Obama trip to 'Muslim' Indonesia: Why stereotypes don't work

The Obama trip to Indonesia had the potential to go beyond praise for that country as a model of Islamic moderation. Indonesia is much more diverse than the label 'Muslim' implies.

President Obama’s brief trip to Indonesia has served to highlight America’s own problematic view of “the Muslim world” – that relying on stereotypes of Islam doesn’t work for peace in this post-9/11 era.

Indonesia is a prime example. Yes, it is the world’s most populous “Muslim country.” Most of its 240 million people adhere to variations of Islamic beliefs to some degree. Mosques are a common sight and Islamic rituals are largely observed. And Mr. Obama will continue to hold up this Southeast Asian giant as a model for other Muslim lands because of its fight against terrorist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front.

But generalities about a “Muslim Indonesia” can backfire – just as any non-Muslim who ever talks to a Muslim must first treat that person as a unique individual. A nation this large (17,000 islands) with six official religions cannot be pegged in a general description and treated solely as Muslim. Indonesian leaders bristle at the way the United States slips into simplistic labels. “We are not an Islamic country,” Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says flatly.

Obama must know this from his childhood on Indonesia’s main island of Java, where he lived for four years with his American mother, Ann Dunham, and his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro.

For thousands of years, this corner of Asia has seen waves of religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity – become mixed with ancient beliefs and mysticism that continue to run deep in the culture. One need only read the classic book “The Religion of Java” by famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz to be humbled about easy typecasting of Indonesia.

And this former Dutch colony has taken on a strong streak of secularism during its more than six decades of independence, especially under former dictator Suharto. It had to. With so much diversity, a guiding quality has been tolerance for religious freedom – which, of course, makes it easy for Obama to praise Indonesia.

The US must beware of pigeonholing Indonesia as the very model of a modern, major Muslim country. Its natural tendency toward moderating other Muslim lands could be jeopardized every time an American president exploits that role.

Right now, Indonesia’s main asset to the US and other friendly nations is as a counterweight to China, whose belligerent expansionist ways are roiling its Asian neighbors with alarm. Indonesia can be a prime player in keeping China in check. Many of China’s imports pass through ocean straits in Indonesia. And Obama has been smart to revive ties between the Pentagon and the Indonesian military (which still needs lessons in honoring human rights).

Indonesia is also critical to US interests as a young democracy in a region still struggling to shed authoritarian rule, notably in Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam, and China. Obama has an able partner to promote democracy in the elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a reformist, former Army general.

Just as many Americans with an anti-Muslim bias would benefit by knowing a few Muslims in their community as individuals, so, too, must the US get to know Indonesia for its uniqueness in the world community. Saving Islam from extremists can begin if Muslims and non-Muslims first avoid using shallow and ill-formed labels.

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