The Interplay Between U.S. Foreign Policy and Political Islam in Post-Soeharto Indonesia


To understand how U.S. policy plays into the politics of Islam in Indonesia, one should analyze it within a global context, specifically in terms of U.S. policy toward the broader Muslim World. The Indonesian response to U.S. policy is intricately tied to the Washington strategy vis-à vis the Middle East and other Muslim countries. Indonesian Muslims share a strong solidarity with other Muslims given their long shared history, religio-political roots and ideological affinities; but they also possess a unique political culture.

Since independence in 1945, Indonesia has undertaken experiments in democracy, but has also plunged, at certain bloody junctures, into strict authoritarianism. Presently, the Indonesian political spectrum comprises radical, moderate and progressive-liberal groups. While the rise of radical conservative Islam (RCI) groups, whose agenda of imposing shari’a is not only controversial but also based on literal, strict and exclusive interpretations of the Koran, poses a serious challenge to Indonesia’s fledgling democracy, moderate Muslims and progressive-liberal groups (PLI) provide strategic assets and partners for the U.S.

Whereas RCI groups typically feel a genuine hatred toward all American values, carry out street demonstrations, organize protests, boycott American products and engage in “anti-Americanism,” moderate Muslims respect American values and are pleased to cooperate with the U.S. government and funding agencies despite being critical of U.S. foreign policy. PLI groups, on the other hand, accept and adopt some Western values, such as democracy, freedom, pluralism and gender equality and are becoming the “defenders” of these ideals as well. They strongly reject all forms of “anti-Americanism” and provide a counterbalance to RCI groups.

The shape of the U.S.-Indonesia relationship will be strongly influenced by Washington’s approach to political Islam, both in Indonesia and in the wider Muslim world. Our conclusion is that the United States should continue to support progressive-liberal Islam and to embrace moderate Muslim, and that it should improve public diplomacy in the Muslim World and address the ideologies that underlie terrorism.