Indonesia and the United States: Diversity and Democracy in Turbulent Times

By: Katherine Marshall

August 24, 2016

The world’s second and third largest democracies by population, the United States and Indonesia, are far apart, at opposite ends of the world. They wrestle today, however, with eerily similar questions about religious difference. Religious diversity is, for both societies, a founding principle and a source of national pride. Today, however, tensions among religious communities, especially when expressed through political processes, indicate that cherished patterns of religious tolerance simply cannot be taken for granted.


Early this month, USINDO (a longstanding entity that promotes joint efforts between the two countries) launched a new Indonesia U.S. Council on Religion and Pluralism in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Its mandate is above all about mutual learning, drawing on the rich and often underappreciated experience of the two countries. The effort has the blessing of the Presidents of the two countries (indeed, it was inspired by them) though it is deliberately and clearly non-governmental. The issues involved, not far removed from the eruptions of violence we are seeing across the world, could not have greater global significance. 

The problem? Evidence that much vaunted religious harmony in both societies is challenged both by ideologies and groups, some that deliberately use violence to disrupt and foment discontent, others whose work unsettles an uneasy calm or betrays underlying fault lines. Lack of knowledge and ignorance also play significant parts. As one Council member noted, “if we do not know, we cannot love”.

Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, takes pride in its distinctive approach to managing religious diversity. Muslims are a large majority but other religious traditions, notably Christians and Buddhists, are the majority in some regions. Though the principles of religious respect have a long history, Indonesia’s democracy is relatively young, and a somewhat ironic challenge today is how religious difference plays out in a competitive, robustly open democracy. A vital aspect of the system today is decentralization, which means that local politics is often where touchy issues, like locations of religious buildings or issues around gender relations, are played out.

The United States, of course, in the throes of the 2016 electoral campaigns, is witnessing new expressions of anxiety about the “loss” of a Christian hegemony, worries about immigration from areas with religiously linked violence, and the evaporation of norms that often kept expressions of crude instincts of intolerance in check. The time-honored tradition of “being considerate” seems at times forgotten.

The new Council is to address these challenges: “In a world increasingly at risk owing to misunderstanding and intolerance of other religions, lack of appreciation of diversity, and religious extremism, it is important for the positive values of Indonesia and the United States to be shared and enhanced in both countries as well as more broadly.”

The diverse group studiously avoided the temptation to cast the challenges in terms of “countering violent extremism”, seeking instead to emphasize that there are countless heartening stories of courageous and creative community responses to unrest and unease. In both countries, where violent incidents or threats occur, spontaneous groups come forward to protect and console. In short, there is much positive experience as well as core principles grounded in faith to build on.

Four themes struck me forcibly.

The challenges of language loomed large. How to define extremism? Pluralism? Even religion? Sect? How to avoid the tepid connotations of the important word tolerance? The group wrestled with differing understandings of terms that have to be used to communicate across divides and convey what is meant and what is envisioned for the future.

Significantly, education was a centerpiece of discussion and planned action. It’s a complex challenge as well as an opportunity. It is close to a truism that educated citizens are the foundation for successful, tolerant, plural societies but the question remains how to do it when contending with huge and complex systems. Indonesia has a highly developed, diverse, and sophisticated Islamic education system that clearly plays vital roles in shaping attitudes and behaviors (the Muslim movement, Muhammadiyah, runs over 30,000 educational institutions including some 152 institutions of higher education). The U.S. education system, in all it complexity, also has roles to play in addressing the undercurrents of poor understanding and intergroup tensions.

Communications are pivotal so it is excellent that journalists are contributing. Their counsel is essential, whether in promoting positive understandings of other communities, in building bridges across divides, or in understanding radicalization.

And finally, as always, follow the money. Appreciating flows of funds but also the barriers to charitable finance is a vital part of understanding grievances as well as patterns of radicalization. It is equally vital for inspiring and channeling positive ideas and initiatives.

The Council (of which I am a member) brings together a wonderfully diverse group of Indonesians and Americans, with leaders from different communities, experienced in many different forms of community and national action. More power to it.

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Indonesia and the United States: Diversity and Democracy in Turbulent Times