Something I touched on yesterday was the point about Indonesia not being a ‘model’ Muslim-majority country in the same way that say Egypt is. What I mean by this is that religion, and hence the role of religion in public life, is perceived very differently in Indonesia to its status in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Yes, there are plenty of mosques; the call to prayer is broadcast; the new president is a Muslim; and there is a strong Islamic cultural influence on Indonesian languages and society. However, this does not prevent Indonesia being very much more a secular state, with a constitutionally enforced pluralistic tolerance towards the multitude of religions observed by Indonesians. Indeed, it is considerably more secular than supposedly secular republics such as Egypt and Syria are.
Joe Cochrane makes this point in Newsweek, opining that:
A worrisome note has crept into U.S. rhetoric toward the country of late. On her first overseas trip as secretary of state earlier this year, Hillary Clinton called Indonesia a “Muslim nation” and commended it for demonstrating that “Islam, democracy, and modernity” can go hand in hand. In June, she said Indonesia might be a “good partner in the U.S. efforts to reach out to the Muslim world.” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Indonesia a “Muslim country” at a briefing in May.
This seems to me to be extremely problematic: I’m well aware that this point has been made elsewhere, but aping the language of the Islamists, particularly al-Qaeda, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood and their respective franchises, by lumping all Muslims regardless of their language, ethnicity and culture together in one boat does not help to empower moderate forces in Muslim-majority countries who wish to see a permanent secularisation of Islam and its divorce from any distopian vision of a pan-global Islamic caliphate.
Just how do you define the term Muslim World? Is a Muslim living in a Christian country part of this mythical construct? Here’s Scott Carpenter at Foreign Policy:
To see the trouble with the term “Muslim world,” one needs only to try and define it. Who is included in the Muslim world? What countries — or individuals — make the cut, and who defines it? Is half-Muslim Nigeria a part of the Muslim world as much as the Islamic Republic of Iran? And how do different sects in internal conflict, like the Sunni and Shia of Iraq, reconcile their placement in a single “world” to American eyes? Are extremists — such as the Taliban or al Qaeda — lumped together with secular Muslims?
This sort of terminology, whilst arguably useful when applied to historical analyses and for extrapolating rough trends, is neither helpful nor particularly useful. Cochrane again:
The United States—especially President Barack Obama, who spent four years of his childhood there—should know better. Such language may sound benign. But Indonesia isn’t a Muslim state any more than Great Britain is a Protestant one. Indonesia is a secular nation that happens to have 190 million Muslim citizens. And its embrace of democracy has nothing to do with religion.
President Obama has made it a lynchpin of his public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and beyond that the US is not ‘at war with Islam’ and persisted with this narrative from his first interview with al-Arabiya, through Istanbul and finally to Cairo. Any congratulatory message to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or future dialogue with Indonesia should avoid this destructive typology, and it may well have briader policy implications:
[…] it should avoid touting Indonesia as a bridge to the Islamic world. Previous attempts by Jakarta to mediate the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Iraq War, or other Middle East issues have failed, and it’s not hard to see why. Indonesia sits several thousands miles away from the Middle East, where it has very little influence. Most Indonesian Muslims practice a tolerant, moderate form of Islam, very different from Saudi-inspired Wahhabism.
Parag Khanna at the Washington Post has the last word:
The United States will never pursue consistent policy across the Muslim world’s petro-states, monarchies and failed states, nor do we need to do so. In Turkey, we should speak of how to help the country join the European Union. In Pakistan, focus on integrating tribal areas into the constitutional structure. In Egypt, speak of job creation and a legitimate transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak. Such efforts are taken through traditional foreign policy — between nations, not cultures.