Indonesia cautiously encourages solidarity with Muslim minorities abroad

While the role of Islam has increased in Indonesia’s foreign policy and efforts have been made to promote the rights of Muslims persecuted abroad, the government has also taken its economic interests, regional relations, and domestic politics into consideration, while its own experiences have made it aware of the complexity of conflicts involving Muslims, writes Ann Marie Murphy in an analysis published by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (December). Those factors have encouraged a low-profile approach. During the years of Suharto’s authoritarian regime (1965–1998), Islam had no place in Indonesian foreign policy. New possibilities opened with the democratic era. While playing the Islamic card was not undisputed, some saw a chance in promoting Indonesia as home to a moderate form of Islam. The Bali bombings in 2002 and the existence of Islamic radicalism in the country made that option less attractive, however, with some political figures expressing concerns that using Islam as a foreign policy card might actually empower Muslim radicals. Moreover, since Indonesia’s Muslims are far from monolithic, the government has been wary of creating domestic tensions. Islam is not absent from Indonesian statements on international relations, but the government actually addresses different audiences in attempting to emphasize that Islam is diverse (including not only Wahhabism) and is compatible with a democratic and tolerant society.

Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0 < licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Murphy links the presence of Islam in Indonesia’s foreign policy to its interest in having closer relations with Muslim countries (and gaining legitimacy with pious believers at home) as well as its solidarity with Muslim victims of conflicts abroad. Recent incidents of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar put domestic pressure on the Indonesian government. It expressed public concern for the plight of the Rohingya and called on the government of Myanmar to prevent violence, as well as encouraging support for humanitarian organizations helping the Rohingya. Yet it also shielded Myanmar from attempts by Muslim countries to activate the International Court of Justice (ICJ), claiming that constructive engagement with Myanmar would better help the cause of the Rohingya. Indeed, Myanmar is a regional partner of Indonesia, as both are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Murphy notes that the fate of Uighur Muslims in China has not triggered the same outrage among Indonesians. This had initially made it easier for the Indonesian government to largely accept China’s claims that its repression only targeted separatism and terrorism. Later it became more difficult to ignore the fate of the Uighurs, especially as this was used by hardline Islamic groups for attacking the government in the context of domestic politics. The government had to express solidarity with the Uighurs without irritating China or empowering Islamist opponents.

(The paper can be downloaded from the website of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies: