Where Allah Rocks Indonesia's Tolerant Take on Islam

The Southeast Asian island nation of Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, which practices an open-minded, gentle version of Islam in urban areas. But elsewhere Islamists are beginning to encroach.

By Erich Follath


Joko Widodo is a strange character, a superstar in his country and a figure of growing importance in Asian politics. He is also a mixture of many things that don't ordinarily mix.

Sometimes he behaves like the legendary Kalif Harun al-Rashid, who used to sneak out of his palace in Baghdad at night to mingle, in disguise, with ordinary people and learn what they were thinking. Sometimes he emulates Nelson Mandela, who has charmed people with his optimism and eloquence throughout his life. And sometimes he comes across as a Mick Jagger type, charismatic and assertive, but perhaps a little too self-absorbed.

For his fellow Indonesians, this is apparently an irresistible blend of character traits. Widodo, 52, widely known as "Jokowi," is a pop star and an inspirational tribune of the people. He is the governor of the regional district of Jakarta, a megalopolis of about 23 million people on a strip of land along the coast, which is constantly threatened by flooding. In fact, scientists believe that most of Jakarta will be underwater by 2050.

Greater Jakarta is one of the most chaotic collections of people in the world, a seemingly ungovernable Moloch. But according to opinion polls, Governor Jokowi is doing such a good job in Jakarta that Indonesians say they would elect him president in next year's national elections. This would also make him one of the leaders of the G-20 group of 20 major economies.

Indonesia, an enormous nation consisting of more than 17,500 islands, stretches from Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra to Borneo, Java, Bali, the Maluku Islands and New Guinea. It encompasses more than 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) from west to east, or about the distance from Lisbon to well past Moscow. It is a country with vast, virtually uninhabited regions and some of the world's most crowded places. It also holds volcanoes and tropical rainforests, the home of giant, 60-meter (200-foot) trees, along with mangroves and coral reefs, orangutans and Komodo dragons.

Indonesia's manmade wonders are as impressive as its natural features. Magnificent Buddhist temples like Borobudur and impressive Hindu sites like Tanah Lot are UNESCO World Heritage sites. And Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan boast some of the world's largest and most beautiful mosques.

World's Largest Muslim Population

Despite the current economic setbacks, including last week's strikes, Indonesia is still considered one of the up-and-coming Tiger Cub economies. It has sufficient oil and natural gas reserves, is the world's largest exporter of palm oil and has good relations with Washington, Beijing and Berlin. Germany's Federal Security Council has approved the export of Leopard 2 tanks to Jakarta, notwithstanding the Indonesian military's brutal treatment of Papuan rebels. After her visit this summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel enthusiastically referred to Indonesia as a dynamic and future-oriented economy, with the world's fourth-largest population after China, India and the United States.

Another notable feature that has attracted the world's attention is the fact that close to 90 percent of Indonesia's 250 million people are Muslim, making it by far the world's largest Muslim population -- greater than Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries combined.

There have been periodic attacks by Islamist fanatics, with the worst claiming 202 lives on the island of Bali in 2002. But terrorism is seen as the exception in Indonesia, while religious tolerance is the norm. For many people, Southeast Asian Islam serves as proof that an open-minded, gentler version of the religion exists. The country is a possible role model for others, which could learn a lot from Indonesia's "spirit of tolerance," as US President Barack Obama, who spent a portion of his childhood in Jakarta, put it during his 2010 visit.

Is Indonesia truly an exemplary country, a role model for the radically changing societies of the Arab Spring? Can this country truly claim to be proof that the Koran, with its strict rules, is compatible with parliamentary democracy and its freedoms?

Those who believe that Islam and pluralism do not have to be contradictions are pinning their hopes on Governor Jokowi. He describes himself as a devout Muslim, and yet his religious affiliation does not figure prominently in his rhetoric or his actions. He has also chosen a lieutenant governor, 47-year-old Basuki "Ahok" Purnama, who belongs to two minorities. He is neither Javanese nor a member of other local ethnic groups, but Chinese. He is also a Christian.

"Why should that bother me?" Jokowi asks.

Everyone's Neighbor

It is shortly after 7 a.m., and the governor is making one of his frequent, unannounced visits to one of southern Jakarta's many slums, which are characterized by derelict huts, filthy canals and poor air quality. Wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, he is accompanied only by an assistant, instead of arriving with an entourage and a police escort.

Jokowi has targeted several of his city administration's district offices. The officials there are supposed to be available, starting at 9 a.m., to issue birth certificates, passports and drivers' licenses. But inefficiency has become the norm over the years, and hardly any of the offices he visits opens its doors on time. The governor pulls out his ballpoint pen and takes notes. In one office, an employee came to work 35 minutes late, while another arrived 90 minutes after the office was supposed to open. This will not be without consequences. Jokowi will later send out warning letters, and the worst of the offenders will be threatened with dismissal.

He listens to citizens as they vocally complain about the capriciousness of government officials and the bribes they are constantly expected to pay. He makes casual but sympathetic remarks here and there, which tend to reinforce the residents' anger instead of channeling it. But most of all he listens, and before long he is one of them. Or at least he makes the impression that he is just another ordinary person, everyone's neighbor.

Then Jokowi departs just as quietly as he arrived, leaving behind astonished slum residents who will likely repeat the story of his spontaneous visit frequently in the future. They are not accustomed to seeing such an important politician turn up. On this morning, they experience the governor's fairy tale-like qualities, his Harun al-Rashid side.

Commitment to Transparency

On another occasion, the governor attends a town meeting in eastern Jakarta, this time arriving in an official car and with an entourage. The traffic is horrendous. Just past the urban canyons of downtown Jakarta, everything converges to form one of the city's frequent mega-traffic jams that are sometimes 25 kilometers long. Local residents refer to them as "Big Durian," a reference to the large, foul-smelling tropical fruit that few find appealing. People have settled in the area for more than 2,000 years. The country's former Dutch colonial rulers are responsible for the growth of an administrative center, Batavia, on a flood-prone bay, a city that became Indonesia's capital after independence in 1949.

Jokowi grew up in a middle-class family. His father, a carpenter, had to save every cent to send his children to school. Jokowi studied forestry and later became a furniture maker. Friends suggested that he run for mayor of his hometown of Surakarta, a city of about half a million people. "They were apparently impressed with my commitment to transparency and against cronyism," he says proudly. He won the election with more than 90 percent of the vote. Jokowi also attracted international attention when he was named the world's third most effective mayor by an international think tank.

Then, in October 2012, he took office in the capital, where a handful of prominent families and high-ranking military officers have traditionally been in charge, like almost everywhere else in Indonesia. Jokowi scored a surprise coup with his anti-establishment campaign, and he has been riding a wave of public approval ever since.

Few people in Jakarta point out that the popular governor has yet to make good on many of his campaign promises, from a planned expansion of public transportation to flood mitigation measures. With each appearance, Jokowi manages to convey the hope that something could change. "Someone has to come to grips with the problems," he tells citizens as they crowd against the barriers and desperately try to touch their idol. "I will not disappoint you!" By this point, Jokowi has switched to Messiah mode, shaking hands, kissing babies and sitting down on the grass for several minutes to listen to a group of people out of work. He unites instead of polarizing. He stands for a reform program, but most of all he stands for himself and the integrity of a new policy. This is Jokowi as Nelson Mandela.


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