Author Topic: Indonesia: Muslim bridge-builder? ~even more reason to Nuke it off the planet~  (Read 542 times)

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Offline Tina Greco - Melbourne

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Indonesia: Muslim bridge-builder?
Israel's deputy foreign minister has called on Indonesia to play a more active role in the Middle East. The BBC's Lucy Williamson in Jakarta asks whether the government will listen.

Istiqlal mosque, Jakarta, file image
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country

This month, a letter appeared in Indonesia's main English-language newspaper.

It was signed by Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Majalli Whbee and it called on Indonesia to expand its role in the Middle East, and to engage more with the challenges facing the Muslim world.

This might come as something of a surprise, given that Indonesia has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

It also happens to be the world's most populous Muslim country, is a member of Opec and enjoys good relations with Iran and Syria.

But Indonesia is the kind of Muslim country many western nations and their allies feel comfortable with - it is democratic, pluralist, and has had real success in tackling Islamic extremism.

No wonder some people see it as an ideal candidate to bridge the gaps between the Muslim world and the West.

To some extent, it is already involved in that dialogue. Indonesia took part in last year's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, and is working on capacity-building programmes for the Palestinians.

But given its size and political spread, could it do more? Should it have a more prominent role in issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Iran's nuclear programme?

'Active neutrality'

One of those who thinks it should is Wimar Witoelar, a former Indonesian presidential spokesman. He believes Jakarta is well-placed to talk to countries like Iran, and that the US should be asking for its help.

Indonesia, he says, has a made a virtue out of being "actively neutral" - a policy first introduced by Sukarno, the country's first president.

Indonesia map

"At that time," says Witoelar, "it applied to communism and the West; now it applies equally to Muslim countries and the West."

There is support too from the Indonesian public for a more assertive role, particularly in the Middle East.

A straw poll on the streets of Jakarta found that more than half the people we talked to wanted Indonesia to support the Palestinians - with money or even troops - "because they are Muslims".

Religious identity in Indonesia is growing - the number of people wearing the headscarf has been rising for decades.

And while most Indonesians are proud of their pluralist democracy, they also feel a personal, emotional connection to the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories.

But is domestic desire for a greater role for Indonesia mirrored among Muslims in Pakistan, or Kosovo, or Egypt?

Broadly, the answer appears to be no.

Most Muslim countries around the world still look to the Middle East for leadership.

Religion 'not enough'

While Israel would like to see Indonesia use its democratic, Muslim weight in the region, Arab countries tend to see it as distant, different and lacking in religious authority.

US officials privately agree that Indonesia's influence in the region is limited.


Indonesia is regarded as a moderate Islamic country

As the BBC's Middle East analyst Magdi Abdelhadi points out, Indonesia has neither the historical weight of a country like Turkey nor the economic leverage of the Gulf.

Religion is simply not enough. To have any kind of real influence Indonesia would need to bridge thousands of kilometres, as well as gulfs in history, culture and language.

Playing a role as a Muslim power simply is not high enough on the government's agenda for leaders to attempt it.

Indonesia's foreign policy is much more focused on its economic and political role in South East Asia, and even its links with Africa, than with the Middle East.

The country's role in global peace and security comes 18th on its list of foreign policy objectives. Islam never gets a mention at all.

The reason is that the government - unlike some of its voters - does not like to see things in terms of religion.

Non-emotional consultants

Analysts like Anak Agung Banyu Perwitz point to Jakarta's unwillingness throughout most of its history to label its foreign policy decisions with an Islamic tag.

He details how Indonesia has supported all UN resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories, and opposed the latest US invasion of Iraq.

But he says such actions have always been justified in terms of political pragmatism, economic development, or anti-colonialism - not Islam.

For example, with Israel, public opinion is seen to be strongly against opening diplomatic relations.

The foreign ministry has confirmed that Indonesia will never have diplomatic relations with Israel before the creation of a Palestinian state.

But the reason, it says, is not the Islamic outrage you can find expressed in homes and coffee shops, but the anti-colonial commitment enshrined in the country's constitution.

Indonesia's weight in the Middle East may be reduced as a result of this attitude.

But Wimar Witoelar believes it is this very quality that is Indonesia's unique selling point.

He admits that his country does not have the influence to tackle the big issues by itself and likens his country's role to that of consultants.

"We're useful because we use our mass in a non-emotional way."