most definitely the minority. The majority of people that have been taking to the streets, now on a daily basis, are moderate Muslims, students, families, even non-Muslim and political activists.

There is a misperception that, in Indonesia where the majority of people are Muslims, opposition against the West or America is directly related to a conflict with Islam. However, the situation is not nearly that simple. Agus, an Indonesian friend of mine studying politics here at the University of Indonesia, said that he plans to join the protests when Bush arrives on Monday. Agus is an Indonesian Christian, however, and says his motivations are American foreign policies that violate the sovereignty of other countries and have resulted in civilian death. He also cites economic reasons. He feels that the U.S.’s treatment of Indonesia as a “third world” and “borrower” country actually results in Indonesia’s greater dependence on global money lending institutions, reinforces undemocratic institutions, and keeps Indonesia subordinate to more powerful countries.

According to Agus, the motivations for radical Muslims, however, may be more complicated. They consider the political and economic relationships with America, but they are also very much driven by what they view as America’s “anti-Muslim” policies. These people don’t just make the political criticism that a “war on terrorism” has resulted in the disruption of countless lives and the deaths of thousands of civilians – they see an aggressive “war on Islam.”

Another friend of mine, a self titled “intellectual” Muslim, said that one of the biggest barriers to harmonious relations between Indonesia and the United States is the failure of Americans to see how U.S. policies impact Indonesians as well as Muslims around the world. Indonesians see America as acting in its own self interests, in ways that do harm to Islamic people. For example, my friend cited the fact that the United States used its veto to block United Nations sanctions on Israel as it took aggressive actions against Lebanon and Palestinian territories. He said these actions, which the U.S. refused to stop, resulted in the deaths of over 19,000 civilians in those territories.

The relations between the United States and Islam become increasingly important when you consider the nature of Indonesia’s young democracy. Only recently has it emerged from over thirty years of authoritarian rule. Indonesia is a moderate Islamic country, and democracy is well engrained in its culture. Indonesia’s people have taken to their new democratic freedoms passionately. However, these freedoms have also opened the door to political Islam as well as the fundamentalist movement that was suppressed under the previous regime; this movement is very vocal and seems to have gained strength in recent years. As Indonesia proves, Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive. There are some Islamic parties, however, that site religion in their opposition to the United States. As Professor John Esposito recognizes, political Islam and the foreign policy of the United States are deeply intertwined. U.S. policies sometimes help increase the appeal of radical Islamic parties while weakening the appeal of moderate parties. Indonesia is in a critical stage in its development, and the rise of extremism threatens its democracy, and it also threatens America’s interests. President Bush must recognize that this Islamic movement in Indonesia, and indeed around the world, is in no small way related to the global scene in which the United States plays such a decisive role.

The roots of extremism are not simply a reaction to anti-American sentiment but are much deeper. In order to truly battle terrorism and extremism in Indonesia, the United States needs to support Indonesia in its struggle to eliminate the causes of extremism, namely poverty, inequality, and institutions that corrupt democracy to empower a few.

This said, the meeting between Presidents Bush and Yudhoyono is a chance for the United States to make important inroads with Indonesians and Muslims around the world, to show that both countries are willing to adjust their policies to achieve friendship. As my friend Hendra told me, “I believe Indonesia and the United States can be friends and allies – but I believe something has to be rearranged.” The Indonesian people have made it clear that something is not right. The question now is whether the Indonesian leader is willing to step aside from the safe issues that make up status quo dialogue and tell the American President that things need to change. It is also yet to be seen whether the American President is willing to listen.

