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An archipelago that eludes explanation

Indonesian Destinies, Theodore Friend, Harvard University Press: 640 pp., $35 Indonesia: Peoples and Histories, Jean Gelman Taylor, Yale University Press: 420 pp., $39.95

August 31, 2003|Jamie James | Jamie James is the author of "Andrew and Joey: A Tale of Bali." He lives in Indonesia.

One of the principal legacies of the suppressed democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989 was the publication of hundreds of books in English purporting to explain China. Fifteen years earlier, when Japan was establishing a new economic empire, U.S. executives scoured samurai treatises on war for the secret of the nation's phenomenal business success, making them bestsellers. Japan and China had been there for centuries, waiting to be explained, but it wasn't until they posed a challenge to American power that the desire to understand them became widespread, and they were wrested from fusty Orientalists and delivered to writers of pop history and sociology.

A bombing linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network that killed 202 people at a pair of nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali last October -- and a recent bomb attack at an American-managed hotel in Jakarta, which killed 11 people -- has focused renewed international attention on this fourth most populous nation in the world.

And there's a lot to explain: Indonesia occupies an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands stretching from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific; it is also the third largest democracy on Earth, a fragile experiment launched just five years ago, when the tyranny of former President Suharto, whose government was the only one the republic of Indonesia had known for 32 years, was felled by a street revolution. It has the freest press in the region.

For years there has been an imperative need for a solid, comprehensive introduction to this immense, baffling nation. Now there are two, by Australian historian Jean Gelman Taylor and by Theodore Friend, former president of Swarthmore College.

They have their work cut out for them. For most Americans, Indonesia is a void: Java is a computer language or corny slang for coffee, not the most populous island on Earth, home to more than 100 million souls. The only fact about Indonesia that has percolated to the level of common knowledge is the phrase "largest Muslim nation in the world," which has appeared in thousands of news stories in recent years. However, the intersection between Islam and political unrest in the archipelago has pushed many U.S. journalists to shoehorn Indonesia into the global story of Muslim terrorism, and the results are usually tendentious, inaccurate stories.

One tiny example will have to stand for many complex ones: That journalist's standby "the largest Muslim nation in the world" is a classic factoid. Indonesia is not a Muslim nation, not in the sense that Saudi Arabia or even Malaysia is. The nation's constitution affirms belief in God in the singular, nothing more. It is accurate to say that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country on Earth.

Part of the problem is that Indonesia is so complicated; it resists being summed up, as journalism demands. It's a huge, sloppy, confusing place, comprising many diverse ethnic and social groups speaking hundreds of languages and dialects -- a country that resembles our own in many ways. Its early history is hopelessly confusing, with endless squabbling among Hindu kingdoms and Muslim sultanates. Wars of conquest ended in baroque diplomacy, then came centuries of Dutch colonialism and finally the founding of the modern republic in 1945 by a patriot of Verdian intensity, Sukarno.

Most confusing of all is the nation's religion. While the Indonesian government has consistently upheld the principle, at least, of the free practice of monotheistic religions, most of the nation's citizens, as many as 200 million people, call themselves Muslim. The form most follow is different in profound ways from Islam as it is practiced in the Middle East and South Asia.

The standard journalistic summary goes something like this: "Most Indonesians adhere to a moderate, tolerant form of Islam, which incorporates elements of the islands' Buddhist and Hindu past and local animist practices." That's true as far as it goes, but it gives no sense of the eccentric, magic-infused quality of Islam in Java, the cultural center of the nation, as it is practiced by the great majority of people. (On other islands, particularly Sumatra and Sulawesi, religion is more orthodox.)

The major rituals of Islam are observed: Friday mosque services attract huge turnouts, and going on the hajj -- the pilgrimage to Mecca -- is a universal aspiration. The dietary restriction against pork is observed, but the ban on alcohol doesn't seem to apply to beer. Indonesia is more permissive about homosexual behavior and other social issues than some American states were until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence vs. Texas. Its principal religious and literary texts are Hindu in origin; its national symbol is Garuda, emblem of Vishnu. The country's presidents have relied on shamans for advice more than on orthodox Muslim religious leaders.

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