Indonesia Under Jokowi: Nationalism & Pluralism Shape Policy Calculus

By Jonathan Bogais —

Neighborhood outside Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia. Source: NickSarebi’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, Jokowi, for short, is in Washington for high-level talks with President Barack Obama, U.S. officials, and business leaders. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, the third biggest democracy, and the world’s largest archipelago. Departing from his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s principle of a “thousand friends, zero enemies” — reflected by the government’s involvements in international issues — Jokowi’s wants to de-provincialize Indonesia and concentrate on “national interests.” Faced with a rapid population growth, Indonesia needs to focus on jobs and on modernizing services such as education, infrastructure and financial structures. Jokowi has said “he will not invest much time in diplomatic relationships that do not benefit Indonesia.”

A year into Jokowi’s five-year term, Indonesian foreign policy is becoming noticeably more domestic-oriented. His policy focus is on developing bilateral ties with strategic nations including countries beyond the Asia Pacific, rather than on multilateralism. His perceived lack of attention to regionalism has raised alarm at home and in ASEAN, in which Indonesia represents about half of the population.

Concerns are also growing in nearby Australia where suspicions of rising Indonesian nationalism linger from earlier regional conflicts. Jokowi’s vision of turning Indonesia into a global “maritime axis” is seen in Canberra as an attempt to isolate Australia at a time when the Indonesia-Australia relationship is at a low-point. Reports that Australian security agencies spied on the wife of former president Yudhoyono and that its navy entered Indonesian waters without authorization, as part of Australia’s uncompromising “turn-the-boats” policy in dealing with asylum-seekers, have eroded an already fragile relationship.

The strong anti-Muslim rhetoric used in Australian political and media circles has also struck a chord in Indonesia where sensitivities about Islam are high in the current international context. Jokowi has made clear that he is not as interested in looking “south” for trade and security relationships as his predecessors were. He also told Australia to stop interfering with his country’s sovereignty.

Since about 2010, the United States has sought closer ties with Southeast Asian countries as a hedge against what it perceives as China’s growing assertiveness in the region and is looking to Indonesia to become a key partner by playing a central role in maintaining regional peace and stability. Washington, however, is competing with Beijing to draw Indonesia to its side as Chinese president Xi Jinping has already met with Jokowi and discussed the long-lasting bonds between their nations. Jokowi also met Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who expressed interest in Indonesia’s new maritime ambitions, and with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is eager to shape stronger economic partnerships with Indonesia.

In the increasingly complex Indo-Pacific environment, Jokowi has said he supports cooperation with the United States to combat terrorism – “Not just from a security perspective, but also through a cultural and religious approach to isolate and eliminate radicalism and extremism.” This is where Jokowi’s approach differs from that of many of his counterparts. By showing that Indonesia can promote pluralism and respect for religious diversity under the principle of bhinneka tunggal ika (unity in diversity), Jokowi wants to demonstrate that Islam and democracy can co-exist and that the existential threat mandated through the perceived connection between religion and ethnicity, which is an underlying cause of ethno-cultural conflict, can be set aside. This is an important paradigm for addressing the conundrum of Indonesians joining the Islamic State and the security threat posed by their return to Indonesia.

Political Islam in Indonesia appears to have become less dominant in the face of the pluralism of the country’s civil politics, under which democratization has gradually debunked political Islam’s more authoritarian attributes. The development of non-violent — even liberal — Muslim civil society organizations in Indonesia and their influence throughout Southeast Asia is a sign that educational measures within Muslim and other communities can play an important role in countering radical Islamism and developing a better understanding of the fundamental teachings of Islam, such as Jihad and interfaith relations. This requires the examination of the relationships between a complex range of determinants involving individuals and contexts to understand the socio-psychological processes that lead to renouncing violence.

Reintegrating fighters into society is an enormous challenge requiring long-term support. Although “rule of law” programs are necessary, repression alone cannot solve this problem.

The transnational terrorism of the twenty-first century feeds on local and regional conflicts such as in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, without which many terrorist groups would not have appeared in the first place. Thorough knowledge of the conditions on the ground is essential to analyze events currently playing out in groups of countries affected by the evolution of terrorism from all perspectives. What is often lacking in discussions of democratization in Southeast Asia is the involvement of Muslim civil society actors. Jokowi will no doubt bring this issue to Obama’s attention during their discussions on security and terrorism.

Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a non-resident senior associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. He is also an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. Visit his personal site: Read more posts by Dr. Bogais here.

Jonathan Bogais

Jonathan Bogais

Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.


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