Soft Islam: Indonesia’s Interfaith Mission for Peace in the Middle East

By James B. Hoesterey | Assistant Professor - Emory University | Nov 12, 2014
Soft Islam: Indonesia’s Interfaith Mission for Peace in the Middle East
Indonesia's former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The essays in this series deal with transregional linkages between the Middle East and Asia. As a whole, the series explores the "vectors" of religious transmission and the consequences of or implications of such interactions. More ...


 

Historians and anthropologists have focused on Muslim networks of scholars, merchants, and pilgrims that connect the Middle East with Southeast Asia.[1] Especially with respect to the study of Islam in Indonesia, where political scientists and anthropologists approach Islam largely in terms of national politics and local cultures, this burgeoning body of literature on global Muslim networks offers both ethnographic insights into actual practices and an historical appreciation for the longue durée. The importance of this scholarship notwithstanding, much of this work focuses on formal networks of migration, trade, learning, and pilgrimage. In this respect, the cultural and political work of Islam has been largely confined to the study of either Muslim scholars or lay Muslims who participate in trade, travel, study, and migration. Here I shift the focus to a religious diplomacy tour that connected Muslims with states, citizen-believers, and global politics.
 

Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, is keen to promote itself as the home of “moderate” Islam and is eager to establish itself as a global peace broker.[2] Between February 18 and 29, 2012, 24 religious leaders from Indonesia and the United States—Muslims, Jews, and Christians—traveled together as delegates for the “Mission for Peace and Understanding” tour. The Indonesian ambassador to the United States, Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, along with codirector Rabbi Sid Schwarz, envisioned Mission for Peace and Understanding in terms of Track II people-to-people diplomacy that might kick-start a stalled peace process in Israel and Palestine.

Delegates met with religious, political, and civil society leaders in Jakarta, Amman, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. The trip culminated in Washington, D.C., where delegates were scheduled to deliver a joint statement at the Department of State, the White House, and Congress. However, the mission did not go as planned. Delegates experienced various forms of prejudice along the journey, and finding consensus on the precise language of the mission’s joint statement proved difficult.

In this brief essay, I examine this interfaith delegation to the Middle East as a way to reflect on the perils and possibilities of religious diplomacy and soft power. In doing so, I bring together scholarship about transregional Muslim networks connecting Southeast Asia and the Middle East with a burgeoning literature concerned with religion, public diplomacy, and soft power.[3]

During the 2000s, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda (2001–2009) forged a policy of “total diplomacy” that embraced soft power strategies and promoted Indonesia as the home of “moderate” Islam. Western politicians, diplomats, and pundits heralded Indonesia as the exemplar where Islam, democracy, and capitalist modernity can coexist. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in 2009, “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”[4] In the early stages of the Arab Spring, Indonesia’s foreign ministry leveraged its reputation as a model Muslim-majority democracy by holding training seminars about best practices and lessons learned in democratization with political and civil society leaders from Egypt and Tunisia. Here, I focus on how the Indonesian foreign ministry deploys interfaith diplomacy tours as a soft power strategy that engages the Middle East peace process and promotes the idea of Indonesia as a peace broker on the global stage.[5]

Under the direction of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (2009–2014), however, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was less interested in religious diplomacy. When Natalegawa declined to fund the mission, Ambassador Djalal leveraged his personal connections to secure private patronage from Indonesian billionaire Eddy Kusnadi Sariaatmadja. With funding in hand, Djalal began to plan the interfaith tour. It soon became apparent, however, that he would have to broker conflict in Jakarta, not just Palestine.

In February 2012, Djalal delivered the keynote address at the University of Michigan’s Asia Business Conference. During dinner afterward, Djalal invited me to join the Mission for Peace delegation during the final leg in Washington. He also invited me to a celebration of Indonesian culture a few days later at the University of Chicago. Always a stickler for punctuality, Djalal arrived for the Chicago dinner surprisingly late. After making his way through the receiving line, he took his seat beside me at dinner. With an anxious look, he leaned over to whisper that he had just had a long conversation with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was under pressure from Islamic political parties to cancel the interfaith mission. Another source told me that Yudhoyono’s cabinet had met and voted to cancel the trip. Reportedly, the stipulation that finally salvaged the trip was that Djalal would not enter Israel, which Indonesia does not recognize and with which it does not have formal diplomatic relations.

