When asked to name the country with the largest population of Muslims in the world, one might have an inclination to name a country located in the Middle East. None of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, nor any other Middle Eastern country fit the bill. Many are surprised to learn that Indonesia is the country with the highest population of Muslims in the world, in addition to being the third largest democracy in the world.
Having originated on the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century, Islam has long been associated with the Middle East. More recently, this association has been strengthened by media coverage after the September 11th 2001 tragedies, which based public discourse concerning Islam upon terrorists’ characterizations of it, so much so that Islam became strongly associated with terrorism. Additionally, the invasion of Iraq, part of the “War on Terror” launched by the Bush administration, contributed to the association between terrorism and the Middle East. With Islam and the Middle East continually broadcasted in the news in this way, many people continue to believe that most Muslims are Middle Eastern, a belief that does not hold up to the facts. Today there are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims living on Earth, belonging to diverse cultures and speaking many languages.
The generalization concerning Islam and the Middle East discounts the incredible diversity of Muslims globally. Furthermore, this type of generalization discounts the diversity of Muslims within the Middle East itself, by clumping the people of an entire region together and ignoring the many economic, social, historical, cultural, and political differences between neighboring nations and the individuals that populate them. When the diversity of 1.6 billion people is so intensely ignored, not only are the generalizations inaccurate, they also become dangerous. When the diversity of 1.6 billion people is so intensely ignored, not only are the generalizations inaccurate, they also become dangerous, as seen in the rise of Islamophobia in the past decade. The effects of Islamophobia are explicit and subtle, as exemplified in a January 7, 2015 CNN interview in which the host asks a Muslim-American human rights lawyer if he supports ISIS.
When the diversity of 1.6 billion people is so intensely ignored, not only are the generalizations inaccurate, they also become dangerous.
Indonesia, where more than 200 million Muslims live, provides a different narrative. After India and the United States, Indonesia is the world’s largest democracy. The government is made up of a legislative, executive, and judicial branch. The legislative branch is the People’s Consultative Assembly, a bicameral legislature consisting of the People’s Representative Council and the Regional Representative Council. The executive branch consists of the President, Vice President, and cabinet. The President and Vice President are elected by the people and may serve two terms of five years each. The judicial branch is independent of the other two and consists of the Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, and lower courts. Evidently, the structure of Indonesian democracy is similar to that of the United States’ democracy, yet Indonesia has had its first female president in 2001 while the United States has yet to do the same. The majority of Indonesians do not see a conflict between their Muslim identity and a woman holding the highest office in their country. Undoubtedly, the generalization that Muslim women are oppressed in Muslim-majority countries ignores the hundreds of millions of Muslim women living in Indonesia who enjoy their freedoms and for whom the position of President is possible. Similarly, the relationship between the United States and Indonesia contrasts much of the current narrative between Muslim-majority countries and the United States.
Since 1949, four years after it gained independence from the Netherlands, Indonesia has had diplomatic relations with the United States. In recent years, the relationship between both countries has become stronger, largely due to the United States-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, which then President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Obama established in 2010. This bilateral partnership seeks to strengthen relationships between the two countries in the long term, with a focus in three main sectors: politics and national security, economic development, and socio-cultural, educational, scientific, and technological cooperation. What makes this partnership valuable is its focus on building bridges between the two cultures on a societal level. In line with these efforts are results from the Higher Education Partnership, a part of the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership: there has been a 15 percent increase in the number of Indonesians studying in America, and a 67 percent increase in the number of Americans studying in Indonesia since 2010.
Economically, Indonesia is an important potential market for US products and investments due to the large population (Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation) and need for large-scale development of infrastructure. Furthermore, Indonesia’s proximity to the South China Sea, where approximately US$5 trillion dollars in trade pass through every year, make it a strategic ally for the United States. As China expands its presence in the Sea, to the concern of its neighbors, Indonesia has sought the role of mediator in the conflict as it has in previous diplomatic efforts in the region. This could benefit the United States, as Indonesia attempts to settle a dispute that could disrupt trade. Indeed, Indonesia will continue to be a key ally to the United States in the region. Under the Obama administration the United States has famously “pivoted” its defense strategy to increase presence in Asia while decreasing military forces elsewhere, reflecting a changing agenda and focus on the East. These factors, combined with the efforts the United States and Indonesia have already undertaken to strengthen their relationship, point to an even stronger relationship between the United States and Indonesia in the future.
But the most salient consequence of the US-Indonesia relationship might have little to do with strategic considerations. This generally positive relationship between the United States and Indonesia starkly contrasts to common perceptions of Muslim countries and their relationships with the United States. Considering this, what implications for US relations with other Muslim majority countries can be understood? What implications for US relations with other Muslim majority countries can be understood? The relationship between the United States and Indonesia should only provide one certain conclusion in regards to US relations with other Muslim majority countries: that no accurate generalizations can be made concerning countries with Muslim majority populations and their relationships with the United States. In an international context where ISIS and other terror groups continue to dominate global dialogue concerning Islam, it becomes increasingly important to realize and keep in mind the incredible diversity amongst Muslims themselves and Muslim majority countries.
The simple fact of having a Muslim majority population does not overpower the political, social, economic, and cultural characteristics that influence any country’s internal condition and diplomatic relationships with another. Instead, it would be more beneficial to focus on these unique factors when seeking to understand and address global issues. The US-Indonesia relationship demonstrates the futility of attempting to generalize nations with a single trait in common, in this case Islam, while overlooking their innumerable political, social, economic, and cultural differences. It is time we seriously incorporate these factors into international dialogue instead of skimming over them. Only then can we begin to resolve the complex issues involving Islam and the West.