These are perilous times for those in the idea business. Whether
you're a think tanker or a politician, it is easier than ever to be
misunderstood. Words reach the four corners of the world at the
speed of light; it is impossible to segregate audiences.
Indonesian President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono seemed to be
aiming at a very specific audience a couple weeks ago when he
capped a long-standing push to designate M. Natsir a national hero
with a speech in the Indonesian province of West Sumatra. His host,
West Sumatra's Governor Gamawan Fauzi, used the occasion to note
that history will forever remember President Yudhoyono's leadership
in making the determination. Indeed. But what did the president
intend by conferring essentially favored son status on this very
learned--and by all accounts polite and unassuming--Islamist?
A Suitable Role Model?
The president sought to explain. He lauded Natsir for his
anti-colonialism and his fundamental contribution to Indonesia's
unity. Natsir's anti-colonialism credentials are best judged by
Indonesians; but they seem to be beyond question. With regard to
his impact on Indonesian unity, the debate will continue. Some will
surely fault the president's logic in praising someone so closely
identified with rebellion.
But the seriously perplexing part of the speech came when the
president praised Natsir as a model for addressing
misunderstandings about Islam and serving as a bridge between
cultures and religions.
Natsir is associated with a political ideology that informed
people do not generally associate with Indonesia. His founding of
Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII) alone would make him an
inappropriate role model for the nation. Theodore Friend, a highly
regarded historian, describes DDII as "extreme," "intolerant," and
yes, "Islamist." Among its targets, he counts "Muslim liberalism,"
"the economic dominance of the Chinese," and a "conspiracy to
Christianize Indonesia." The DDII's problem with Christians in
particular makes it strikingly odd to commend its founder for an
ability to bridge understanding between religions.
Natsir's precise views on and personal history with Pancasila
(Indonesia's founding non-sectarian state philosophy) were no doubt
complex. But when all is said and done, history remembers him as
Indonesia's foremost advocate for the direct role of Islam in
government and the ideal of the Islamic state.
So what's a friend of Indonesia to do? He could tell himself
that it's pure politics. The presence of the Islamist PKS minister
of agriculture in the entourage to West Sumatra is good evidence of
that. But to the president's Islamist political allies, this is
about much more than politics. And so, given the stakes, that is
not a satisfactory answer. One could say that it's an anomaly, but
there are too many similar developments in Indonesia to consider it
an anomaly. This year there was the violent Islamist attacks at
Indonesia's national monument, the fatwa on Ahmadiyya, and the
media circus over the execution of the Bali bombers. Last year's
enormous Hizbut Tahrir rally in Jakarta and near victory of an
Islamist candidate for governor of Jakarta also jolted observers of
A friend of Indonesia would definitely tell his colleagues that
all of this must be kept in perspective. Despite a 2004 electoral
surge for Islamist standard-bearer PKS, considerable success at the
local and provincial levels since, and high hopes for 2009, the
fundamentalists are further from taking control than they were in
the 1950s. He would cite the centuries-old ebb and flow of
fundamentalism that has always left the Islamists on the losing end
of Indonesian history. He would also note Indonesia's extraordinary
well-springs of cultural and religious tolerance.
But the Islamists are savvy. They understand better than anyone
that ideas can transform a political environment without ever
owning it. From Natsir until today, they have sought to prepare the
grassroots for Islamization of the state. So even while national
politics may register only an occasional flare of radicalism,
underneath, the coals glow bright. This friend of Indonesia worries
that Indonesia's mainstream political leaders will wake up too late
to find that Indonesia's house is on fire and that not only did
they not prevent it, but they unwittingly fanned it.
Only Time Will Tell
For a politician, sometimes the only way to deal with different
audiences is to just say what he has to and accept that he may be
misunderstood by those on the outside. To make that call, however,
the political need should far outweigh the risk of alienating his
In the case of President Yudhoyono's praise of Natsir, one can
only conclude that either the need to accommodate Islamist
sentiment is much greater than Indonesia's friends abroad
appreciate or that he is miscalculating the strength of the
Islamists and unnecessarily appropriating beliefs he doesn't
Neither is a particularly comforting conclusion, but at least
one friend of Indonesia hopes it is the latter.
Walter Lohman is
Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. A
version of this article first appeared in the December 31, 2008,
edition of The Jakarta Globe.