TOM PLATE: The Islamic Challenge for America

Syndicated columnist and LMU professor Tom Plate writes — Within days, President Barack Obama is set to visit Southeast Asia and this is a very good thing. The region is becoming more significant by the month. U.S. policy is said to be in the process of ‘pivoting’ to Asia after decades of preoccupation with Europe. This pivotal moment arrives, shall we say, not a moment too soon.

Greedy as I am, of course, for such visits to Asia, I am slightly sad he will grace only three countries. Burma, Thailand and Cambodia get the president’s blessing, deservedly; but not always-troubled Philippines or strategically vital Indonesia, much less tiny but brilliant Singapore. Taken all together, the region’s population comes in at about 600 million, half of which is Muslim. ASEAN, its lead regional agency, whose summit in Cambodia this weekend Obama is to attend, is along with NATO one of the world‘s leading multilateral organizations.

America especially needs extra focus on Indonesia, which is ASEAN’s lead member, where the Obama once lived (ages 6-10), and where he paid a triumphant visit in 2010. This country’s population of about 245 million makes it the fourth largest on the face of the earth, and since about 90% of these Indonesians are Muslim, it is the country with the largest Islamic population anywhere.

We need to keep repeating that last fact. Not too long ago, Jakarta was a main crossroad in America’s anti-communist crusade in Asia but when the Iron Curtain fell, so, generally, did Washington’s interest in this predominantly Muslim country.

Proud Indonesians did well enough going it alone. The country suffered shock after shock of bloody terrorist attack and recovered; it practically tore itself apart economically (helped along by bad Western advice) during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s – and recovered. Though suffering through one ineffectual leader after another on its way to evolving away from rank authoritarianism, it now practices a rough-functioning democracy that offers real promise. Today Indonesia is on its feet, with a forward-moving economy, a president who (like ours) is ensconced in his second term, and a future that, at least to this American, looks more markedly more hopeful than it ever has.

What’s more, this former Dutch colonial archipelago of 17,000 islands that is home to more people than Russia or Japan or Germany is a constitutional secular democracy, even with its deep Muslim culture. This needs to be noted in Washington more often. After all, economics aside, the U.S. faces two huge global issues. One is how to get its relationship with China into proper balance.  That won’t be easy but it is doable.  The other big challenge is harder: How to get a proper handle on its roiling relationship with the Islamic world. Is that doable?

So far we seem to be having somewhat better luck with China than Islam. Many sectors in China have every reason to want a relatively calm and coordinated relationship with the U.S., for the foreseeable future, at least.  By contrast, too many sectors of the Islamic world would have huge issues with us. And so if second-term Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a Muslim, were to prioritize any one foreign-policy goal (again: outside global economics), it should be to greatly advance our connections, cooperation and level of trust with the Muslim world.

We cannot do this alone; we are not that good at it. Certainly the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent broad-brush George W. Bush crusade against ‘terror’ – so incredibly misconceived – prove that. We don’t have a sufficient cultural-religious feel, and we lack adequate credibility. We need a strong ally. To that end, I propose that Indonesia become that special ally.

Wary of China, though not antagonistic, and conversant with Islam, though anything but “radical,” it can bridge America to the Middle East from Asia, when heretofore our sole point-of-entry has been via Europe. Jakarta represents a secular state that practices a sensible, social Islam, while cracking down with increasing determination on the violent strains that otherwise many Muslim leaders loathe.

Indonesia is a huge untapped geopolitical and diplomatic resource. I would have scant hope of the U.S. sensing this without Obama. But biography can be destiny.  Our president has a particular feel for this area of the world. He is not tone deaf to Islam. And he may think we have tilted too warmly toward Beijing, overlooking some serious problems. As a veteran political analyst put it, in a survey of post-election U.S. foreign policy directions, “The president’s Asia … lies not on the wind-swept ramparts of the Great Wall of China but in the tropical swelter of Singapore and Indonesia. He identifies more with the languid rhythms of Jakarta, aides say, than with the cracking energy of Shanghai.”

For its part, Indonesia is of course mostly caught up in its myriad domestic concerns. It might well feel that it is in no position to push itself diplomatically. But that view would be short sighted. Jakarta could contribute much to global peace and stability with better and more audacious diplomacy.

But once receiving it, the U.S. should be grateful for the effort, not churlish. The fourth most populous nation in the world can help the third most populous in ways not so far tried.  But the U.S. must, for once, listen to this special ally with humility and appreciation. In this way the well-intentioned “pivot” to Asia won’t turn into yet another ungainly foreign-policy divot.

American journalist Tom Plate, the author of the new book ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-moon: The View from the Top’, is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola

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