People protest against right-wing initiative PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) with a sign reading 'Stop agitation against Islam' in Berlin, Germany, on Jan. 5, 2015. (EPA Photo/Rainer Jensen)

Indonesia’s Absence in 'Islam vs. West' Issue

JANUARY 13, 2015

Editor's Note: President Joko Widodo had commented in Bandung on Monday about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but those remarks were not available at time of publication. Click here for the Jakarta Globe's story: Jokowi Condemns Paris Attacks, Calls for Respectful Creative Expression

Jakarta. The hypothetical clash between Islam versus the West as forecast by American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington seems to be gaining new life in the wake of last week’s killing spree in Paris, and amid growing concerns over extremist group Islamic State’s spreading influence.

Unfortunately, Indonesia, once expected to bridge the gap between the two civilizations, is seen backpedaling from the role of mediator.

International relations and security expert Bantarto Bandoro of the Indonesia Defense University expressed his worries over tensions growing between Muslims and Europe’s secular society following the recent massacre in Paris, where 17 people, including three suspected Islamic extremist gunmen, died after three days of violence in the French capital.

The attacks came following the publication of a cartoon depicting an IS member beheading the Prophet Muhammad by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

“I’m worried that a clash of civilizations between Islam versus the West will be renewed,” Bantarto told the Jakarta Globe on Monday. “[Tension] that was triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks has not disappeared. For years, even the slightest issue could reignite tension.”

“But now there is the IS, which is provoking a new clash; and then there’s the incident in Paris. Communities will become polarized; individuals will grow to distrust and be suspicious of one another. A clash of civilizations will come into existence,” Bantarto said, adding that certain groups will deliberately try to fuel hostility for their own gain.

In the Muslim world, extremist groups such as the IS will use the growing friction to garners support for their jihadist, anti-West propaganda.

“And in Europe, some ultranationalist groups see this as a momentum to reignite ultranationalist sentiments,” he said.

Nevertheless, Indonesia should be able to take some action in alleviating the tension, Bantarto added.

As the world’s third-largest democracy and the nation with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia, under the leadership of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took up the proposal that it should play a mediating role and bridge the gap between Islam and the West — a notion also voiced by US President Barack Obama when he visited Jakarta in 2010.

Yudhoyono initiated the annual Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), which has drawn the participation of several world leaders and is seen by some as the former president’s attempt to showcase Indonesia as a role model for Muslim nations, where Islam and democracy can harmoniously work side by side.

His successor, President Joko Widodo, however, has not shown indications that he is planning to continue that role.

Observers regret that the president has failed to issue a statement regarding the deadly incident in Paris. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s silence is also seen as Indonesia giving little attention to the matter and the subsequent growing animosity between Muslims and the West.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has addressed the issue with a brief press statement simply saying the government of Indonesia condemns the act of violence and extends its condolences to the victims’ families.

“This should be a good opportunity for Joko’s administration to restart what was initiated by SBY [Yudhoyono] ... to act as a builder of bridges between the West and Islam,” Bantarto said. “During such a heated situation, the president should issue a statement addressed to the international public encouraging religious tolerance; that we must stop seeing each other as enemies.”

Executive director of the Indonesia Center for Democracy, Diplomacy and Defense, Teuku Rezasyah, said that Joko should make use of the BDF as a means to maintaining Indonesia’s mediating role.

Although the annual forum was regarded by many critics as ineffective, Rezasyah acknowledges it already has a bureaucratic structure and was formulated with best practices to maximize its function, which Joko could surely capitalize on.

“[Former] President Yudhoyono has laid a good foundation for Indonesia to address international crises, including with the BDF,” said Rezasyah, whose brother Teuku Faizasyah was a member of the president’s expert staff for international affairs during Yudhoyono’s administration.

“Joko can improve the forum by choosing more contextual topics,” he added, citing the  growing friction between religious and secular communities following the Paris tragedy as an example.

He added that although he understood the focus of Joko’s foreign policy on international matters that directly concern Indonesia, such as the protection of Indonesian migrant workers overseas, the president and his administration must not neglect the Islam versus West issue.

The matter plays a relevant role in Indonesia’s context, with the archipelago facing growing security threats from IS’s spreading influence among local Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Although they are in the minority among the archipelago’s moderate Muslim population, the threats they pose can be very real, experts have warned. Rezasyah said Indonesia should not give up on defending multiculturalism.

“The Paris case is not proof that multiculturalism in France has failed. We must look into the roots of the problems,” he said. “To annihilate terrorism, destroying the terrorists is not the answer.

“The answer is to wipe out the roots of the problem. And these are related to economic issues, education, the gap between the rich and the poor and frustrations over global problems that have not been solved, such as the Middle East crises,” Rezasyah added. “As long as the feeling of being marginalized continues, violence will always have a breeding ground.”

Rezasyah urged Joko to consider employing experts in the field of global affairs for the presidential office, like Yudhoyono had done during his term, rather than relying solely on the Foreign Ministry to address international issues.

He suggested that Joko employ the valuable expertise of the nation’s top foreign policy “thinkers” — such as former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa and his former deputy Dino Patti Djalal — and task them with maintaining Indonesia’s international role.

If Joko and the current Foreign Ministry are unable to deal with such matters, he should follow Yudhoyono’s lead, Rezasyah added.

“Marty and Dino ... where have they gone? They can be trusted to act as Indonesia’s ambassadors-at-large, because for issues like this [Islam versus West], what we need are great thinkers with vast international networks to specifically take care matters,” Rezasyah said.

“Under [Yudhoyono], Indonesia developed a reputation as being moderate, as a  competent mediator in settling international conflicts. This is a huge asset.”

If Joko fails to capitalize on this, Indonesia’s international reputation will be history, Rezasyah added.

Foreign Minister Retno reiterated in her New Year address in Jakarta last week that Indonesia’s foreign policy for the next five years would center around settling territorial disputes, improving protection of Indonesian citizens overseas, boosting economic diplomacy to support economic growth in the country and increasing regional connectivity.

She also mentioned Joko’s ambition to turn Indonesia into a global maritime fulcrum, and that the Foreign Ministry would direct its diplomatic efforts to fully support that projection.

However, Retno stressed that Indonesia would not abandon its international roles.

Further Coverage

Editorial: Indonesia Can Bridge Islam-West Division