Indonesia Offers Lessons on Tackling Radical Islam

Once an Al Qaeda hub, Indonesia moderates without American involvement

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Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and was once a hub of Al Qaeda and radical militant activity. One 2002 bombing in the beachside idyll of Bali infamously killed 202 people, mostly tourists. But Indonesia has calmed of late, with America's favorability polling at 63%, up from 15% in 2003. How did this happen? Indonesia has been relatively left alone by Western powers, spared the sort of interventions employed in Iraq and Palestine. As U.S. forces struggle to tamp down extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, could Indonesia's shift toward moderation offer lessons to the West?

  • Indonesia Moderated When Left Alone Washington Post's Andrew Higgins explores how Indonesia came to be "moving in America's direction" after failed post-9/11 attempts to promote moderation. "More-conservative Muslims never liked what they viewed as American meddling in theology. Their unease over U.S. motives escalated sharply with the start of the Iraq war and spread to a wider constituency," he writes. "Indonesia is a democracy and the role of Islam is one of the most important issues facing U.S. policy in a country with many more Muslims than Egypt, Syria, Jordan and all the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf combined. What kind of Islam prevails here is critical to U.S. interests across the wider Muslim world." Higgins extrapolates the success in Indonesia. "Should Americans stand apart from Islam's internal struggles around the world or jump in and try to bolster Muslims who are in sync with American views?" he asks, implying that only the former can work.
  • Fighting Radical Islam, Less Is More Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch sees support here for a hands-off approach, which he says President Obama shares. "It demonstrates how overt American attempts to promote 'moderate Muslims' or 'liberal Islam' routinely backfire -- and offers more evidence in support of the Obama administration's hands-off, disaggregated approach to what used to be called the 'war of ideas'," he writes. "Identifying 'moderate Muslims' by the U.S. consistently tarnished their credibility with the audiences which they most needed to reach. Funding them made American 'idea warriors' feel all robust, but generally had little positive effect and often made things worse." Lynch suggests Obama understands this well. "Instead of building up al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements with an exaggerated focus on 'violent extremism', he isolates and marginalizes them by switching the conversation to other things about which ordinary Muslims and Arabs care far more."
  • But Anti-Americanism Remains Huffington Post's Antony Loewenstein visits Aceh, a devoutly Islamic province ravaged by the 2004 tsunami. He finds little cause for optimism. "I found unconventional attributes of an Islamic state and fierce resistance to orthodox interpretations of the Koran. Aceh is not Saudi Arabia, Iran or Gaza, all places I have witnessed creeping Islamization and brave men and women challenging its implementation. Aceh remains a traumatized province despite a 2005 peace deal that ended the decades-old, violent conflict. Sharia law is now implemented with homosexuality and adultery punishable by stoning. Poverty is rife -- the smell of rubbish is everywhere and dirty water runs across some streets -- while women mostly wear headscarves and sit separately from men at public events," he writes. "The idea of a benevolent America was appealing but images on satellite television from the Arab world dispelled those myths very quickly."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.