For the Indonesia leg, Djalal envisioned a formal, televised meeting between President Yudhoyono and the interfaith delegates. Djalal had loyally served as presidential spokesperson for six years, so the televised forum seemed likely. Under political pressure by the Islamist Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), however, Yudhoyono refused to formally greet the delegation. Rather than a prime time television spot for a live interfaith dialogue on SCTV (owned by the mission’s financier, Sariaatmadja), Djalal had to settle for a late night, taped television slot. Rumors floated that a senior foreign ministry official, wary of Djalal’s rapid rise and potential rivalry, was allegedly working behind the scenes as saboteur. Perhaps to the chagrin of this ministry official, when the delegation went to Israel, Djalal had the opportunity to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who gave Djalal a pearl-plated copy of the Qur’an as a token of appreciation for Indonesia’s support for Palestinian statehood.

The delegates were charged with the task of composing a joint statement that would be delivered to the head of state of each country visited as well as the White House, State Department, and Congress. During the first few days in Jakarta the group began to cohere and develop friendships across religious and national divides. Delegates were also inspired by civil society organizations in the Middle East working every day toward peaceful coexistence. This soft power ideal of communal effervescence on an interfaith pilgrimage, however, soon gave way to delegate experiences of religious intolerance, deep prejudice, and the political realities of everyday life in the Middle East. As noted by mission delegate Rabbi Schwarz in his formal public statement:

The Minister for Islamic Affairs in Jordan accompanied by Christian leaders who claimed to be committed to interfaith work spouted the most hateful accusations about the state of Israel and chose to quote the most racist statements emerging from Jewish extremists…It was a stark contrast to the moderate tones that their own king, King Abdullah II, has used to advance peace in the Middle East.[6]

The promises of religious diplomacy were tested yet again when Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, was refused entry into Israel. For many delegates, this was evidence of the Israeli state’s unjust surveillance of and restrictions on Muslims and Palestinians. For others, it reinforced a deeply felt contention that Israel has the right to border security. Upon returning to their hotel each evening, delegates explored these respective sentiments as they tried, at times painstakingly, to find consensus on the joint statement.

The most contentious issue was whether to refer to Palestinians and Israelis in terms of peoples or states. For Indonesians, to speak in terms of the Israeli state would break with official state policy. Among the most prominent Indonesian delegates were the vice minister for religious affairs, Dr. Nasaruddin Umar; Dr. Slamet Effendy Yusuf, a senior member of the world’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU); Luluk Nur Hamidah, a high-ranking official in the NU-affiliated National Awakening Party (PKB); and New York City-based Indonesian Imam Shamsi Ali, who met with President George W. Bush in the days after 9/11. Some of these delegates were reportedly hesitant to support an official position prior to hearing the official stances of the most senior delegates, Dr. Yusuf and Dr. Umar, who did not attend the Jakarta discussions. On the next to last day, Yusuf reportedly expressed willingness to acknowledge the state of Israel if the statement also acknowledged the state of Palestine. Feeling that they had already given too many concessions, however, two rabbis pulled out and refused to sign the letter. The most controversial paragraph of the final version would make no mention of states:

Given that peace is one of the highest principles of the Abrahamic traditions we are pained to witness the ongoing conflict in the world and, in particular, in the Middle East, the birthplace of our common ancestor, Abraham. We call on all parties to that conflict to work vigorously toward a just and lasting peace that recognizes the national aspirations of both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people and embraces the human rights and the political rights of both. We intend to support those individuals and institutions that are working to advance peace and justice in the region.[7]

In the end, Israelis and Palestinians were described as peoples with “national aspirations,” not as citizens of sovereign nation-states. Soft power diplomacy connected people from the Middle East, Asia, and the United States, but realpolitik constrained its political impact. The joint statement speaks of solidarity yet does not gesture toward viable political solutions. Despite the fact that nearly every delegate was a signatory, the last-minute fallout led to disappointment and resentment among many delegates.

