As home to 250 million people speaking hundreds of languages and spanning some 17,000 islands in an area as wide as the continental U.S., Indonesia is one of the most populous and diverse countries in the world.
The country is about 88 percent Muslim, and it is also home to Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians. It’s a place that prides itself on diversity and sees it as a source of strength. “We cannot afford not to have this diversity,” says Budi Bowoleksono, Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States.
The country’s founding philosophy, “Pancasila,” includes the notions of unity and social justice for all. Religion, politics and culture hold the country together — but there are growing concerns that the country is becoming less tolerant than it used to be.
The former governor of Jakarta, a Christian, was recently imprisoned on charges of blasphemy. Schools funded by Saudi Arabia are disseminating a stricter version of Islam than the country has previously embraced. Meanwhile, some minority sects are under attack.
Which way will Indonesia go? In traveling across the country, its diversity and complexity, its paradoxes and tensions are all apparent.
“We are diversity and harmony”
The world’s largest Buddhist temple complex, on the Indonesian island of Java, dates to the eighth century. Millions of tourists visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Borobudur every year — most of them Indonesian.
Leo Prasetio, 23, works as a tour guide at the site. “I am a Muslim, a happy one,” he says. “Actually, we are diversity and harmony now. In this city, yes.”
But “the truth,” Prasetio says, “is not in all of Indonesia is like this city.”
“Only Islam can give justice”
In the capital, Jakarta, a Saudi-funded university called LIPIA teaches Arabic and Salafism, an ultraconservative form of Islam. Men and women sit in separate classrooms, and female students Skype into the men’s classroom for their lessons. Saudi Arabia is trying to open four more LIPIA campuses in other Indonesian cities.
Sidqi Addayyan, a 27-year-old LIPIA student, is studying to become a religious teacher and hopes someday Indonesia will become an Islamic country on the Saudi model.
“I believe that only Islam can give justice, because in my opinion, if we let another ideology dominate Islam, there will be injustice,” he says.
The school has “a very strong connection directly to the Saudi government,” says Sidney Jones, who runs the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict and has studied extremism in Indonesia for 40 years. “The fact is, however, that some of Indonesia’s most progressive Muslims have also studied Arabic at LIPIA. So it isn’t just a hotbed of Salafist Islam, though it is a very important institution for spreading Salafism.”
Jones notes there is now “a much greater attention to Islamic practices that Indonesian Muslims didn’t necessarily adhere to in the late 1970s and early ’80s.” But, she says, “people confuse a tendency toward greater piety with evidence of radicalism.”
“They love the bling”
Brightly colored hijabs line the walls of Si.Se.Sa., an upscale fashion boutique in Jakarta. It’s named for the three sisters who own the shop — Siriz, Senaz and Sansa, all in their 30s. They specialize in modest syar’i or “Shariah compliant” fashion and say they follow in the footsteps of their mother, also a designer.
Swarovski crystals are featured in many of the store’s designs.
“In Southeast Asia,” says Benedicta Citro, an Italian designer and Swarovski’s representative, “they love the bling.”
“In every country, they have their own identity, their own DNA,” Citro says. “So, for instance, in Indonesia, they’re very colorful. They are very conservative in terms of cut, but lots of bright colors.”
Minority beliefs under threat
In a dimly lit crypt in Yogyakarta, Wahjudi Djaja kneels in front of a tomb and sprinkles flowers on the grave as he whispers a prayer. He practices a Javanese religion called Kejawen, also known as Kebatinan, whose rituals involve amulets and a figure known as the Queen of the South Sea.
A day before, Djaja says, his fellow worshippers were conducting a ritual in the local river when a group of hard-line Muslims showed up and tried to block them. That kind of confrontation is increasingly common, he says, and it worries him.
The road ahead
“Indonesia has given me the understanding of how to contain multitudes,” says Maya Soetero-Ng, President Obama’s half-sister. She was born in Indonesia and was raised there until age 14. “But it has also given me, by virtue of its worst bits, an understanding of how we have to confront the worst in human nature.”
U.S. Ambassador Joseph R. Donovan says every democracy needs “careful nourishing” and cultivation of shared values. “And it also requires a healthy dose of courage as well,” he says, “to stand up to say we support moderation, we support the rights of minorities. Everywhere these are being challenged, and Indonesia is not an exception there.”