 

Ted the Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor

This is a newly-written and largely unedited piece. Just thought I would throw it out there. I really think that this is an important time for Indonesia and the United States, and that Bush’s visit here is important.
That said, I find myself appologizing a bit for focusing too much on the negative of Bush’s visit. While there are many peole obviously upset by the demonized image of the American president that has been created, the relationship between Indonesia and the United States is much more complex and so much more important that just pointing out how President Bush has been “wrong” during his presidency. If I have indeed engaged in “Bush Bashing,” I truly appologize, for that is not my intent and it is certainly not a productive way to work towards the kind of trans-national relations that I want to be a part of nuturing. -Ted

——–

Were I a presidential foreign policy advisor for George W. Bush right now (and I am open to all invitations), I would definitely offer counsel as he plans to visit Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his tour of Asia next week. My experience living, working and studying in Malaysia, Thailand and now Indonesia tells me that this visit represents a turning point in the relationship of the United States and the rest of the world. I would be excited by my president’s opportunity to make a huge positive impact on global affairs with this single event, and I would make sure he understood the fatal implications for my country that would result from his failure.

Whether the greater American consciousness has realized it yet or not, Indonesia is an extremely important country and is vital to the interests of America and its people. Recently elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, for example, Indonesia plays an ever more important role in global politics. This role is all the more significant because Indonesia is not only an energetic democracy and is dedicated to global diplomatic dialogue, it is also the most populous Islamic country in the world. Indonesia is a cultural and political crossroads and plays a mediator between the worlds of Asia, South East Asia, the West, and the Islamic world.

I would also stress to Mr. Bush the nature of Indonesia’s very young, vibrant and still imperfect democracy. Only recently has it emerged from over thirty years of authoritarian rule – if anyone can appreciate the dangers of drastic and almost instantaneous switch to democracy, it should be America’s current administration. Indonesia is a moderate Islamic country, and democracy is well engrained in its culture.

Indonesia’s people have taken to their new democratic freedoms passionately. However, these freedoms have also opened the door to the fundamentalist movement that was suppressed under the previous regime; this movement is very vocal and seems to have gained strength in recent years. I am sure President Bush would already know that the policies of the United States are often opposed by this movement, and this opposition is seen as a rallying point that has helped Indonesia’s fundamentalist and sometimes radical Islamic movements gain strength. Indonesia is in a critical stage in its development, and the rise of extremism threatens its democracy, and it also threatens America’s interests. President Bush must recognize that this Islamic movement in Indonesia, and indeed around the world, is in no small way related to the global scene in which the United States plays such a decisive role.

I would give him a head’s up concerning the massive protests that will be waiting for him as he steps onto the helipad that has been constructed especially for him, where trees have been cut down in the middle of the National Park in Bogor, South of the capital city Jakarta. Demonstrations have already been waging for weeks, at the Parliament, in Bogor, and in front of the US Embassy. I would then tell him that he has no reason to worry, that the huge measures being taken in the name of security guarantees his safety (though its excessive nature is further enraging the protesters, who already see Bush as arrogant). The Islamic groups vowing “Bush will not step foot onto our soil” are only another example of why this visit is so important.

It may not be true at all, but many Muslims in Indonesia feel that the policies of the Bush administration are designed to be aggressive towards and do injury to all Islamic people around the world. While this administration may be fighting what it calls a “war against terror,” many Indonesians see it as a “war against Islam.” They are angry about the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they regard Bush’s actions and policies as one of the greatest threats to peace in the world, as having caused a great deal of suffering and destruction.

As his advisor, I would tell Mr. Bush that there could be no better opportunity to change the perception that Indonesia, and indeed the entire Muslim world, has of him and his administration. It is time for the president to show that he truly regrets any harm that his policies have done, and to show the world that those policies are changing.

I, in my hypothetical official capacity, would urge President Bush to consider the Indonesian tradition of the recently celebrated Idul Fitri holiday, when Muslims and non-Muslims alike seek and grant forgiveness. The American president should use this as an opportunity to say “Minal Aidzin wal Faizin,” “please forgive me. I am sorry.” He should capitalize on the opportunity to heal damaged relations, and to gain sympathy from Muslims. But it must be a sincere apology, and it must be reinforced by real change in U.S. policy. The United States is indeed at a tipping point, with the struggle towards resolution of global problems and increasing prosperity on one side and certain decline on the other.

