SALT LAKE CITY — While Iraq remains the controversial center of debate about the war against terrorism, Indonesia is quietly emerging under its new leader as a potentially significant counter to Islamic extremism.
Though the 3,000-mile Indonesian archipelago is the fourth most populous nation in the world and the world's largest Muslim country, it is not routinely in the headlines of Western newspapers or on TV screens in America or Europe. While correspondents stationed in other Asian capitals "parachute" in for breaking news, many major foreign news organizations have not thought Jakarta, the capital, important enough to warrant resident staff coverage.
But Indonesia - a non-Arab country whose observance of Islam is generally more moderate compared with the extremism displayed in some Middle Eastern nations - could, over time, and along with other non-Arab Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Turkey, offer a constructive counterweight and democratic example to those Muslim Arab lands imprisoned by backwardness and enslaved by bitterness.
Last month Indonesians completed a complex new electoral process, capped by their first direct presidential election, moving their country impressively down the road to democracy and ending years of autocracy and turmoil. Their new president is a former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose name is a little unusual in a country where many people bear only one (i.e. Sukarno, Suharto). Many of my Indonesian friends have had trying experiences attempting to open bank accounts or get driver's licenses in the US, told by petty bureaucrats that they can't be legal here without a first and last name. Many Indonesians shorthand their new president as "SBY," but in this column, he will be known as Mr. Yudhoyono.
You will be hearing much more about President Yudhoyono, because he is widely predicted to be intent on boosting Indonesia's laggard economy, cracking down on corruption, reassuring foreign investors, slashing unemployment, and taking a tougher stand on terrorism. That last goal is, of course, attractive to the US, which is concerned about the activity of Al Qaeda cells - and Al Qaeda-linked terrorist cells - in Southeast Asia. Indonesia has had its own violent experience recently at the hands of such terrorists.
Yudhoyono is in many respects a president congenial to Washington. He has had some six different educational experiences in the US, five of them military and one civilian. He is said by some American military men to be something of a poster boy for the International Military Education and Training Program - currently suspended for Indonesia - which brought foreign military officers to the US for training. He has also undergone jungle warfare training in Panama.
But though there have been strong ties in the past between Indonesian and American military officers, and Yudhoyono might seek to restore them, Indonesians are proudly nationalistic. This nationalism, coupled with skepticism about US actions in Iraq and a perception among some Indonesians that the US is anti-Muslim, make it impolitic for Yudhoyono to be perceived as an agent of American foreign policy. If he is to be tougher on terrorism than his predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, he must do so because it is a threat to his own people and a gathering scourge in neighboring Southeast Asian countries. He must be seen as taking antiterrorism steps in concert with those of neighboring countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, rather than acting at the behest of the US.
Thus we should not expect Yudhoyono to be clamoring for an early visit to Washington. More politic would be visits to Beijing or Tokyo.
In his earlier role as security minister in Mrs. Megawati's administration, Yudhoyono was outspoken on the threat of terrorism, but it's not clear yet how he'll deal with the radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah. Indonesian police claim the group is responsible for acts of terrorism, but it still hasn't been officially outlawed, and Yudhoyono relies on the support of a number of strongly Islamic political factions.
The new president must also deal with rivalries between the police and his old Army colleagues, who may be hoping for perks from on high - even though Yudhoyono has made clear that the Army, long influential in Indonesian politics, should curb its role in civilian affairs.
Though challenges abound, Indonesia seems headed in a direction that refutes the fallacy that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the 1967 Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Indonesia.