In the summer of 2004, I traveled outside my country for the first time in my life. It was to Indonesia to the port city of Surabaya on the island of Java. My father had been working there for almost two years and his company paid for one visit by his family there. At the time, Indonesia was going through its first election after over 30 years of military dictatorship.
There were three main candidates. The incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri who my father described as the “do nothing” candidate almost certain to lose. The most likely candidates were two generals of whom, one Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono went on to win 2 consecutive terms.
My father had been watching the changes which were coming in with democracy and openness. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. 202,900,000 Muslims live there almost all of whom belong to the Sunni sect. However, this posed no issue for the non-Muslims as attitudes were liberal and religious freedom was enshrined in the constitution (at least for officially recognized religions).
At the time, my family visited the second largest Mosque in Indonesia. Being non-Muslims, we were not allowed in the main hall where people were praying, but we were given a guided tour of the facilities by a guard. Overall, the whole experience was less restrictive and more hospitable than the treatment received by many foreigners in India.
Masjid Al-Akbar, Surabaya
But there was one strange thing. My father pointed out that attitudes were changing slowly. The culture had actually been more tolerant under the military dictatorship and was slowly drifting towards religious conservatism. Under the Suharto dictatorship all advocacy of an Islamic state for prohibited. But the new found freedom of speech was being used aggressively by the proponents of Sharia law to find converts.
I have not had the pleasure of visiting the country since, but a news item earlier this week reminded me of the trip. The former governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly called Ahok had lost the election by a landslide. Why was this important enough to merit worldwide attention?
The reason is that Ahok was the country’s only Christian governor and his loss was not attributed to the corruption of the administration (corruption is sadly endemic in Indonesia, as I have experienced first-hand) or to the worsening of the situation of the urban poor. Instead it was almost entirely due to one issue. For about a year, hard line Muslim parties had portrayed him as a ‘blasphemer of religion’. The voters took the message to heart and ran away from Ahok.
Media portrayal (especially western media) of Muslims has focused on people from the Middle-East. This has created a false image of the people who follow this faith. Over 62% of the world’s Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region with the largest populations being in Indonesia (home to 12.7% of the world’s Muslim population), Pakistan (11%) and India (10.9%).
For most their history, the peace loving population of these countries have kept to themselves and practiced their faith without disturbing their neighbors. That changed in the 1980s with the geopolitics of the Cold War when political Islam came to Pakistan to recruit fighters in a war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.
A religious scholar once spoke against mixing religion and politics because of the corrosive impact this has on religion. In Iran, one commentator remarked that before the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government was irreligious but the people were religious. Now the government is religious and the people have become irreligious.
Today most political issues in Pakistan are given a religious slant even where one is unnecessary. Indonesia is far away from that. It is to my mind a beautiful country with kind and tolerant people who are a model for us in many ways. Only time will tell what roads they choose to walk on and where those roads take them.