The Clinton Visit to Indonesia: Islam is a Religion
Frank Kaufmann «View Bio

Indonesia was the second visited nation (after Japan) by Secretary of State Clinton on her first ever overseas mission for the Obama administration. Brilliant and correct. 'There is broad consensus within foreign policy circles that the Asia rim presents, perhaps, the most complex challenges for the Obama administration, though one with obvious rewards.'

Each Asian nation (quite properly and naturally) had a center of focus, Japan? Strengthening our alliance (and an angry glance over her shoulder at PDRKorea), ROKorea? The missiles themselves brought out the weary phraseology of conflict diplomacy,'very unhelpful ... watching very closely.' Good enough, (though no nation considers itself 'rogue,' and normal human pride (not to mention Beloved Leader pride) has to wonder 'who gets to decide who's allowed to test missiles and who not?'

The Indonesia stop had a different essential message: 'Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seeking to reinvigorate Washington's ties with the Islamic world, said the Obama administration will develop relations with Indonesia as part of a U.S. diplomatic push in Southeast Asia.' Again, a fine direction and an excellent message from the Obama administration, one of urgent necessity, and launched in the right place. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, nearing 200 million (China and India are second, Pakistan 3rd), and a highly blessed confluence of geography, and cultural and religious history evolved into an exemplary vision for Muslim politics and society:

'The national motto is 'unity in diversity'.

The founding principles of Indonesia, the Pancasila, include a belief in God. But beyond this, religious tolerance is seen as the cornerstone of relations between different faiths - even though almost 90% of Indonesians are Muslim.

Moderation is therefore built into the country's constitutional framework.' 

The other part of the wisdom of placing this childhood home of President Obama in the front of the 'foreign relations' line, is the importance of the move for its domestic implications as well.

There are now 8 million Muslims in the US and Canada (7 million in the US). Though still a small percent of the population, Muslims in America are important for a number of reasons: 1. Muslims are a multiform (multi-ethnic, both indigenous and immigrant communities), 2. Young (in the population by comparison), 3. Well-educated (in the population by comparison), and 4. Positioned in solid middle to affluent economic demographics.1

Perhaps most important among these considerations is that Muslims in America tend to be religious (with Jumma attendance jumping a full 94%, and Mosque participation growing fully 75% in 5 years).2  It is foundational to American thinking that religiosity functions as a spiritual and moral force in society. Spirituality and religiosity are helpful for the health and well being of a country (especially in a multifaith, and religious freedom environments).

Yet there is a vital cautionary note that must be recognized by Mrs. Clinton and President Obama.  Islam is a religion.  As such actions and policy in this regard must reflect a deep understanding of the purely religious aspects of relations with 'Islam.' To provide this requires consultation with knowledgeable religionists, most especially those with hard-won wisdom and expertise in interfaith relations. With all the well-meaning intent, these political figures cannot risk confusing political activity (such as US-Indonesia relations) with religious activity (such as improving relations with 'the Muslim world'). This distinction is urgent and imperative.  Failure to recognize these distinctions is fraught with peril. US-Indonesia relations (along with US relations with all the world's 'Muslim regimes') must have as a central aspect of these foreign relations elements that are 'purely religious' in nature. Nations and religions and religious belief are different, and people like Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are trained in the former and not in the latter.

Mr. Obama is a self confessed Christian. It is not impossible for him to understand and appreciate Islam, but it is not automatic either. Forging ever-deepening bonds across boundaries of true and passionately held religious faith is hard work and traverses a rewarding if perilous course. Missteps are easy in the world of interreligious relations and can have dire political consequences.

I offer praise for both the fact and the substance of the Indonesia visit. But I urge caution and beseech Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama to avail themselves of sound counsel from people who know the difference between international and interreligious relations, and who are deeply steeped through life accomplishments in the latter.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace.  The opinions here are his own.