Building U.S.-Indonesia Mutual Understanding Since 1994

Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity

On May 26, USINDO hosted a book launch for “Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity, ” by Dr. Robert Pringle.

Dr. Pringle explained how the idea for the book was inspired by conversations he had had with people generally informed about Indonesia, though admittedly not well versed about Islam, nor Islam in Indonesia. His idea was to write a book that would be a guide to understanding Islam in Indonesia. It covers such topics as, among others: the role of Islam in Indonesia’s new democracy, the importance of Islamic education, the ongoing debate over Islamic statedom and sharia law, and the susceptibility of Indonesian Islam to radical or terrorist influence.

Dr. Pringle discussed several conclusions drawn in the book. First, Indonesia’s sheer diversity – the number of islands, geographic distance, and plethora of languages and cultures – has been the single most important factor in the development of Islam in the country. Second, the issues that are most frequently misunderstood by foreigners are the concept of an Islamic state and sharia law. Dr. Pringle argues in the book that there has never been an agreed upon version of the Islamic state and sharia law in Indonesia. Third, Islam in Indonesia is generally not as extreme as many would suggest, but extremism does exist. Moreover, while approximately 85 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, those who support a politicized Islam are a minority, and moreover nationalism and the desire for a better standard of living are much more important in the minds of most Indonesian Muslims. Fourth, the political goal of an Islamic state, while idealized, has been rejected by 4-1 margins in each of the free and fair elections held in Indonesia’s history. Dr. Pringle concluded that Americans have a lot more in common with Indonesia than they generally think, despite the religious and cultural differences.

Dr. Jonah Blank, Policy Director for South and Southeast Asia for the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate, gave his thoughts on both the topic of the book and Dr. Pringle’s analysis therein. He noted that the essential conclusion of the book – the diversity of Indonesia and of Islam in Indonesia – can not be repeated enough. He noted that the two largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – are comparable in size to all but a few of the largest Islamic nations in the world. However, the number of people affiliated with these organizations makes up only about one half to a third of the population of Indonesia. Thus, to speak of one Islam in Indonesia, spread out over such a range of territory and over a wealth of language and cultures, is a misnomer.

Dr. Blank continued by pointing out that there is a mistaken tendency by outsiders to hold up Indonesia as an example of “good” Islam because it is considered “safe” and “moderate”, as compared to “bad” Islam exemplified by the actions of radical groups primarily located in the Middle East. Dr. Blank explained that indeed some Muslims in Indonesia practice a more “radical” form of Islam, and still others are sympathetic to such ideas. Nevertheless, policymakers should not view the existence of religiously-tinged political ideas as evidence in Indonesia of ideological, theological, or even political Islam. Dr. Blank used the example of Aceh, where the long struggle was not an insurgency motivated by Jihad or to establish an Islamic state, but rather in favor of independence. While the political beliefs of the insurgency may have been grounded in Islam, to call it an “Islamist insurgency,” concludes Dr. Blank, is a lazy description. Thus, Pringle’s book serves a needed role by informing the public through solid scholarly work in an accessible format.

Salman Al Farisi, Chargé d’Affairess of the Indonesian Embassy, provided final comments. He noted that the book provides a solid overview of the origins of Islam in Indonesia, and how that differs from how Islam developed in other parts of the world. The non-monolithic feature of Islam in Indonesia is neglected by many academics and journalists writing about the religion and the country. For the moderate Muslim in Indonesia, Islam is more than just a literal interpretation of Islamic teachings. Mr. Salman concluded by noting that the basic values of democracy are freedom, justice and equality; so too in Islam the basic values are freedom, justice and equality.

Question and Answer

Q: Where do you place the significance of Indonesian Islam in the context of global Islam?
A: (Dr. Pringle) It is difficult to say, because all Islamic countries are different. To understand Islam, it is necessary to understand the national context.

Q: What will be the new U.S. foreign policy towards Indonesia?

A: (Dr. Pringle) It is difficult to predict the future of U.S. foreign policy, but I hope that we will get past the fear of Muslim people catalyzed by the events of September 11. Indonesia does not have a “Muslim Problem”, but it is a Muslim-majority country, and does have terrorism. But, the governmental response to terrorism has been clear, and I hope that we can get back to areas of mutual benefit.

A: (Dr. Blank) In the past, U.S. foreign policy saw Islam as a tool to be used against Communism, which has come back to haunt us in many ways. But, now we have moved too far in the other direction by seeing Islam itself as a threat, rather than seeing individuals who happen to be Muslim as a threat. We are at a point now where Indonesia can be seen as a success story; 10 years ago this was not a foregone conclusion. Much of the progress can be attributed to Indonesian President Yudhoyono.

Q: How do you assess moderate-ism in Indonesia – through the practice of Islam, or the practice of politics?

A: (Dr. Pringle) Moderate is a very subjective term. Indonesia, like the United States, has a firm constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. The question, then is what about religious institutions that encourage violence and form the base for terror networks? While this happens in Indonesia, those who engage in such practices represent a tiny minority. Still, it must be addressed.

A: (Dr. Blank) Many use “moderate” to mean “people we agree with”, or “the middle point between two extremes”. But, there is utility in the term to identify those willing to engage in the democratic process, tolerate the beliefs of others, and who do not see politics and religion as a fight to the death.

A: (Mr. Salman) There is significant controversy in Indonesia regarding who is moderate and who is extremist. But, most Indonesians believe that moderate means practicing Islam peacefully.

Q: What is the center and what is the periphery in Islam, and how do you define it?

A: (Dr. Pringle) People will not agree on a definition of the “center”, because there is a doctrinal center, an influence center, and other potential “centers”. However, Indonesia is not considered the center of Islam.

A: (Dr. Blank) Putting the discussion in the context of Christianity is illustrative. It was born in the Middle East, rose to influence in the West, but is growing in Africa and Latin America. For both religions, the issue of what is the center and what is the periphery is a very nuanced discussion.

Pringle 5-26-10