As Indonesia debates Islam's role, U.S. stays out

By Andrew Higgins
Sunday, October 25, 2009

In the early 1980s, Nasir Tamara, a young Indonesian scholar, needed money to fund a study of Islam and politics. He went to the Jakarta office of the U.S.-based Ford Foundation to ask for help. He left empty-handed. The United States, he was told, was "not interested in getting into Islam."

The rebuff came from President Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, a U.S. anthropologist who lived in Indonesia for more than a decade. Dunham, who died in 1995, focused on issues of economic development, not matters of faith and politics, sensitive subjects in a country then ruled by a secular-minded autocrat.

"It was not fashionable to 'do Islam' back then," Tamara recalled.

Today, Indonesia is a democracy and the role of Islam is one of the most important issues facing U.S. policy in a country with many more Muslims than Egypt, Syria, Jordan and all the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf combined. What kind of Islam prevails here is critical to U.S. interests across the wider Muslim world.

"This is a fight for ideas, a fight for what kind of future Indonesia wants," said Walter North, Jakarta mission chief for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who knew Dunham while she was here in the 1980s.

It is also a fight that raises a tricky question: Should Americans stand apart from Islam's internal struggles around the world or jump in and try to bolster Muslims who are in sync with American views?

A close look at U.S. interactions with Muslim groups in Indonesia -- Obama's boyhood home for four years -- shows how, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, rival strategies have played out, often with consequences very different from what Washington intended.

In the debate over how best to influence the country's religious direction, some champion intervention, most notably a private organization from North Carolina that has waded deep into Indonesia's theological struggles. But, in the main, U.S. thinking has moved back toward what it was in Dunham's day: stay out of Islam.

A change in public mood

In many ways, Indonesia -- a nation of 240 million people scattered across 17,000 islands -- is moving in America's direction. It has flirted with Saudi-style dogmatism on its fringes. But while increasingly pious, it shows few signs of dumping what, since Islam arrived here in the 14th century, has generally been an eclectic and flexible brand of the faith.

Terrorism, which many Indonesians previously considered an American-made myth, now stirs general revulsion. When a key suspect in July suicide bombings in Jakarta was killed recently in a shootout with a U.S.-trained police unit, his native village, appalled by his violent activities, refused to take the body for burial.

A band of Islamic moral vigilantes this month forced a Japanese porn star to call off a trip to Jakarta. But the group no longer storms bars, nightclubs and hotels as it did regularly a few years ago, at the height of a U.S. drive to promote "moderate" Islam. Aceh, a particularly devout Indonesian region and a big recipient of U.S. aid after a 2004 tsunami, recently introduced a bylaw that mandates the stoning to death of adulterers, but few expect the penalty to be carried out. Aceh's governor, who has an American adviser paid for by USAID, opposes stoning.

Public fury at the United States over the Iraq war has faded, a trend accelerated by the departure of President George W. Bush and the election of Obama. In 2003, the first year of the war, 15 percent of Indonesians surveyed by the Pew Research Center had a favorable view of the United States -- compared with 75 percent before Bush took office. America's favorability rating is now 63 percent.

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