By-Line with Imam: Bush’s Last Chance: Indonesia

Bapak Imam and Anaknya

On Saturday and Sunday, I spent about 24 hours straight with my friend, Imam, and his wife Endri and children Aldin and Faiz, sitting, leaning, and occasionally sleeping on the cement floor of his South Jakarta room/ house, writing an article together. We took breaks for several meals, lots of coffee, and the occasional wrestling match with his children or to stare back at the group of neighborhood kids that had gathered outside the door to observe the odd bule in their midst. But we never strayed too far from our office, there on the floor.

aldin and faiz

We thought it would be a good idea to write an article together about President Bush’s arrival in Indonesia next week. Here ya go: Bush’s Visit to Indonesia: A Last Chance

The column will be in the Jakarta Post within the next few days (www.thejakartapost.com).

Imam is a local journalist here in Jakarta, and is also a researcher for Komnas HAM, the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights.

Sunday Night Check-in

Protests continue in anticipation of Bush’s arrival next Monday, when he plans to meet and discuss with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

IHT story about yesterday’s protest in Bogor.

This story is also very relavent to Bush’s visit to Indonesia: “Bush must be told: talk to your enemies.” There are too many people in Indonesia, everywhere, that are extremely mad at Bush, and that is not fair to the many people in America that also disagree with him. It is time for the administration to admit its faults, apologize, and change policy.

After not checking the international news for a few days, without access to the internet at my friends house in inner city Jakarta, I am struck by how much the world moves in a day, almost overcome with the singular task of finding a vantage point from which to attempt to understand it. It is almost a depressing task, reading the news. There is so much to detest, to be sad about, to cringe at, to be scared of. There are so many things happening all at once, there is a feeling that if you do not do something right now, your opportunity will slip away for ever.

So some guy set off a bomb in downtown Jakarta yesterday, in some mall. The bomb managed to shatter a window in the A&W restaurant as well as injure the poor fellow that was disillusioned enough to make a bomb out of the plastic bottle. There is no clarity yet, but the immediate assumption is, of course, that the man was somehow motivated by radical Islamic terrorists. Another piece of evidence that stupidity and desperation is conducive to radicalism with the aim of hurting innocent people

USA and Indonesia

A story about protests to Bush’s visit in Jakarta:

Hardline Indonesian Muslims protest Bush’s visit

160_ap_bush_protest_061104.jpg

President Bush is still scheduled to arrive in Bogor, Indonesia, for a visit with Indonesian President Yudhoyono following the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum later this month. I was there just a few weeks ago, and the serenity of the famous national Taman Bunga, flower gardens, gave no hint of today’s activity as thousands of people, including protesters, police, and construction workers prepare for the visit. Simply meeting the demands of the US president’s security detail has required the alteration of roads, the construction of new helicopter pads and other infrastructure, and the import of thousands of security personal from around Indonesia.

It is worth asking, I think, if the situation is different than it was two days ago, before the midterm elections in the US cast doubt around the world about Bush’s strength as the leader of America?

American ambassador Lynn Pascoe said that the US wants Indonesia to succeed. This proclaimed desire is manifested in several of the points on the agenda of the meeting, such as the plan to talk about poverty reduction and corruption in Indonesia. These are indeed crucial issues for Indonesia’s success and indeed its very survival.

The meeting should also be viewed as very important to the interests of the United States, as well. The US recognizes that Indonesia can play a key role in dealing with the nuclear issue with Iran and North Korea, for example.

One of Bush’s largest challenges in coming to Indonesia is facing the sentiment that his policies have reflected aggression towards the Islamic world. Although Islam in Indonesia is traditionally very moderate and very unique from that of the Middle East, it is no less the religion of over 90 percent of the country’s population. The past week has already seen multiple large public protests here, as well as Islamic leaders from certain groups demanding that Bush not be allowed to touch down on Indonesian soil.