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Obama and Indonesia: It's complicated

Obama and Indonesia: It's complicated
Published 21 Mar 2016 

There's plenty to think about in Jeffrey Goldberg's wide-ranging article on the Obama Doctrine in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Sam Roggeveen has already given his take on Goldberg's interpretation of President Obama's comments about China. For those with an interest in Indonesia, there are several further points worth taking a closer look at.

Barack Obama during his 2010 visit to Indonesia (Photo courtesy of White House)

The first mention of Indonesia in the article comes in the context of Obama's emphasis on multilateralism to avoid repeating what he sees as America's history of failed unilateral interventions overseas: 'We have history,' [Obama] said.

We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.

The president's passing mention of Indonesia has not escaped the attention of human rights advocates concerned with uncovering the suspected role of US intelligence agencies in the anti-communist killings of the 1960s. Obama arrived in Indonesia as a child in 1967, just after the worst of the mass killings that began in 1965. In his memoir Dreams from My Father, he recalls the rumours circulating at the time among US State Department workers in Jakarta of CIA involvement.

Just last week, Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) sent a letter to Obama formally requesting the declassification of files related to the possible involvement of the CIA and other US government agencies in the mass killings. Joshua Oppenheimer, director of 'The Act of Killing' and 'The Look of Silence' and a member of the movement pushing for declassification, tweeted that Obama's comment in The Atlantic could constitute tacit acknowledgement of US intervention in Indonesia.

The next substantial mention of Indonesia in Goldberg's article involves our own prime minister:

In a meeting during APEC with Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.
Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening?
Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull. Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there, he said.
'Aren’t the Saudis your friends?,'Turnbull asked.
Obama smiled. 'It’s complicated,' he said.

This exchange is presented by Goldberg as an example of Obama's frustration with Middle Eastern 'tribalism' diverting attention from his project of a US foreign policy 'pivot' to Asia.

Indonesia, a place of childhood memories and an otherwise exciting part of a region 'yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth', is described here by Obama as being held back in some areas by a Saudi-influenced interpretation of Islam that has yet to reconcile itself with modernity.

This is entering tricky territory when it comes to understanding Islam in contemporary Indonesia. [fold]

As I've written before for The Interpreter, observers in Indonesia emphasise a distinction between expressions of Islam in pop culture, and growing Islamic conservatism. An Indonesian woman donning Arab Muslim fashion can be as much a statement of individuality, modernity and global awareness as an expression of conservative religious values. By using the hijab as a measure of fundamentalism, Obama — or perhaps Goldberg in the retelling — fails to make this distinction. 

Goldberg's piece also repeatedly calls for a kind of reformation for Islam to adapt to democracy. In Indonesia, Muslim students played a strong role in the country's democratisation. The resulting freedom to express religious beliefs and aspirations led to both the development of political Islam, as well as a strong intellectual tradition of liberal Islam.

At the same time, a current of conservatism has emerged with dangerous consequences. President Jokowi has recognised the problem of rising religious intolerance, which in recent years has resulted in violence. Individual rights and freedoms are threatened by the introduction of sharia-inspired bylaws in certain provinces. Some Indonesian citizens are known to have travelled to the Middle East to join ISIS. And the most recent incident of Islamist terrorism occurred just two months ago in downtown Jakarta. These developments are cause for concern, but they still only represent a minority of Indonesian Muslims.

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority state, but not an Islamic state. It's not entirely secular, but is a leader of democratisation in the Asia-Pacific region. It's got all the things that Obama likes about Asia — like 'striving, ambitious, energetic people' building businesses and infrastructure — but is also somehow entangled in the terrorism agenda that he laments is delaying the pivot to Asia.

So where does Indonesia fit in the global schema of the Obama Doctrine? I suppose the answer might be that it's complicated.

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