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U.S. in Indonesia

Trying to Win Hearts and Minds, and Losing

February 13, 2003


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The U.S. government has been working hard to woo public opinion in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. It has aired television ads, sponsored scholarships and visits to the United States and even organized a town hall-style exchange between Indonesian and American studio audiences via satellite hookup.

But the campaign is failing. The perception of the U.S. effort, say shopkeepers and scholars alike, ranges from insincere at best to hypocritical at worst. America's actions speak louder than its words, say many Indonesians who take a dim view of recently-imposed U.S. immigration restrictions on men from certain Middle Eastern and Muslim countries, including Indonesia. American foreign policy, especially its unwavering support for Israel, also rankles here.

With a war in Iraq looming, Indonesian analysts are concerned that growing anti-American sentiment could have troubling political and social consequences. Not only could a war cost the United States the support of moderate Islamic leaders, but it could also destabilize the Indonesian government and help radical groups gain more members and media coverage.

"We share the idea of anti-terrorism and anti-fundamentalism, but when (President) Bush tries to force his will on Iraq, then even the idea of friendship (between the United States and moderate Islamic groups) will be very doubtful," said Muhammad Hikam, a political scientist and co-chair of the moderate National Awakening Party.

The U.S. outreach campaign, which has been launched in several Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Kuwait, aims to win over hearts and minds at a time when anti-Americanism is on the rise. Its main component was a documentary-style TV ad aired last fall featuring Muslims in America describing their country as a place of religious tolerance. The outreach effort has focused especially on Indonesia, with a population of 225 million, more than 85% of whom are Muslim, it is also the world's fourth most populous country and has traditionally been friendly to the United States.

A worldwide survey released last December by the Pew Research Center found that although the number of Indonesians with a favorable view of the United States fell to 61 percent last year from 75 percent in 1999, the figure was still far higher than just about anywhere else in the Islamic world.

Indonesia is especially important because Washington sees it as a "beacon of hope," said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity, a potential symbol for the Muslim world that "Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive." An archipelago stretching more than 3,000 miles in the Pacific, it is strategically important as a major oil exporter on vital shipping lanes.

The Indonesian government has cooperated with the U.S. war on terror, providing intelligence information on radical groups. The United States also has been able to cultivate friendly relations with Indonesia's moderate Islamic community, which it sees as a crucial element in countering the rise of extremism in the Muslim world.

But as U.S. war rhetoric intensifies, it has become harder for mainstream Islamic leaders to get their message across.

"My argument is, to address radicalism, we need to strengthen democracy. We need to learn about the United States," said Azyumardi Azra, the rector of the State Islamic University. "Now I lost my justification to say the United States is a model for democracy and human rights."

Azra was one of several influential Muslim moderates considered friends of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta who recently turned down an invitation to visit Washington for a national prayer breakfast. Besides being opposed to Bush's war plans, he conceded that declining the invitation was also partly to avoid being seen as too pro-American.

Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based Indonesia expert, says the lesson Washington has yet to learn is that the way to promote democracy is not by courting individuals or groups but by strengthening institutions. Indonesia's legal system, for example, is notoriously corrupt and inefficient.

"One of the standard American policy responses is to try to court the moderate Muslims as a way of saying, 'these are the kinds of Muslims we like.' As a result, a lot have been tainted as American stooges," she said. "I think strengthening democratic institutions should be an end in itself, not just to show a lesson to Muslims."

Washington launched its media campaign knowing it needed to boost its image in the Muslim world. The television ads, which ran for several weeks in Indonesia last December, showed ordinary American Muslims trying to counter the image of the United States as an intolerant, anti-Islamic society. There were also print and radio ads and a booklet called "Muslim Life in America."

"They say we should promote peace in the world, but they make war. They say they maintain equality, but now they ask residents of Muslim countries to register," said Ismail Yusanto, spokesman of Hizbut Tahrir, a small but growing group seeking an Islamic "superstate." "I think the campaign will make people hate America because of the hypocrisy."

Last Sunday the conservative Islamic Justice Party organized an anti-war protest that was the largest Jakarta has seen in two years, with crowd estimates ranging from 7,000 to tens of thousands.

Demonstrations are sure to intensify should the war start. But more worrisome to some are the prospects that protesters may use the opportunity to try to bring down President Megawati Sukarnoputri, viewed by many Indonesians as beholden to the United States.

"There will be political destabilization of Megawati's government," Azra predicted.

Megawati visited President Bush in Washington just a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, which some Indonesians viewed as an endorsement of the harassment and discrimination against Muslims at the time, said Budiarto Shambazy, an editor and columnist at Kompas, Indonesia's largest newspaper.

Megawati has yet to publicly state her position on a possible U.S. war on Iraq, despite several appeals for her to do so. Her government's position -- that the United States should act under a U.N. framework -- has been conveyed through her foreign minister.

Given her lack of progress in making much-needed economic and political reforms, she is vulnerable to attack. Although no one thinks it likely she will be unseated before the 2004 presidential elections, political instability could paralyze the government.

While the number of radical and fundamentalist groups in Indonesia is tiny compared to the tens of millions in the moderate mainstream, a U.S. war in Iraq could be a boon to religious parties.

"Other political parties, in seeing the success of the Justice Party in pulling off this demonstration, may realize (the anti-war or anti-U.S. agenda) is a particularly useful peg to hang their hat on as we approach the 2004 elections," said Jones, who heads the Indonesia office of the International Crisis Group, a research organization.

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