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Posted on on December 2nd, 2007
by Pincas Jawetz (

Monday, Dec. 3, 2007

Setting the record straight on Indonesia
Although most of the people are Muslim, don’t call it a ‘Muslim nation’

Special to The Japan Times
BALI, Indonesia — Japan and India stand as beacons for democracy that surely inspire many of their Asian neighbors. For its part, Indonesia has been struggling with its own experiment with democracy that has enormous implications for the region and the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, the news media has contributed to confusion about the nature of the Indonesian state that clouds interpretations of events unfolding there.

Recent examples of misleading remarks were made by Tom Plate on this page in his Nov. 18 article “Stoking democracy in a Muslim giant” when he described Indonesia as the “largest Islamic country on Earth,” and in his Nov. 26 article “Upbeat band of moderates keep the faith” when he referred to Indonesia as “the most populous Muslim state.”

Such uninformed remarks are all the more egregious violations of reality given the Bali dateline. Anyone visiting the Indonesian Republic should be better informed about political realities there.

In all events, credibility in journalism demands that readers be provided an authoritative and accurate assessment or description of a given topic. Words matter because they influence the way that people form their ideas about the state of the world that is being described.

Unfortunately, when it comes to describing Indonesia, reporters and commentators tend to commit an egregious blunder. Indonesia is often depicted as “the world’s largest Muslim nation” or “the world’s largest Muslim country.” These statements are both wrong and misleading.

Any author penning such statements or editors letting them pass are either uninformed or lazy or both. On various grounds, Indonesia should not be characterized either as a Muslim nation or as an Islamic state.

It is true that Indonesia has the world’s fourth-largest population and the largest Muslim population of any country (170 million out of more than 200 million). It is also true that approximately 88 percent of Indonesia’s population identify themselves as Muslims. But while Indonesia has an overwhelming Muslim majority, it is constitutionally a republic and is not an Islamic state.

As such, it is simply wrong to portray Indonesia as a “Muslim nation” or an Islamic country. The numerical dominance in some category within a country does not necessarily identify it as a “nation.” A rich diversity of language, customs, religion and ethnicity means that Indonesia cannot be considered a Muslim nation in the strict sense of the term.

Some would say the strongest indication of nationhood is a common language. But even this test fails in Indonesia. While Bahasa Indonesia was imposed as a de facto and de jure lingua franca across the archipelago, it is the second language for most citizens.

As it is, Indonesia’s Constitution states that the country is a secular republic. Indonesia’s Constitution specifies that all persons have the right to worship according to their own religion or belief.

And so it is that religious groups other than Islam constitute a majority on many islands. The most obvious is Bali, where most inhabitants are Hindu. Some smaller islands have Christian-majority populations.

Despite attempts by Islamic groups to establish an Islamic state, the mainstream Muslim community has rejected the idea. Aceh is the only part of the country where the central government specifically has authorized Shariah (Islamic law) and where Shariah courts are established.

On many islands, other religious groups constitute a majority. The most obvious is Bali, where most inhabitants are Hindu. And some of the smaller islands have Christian-majority populations.

Erroneous characterizations about Indonesia are counterproductive to a country where multicultural forces seek to have their voices heard and to protect or promote their own interests. Such errors also play into the hands of radical Islamic elements within Indonesia and their allies elsewhere that seek to establish a new “

” from Spain through North Africa and the Middle East across Indonesia and the Philippines.

This incorrect depiction also legitimizes attempts to introduce conservative Muslim morality into Indonesia’s civil code as a stealth movement toward countrywide application of Shariah law. In turn, this works against pluralist forces that are struggling to maintain balance within the state.

Economy in the use of words is imposed by the strictures of space on editorial pages, but this should not lead to qualitative lapses.

It may seem more cumbersome, but a more accurate statement is that Indonesia is the “most populous Muslim-majority country in the world.”

Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Center for Civil Society, New Delhi, and professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Guatemala.

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