Indonesia’s Tolerant Take on Islam
By Erich Follath
The Southeast Asian island nation of Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, which practices an open-minded, gentle version of Islam in urban areas. But elsewhere Islamists are beginning to encroach.
Joko Widodo is a strange character, a superstar in his country and a figure of growing importance in Asian politics. He is also a mixture of many things that don’t ordinarily mix.
Sometimes he behaves like the legendary Kalif Harun al-Rashid, who used to sneak out of his palace in Baghdad at night to mingle, in disguise, with ordinary people and learn what they were thinking. Sometimes he emulates Nelson Mandela, who has charmed people with his optimism and eloquence throughout his life. And sometimes he comes across as a Mick Jagger type, charismatic and assertive, but perhaps a little too self-absorbed.
For his fellow Indonesians, this is apparently an irresistible blend of character traits. Widodo, 52, widely known as “Jokowi,” is a pop star and an inspirational tribune of the people. He is the governor of the regional district of Jakarta, a megalopolis of about 23 million people on a strip of land along the coast, which is constantly threatened by flooding. In fact, scientists believe that most of Jakarta will be underwater by 2050.
Greater Jakarta is one of the most chaotic collections of people in the world, a seemingly ungovernable Moloch. But according to opinion polls, Governor Jokowi is doing such a good job in Jakarta that Indonesians say they would elect him president in next year’s national elections. This would also make him one of the leaders of the G-20 group of 20 major economies.
Indonesia, an enormous nation consisting of more than 17,500 islands, stretches from Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra to Borneo, Java, Bali, the Maluku Islands and New Guinea. It encompasses more than 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) from west to east, or about the distance from Lisbon to well past Moscow. It is a country with vast, virtually uninhabited regions and some of the world’s most crowded places. It also holds volcanoes and tropical rainforests, the home of giant, 60-meter (200-foot) trees, along with mangroves and coral reefs, orangutans and Komodo dragons.
Indonesia’s manmade wonders are as impressive as its natural features. Magnificent Buddhist temples like Borobudur and impressive Hindu sites like Tanah Lot are UNESCO World Heritage sites. And Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan boast some of the world’s largest and most beautiful mosques.
World’s Largest Muslim Population
Despite the current economic setbacks, including last week’s strikes, Indonesia is still considered one of the up-and-coming Tiger Cub economies. It has sufficient oil and natural gas reserves, is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and has good relations with Washington, Beijing and Berlin. Germany’s Federal Security Council has approved the export of Leopard 2 tanks to Jakarta, notwithstanding the Indonesian military’s brutal treatment of Papuan rebels. After her visit this summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel enthusiastically referred to Indonesia as a dynamic and future-oriented economy, with the world’s fourth-largest population after China, India and the United States.