During Vice President Mike Pence’s recent visit to Indonesia he praised Indonesia for its “tradition of modern Islam." We wish that the Vice President’s remarks reflected reality, but our experience living and working in Indonesia tells us that the Vice President’s optimism that a secular Indonesia will serve as a bulwark against Islamism spreading through Southeast Asia is misplaced and based more on wishful thinking by American policymakers than it is on fact and history.
When the Dutch arrived as colonial conquers, Islam was already firmly established in Sumatra and a Muslim dynasty had just completed the conquest of the Hindu kingdoms of Java, the largest and most populous island in the Indonesian archipelago of some 17,508 islands, of which 922 are permanently inhabited.
The colonial wars that followed slowed, but did not stop the advance of Islam through the islands, which were not a united country, but a series of local fiefdoms and tribal societies.
The Dutch made desultory attempts to Christianize Indonesia with missionaries succeeding to convert the majority on some islands, such as Ambon. The Dutch made use of the Ambonese as policemen and advanced other Christian Indonesians in colonial society, but the vast majority of the native population centered on the populous islands of Java and Sumatra remained Muslim.
Today, about 10 percent of Indonesians are Christian, but that number is presumed to be falling due to the higher birthrate among Muslims and the rapid Islamization of Indonesian society.
In the era after World War II Indonesia became the first post-colonial country to rise out of the Japanese defeat of the European colonial powers in Asia. Indonesians fought a brutal war of liberation against the returning Dutch colonial government, that was only settled with the intervention of the United States which allegedly gave the Dutch an ultimatum that Marshall Plan aid would be cutoff if a peaceful settlement was not reached.
A central figure in that war of liberation was the Muslim Sultan of Yogyakarta. The Sultan of Yogyakarta is a successor to the Mataram sultanate, the last of Java’s Muslim kingdoms to resist Dutch colonial conquest.
Subsequent constitutional governments set-up following the withdrawal of the Dutch have guaranteed freedom of religion, but also established six “official” religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
In the post-colonial era Indonesia was ruled by two dictators; first the authoritarian communist-leaning Sukarno, who was overthrown by the authoritarian right-leaning Soeharto.
However, regardless of whether right or left ruled, the central government in Jakarta maintained a policy of exporting the excess population of overcrowded Java to the underdeveloped outer islands, such as Sulawesi. And this policy went hand-in-hand with the export of Islam to these underdeveloped regions and local Muslim-led pogroms against ethnic Chinese and Christians.
During the 1980s and 1990s churches in Jakarta were bombed. In the late 1990s through 2002 a serious sectarian war broke out in Maluku province (also known as Ambon and Halmahera Islands). The Muslim forces, led by the well-organized Islamist Laskar Jihad were in some cases joined by the Indonesian army in attacking Christian villages and individuals.
Islamist terrorism in Indonesia intensified in 2000 with the Jakarta Stock Exchange bombing, followed by four more large attacks. The deadliest killed 202 people (including 164 international tourists) in the Bali resort town of Kuta in 2002.
The violence between Muslims and Christians in the outer islands was not limited to the Maluku area, with Muslims attacking Christians in remote Poso, Central Sulawesi, which became an Islamist terrorist hotspot for a while.
And on Java, an Islamist terrorist cell emerged in 2011 to conduct the September 25 suicide bombing of a church and a year-long campaign of attacks that included the killing of police officers and the bombing of a mosque.
The province of Aceh, on the northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra, has become an Islamist stronghold after a nearly 30-year war between Islamist rebels and the central government.
The rebellion which lasted from 1976 to the signing of a peace agreement in 2005 left the government in nominal control of civil affairs, but allowed the imposition of Sharia law in the province.
The result of the peace accord has been the imposition of a Sharia-based culture of female genital mutilation and public canings of citizens convicted of Sharia-based crimes, such as pre-marital sex or merely overfamiliarity between male and female residents of the province.
On the eve of Vice President Pence’s remarks Indonesia’s most popular and trusted Christian politician, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was voted out of office after a blatantly sectarian campaign by Islamist political parties.
According to reporting by The Washington Post, Purnama, Jakarta’s first Christian governor in generations lost his reelection bid after a heated sectarian campaign that underscored the influence of hard-line Islamists in today’s Indonesia.
Purnama was defeated by Anies Baswedan, a Muslim candidate whose supporters portrayed the race as a referendum on the power of Islam in shaping the politics of Indonesia’s capital.
Purnama, was known for tough anti-corruption drives and challenges to hard-line Muslim groups that have taken on an increasingly central role in Indonesian politics. Comments he made last year led to charges of blasphemy that hung over the campaign. His blasphemy trial resumed Thursday with prosecutors calling for two years’ probation, meaning he probably would not face jail time even if convicted. The maximum penalty for blasphemy is five years in prison.
Indonesia’s Islamist groups waged powerful opposition, holding rallies that brought out hundreds of thousands of people.
Baswedan, a smooth-talking former education minister, appealed for tolerance while also playing to hard-line sentiment. He declared that, as a Muslim, he would never vote for a Christian.
This is a far cry from the days of the Soeharto regime where the ruling Golkar party made it a point to include a Christian in the cabinet, trusting Christian General Benjamin “Benny” Moerdani with the key role of Minister of Defense and Security.
“I don’t really care about who would be governor,” Alissa Wahid, a prominent progressive activist said according to reporting by The Washington Post’s Jon Emont. “But I am scared for the swinging pendulum of social change, especially in the Muslim community. They used mosques to spread hateful sentiments, and I am scared of the repercussions.”
Vice President Pence’s remarks celebrating Indonesia’s “modern Islam” were optimistic, and perhaps intended to encourage Indonesia’s secular leaders to maintain the country’s battle against Islamism, but they painted what is at best a misleading picture of the facts on the ground. Let’s hope that behind the scenes Vice President Pence and President Trump’s national security team know what’s really going on in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
As a member of Vice President Dan Quayle’s staff CHQ Editor George Rasley advanced Quayle’s 1991 trip to Indonesia. He later spent a year in Indonesia as a consultant to American business interests.