Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Inside Indonesia : The World's Largest Muslim Nation Is Not in the Middle East. Its Tropical Islands Hold Vast Potential-And Equally Vast Challenges

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Inside Indonesia : The World's Largest Muslim Nation Is Not in the Middle East. Its Tropical Islands Hold Vast Potential-And Equally Vast Challenges

Article excerpt

Jakarta, Indonesia--In a crowded classroom at an Islamic boarding school, an American visitor interrupts a session on Islamic thought. The teenage boys, dressed in traditional white shirts and sarongs, with Islamic caps perched on their black hair, are welcoming. What do they think of the United States? the visitor asks. "I admire American science and technology, but I think American foreign policy is wrong," says Syamsul, 19, to a general murmur of approval from his friends.

His comment represents the attitude of many people in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. Most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam, yet skepticism about U.S. policies abounds at all levels of society. Put simply, many Indonesians believe that the United States lumps terrorism and Islam in the same category.

"There are many different interpretations of what it is to be a good Muslim in Indonesia," says Douglas Ramage, director of the Asia Foundation in Indonesia, who has lived in Jakarta, the capital, on and off for 11 years. "Indonesians don't believe being a good Muslim defines their identity. They are more likely to define themselves as Indonesians first."

Indonesia is a country with great potential and great challenges. It has the fourth-largest population in the world (behind only China, India, and the U.S.), with 220 million people scattered across about 13,000 tropical islands. It holds rich deposits of oil, natural gas, and gold, along with large supplies of rubber and timber, and its location in Southeast Asia makes it strategically important. As a colony of the Netherlands from the 1600s to 1945, it was called the Dutch East Indies.

Indonesia's position as the most populous Muslim country is of special interest to the United States. Some officials in Washington would like to see Indonesia become the model for a moderate Islamic country that can enjoy good relations with the U.S. Paul Wolfowitz, now the deputy secretary of defense, was the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia in the late 1980s, and is a proponent of strong ties between the U.S. and Indonesia.

"What makes Indonesia so important is not just its size, but that it represents a Muslim tradition that epitomizes tolerance, respect for women, and a very open attitude to the world--and it is in marked contrast to that view that the extremists who carried out the World Trade Center attack are trying to present as Muslim," Wolfowitz recently told the Brown Journal of World Affairs at Brown University.

LOOMING THREAT OF TERROR

But all this potential could be in jeopardy. Relations between Indonesia and the U.S. have been strained since a terrorist attack last October in Bali, an Indonesian island where the dominant religion is Hindu. More than 190 people, most of them Western tourists who loved Bali for its relaxed ambience, were killed in the Saturday night bombing of a nightclub.

Nearly 20 Indonesians, members of the militant Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, have been arrested in connection with the attack. But Indonesians find it hard to believe that their countrymen alone carried out the attack. A prevailing theory among Indonesians is that the Central Intelligence Agency may have been responsible--an accusation American officials say they find absurd and offensive.

The skepticism about America is also seen in other ways. Abdullah Gymnastiar is a popular Islamic leader with a weekly television show. Though he has adopted some of the manners of a chatty American talk-show host, Gymnastiar declined a recent invitation to travel to the U.S. He was curious about America, he said, but, "I didn't want my followers to think I was embracing America."

A ROCKY TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY

By its geography--an archipelago stretching 3,000 miles along the equator--Indonesia is a difficult country to govern. The anchor of Indonesia is the heavily populated island of Java. …

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