Why Indonesia Is Not a Muslim Democracy

Last week's presidential election high-lighted just how successful Indonesia's decade-old transformation from authoritarian state to democracy has been. Although there were some complaints about irregularities, the public knows their ballots were secret and the results legitimate.

Before the Obama administration sends a congratulatory note to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, however, it might want to reconsider the language it uses. A worrisome note has crept into U.S. rhetoric to-ward the country of late. On her first overseas trip as secretary of state earlier this year, Hillary Clinton called Indonesia a "Muslim nation" and commended it for demonstrating that "Islam, democracy, and modernity" can go hand in hand. In June, she said Indonesia might be a "good partner in the U.S. efforts to reach out to the Muslim world." Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Indonesia a "Muslim country" at a briefing in May.

The United States—especially President Barack Obama, who spent four years of his childhood there—should know better. Such language may sound benign. But Indonesia isn't a Muslim state any more than Great Britain is a Protestant one. Indonesia is a secular nation that happens to have 190 million Muslim citizens. And its embrace of democracy has nothing to do with religion.

If anyone should understand that, it's Obama. During his Cairo speech last month, he said he could still remember hearing, during his time in Jakarta, "the call of the azan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk." A keen student of politics, Obama must know that while Indonesians have enthusiastically rejected most vestiges of their former dictatorship, they have maintained one pillar of strongman President Suharto's rule: pancasila, the country's nationalist ideology, which mandates the equal treatment of all the country's religious and social groups.

Such tolerance is vital in a nation of 222 million people, 24 million Christians and Hindus, 17,000 islands, more than 300 different ethnic groups, and some 800 dialects. Islam is just one of five officially recognized religions. Most Indonesians don't define themselves by their faith but by nationalism and regional pride. Religion comes second or third, one reason Muslim-based parties consistently get trounced at the polls, including during April's legislative elections. When the U.S. stresses Indonesia's "Islamic" nature, it undermines this hard-won pluralism.

The Obama administration should embrace that pluralism. And it should avoid touting Indonesia as a bridge to the Islamic world. Previous attempts by Jakarta to mediate the Israeli--Palestinian conflict, the Iraq War, or other Middle East issues have failed, and it's not hard to see why. Indonesia sits several thousands miles away from the Middle East, where it has very little influence. Most Indonesian Muslims practice a tolerant, moderate form of Islam, very different from Saudi-inspired Wahhabism.

Stressing Indonesia's Muslim character also risks playing into the hands of a small but dedicated band of local Islamic extremists. The radicals want to take over the government, implement Sharia, and break off ties with the West. They'd like nothing more than to see a public debate about whether Indonesia's soul is secular or Islamic. While their numbers are still tiny, the extremists have gained some traction in recent years by threatening to brand moderates as anti-Islamic or pro-Western. The Obama administration only makes life more difficult for these moderates when it describes Indonesia in Muslim terms.

Washington must avoid falling into the trap of the Bush administration, which saw the world in black-and-white terms and tended to overlook the shortcomings of its friends, especially moderate Muslim states. For all its progress, Indonesia still has plenty of room for improvement and shouldn't be given a pass.

That said, there's nothing wrong with turning Indonesia into an example. The trick is to remember what's really important about it—especially its success keeping religion out of its elections. Few developing nations are as pluralistic and have embraced democracy as quickly. Those are the traits that Washington should emphasize—in Indonesia, abroad, and, yes, even in the Middle East.