An International Perspective

By Jiway Tung

Living in Indonesia – a majority Muslim country – has provided an interesting window on U.S. culture and U.S. policy over the last decade. After the disaster of 9/11 there was sympathy, but I was also amazed at how quickly conspiracy theories took over, even in the mainstream media, and how many people told me that “of course, the Jews didn’t go to work at the World Trade Center that day.” The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sharpened the sense that the U.S. applies a double standard to Muslim countries and is motivated much more by greed for oil rather than the lofty rhetoric of democracy. Extremist organizations with the goal of a Southeast Asian Islamic caliphate have used the perception of unfairness to mobilize their base, to capture attention for their causes, and to gain broader legitimacy in the public discourse.

While I have not observed widespread or overt hostility towards the U.S., there is a great deal of suspicion. This doesn’t come only from recent events. Civil society and religious organizations are keenly aware of the CIA role in the “anticommunist” coup that brought President Suharto to power in Indonesia and kept him there for three decades. Suharto’s New Order government used the armed forces and state bureaucracy along with extrajudicial violence to suppress dissent and silence opposition. Corruption, collusion, and nepotism were so common as to become the acronym “CCN,” used to signify the regime’s way of operating.

When meeting new people, those of us who represent AFSC must first deal with the “American” in the organization’s name. People want to know about our funding, our associations, and our motives for being in Indonesia.

We explain our history and our work in the U.S. and around the world, and we make very clear that the Service Committee does not accept foreign aid funding from the U.S. government and thus is not under those kinds of restraints. Sharing our Quaker identity is equally challenging. Extremist Muslim movements in Indonesia have very successfully mobilized around suspicions of “Christianization.” We try to explain, and to demonstrate through our work, the basic Quaker values of simplicity, truthtelling, equality, community, and peace.

In Indonesia, our identity as peacebuilders shapes our relationship with governments and with partner agencies. That identity informs where we work and what we work on. AFSC’s program in Indonesia began during inter-religious violence in the late 1990s. Since then, and particularly in our youth work, AFSC programs have supported and celebrated the richness of a country founded on the principle of “Unity in Diversity.”

Now we are witnessing an increase in communal tensions, fed by extremists committed to asserting Islam as the basic identity of the nation. Political pressure and attacks have escalated over the past year on Christians and on Muslim “heretics,” including those who talk about tolerance and accepting non-Muslims on an equal footing. Public schools are being pressured to segregate their populations The United States at War An International Perspective by faith and by sex. And some protests have been mounting to prevent the building of places of worship.

U.S. actions potentially feed this movement. When U.S. politicians or individuals insult or discriminate against American Muslims, this intolerance reinforces Indonesian hardliners’ contention that Islam is under siege from the West. When AFSC Indonesia works with partners on these issues, we approach them from a spirit of identification, demonstrating that, as an organization, AFSC also struggles with the dynamics of bigotry and intolerance in our own country. We believe that democracy should protect and embrace diversity, regardless of religious and ethnic origin, and that is the viewpoint we share with the Indonesians we encounter.

Clearly, a vigorous rejection of religious intolerance and racism is more important than ever, not only to fulfill the U.S.’s unfulfilled promises of democracy and equality for Muslim Americans and other minorities, but also because, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions, Muslims all over the world are grappling with these issues.

Jiway Tung is AFSC’s Country Representative in Indonesia.