The most populous Islamic country in the world, Indonesia, is emerging as a would-be peacemaker in the troubled Middle East and a moderating counterbalance to jihadist extremism.
The steps are tentative, as perhaps befits a mystic land, as complex as the wayang, the popular Indonesian shadow play in which puppets are manipulated behind a backlit curtain.
Some critics are skeptical that Indonesia will have much heft. In the world scheme of things, Indonesia is not a political heavyweight. But with a largely Muslim population of about 240 million, it is forging a significant example of how democracy and Islam can successfully coexist.
In a recent interviewwith The New York Times,Indonesian Foreign Mini-ster Hassan Wirajuda signaled his nation's desire to take a larger role in solving problems of the Islamic world. Countries in the Middle East, he said, have been so deeply involved intheir problems for so longthat they can get too focused on specific aspects. "We who follow events in the Middle East from a distance," he said, "can see a larger, clearer picture. Hence we are able to produce some fresh ideas that might be helpful in the quest for a solution."
The first major test of this new policy of involvement will come in August when Indonesia attempts a conference of reconciliation between the competing Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah. With its approach to internal political problems, Indonesia typically adopts the practice of mushiwara, the art of bringing everybody together to make decisions by consensus, rather than determining winners and losers.
Thus the conference will include an array of interested scholars and political figures from the United States and Europe to participate in the discussions. If a satisfactory decision by mushiwara could erase the divisions between the Palestinian factions, it might breathe a little new life into the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This would enhance Indonesia's credibility as a potential interlocutor in Islamic affairs.
Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of neighboring Singapore, and considered one of Asia's wise elder statesmen, cites Indonesia as an essential participant in the war against terrorism.
In a Foreign Affairs article earlier this year, he wrote, "When moderate Muslim governments, such as those in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Persian Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan, feel comfortable associating themselves openly with a multilateral coalition against Islamic terrorism, the tide of battle will turn against the extremists."
Non-Arab Indonesia has long practiced a more moderate brand of Islam than exists in such Arab lands as Syria and the Islamic theocracy of Iran. It is also more familiar with democracy. President Sukarno, who led Indonesia to independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1949, was deposed after 20 years of mismanagement, and the military installed as president a general of the Army, Suharto. He, too, proved a disappointment and was ultimately deposed, but in the past seven years Indonesians have enjoyed democratically elected leadership.
The current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is also a former military man, but he won election fairly. The military is still an influential participant in Indonesia's mushiwara way of decisionmaking, but both President Yudhoyono and many of the Army's generals have cordial relations with the US military establishment and familiarity with democratic traditions through visits and training in the US.
While Yudhoyono favors a more prominent role for Indonesia in attempting to solve some of the problems of the Islamic world, he must move with some circumspection because his country is challenged by some of its own jihadist extremists. They have mounted acts of terrorism, and some of the leaders have been jailed. But the extremists are a minority, and the government seems to have the situation contained. However, Indonesia's moderate form of Islam and its successful embrace of democracy make it anathema to the international jihadist movement and therefore a potential target.
Indonesia's history has often been one of adversity: colonization by the Dutch, World War II occupation by the Japanese, Sukarno's flirtation with communism, Suharto's regime of autocratic corruption, and poverty for the masses for many years because its natural resources were despoiled and misused.
Now its people are enjoying a period of relative peace and harmony. Perhaps this huge Islamic nation's current example of stability and moderation, perhaps even its mushiwara way of solving problems – which may seem quaint to some – may suggest the path to progress for some of the world's more angry and unstable areas.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Indonesia as a foreign correspondent in the 1960s. His book, published in the US as "Indonesian Upheaval" and in Britain and Australia as "The End of Sukarno," was recently republished.