I first greeted the delegation members at the Indonesian embassy in Washington immediately upon their return from the Middle East. Over breakfast and coffee, they recounted their travels, friendships, and frustrations. I listened to several accounts of what were described as important and pivotal moments of the trip—their television appearance in Jakarta, Imam Hendi being stopped at the border, and allegedly anti-Semitic remarks in Jordan. Jet lag blended with frustrations about the tense negotiations and divergent recollections of what they experienced, reinforcing their moral positions about ethics, sovereignty, security, and statehood.

As tensions among delegates at my table began to rise, embassy officials whisked us away to the State Department, where senior officials including the under secretary for political affairs, Wendy R. Sherman, and the special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Rashad Hussain, were waiting to welcome the delegation and formally receive the joint statement. The White House visit, however, took place across the street from the actual White House with less established representatives who, perhaps unaware of the credentials of this delegation, lectured more than they listened. Rep. Keith M. Ellison (D-MN), Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT), and several other members of Congress were scheduled to attend the next event in Congress, but only Ellison and a couple of others participated. A last-minute location change also gave a rushed, anticlimactic quality to the final speeches and parting photo-ops. The interfaith pilgrimage had ended, and people went their separate ways.

That night, the Indonesian delegates attended an Indonesian culture night at the University Club. Djalal gave a keynote speech about Indonesia as the home of “moderate” Islam coexisting with modernity and women’s rights. As evidence, he cited his Minangkabau ancestors’ traditions of Islam, matriliny, and matriarchy. The delegates spoke about a quite different version of Indonesian tolerance. Sitting around a large table, they discussed pressing domestic concerns about increasing inter-religious intolerance, sectarian conflict, and the role of the state. After the festivities, we returned to the ambassador’s mansion to sleep in the dormitory-style rooms upstairs. The Indonesian house staff had prepared signs denoting separate rooms for Muslims and Christians, but the delegates opted for inter-confessional sleeping arrangements. One Christian pastor told his Muslim roommate to feel free to turn on the lights at 4:30 a.m. for ablutions and pre-dawn prayers.

As mission codirector Rabbi Schwarz observed,

I believe that Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East have much to learn from the example of our Indonesian sisters and brothers. . . . Perhaps our Interfaith Mission may pave the way for Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim democracy, to play an equally critical role to broker a peace agreement in the region.[8]

Indonesia has made important strides to increase its diplomatic and peacekeeping profile in ASEAN and especially the southern Philippines, yet the foreign ministry remains unable to establish itself as a plausible broker of peace in the Middle East. The idea of Indonesia as the model for “moderate” Islam apparently resonates more with Western pundits and politicians than Muslim diplomats in the Middle East. And, while soft power strategies that mobilize religious leaders forge new kinds of global networks, a politicized version of soft, “moderate” Islam cannot escape the realpolitik of domestic and global politics.


[1] Ismail Fajrie Alatas, “Becoming Indonesians: The Bā Alawī in the Interstices of the Nation,” Die Welt des Islam 51 (2001): 45-74; Francis C. Bradley, “Islamic Reform, the Family, and Knowledge Networks Linking Mecca to Southeast Asia in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Asian Studies 73 (1) (2014): 89-112; miriam cooke and Bruce Lawrence, eds., Muslim Networks: From Hajj to Hip Hop (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005);  Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Michael Francis Laffan, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the Winds (London and New York: Routledge, 2003); Ronit Ricci, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Eric Tagliocozzo, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] James B. Hoesterey, “Is Indonesia a Model for the Arab Spring? Islam, Democracy, and Diplomacy,” Review of Middle East Studies 47 (2) (2013): 157-165.

[3] Scott Appleby, “Building Sustainable Peace: The Roles of Local and Transnational Religious Actors,” T. Branchoff, ed., Religious Pluralism: Globalization and World Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 125-154; Craig Hayden, The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012); Jeffrey Haynes, Religious Transnational Actors and Soft Power (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012); Douglas Johnson, ed., Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).  

[4] Mark Landler, “Clinton Praises Indonesian Democracy,” New York Times, February 18, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/19/washington/19diplo.html?_r=1&.

[5] Similar tours not discussed in this paper include those aimed at an international audience abroad, such as the Presidential Friends of Indonesia tour, and short one to two-day tours for foreign diplomats based in Jakarta.