Commentary: Despite Terror Attack, Indonesia Remains an Example for the Muslim World

A man walks down a street filled with abandoned vehicles and debris from damaged buildings in the northern Syrian town of Kobani on Jan. 30, 2015. (Reuters Photo/Osman Orsal)

By : Satya Hangga Yudha Widya Putra | on 5:57 PM January 17, 2016
Category : Opinion, Commentary

The Middle East is a region comprising dozens of countries with hundreds of millions of people. There is plenty of diversity but it is also clear that many Middle Eastern nations have tremendous amounts of problems. Many are de facto dictatorships or outright war zones.

Yet when people in the West think of "Islam," they tend to think solely of the Middle East, even though the majority of the world's Muslims live outside of the Middle East.

Indonesia has some 250 million people and around 90 percent of our population is Muslim, like the majority of people in the Middle East. Yet in almost all regions in Indonesia, women are treated equally to men, and they can drive, work and flourish professionally. We had a woman as president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, and several of President Joko Widodo’s cabinet ministers are women. Since 1949, Indonesia has formed a strong relationship with the United States. President Barack Obama has hailed Indonesia as a model of how a developing nation can embrace diversity and democracy.

This is not to say that Indonesia is a perfect nation. Internationally, we still face criticism over the position of minorities, like certain Christian groups, Shiites and the Ahmadiyah sect. The far-reaching autonomy in Aceh and implementation of Shariah rule there is also often seen as problematic, and indeed these issues need our attention. But no country is flawless, and overall, despite the immense diversity throughout our archipelago, Indonesia remains a remarkably peaceful society.

Another factor that differentiates Indonesia from many countries in the Middle East is that our military and police, arguably the nation's best-run organizations, continue to respect our democratic framework. Look at the National Police's elite counter-terrorist unit Densus 88, for example. The unit was only established in 2003 after the deadly Bali bombings with the help of the United States and Australia. It has been very successful and has arrested more than 800 terrorists in its brief history.

One of the reasons behind Indonesia's success as a stable and peaceful democracy is the state ideology of Pancasila, the national philosophy that promotes the belief in God, civilized humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice. There are quite a few nations in the Middle East that could take a leaf out of Indonesia's book in this regard.

Indonesia was long ruled by Suharto’s New Order regime but after more than 30 years, we broke out of it in 1998 and established a democracy. Though we still need to make more progress, we have started making improvements in our education system and are adopting economic policies that have a more international outlook.

As a whole, the Middle East is a region that needs to become more democratic by empowering its people. But governments in the region fail to deliver essential public services in a context of corruption, poverty and unequal opportunities.

The US along with several other developed nations have helped the Middle East and North Africa to establish democracies. They helped dethrone longtime dictators Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Gaddafi in Libya. But those countries have since fallen into chaos, with their people forced to flee to more developed parts of the world instead of being able to stay and rebuild.

Moreover, brutal terrorist organizations like the Islamic State movement are becoming more powerful and continue to spread their reign of terror, like we witnessed in Jakarta last week.

For the Middle East as a whole to prosper and for the region to stop exporting its problems to the rest of the world, societies there could learn a lot from the changes we in Indonesia have implemented since the fall of Suharto. An ideological framework that is respectful of diversity as well as law enforcement and counter-terrorist agencies that operate effectively under democratic supervision are key steps if the restive Middle East is ever to recover from the current mayhem. And all this can be done within the context of a majority-Muslim society, as Indonesia continues to prove.

Satya Hangga Yudha Widya Putra is a graduate student in global affairs at New York University.

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