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John Hughes: Indonesia could set example for Arab lands

While Iraq remains the controversial center of debate about the war against terrorism, Indonesia under its new leader is quietly emerging as a potentially significant counter to Islamic extremism.

Though the 3,000-mile-long Indonesian archipelago is the fourth most populous nation in the world, and the world's largest Muslim country, it is not routinely in the headlines of Western newspapers, or on TV screens in America or Europe. While correspondents stationed in other Asian capitals "parachute" in for occasionally breaking news, many major foreign news organizations have not generally thought the capital of Jakarta important enough to warrant resident staff coverage.

But Indonesia, a non-Arab country whose observance of Islam is mostly more moderate than the extremism displayed in some Middle Eastern countries, could, over time, and along with other non-Arab Muslim countries like Pakistan and Turkey, offer a constructive counter-weight and democratic example to those Muslim Arab lands imprisoned by backwardness and enslaved by bitterness.

Last month Indonesians completed a complex new electoral process, capped by their first direct presidential election, moving their country impressively down the road to democracy, thus ending years of autocracy and turmoil.

Their new president is a former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose name is a little unusual in a country where many Indonesians bear only one name ("Sukarno, "Suharto"). Many of my Indonesian friends arriving in the United States for the first time have had trying experiences attempting to open bank accounts or get driving licenses or undergoing similar procedures at the hands of petty bureaucrats who say they just can't be legal here without a first and last name. In his own country, many Indonesians shorthand their new president's name by calling him "SBY," but henceforth in this column he will be known as Mr. Yudhoyono, the style apparently adopted by much of the Western media.

You will be hearing much more about President Yudhoyono, because he is widely predicted to be intent on boosting Indonesia's laggard economy, cracking down on corruption, reassuring foreign investors, slashing unemployment, and taking a tougher stand on terrorism.

That latter goal is of course something attractive to the United States, which is concerned about the activity of al-Qaida cells, and al-Qaida-linked terrorist cells, in Southeast Asia. Indonesia has had its own violent experience recently at the hands of such terrorists.

Yudhoyono is in many respects a president congenial to Washington. He has had some six different educational experiences in the United States, five of them military and one civilian. He is said by some American military men to be something of a "poster boy" for the International Military Education and Training Program, currently suspended for Indonesia, which brought foreign military officers to the United States for training. He has also undergone jungle warfare training in Panama.

But though there have been strong ties in the past between Indonesian and American military officers, and Yudhoyono might seek to restore them, Indonesians are proudly nationalistic. This nationalism, coupled with skepticism about U.S. actions in Iraq, and a perception among some Indonesians that the United States is anti-Muslim, make it impolitic for Yudhoyono to be perceived as an agent of American foreign policy. If he is to be tougher than his predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, on terrorism, he must do so, because it is a threat to his own people, and a gathering scourge in neighboring Southeast Asian countries. He must be seen as taking anti-terrorism steps in concert with those of neighboring countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, rather than acting at the behest of the United States.

Thus we should not expect President Yudhoyono to be clamoring for an early visit to Washington. More politic would be visits to Beijing or Tokyo.

In his earlier role as security minister in Megawati's administration, Yudhoyono was outspoken on the threat of terrorism, but the radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah, which Indonesian police claim is responsible for acts of terrorism, is still not yet officially outlawed and Yudhoyono does rely on the support of a number of strongly Islamic political factions.

The new president must also deal with rivalries between the police and his own old army colleagues who may be hoping for perks from on high, even though Yudhoyono has made clear his view that the army, long influential in Indonesian politics, should curb its role in civilian affairs.

Though challenges abound, Indonesia now seems headed in a direction which refutes the fallacy that Islam and democracy are incompatible.


John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. In 1967, he won the Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Indonesia. E-mail: hughes@desnews.com