The most populous Muslim nation in the world is Indonesia, a vast archipelago of islands that straddles South East Asia from Thailand to Australia. And with a total population of some 234 million people, Indonesia ranks as the fourth largest country in numbers of persons, after China, India, and the United States.
For those of us who are concerned about the spread of Islamic radicalism, Indonesia, with its dire poverty and its proximity to international trade routes, clearly merits concern. Islamic fundamentalist groups tend to thrive in poor countries where the government is corrupt and there is a lack of basic social services, and Indonesia is certainly a prime candidate in this regard.
Indonesia is home to a bonafide Muslim terrorist organization, Jemaah Islamiyah, which was behind the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, as well as the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy, among others. Recently, the Indonesian branch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organization dedicated to setting up a worldwide Muslim caliphate, packed a stadium with nearly 100,000 followers. In some parts of the country, particularly in Aceh province on the island of Sumatra, sharia law has been enforced. See my post on this from December of 2006.
Nevertheless, despite some discouraging signs, it would appear that Indonesia is not on the verge of turning into an Islamic theocracy any time in the near future. Recently, I spoke with my Indonesian friend Lucy, who could be considered a double minority in Indonesia; religiously she is a Catholic and ethnically she is Chinese. Before arriving in the United States last month on a student visa, Lucy lived and worked in Indonesia's bustling capital city, Jakarta. I asked her a number of questions to get her perspective of living as a Christian in a Muslim majority nation.
Lucy assured me that Jakarta was a fairly tolerant city with respect to the practice of religion. She told me that she does not feel any pressure to convert to Islam, nor is she harrassed about not wearing a headscarf. However, Lucy did tell me that such toleration did not extend to Christians being allowed to proselytize Muslims. She also confirmed that in marriages wherein a Muslim married a Christian, it was generally the case that the Christian would convert to Islam and not the other way around. However, in certain instances where a Muslim was marrying a wealthy Christian, it is not unheard of that the Muslim will convert to Christianity.
One of the more annoying things that Lucy finds about living in a Muslim country is the call to prayer every morning, around 4 a.m. she told me. Lucy complained that it is very loud and close to her apartment, and if she happens to wake up during that time, she finds it hard to get back to sleep.
I also queried Lucy about Indonesian Muslim attitudes towards Americans and the United States. She said that anti-American attitudes have increased in Indonesia, particularly since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I asked her if Indonesians differentiated between policies of the Bush Administration with which they disagreed from attitudes towards Americans in general. She replied that they did not, since it was the American people who voted for him. (I wasn't about to get into the 2000 election, where Gore won the popular vote.) Indonesians felt that Americans were responsible for the actions of their government. Amusingly, Lucy told me that Indonesians had an acronym for Democrats, NATO, or "No action, talk only".
When it came to Islamic fundamentalists, Lucy told me that while their numbers had grown since 9/11, they still had not grown by much in comparison with the population and that they were not very influential. Lucy's observations seemed to jibe with the findings of a recent article on Indonesian Islam in The Economist. Islam in Indonesia is still infused with elements of native mysticism, and the geography of the nation itself makes it virtually impossible for a strict, unified religious doctrine to be imposed on its 234 million people.
While there are organized groups trying to impose a strict sharia based Islam in Indonesia, such as the aforementioned Hizb-ut-Tahrir, there are also organizations trying to actively counter them with a more moderate form of Islam that promotes a separation of mosque and state. One such organization is the Wahid Institute, which is headed by Yenny Wahid, the daughter of Abdurrahman Wahid, who was president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Wahid warns of the consequences of an Indonesia under the control of radical Muslims: "It is big enough to destabilize the region." She says, "imagine if Indonesia became a hotbed for terrorism, or a source for people to get martyrs from. We've got enough people to provide an army of terrorists if we're not careful."
So, for the time being, it does not appear that Indonesia will become some Islamic colossus spreading jihad throughout South East Asia. Here's to hoping that people like Yenny Wahid will help to keep it that way.